South Africa joined Russia and China for a naval exercise amid mounting international tensions over the war in Ukraine and a potential invasion of Taiwan.
The country has been criticized for potentially risking its diplomatic relations with the Western world.
South Africa, which has avoided taking a stance on the two geopolitical points of contention, said the Feb. 17 naval exercise was routine.
“All countries conduct military exercises with friends worldwide, so there should be no compulsion on any country that they should not conduct them with any other partner,” said Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor during a media briefing in January with Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs who was visiting South Africa. “It’s part of a natural course of relationships between countries.”
Pandor said countries that wished to pressure South Africa not to take part in the exercise would be holding her country to a double standard. She said the message would be, “what I do is ok for me, but you can’t do it because you are a developing country or you are Africa,” per Anadolu Agency.
“We are concerned about South Africa’s plan to hold joint naval exercises with Russia and the [People’s Republic of China] in February, even as Moscow continues its brutal and unlawful war of aggression against Ukraine,” said US Embassy in South Africa spokesman David Feldmann in a January statement to CBS News.
The naval exercise will occur on the nation’s east coast near the KwaZulu-Natal province. Known as “Exercise Mosi II,” the event is expected to last until Feb. 27. Approximately 350 members of the South African National Defence Force will participate.
Russia plans to test-fire a Zircon hypersonic missile during the exercise. The Chinese government has sent a destroyer, a frigate, and a support vessel. Media coverage of the drill has reportedly been restricted.
The decision to move forward with the prescheduled maritime exercise has not received universal domestic support.
“These exercises are going to be a lightning rod,” said Steven Gruzd, of the South African Institute of International Affairs, to Reuters. “I’m not sure South Africa really realises the potential backlash.”
“We are not hosting this warship, nor is it welcome in the Mother City. Cape Town will not be complicit in Russia’s evil war,” Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis wrote on Twitter on Feb. 13. “[President] Cyril Ramaphosa must answer for his complicity.”
Hill-Lewis used the tags #VoetsekRussianWarship and #RWSGFY, which stands for “Russian War Ship, Go F— Yourself.”
Russia’s Admiral Gorshkov frigate arrived in the Cape Town harbor “sporting the letters Z and V on its sides, letters that mark Russian weapons on the front lines in Ukraine and are used as a patriotic symbol in Russia,” per SF Gate.
In response to the ship’s presence, a small yacht sailed by the vessel while flying a Ukraine flag. Protestors are now expected to gather outside the Russian Consulate in opposition to the joint exercise on Feb. 17.
The SANDF has held military exercises with a variety of other countries in the past, including the United States in 2022 as well as the United Kingdom and Nigeria.
South Africa abstained from United Nations votes to condemn Russia for invading Ukraine to maintain its neutrality.