South Africa was Friday to embark on a 10-day joint military exercise with Russia and China along its eastern coast coinciding with the one year anniversary of the Kremlin’s onslaught on Ukraine.
The controversial drills, dubbed “Mosi” meaning “smoke” in the local Tswana language, are scheduled to take place between February 17 and 27 off the port cities of Durban and Richards Bay.
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They are the second in a series of routine drills that Pretoria hosts with foreign nations, including Russia.
However, the latest will coincide with the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, with South African military sources saying the main event is slated for February 22.
More than 350 members of South Africa’s armed forces will take part in the exercises “with an aim of sharing operational skills and knowledge” with Russia and China, the military said last month.
South Africa has refused to condemn the invasion of Ukraine which has largely isolated Moscow on the international stage, saying it wants to stay neutral and prefers dialogue to end the war.
But the continental powerhouse has come under fire for hosting the joint drills.
According to Guy Martin, editor of an African magazine defenceWeb, exercises such as these would ordinarily not be problematic but a useful experience for the local navy.
“However, politically the move is dubious, as it is tone deaf to the situation in Ukraine and the harm it is doing to South Africa’s other allies,” Martin told AFP.
He said the event could have been postponed or cancelled outright.
“Continuing with the exercise shows the South African government’s insensitivity to the people of Ukraine and much of the international community,” said Martin.
– ‘Platform for Russia’ –
White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre last month said “the United States has concerns about any country… exercising with Russia, while Russia wages a brutal war against Ukraine”.
The exercises are “of negligible military value for the South African navy,” said John Stupart, director of South African-based African Defence Review.
“We’re being used as a platform for Russia’s geopolitical grandstanding, and evidently we’re happy to do so,” said Stupart.
Pretoria’s “pretense of being in favour of a negotiated solution to the Ukraine crisis dissolves with this exercise,” wrote Tim Cohen, an editor at the Daily Maverick newspaper
About two dozen people staged a protest Friday in front of the Russian consulate in Cape Town, carrying large Ukrainian flags and brandishing three cardboard missiles meant to represent Russia, China and South Africa.
“I’m embarrassed to be a South African today,” said 55-year-old public relations practitioner Gary Scallan, while holding a cardboard ‘Zircon’ missile decorated with the Russian flag.
“As South Africa, we have a history of fighting inequalities and apartheid,” he said and now “we’re looking at the pariah states of the world – North Korea, Cuba, Russia, China, I’m very disappointed.”
A Russian military frigate “Admiral Gorshkov” equipped with a powerful Zircon missile system, was docked in Cape Town’s harbour earlier this week for what a Russian diplomat called “refuelling” on its way to Durban.
Dzvinka Kachur, 41, a Ukrainian living in South Africa for 11 years said “it is really traumatic to see these warships here when we know everyday similar Russian missiles are sent to Ukraine to kill civilians”.
The largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has been highly critical of the exercises which “make South Africa complicit in these war crimes”.
“We are drawn into the propaganda show of Russia,” DA lawmaker Kobus Marais told AFP.
Russia’s consulate spokesman in Cape Town told AFP earlier this week that “South Africa, as any other countries (can) conduct military exercises with friends worldwide”.