June 7, 2023   5 mins

“Since we have achieved our freedom, there can only be one division among us: between those who cherish democracy and those who do not.” Nelson Mandela, shortly before leaving office as president, urged constant vigilance against South Africa’s enemies, “even if they come from within our own ranks”. Democracy was the cause for which he lived and for which — as he told the court that sent him to prison for 27 years — he was ready to die. For him, the success of the long march to freedom in South Africa was a triumph for all humanity.

When he won the Nobel Peace Prize with Frederik Willem de Klerk in 1993,  for demolishing apartheid and laying the foundations for a free society, Mandela talked movingly in his acceptance speech of how people inside and outside South Africa “had the nobility of spirit to stand in the path of tyranny” since they saw that “an injury to one is an injury to all”. He spoke about fighting for a world of democracy, freed from “the scourge of civil wars and external aggression and unburdened of the great tragedy of millions forced to become refugees”.

How sad, then, to see the betrayal of this legacy by his party and protĂ©gĂ©, Cyril Ramaphosa, who now runs the country as President. The African National Congress promised “a better life for all”, but instead seems terminally corrupt and incompetent, something symbolised by the power cuts lasting up to 16 hours a day, as winter looms in a country that is cursed by high crime rates, rampant inequality, raging unemployment, grinding poverty, and woeful schools. Meanwhile, its flailing leader, Ramaphosa, is doing his utmost to smooth the path of tyranny for Vladimir Putin.

It is no wonder that, after three decades in power, the ANC is widely expected to lose its governing majority in next year’s election. Voters know that the party, founded 111 years ago to fight for rights of black Africans, is to blame for the energy crisis in the continent’s most industrialised nation, following years of mismanagement and theft. Typical was the $27 billion construction of two big coal-fired plants, where costs tripled under Jacob Zuma’s presidency as his cronies plundered the country and yet still failed to deliver their planned power due to delays and defects.

There is toxic talk on the Left of revolution sparked by the power shortages that are blamed for bankrupting businesses, water shortages, huge traffic jams, opportunistic robberies, rotting food, and even decomposing corpses in morgues. Last year, South Africans experienced more than twice as many power cuts than ever before, reducing the nation’s GDP by about 5%. This year has already been worse. Eskom, the state-owned electricity generator, is warning people to prepare for even more blackouts as the cold weather arrives.

Many voters hoped that Ramaphosa, a former trade union leader who became a rand billionaire after apartheid, might set the country on the right track after Zuma’s corrosive nine-year stint in office. Yet the outgoing chief executive of Eskom fled after surviving an attempt to poison him with cyanide in his coffee six months ago, then blamed ministers of covering up corruption by gangs stealing $50 million a month from the firm. But the president’s image was shredded by the “farmgate” scandal, in which he was accused of covering up the theft of between $580,000 and $5 million in foreign currency that had been hidden in sofa of his luxury game ranch. He acknowledged that the cash had been stolen and, having failed to inform the police, claimed it was payment for buffalos sold to a Sudanese businessman. He avoided impeachment due to the loyalty of his MPs.

Even as the scandal broke last summer, Ramaphosa was calling on South Africa’s 60 million citizens to remember and respect Mandela’s legacy — pretty hypocritical given the stance he had taken on the Kremlin’s assault on democracy in Ukraine. Rather than “standing up to tyranny”, Ramaphosa posed as a peacemaker and leader of non-aligned nations seeking a solution to the conflict. South Africa abstained in votes on five key United Nations resolutions on the war, even in the shocked days after last year’s full-scale attack when more than half the continent’s 54 states voted to reaffirm Kyiv’s sovereignty and demand unconditional Russian withdrawal.

Pretoria’s stance contrasted sharply with Kenya’s astute critique of Putin’s “expansionism”, which condemned the dangers of trying to stoke the “embers of dead empires” with “new forms of domination and oppression”. The ANC government claims its refusal to condemn the attack is based on a long-held belief that conflicts should be resolved through negotiation — yet both Mandela and his successor, Thabo Mbeki, rightly condemned the US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq for undermining democracy and setting a dangerous precedent. Ramaphosa, by contrast, is shifting South Africa closer to Moscow, infuriating other democracies even though Russia is of minor economic importance, accounting for less than one-hundredth of the value of trade with Europe alone.

First Ramaphosa echoed the Kremlin’s line by blaming Nato expansion for Putin’s attack, ignoring the desire of Ukrainians to determine their own future like South Africans. Then came 10 days of naval exercises with Moscow and Beijing, timed to cause maximum offence on the anniversary of Putin launching his full-scale invasion, complete with military vessels bearing the loathed pro-war “Z” symbol docking in Cape Town. “It is a slap in the face of our trading partners to be this clearly on the side of Russia on the anniversary,” said Kobus Marais, defence spokesman for the opposition Democratic Alliance. “We’re the useful idiots.”

Next came accusations from the United States that a sanctioned Russian ship clandestinely collected weapons under cover of darkness from a base near Cape Town six months ago. An investigation by the Financial Times found no signals coming from the vessel’s transponder over the dates of mooring, implying that it switched off the device that allows tracking of its position — although the ship was seen at the military site. Now South Africa, which denies the allegation, has responded by accusing the West of fuelling the conflict by providing military aid to Kyiv. And in the coming weeks, there are reports the government plans to change the law to enable Putin — a dictator wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court over genocidal child abductions — to attend an August summit of the BRICs economic bloc without being arrested.

So much for Ramaphosa’s protestations of neutrality. South Africa, sometimes seen as the de facto leader of sub-Saharan Africa, has slid steadily closer to the Kremlin over the past decade. ANC officials often refer to Moscow’s historic support for their liberation movement, admire Putin’s anti-Western rhetoric, and speak of Russia as “a friend”. The disgraced Zuma even wanted a Russian energy giant to build several nuclear plants in South Africa, which would have given the Kremlin a grip on the economy (and presumably offered hefty kickbacks).

Thirty-three years ago, Ramaphosa was beside Mandela as the anti-apartheid hero left prison and those powerful images of hope and optimism were broadcast around the globe. He even held the microphone as Madiba famously greeted the crowds “in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all”.Today, having made his fortune and reached the pinnacle of power, he is trampling over the idea of democracy with his support for a dictatorial regime trying to crush freedom in a neighbouring nation. As Mandela said, “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others”.


Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.

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