If nations have no permanent enemies or friends, only permanent interests, is South Africa being smart in dealings with Russia?
How does the above dictum, paraphrasing 18th Century British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, apply to Naledi Pandor glad-handing her visiting Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov?
Images of the handshake evoked passionate responses for and against on social media and on the streets.
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Interestingly, Pandor and Lavrov used different aspects of the Palmerston adage to characterise the relationship.
Responding to criticism of planned joint maritime drills off KwaZulu-Natal with Russia and China, Pandor said: “All countries conduct military exercises with friends”.
Note, she said friends.
The governing ANC regards Russia as a friend, mainly because of support during the anti-apartheid struggle.
Never mind that many of those who trained in the Soviet Union were in Ukraine. Emotional allegiance is to Moscow.
In the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, joint military exercises with Vlad The Invader’s forces undercut pretensions of neutrality.
So, too does Pandor’s use of the word friends. Will SA conduct joint exercises with Ukraine?
Does Pandor describe Ukraine as a friend?
In a statement on Monday, Lavrov used different terminology: “I respect the openness and the responsible approach which you demonstrated based on your allegiance to the key national interest of SA and its people.”
Note, he said national interest. Perhaps it’s time to question the presumed permanence of the struggle-era friendship.
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During Jacob Zuma’s term as president, he and Russia’s Putin attempted to set up a nuclear deal, which has since been scuppered.
Do Russia and South Africa now have what Palmerston would call permanent interests?
Looking beyond anti-Western rhetoric, there is little evidence of shared permanent interest.
In fact, Business Day commented on Monday: “At a paltry $1 billion a year, bilateral trade makes a mockery of SA and Russia’s close historical ties.”
Russia does not feature in South Africa’s top 10 export markets or sources of imports.
It’s difficult to know what Pandor really thinks about Russia’s war on Ukraine.
In February last year, within hours of the invasion, SA was quoted as calling on Russia to withdraw forces immediately. That was quickly watered down.
SA began weakly urging “all parties to devote increased efforts to diplomacy and to find a solution”.
Are SA’s permanent interests best served when Putin’s front-man arrives at Waterkloof at 4am (IL-96, reg RA-96023) with – according to aviation expert Des Latham – the transponder off?
Or when a Russian cargo ship secretly offloads arms in Simon’s Town? And what about the furtive oil shipments?
SA is sanctions-busting to appease a struggle-era friend with blood-stained hands whose trade with us is paltry.
And he still wants to collect on a Zuma-era down-payment for a nuclear deal which would further burden SA taxpayers.
Are SA’s permanent interests really best served by frequently taking an anti-Western stance, at for example, the United Nations?
A new scramble for Africa is underway, with high-level delegations from East and West criss-crossing the continent.
Please, Pandor, now would be a good time to stop pandering to Putin.
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