If South Africa is implicitly choosing Russia’s side in an economic and trade war, it has chosen a real underdog.
In 2021, South Africa’s trade with Russia and its political allies totalled R15.7 billion.
Trade with NATO countries came to R1.131 trillion.
Add in the neutral China and India, and SA’s trade with the Russian bloc still represented only 57% of trade with NATO.
France came out and called it an "economic and financial war", and sanctions against Russia’s central bank seem, if not designed to then still destined to collapse the ruble, taking with it Russia’s ability to wage war as a byproduct of collapsing its economy.
The battle lines for such a war were made clear in the United Nations this week, when a vote demanding Russia withdraw from Ukraine showed that four countries were willing to publicly stand with the now pariah state: Belarus, Eritrea, Syria, and North Korea.
On the other side stands NATO, the alliance of 28 countries in Europe that have, at one time or another, considered themselves at risk of Russian aggression, plus the United States and Canada – with at least some moral support from the other 111 countries that voted in the United Nations to condemn Russia.
In the middle stands South Africa, one of 35 abstentions in the UN vote that represents a mixed bag of fence-sitters. That includes some but not all of the BRICS countries; Brazil voted against Russia. It also includes some but not all of South Africa’s neighbours; Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Namibia abstained, while Botswana and Lesotho voted against Russia.
The countries that abstained have presumably either not made up their minds yet on which side of the war to join, or believe they need not be drawn in to the war at all.
Staying on the sidelines will be increasingly hard, though. Russia is having trouble selling oil, and will be leaning hard on potential buyers, and partners in any kind of trade at all. Meanwhile, groups such as the European Union have informally let it be known that they will have a long memory for those who help Russia in its time of need.
South Africa’s formal position has gone from demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops to calling for mediation, while pre-empting anything that could be seen as criticism of Russia from even government-adjacent organisations.
If that signals the way SA is leaning in the economic war, then its choice is not grounded in economic self-interest.
SA’s trade with Russia and friends hardly registers compared to NATO
In 2021, South Africa’s exports totalled R1.819 trillion, and imports were R1.380 trillion, trade statistics maintained by the SA Revenue Service show.
Ukraine represents a fraction of a percent of that, 0.2% of total exports (mostly machinery, vegetables, and steel products) and 0.05% of total imports (mostly machinery and vegetables).
Russia is the far more important trade partner, with trade better measured in billions rather than in the hundreds of millions for Ukraine. South Africa’s exports to Russia were about 14 times bigger than those to Ukraine, and imports from Russia were about 13 times bigger. SA’s exports of vegetables to Russia alone were worth R3.3 billion – or about three years of total trade with Ukraine.
But trade with Russia, and its allies as reflected in the UN vote, is all but meaningless compared to the business South Africa does with NATO countries.
In 2021, South Africa’s exports to and imports from Russia and friends came to R15.7 billion. For the 30 countries in NATO, that number came to R1.131 trillion.
That is not just because of the United Kingdom and United States, though they were each responsible for a healthy chunk of trade. Nine other countries in NATO were all, individually, bigger South African trading partners than were the Russian bloc: Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and Turkey.
The combined effect is massive. At 2021 levels, South Africa would do business with Russia and its allies for 72 years before achieving the same level of trade as it does with NATO in one year.
Assume Russia can convince both China and India to give up their trade with NATO, and things look a little better for South Africa – but it would still be choosing the underdog. Those two countries made up R624 billion of South Africa’s trade in 2021. Combined with Russian trade, that would make for a bloc representing 57% of the trade South Africa does with NATO, if no other countries joined its alliance.