The politics of imperial gratitude

South African discourse about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continually references Soviet support for the exiled ANC. But the past is more complicated than official Russian and South African statements suggest.

South Africa's then-Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Lindiwe Sisulu with President Vladimir Putin. Image credit DIRCO via Gov. ZA on Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0.

The night before he commanded Russian troops to invade Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin gave a speech that faulted Ukrainians for failing to express gratitude and fraternal loyalty to Russia. Bombing Ukrainian cities and targeting Ukrainian civilians is hardly a sound way to evoke thanks or brotherhood, but Putin aims to make the cost very high indeed for spurning Russia’s ostensible friendship. As they respond to the invasion, African countries have had to weigh Russia’s value as a potential friend. Their responses have varied, from Kenya’s condemnation of Russia’s actions to Eritrea’s support for them. South Africa has taken a stance that avoids antagonizing Russia, refusing to name or condemn the invasion while calling for negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.

Putin is not seeking to resurrect the Soviet Union, but to undo what he considers a foundational Soviet mistake: granting a limited degree of self-determination to Ukraine. In attacking Ukrainian sovereignty, Putin expects support from Russia’s allies, including countries like South Africa that are part of BRICS (an association of major emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). The Russian government’s ability to exert pressure has important economic and geopolitical dimensions, but the vocabulary used to solicit support is saturated with history and emotion. Russian generosity in the past, so the story goes, demands South African gratitude and cooperation in the present.

By now, you know the basics: in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea—part of independent Ukraine—and began backing separatist paramilitaries in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. In a televised speech on February 21st of this year, Putin interpreted Ukrainian history as a series of lies and betrayals that weakened and manipulated Russia. On February 24th, Russia launched airstrikes in Kyiv as it initiated a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Putin seems to have radically overestimated popular Ukrainian desires for the kind of “liberation” on offer from Russia; the tenacity of Ukrainian resistance has stunned the world.

On February 22nd, on the cusp of renewed crisis, South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor called for peaceful dialogue and moving “the process forward without accusing any party.” The department’s updated statement on February 24th, which called for a withdrawal of Russian troops, nevertheless refused to identify Russian aggression, instead using the carefully actor-free phrase “escalation of conflict.” “We call on all parties,” it read, “to resume diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the concerns raised by Russia.” Even that mild statement from Pandor’s ministry has raised the ire of President Cyril Ramaphosa and the African National Congress (ANC), who reportedly see it as too strongly condemning the attack on Ukraine. On March 10th, Ramaphosa called Putin and then thanked him on Twitter for providing “an understanding of the situation that was unfolding between Russia and Ukraine.” Putin, according to Ramaphosa, expressed appreciation for South Africa’s “balanced approach.” Lindiwe Zulu—an alumna of the Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow and currently the chair of the ANC’s Subcommittee on International Relations—cited the “relationship we have always had” as a reason why “we are not about to denounce” South Africa’s friends in the Russian government. The ANC continues to endorse dialogue while a war rages. South Africa is to toe the Russian line.

But the past is more complicated than official Russian and South African statements suggest. Here’s a look at what they don’t say.

The Soviet Union’s support for the ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP) in exile is well known. The first black South African to visit the Soviet Union requesting assistance in fighting apartheid was Pandor’s father, Joe Mathews. Reports in Russian archives document his numerous conversations with Soviet officials in the early 1960s. As Matthews later put it: “We looked at historical analogies and became convinced that you had to have some power or other backing you, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to launch a sustainable armed struggle.” Between the early 1960s and the late 1980s, the Soviet Union assisted the anti-apartheid struggle with money, arms, military training, education, weapons, diplomatic support, food, books, medical care, international transport, and more.

Today, it suits both the South African and Russian governments—now economic partners in BRICS—to view Soviet support for the ANC and SACP as basically Russian. Yet the Soviet Union was bigger than Russia. In fact, by the late Soviet period, only about half of its population was ethnically Russian. Non-Russian parts of the Soviet Union played important roles in the anti-apartheid struggle as well. Ukraine, especially so.

Ukraine was one of two Soviet republics to have its own representation at the UN (the other was Belarus). While the Permanent Mission of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) by no means had foreign policy independence, Ukraine prominently advocated for measures against the apartheid government. In 1962, with a powerful declaration of support from the Ukrainian SSR, the UN General Assembly recommended stringent diplomatic, economic, and military sanctions against the South African government. Year after year, the Soviet Union supported draft resolutions recommending sanctions, and year after year, Western powers vetoed those resolutions. In 1985, the Ukrainian mission to the UN endorsed comprehensive sanctions against South Africa, stating that “South Africa’s disregard of United Nations decisions, its illegal occupation of Namibia, its ceaseless acts of aggression, its State terrorism and threats against independent African states, the continual build-up of its military capacity and its plans to produce nuclear weapons constitute a direct threat to international peace and security.” If you have heard similar language recently, it’s almost certainly been used to describe Russia’s actions.

