The South African government's treatment of Russia's war with Ukraine is beginning to impact local politics in ways that suggest it will become a major campaign issue ahead of the country's next general election.
Although the poll is still two years away, the ruling African National Congress-led party's steadfast refusal to condemn Russia for its brutal invasion of a neighbouring state is being teed-up by some opposition parties as another reason to remove it from power.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has said that international criticism and sanctions against Russia are counterproductive, and that only dialogue and negotiations can achieve long-term peace in eastern Europe.
The ANC leader has cited his own party’s negotiated settlement with South Africa’s apartheid regime in the early 1990s and the country’s more peaceful environment today, as proof that such an approach can bear fruit.
In line with the ANC’s views, the government has abstained from three UN General Assembly resolutions that condemn Russia’s invasion since it was launched in late February, as they do not put negotiations at their forefront.
In response, government critics have described its position as immoral and pathetic, and many South Africans question if other reasons are behind the former liberation movement’s refusal to condemn president Vladimir Putin’s regime.
The country's main opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA) party, has accused the ANC of giving Russia the kid-glove treatment because of its historical ties with the former Soviet Union, which backed its fight against white minority rule for decades.
In addition, there have been allegations in local media that the ANC is remaining silent on Putin’s war because it’s involved in lucrative business deals with some of his allies that it can’t afford to endanger.
Last week, the online Daily Maverick news platform claimed that a joint mining venture between the ANC and the US-sanctioned Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg looked like one of the party's main sources of funding going forward.
According to the report, a company linked to Vekselberg called United Manganese of Kalahari paid the ANC’s funding front, Chancellor House, dividends to the tune of 528 million rand (€31.2 million) in 2020 for its indirect 22 per cent share of the mining operation.
So far, the ANC has not responded to the Daily Maverick’s allegations.
Even before the war in Ukraine started, the country’s economy was struggling badly under the ANC, which has been undermined by factionalism, poor leadership and endemic corruption for more than a decade.
Indeed, many analysts believe the next national election could see its support fall below 50 per cent for the first time since the end of apartheid, as Ramaphosa has struggled to renew the party and revive the economy since his election in 2019.
Therefore, it is no surprise to see the ANC’s political opponents using its stance on the war in Ukraine as another stick to beat it with ahead of the poll, which is gearing up to be pivotal for the nation and the ruling party.
The DA also appears intent on using the Ukraine crisis to create an air of statesmanship and moral authority around its leader, John Steenhuisen, who has struggled to gain traction with voters since taking the party's top job in 2019.
He travelled to Kyiv in early May to meet with president Volodymyr Zelenskiy and assess the situation on the ground, a move that appears designed by his party to cast him in the light of a South African president in waiting.
During a media briefing last Monday, Steenhuisen described the position the ANC-led government had taken – “to avoid saying or doing anything that might offend Russia” – as “deeply immoral,” given what he had seen.
He added he also undertook the six-day trip to offer Ukraine support and tell its people the government’s stance on the war does not reflect how most South Africans’ view it, but rather its own narrow self-interest.
Steenhuisen went on to tell parliament two days later the war would soon have major negative economic consequences for South Africa due to its disruption of the world's supply chains.
News24 columnist and editor Adriaan Basson wrote on May 9th that aside from travelling to Ukraine for his stated reasons, Steenhuisen was also playing the long game in his bid to lead a coalition government after the next national poll.
"Come the 2024 election, Steenhuisen will use pictures of himself on the ground in war-torn Ukraine, meeting with local citizens and politicians, juxtaposed with Ramaphosa shaking hands with Putin at the latest Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) shindig," he maintained.