South Africa on Monday said it was “on friendly terms” with Russia as it received Russia’s top diplomat for a visit that has sparked criticism against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.
South Africa, a continental superpower, has refused to condemn Moscow’s invasion of Moscow and announced last week that it will host joint naval exercises with Russia and China in February.
International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor defended the move on Monday when she welcomed her counterpart Sergei Lavrov for talks in Pretoria.
“All countries are conducting military exercises with friends,” Ms Pandor said at a press conference after the talks.
She thanked Lavrov for the “most wonderful meeting,” which she previously said would have helped “strengthen already good relations” with what she described as a “valued partner.”
South Africa recently took on the presidency of the BRICS, a group that also includes Brazil, Russia, India and China, to challenge the dominant US- and European-led global governance structures.
It has opposed taking sides in Ukraine’s war, which has led to sweeping Western sanctions against Moscow and attempts to keep the country diplomatically isolated.
But ties with Moscow have sparked criticism, with some accusing the government of abandoning its neutral stance.
‘Openly siding with Russia’
“It is becoming increasingly clear that the South African government is openly siding with Russia,” said Darren Bergman, a lawmaker from the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA).
“Friendly relations” with Russia were “not appropriate” unless they were intended to convince Russia to end its involvement in Ukraine, he said.
Lavrov said Moscow appreciated Pretoria’s “independent, balanced and considerate approach”.
Russia did not “refuse negotiations” with Ukraine, he added.
“But those who refuse should understand that the longer they refuse, the harder it is to find a solution,” he said.
Moscow officials have blamed the closure of diplomatic channels on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has said he will not negotiate as long as Russian leader Vladimir Putin is in power.
Despite the public overtures, the Kremlin has so far shown little willingness to soften its approach on the ground.
In Pretoria, members of South Africa’s Ukrainian community staged a small protest against the visit, with some waving signs saying “Go home Lavrov” and “Stop the lies! Stop the war.”
More than 350 South African military personnel will participate in the joint naval exercises scheduled for February 17-27 off the port cities of Durban and Richards Bay.
Last week, the foundation of the late South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, called the planned naval exercises “disgraceful” and “amount to a declaration that South Africa is joining the war against Ukraine” .
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