While ANC and SACP leaders went for specialized political training in Moscow, many outside the leadership studied in Ukraine. Beginning in the early 1960s, several thousand African students came to the Soviet Union annually. Over 30 percent of them studied in Ukrainian institutions. The first cohort of ANC students to pursue university degrees in the Soviet Union began their studies in Kyiv in 1962, and several remained in Ukraine for four more years. On his way to a degree in national economic planning, for example, Sindiso Mfenyana (future secretary to parliament) performed choral harmonies to adoring Soviet audiences, took a boat cruise down the Dnipro River to the Black Sea, and organized informal discussions with students from other national liberation movements. Living in Kyiv, students took note of Ukrainian complaints about Moscow’s policies and attitudes. Mfenyana remembered that “Ukrainian students in class were quite vociferous about the Ukraine being the breadbasket of the Soviet Union and yet the best of their produce was hardly visible in their shops, but was in abundance in the state capital, Moscow.” Political activist and scholar Fanele Mbali was also in the first ANC group, studying national statistics in Kyiv. Mbali observed that though Ukraine “came second only to the Russian Republic,” “relations between the Ukraine and Russia were somewhat strained” due to the proud nationalism of Ukrainian leaders and their sense that Ukraine was feeding the whole Soviet Union without benefiting Ukrainians.

It wasn’t only students who went to Ukraine. Of the ordinary soldiers in uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK, the ANC’s armed wing) who trained in the Soviet Union, most went to Ukraine. Between 1963 and 1965, according to historian Vladimir Shubin, 328 recruits received military training near Odesa, on the Black Sea coast in Ukraine. In the mid-1960s, the Soviet Union opened a training center for guerilla fighters in Perevalne, in the Crimean peninsula. In 1969, after Tanzania expelled MK, the Soviet Union relocated most of the force to Crimea. Many MK veterans fondly remember the local women who cooked and cleaned for them, treating the young soldiers with hospitality and affection. Military trainees were significantly more removed from local society than their student counterparts, and they usually did not learn much Russian. Many made no distinction between Ukrainians and Russians, who were all Soviet white people speaking similarly unfamiliar Slavic languages.

The same Ukrainian nationalists who had made an impression on Mfenyana and Mbali also complained about how Ukrainian contributions to African training and education were undervalued or erased. Instead, Russians absorbed all the status and gratitude associated with Soviet aid. Ivan Dziuba, author of the dissident Ukrainian text Internationalism or Russification, captured this frustration, lamenting that Ukrainians had not “received a single word of thanks from those Asian and African peoples.” As historian Thom Loyd has demonstrated, multiple imperial hierarchies overlapped in Soviet Ukraine. Ukrainian nationalists resented Russian arrogance and rejected the notion that Russians were developmentally superior or naturally fated to rule. At the same time, Ukrainian nationalists saw themselves as advanced, European, and worthy of African gratitude.

The premise of Soviet generosity was laced with harmful racial stereotypes. Official and unofficial Soviet culture considered Africans to be backward and poor. In the romantic politics of the early 1960s, Soviet perceptions of Africans as backward encouraged a socialist version of a civilizing mission, in which a benevolent Soviet mentor provided guidance and resources to needy African pupils. Amid the disillusionment of the 1980s, perceptions of backward Africans instead fueled a new kind of prejudice that saw poverty and violence as inherent features of African society that no amount of Soviet education or aid could displace. Popular racism, always present in Russia, Ukraine, and other parts of the Soviet Union, got much, much worse amid the political reforms and economic collapse of the late 1980s.

When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev spoke of a “common European home” from 1987 onwards, it was implicitly understood that the Soviet Union was shedding its commitments to the Global South as it turned to embrace the West. Ukrainians voted for independence in December 1991, and the Soviet Union dissolved quickly thereafter. In the Soviet Union’s last years, when popular revolt against apartheid intensified and the South African government instituted multiple states of emergency, Soviet foreign policy did an about-face. Rejecting their previous support for armed struggle, Soviet officials advocated dialogue and negotiated settlement. More radically still, the Soviet Foreign Ministry began to question and dismantle its opposition to the National Party government. Between 1988 and 1991, the intelligence services of the Soviet and apartheid governments developed a cozy relationship. In 1990, the Soviet Union began enthusiastically pursuing sanctions-busting trade deals facilitated by the apartheid government and arms dealer middlemen. In February 1992, after the Soviet Union had finally disintegrated, South Africa established diplomatic relations with post-Soviet Russia. All of these actions infuriated the ANC, which had counted on continued Soviet support.

On February 28th, as attacks on Kyiv intensified, the Russian embassy in South Africa celebrated the 30-year anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. A statement released by the embassy celebrated a long, unbroken history of Russian support for the ANC, from exile to government. The statement carefully omits the period in the early 1990s when Russian governments preferred the National Party to the ANC, as well as the late 1990s when the ANC regarded post-Soviet Russia as a powerless has-been in global politics. It was economic ties, in particular mining interests, that drove the ANC to rediscover Russia. After nearly a decade of delays and cancellations, Nelson Mandela visited Moscow in 1999. “We received enormous assistance from the Soviet Union, the assistance we could not get from the West,” said Mandela. “Russia should have been the very first country that I visited, and I have come to pay that debt now.” Credit for supporting the exiled ANC accrued to Russia alone among the Soviet successor states.

