From the Editor’s Keyboard

Dedicated to Mandela’s centenary: Russia discovers Africa

23 July 2018 at 07:56 | 651 views

Editor’s Note: This article was written many years ago, before President Mandela passing.

By Kester Kenn Klomegah, Guest Writer, Moscow, Russia

At long last, on the eve of his retirement, South African President Nelson Mandela has come to Moscow on an official visit. His goodwill trip is designed to express his gratitude to Russia for its support during the struggle against apartheid. It could also mark a strengthening of relations between countries that won freedom from communism and apartheid, respectively in the early 1990s, and have subsequently become two of the world’s most important emerging democracies.

Mandela’s visit has been long planned but frequently postponed. He originally intended to visit to Russia in 1995, but had to change his plans because of political tensions at home. Mandela was again due to meet Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1996, 1997 and 1998, but the meetings, for one reason or the other, did not materialize.

Moscow, a strong supporter of Mandela’s African National Congress during the years of apartheid, is keen on deepening economic relations with both South Africa and other African regions. Russia removed its remaining economic sanctions against South Africa in 1994, after the United Nations Security Council scrapped the 17-year arms embargo against Pretoria.

Since then, however, the relationship has languished, and the heads of other African states such as Presidents Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Sam Nujoma of Namibia and Jose Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola have seemingly overtaken South Africa in the marathon race to the Kremlin. Now, as one senior Western diplomat put it, President Yeltsin realizes that the time has come to start building new, diversified post-communist relations between Russia and South Africa.

The relationship between Moscow and Pretoria has not been without tensions, some of which manifested themselves in the walk-up to President Mandela’s current official visit. An article in the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta accused Mandela of deliberately making the visit impossible. It claimed that the South African president had given priority to visiting various Western countries and that his foreign policy advisors were responsible for giving him bad advice and for diplomatic blunders.

South African diplomatic sources, however, say such allegations are groundless, and that it was Russia that made Mandela’s visit impossible, by giving the South African side insufficient notice that the Kremlin was ready to receive him. In addition, Russia in recent years has increased its diplomatic relations with China, Japan, India, Middle Eastern and Western countries, while, in the view of some African diplomats, backing away from engagement with Africa.

Some Russians, meanwhile, have noted that relations with Africa have foundered, and have made efforts to address the problem. In March 1997 and May 1998, the State Duma, in conjunction with foreign policy academics from various African studies institutes, held special sessions on how to improve the decaying relations between Russia and African countries. Yeltsin, meanwhile, praised Mandela’s contribution to developing cooperation between Russia and South Africa in a goodwill message on the occasion of Mandela’s 80th birthday.

With Mandela now in town, Russia is likely to boost and expand trade ties and seek comprehensive approaches toward improving the overall relationship with South Africa. Trade ties between the two states have been growing over the past several years. Russia has been negotiating for a new agreement between Almazy Rossii-Sakha, or Alrosa, Russia’s largest producer and exporter of diamonds, and the South African diamond corporation, DeBeers.

A deepening of the relationship between Russia and South Africa could also serve to show other African nations the value of a relationship with post-Soviet Russia.

"The major problem with African countries stems from the fact that African political elites are still oriented towards the West and maintain a strong belief that Russia is still pursuing communist ideals," Dr. Edmundo Manicah, a Mozambican researcher and political analyst, said.

African politicians need to realize that Russia possesses resources, a sound technical base, a well-developed infrastructure and economic potential. Southeast Asia and India have taken advantage of Russia’s market liberalization and economic reforms, and African states might well consider the possibility of re-establishing their Soviet era interstate committees, which were responsible for developing bilateral economic relations between the two continents.

In any case, as Manicah noted, Africa could benefit from the "progressive changes" that have taken place in Russia. African states should consider strategically reviewing relations with democratic Russia. This is especially so given that Africa’s integration into the global political and economy depends largely on devising dynamic and progressive international political strategies and methods. Africa’s leaders must make a conscious effort to open their doors to the Kremlin instead of looking exclusively westward.

Mandela’s visit could now open the way for the whole of Africa to begin a real and aggressive drive into Russia’s emerging market. The visit could also redefine Russia’s overall relations with the countries of Africa. These relationships must be pursued vigorously. They are one way of ensuring that the century we are about to usher in will be a better one.

Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and writer on African affairs based in Moscow. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times. April 30 1999.

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