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South Africans’ support for Russia is rooted in misplaced nostalgia

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Sometimes moral clarity strikes like lightning. One such bolt hit this month in South Africa when Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s grand man of letters and Nobel laureate, was asked by students at Stellenbosch university for his views on the Ukraine war. Officially South Africa has sought to maintain a neutral stance on the war, but some members of the African National Congress, including many of its younger cadres, have openly sided with Russia.

Last year, a delegation from the ANC Youth League declared sham referendums in four eastern and southern Ukrainian provinces a “beautiful, wonderful process”, a nonsense that their elders in the ruling party did not see fit to correct. The South African Communist party which, along with the Congress of South African Trade Unions, has been in a tripartite alliance with the ANC since 1990, routinely refers to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “Nato-provoked war”.

In February this year, as if to mark the anniversary of Moscow’s act of aggression, South Africa conducted joint naval exercises with both Russia and China off its coast.

And Julius Malema, leader of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters and a plausible future vice-president of South Africa if the ANC needs a coalition partner, equates an anti-western posture with loyalty to Russia. “We are Putin and Putin is us,” he told a rally this year.

Soyinka condemned such shallow thinking. “The Russia of today is not the Russia that sided with African liberation,” the 89-year-old said. “Ukraine is a sovereign state populated by human beings. Russia is the aggressor. Why are we pretending? What is this sense of obligation?”

Soyinka has earned his moral spurs. In the late-1960s, he spent two years rotting in solitary confinement after seeking to mediate in the Biafran war. In prison, he scribbled notes on toilet paper, forming a prison diary later published as The Man Died. But Soyinka did not die. He has spent a lifetime calling out injustice as he sees it, wherever he finds it.

Certainly, some African students were subjected to racism in Ukraine as they fled in those first panicked days of the invasion. (Racism against black Africans is hardly an unknown phenomenon in Russia either.) Certainly too, the west can be accused of hypocrisy over its disastrous invasions of Iraq and Libya. But to cheer on Russian aggression on the basis of someone else’s folly is moral bankruptcy.

Nostalgia for the Soviet Union in South Africa is real. Moscow helped finance and train the ANC in exile when most of the world was happy to do business with white supremacists. Several ANC leaders, such as Walter Sisulu and Chris Hani, were members of the SACP. So too were many of the whites who dared stick their necks out against apartheid.

Jonny Steinberg in a new book on the Mandelas recounts a scene in 1961 when a Zulu-speaking cleaner found Nelson Mandela, then on the run, sharing a room with Wolfie Kodesh, a white Jewish man. It was what Steinberg calls the “strangest scene” for its time — “a black and a white man alone together in a single room, the relation between them one of evident equality”. Kodesh, almost inevitably, was a communist.

Of course, allegiance to the Soviet Union required a feat of doublethink. Millions had been murdered in Stalin’s gulags and Moscow had sent tanks on to Hungary’s streets. If the idea of communism somehow represented freedom and equality, it was certainly not being practised in the Soviet Union.

Still, Winnie Mandela, tortured in prison and banished to the remote town of Brandfort, was one of many who conflated Moscow with the prospect of liberation. She called the Alsatian she kept for protection Khrushchev.

That was then. More than three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union — of which Ukraine was in any case a part — South Africa has zero obligation to Russia. Those in the ANC who pay homage to Vladimir Putin’s grotesque regime are dabbling in dangerous thinking.

Condemning Moscow does not mean an unthinking adherence to the west. As global allegiances shift, South Africa will be right to pick and choose as its national interest dictates. That does not mean an abandonment of moral principles.

“If there’s autonomy, there should be pride in being independent,” Soyinka told the students in Stellenbosch. “We cannot drop one set of chains and then, as mature people, put our legs in another set.”

david.pilling@ft.com

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