Russian officials counted on the gratitude of South Africans who had lived, trained, and studied in the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, they were often disappointed. In one instance, Russian arms manufacturers expected the ANC government to purchase Russian fighter jets instead of British or Swedish, a deal which did not materialize. It was only later that Putin’s government began in earnest to cultivate a myth of solidarity among ANC alumni, deliberately obfuscating the enormous ruptures between the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia. Independent Ukraine has had an even more fraught relationship to the Soviet past, and—according to Liubov Abravitova, Ukraine’s ambassador to South Africa—never prioritized building connections with African alumni.

Loyalty to Russia in the ANC—and in the South African government—revived after South Africa’s accession to BRICS in 2010. While its track record is mixed, the idea of a bloc of regional powers standing up to the Western-dominated unipolar world order has had durable appeal. Recent years have seen increased Russian efforts to cultivate relationships on the African continent, including at the first Russia-Africa Summit on the Black Sea in 2019. In 2014, when the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution protecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, South Africa joined 27 other African countries in either abstaining or voting no. On March 2nd of this year, in light of the recent invasion, the General Assembly again tabled a resolution on Russia’s actions in Ukraine. This time, 28 African countries voted in favor and 17 abstained or voted no. South Africa was among the abstentions.

In the past few weeks, Russian information and disinformation services have hammered on the narrative that Russia is Africa’s loyal friend while Ukraine is full of racists and Nazis. Many of the 16,000 African students who were in Ukraine at the beginning of the conflict have tried to flee to neighboring countries. In transit and at the borders, they have faced serious racial and national discrimination, being—sometimes literally—shoved aside to prioritize Ukrainian refugees. Russia Today, the Russian government’s English language news service, has gleefully reported on racism at the Ukrainian border. Such discriminatory practices have given succor to those who wish to diminish Ukrainian suffering, reinforcing rather than rejecting the Western press’s habit of downplaying the suffering of other dehumanized populations.

Throughout the Cold War, apartheid propaganda—with help from sympathizers in the West—portrayed the ANC and SACP as the Soviet Union’s playthings, puppets and proxies, with no legitimate independent existence. The ANC and SACP demanded recognition for themselves as legitimate political actors and for South Africa as more than just another theater of the global Cold War, rebutting their opponents’ treatment of them as nothing more than a front for Moscow’s superpower ambitions. But recent statements from the ANC and SACP regard Ukraine’s democratically elected government in exactly the same way, only here Ukraine is a front for US-led NATO imperialism. Asked to clarify if the ANC sees Russia as an aggressor, Lindiwe Zulu named NATO as the responsible party for making Russia feel threatened. “The aggressor is US imperialism,” argued SACP Deputy Secretary General Solly Mapaila. “Russia has to defend itself.” And Ukraine? Ukraine’s existence—and the political desires and interests of Ukrainians—are simply irrelevant to a vision of politics that consists only of bad American imperialists and those who fight back. The suggestion is that imperialism is only imperialism if Americans do it.

To be sure, some justifications for solidarity with Ukraine are flawed. Why should South Africans defend an idea of the West that has defined itself by excluding and subordinating people of color? Why defend an idea of democracy that has offered cover for a series of imperialist military adventures by the United States? One need not endorse these ideas—or all parts of the Ukrainian nationalist project—to express solidarity with human beings who are being shelled in an unprovoked attack. Likewise, there are good reasons to be critical of NATO expansion, and we should evaluate carefully the West’s role in escalating tensions. But Russia’s government bears responsibility for the huge moral leap to initiating this war—a war that may be impossible to win.

In the face of war, ANC leaders appear enthralled by the idea of repaying a historical debt. In addition to fudging a history that is more complicated than meets the eye, this stance plays into a neo-imperial way of thinking. Though Putin’s Russia differs from the Soviet Union in most important respects, one continuity is a powerful narrative of innocence abroad and an expectation that Soviet (then Russian) benevolence would generate gratitude and loyalty among those in need. Gratitude—or the expectation of it—stabilized an imperial hierarchy: Russian givers claimed superiority over and obedience from non-Russian recipients. Wrote the anthropologist Bruce Grant, “While the gift of empire may ultimately be unilateral, it sets in motion a remarkably effective means of establishing sovereignty over others, hinging on a language of reciprocity that requires little or no actual reception among the conquered.” From the 1990s to the present, one consistent Russian imperial lament is that non-Russians within the former Soviet sphere and in the world at large are insufficiently grateful for all of Russia’s generosity.

Ukrainians have rejected Putin’s claim to their allegiance. South Africa’s leaders, with much less at stake, have not.

Further Reading

Back in the USSR

In 1978, exiled South African writer and leftist Alex La Guma traveled to the Soviet Union and wrote a book about it. A new, critical annotated edition is out now.