South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor shakes hands with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, ahead of their bilateral meeting in Pretoria, South Africa, Jan. 23, 2023. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)
South Africa’s foreign minister on Monday deflected criticism of joint military drills planned with Russia and China, saying that hosting such exercises with “friends” was the “natural course of relations.”
Naledi Pandor made her comments during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was visiting South Africa 11 months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
A South African official, who declined to be identified because they were not authorised to speak, said Lavrov would afterwards visit Eswatini, Botswana, and Angola.
South Africa is one of Russia’s most important allies on a continent divided over the invasion and attempts to isolate Moscow because of its military actions.
Lavrov visited a day before U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was due to arrive in South Africa, part of a lengthy trip to the continent designed to shore up ties with the United States.
In Washington, the White House expressed worry about South Africa’s military plans.
“The United States has concerns about any country … exercising with Russia as Russia wages a brutal war against Ukraine,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
She said she had no information to provide about conversations with South Africa on the matter.
Some opposition parties and South Africa’s small Ukrainian community have said that hosting Lavrov is insensitive.
South Africa describes its stance on Russia’s war on Ukraine as impartial and has abstained from voting on U.N. resolutions condemning Russia for the war.
It has close ties with Moscow, a friend of the governing African National Congress which as a member of the Socialist International pushed South Africa’s liberation movement opposing white minority rule, and will host a joint exercise with Russia and China on its east coast from Feb. 17-27.
“All countries conduct military exercises with friends worldwide. It’s the natural course of relations,” Pandor, alongside Lavrov, told reporters in the capital, Pretoria.
The exercise will be under way on Feb. 24, the anniversary of what Russia calls its “special military operation.” Ukraine and its allies accuse Russia of undemocratic land grab from its neighbour and fellow ex-Soviet republic.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government has expressed a desire to mediate in the Ukraine conflict as a so-called neutral party.
Pandor emphasised that, though South Africa had initially called on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine unilaterally, that was no longer its position.
“To repeat that … to Mr. Lavrov today would make me appear quite simplistic and infantile, given the massive transfer of arms (to Ukraine) … and all that has occurred (since),” she said.
South Africa has little trade with Russia but continues to champion the socialist world view—favoured by communist China and Russia—that seeks to undo the U.S.-hegemony held together by widely-adopted liberal-democratic values in favour of a so-called “multipolar” world, in which socialist values can compete for power.
Lavrov said the military drills were transparent, and that Russia, China, and South Africa had provided all the relevant information to international observers.
The South African armed forces said last week the exercise was a “means to strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China.”
Russia’s TASS news agency reported on Monday that a Russian warship armed with new generation hypersonic cruise weapons would take part in the drills.
Lavrov was visiting ahead of a Russia-Africa summit in July. There was no official public comment from the Ukrainian embassy but officials said it had asked the South African government to help push a Ukrainian peace plan.
Pandor has said South Africa will not be dragged into taking sides, and has accused “the West” of condemning Russia while ignoring issues such as the plight of Palestinians.
“As South Africa, we consistently articulate that we will always stand ready to support the peaceful resolution of conflicts on the (African) continent and throughout the globe,” Pandor said in earlier remarks on Monday.
Reuters contributed to this article.