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Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa after a meeting with delegation of African leaders to discuss their proposal for peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, in Saint Petersburg, Russia on June 17.HOST PHOTO AGENCY RIA NOVOSTI/Reuters

Richard Poplak is a Canadian journalist and filmmaker based in Johannesburg.

During the sweltering summer of 2017, on the fringes of a hellishly polluted dystopian nightmare-scape called Sasolburg, I met David Mahlobo, the head of South Africa’s State Security Agency (SSA). Mr. Mahlobo is a large, genial man who gives the impression he was badly bullied in high school. In the way of these things, he was the bully now. His version of the SSA had been repurposed under then-president Jacob Zuma to resemble Russia’s FSB, successor to the KGB, the dank womb from which President Vladimir Putin and his men emerged in the early 1990s.

Mr. Mahlobo presided over a vastly corrupt agency that acted as a money funnel for connected cronies, shut down investigations into the same, and harassed the president’s enemies. Mr. Mahlobo seemed too pleasant for this sort of wet work, but when he shared his personal WhatsApp number with me, the icon was not an image of Nelson Mandela, nor a glorious vista of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, nor even a grinning portrait of his boss, Mr. Zuma. Nope, it was a cheerful image of Red Square set against a bright blue sky. Moscow: spiritual home of South Africa’s ruling class.

In some respects, it’s unsurprising that the country’s spymaster would fetishize the Russian Federation. During apartheid, the African National Congress received support from the Soviets, as did many other African liberation movements. (That said, former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney was arguably one of apartheid’s most stalwart critics, but you don’t see his face on WhatsApp icons.) While South Africa is one of the purest examples of a constitutional democracy anywhere on the planet, the ANC retains its Soviet cosplay structure – a top six, a national executive committee and so on. There is also the not-so-small matter of colonialism, and the centuries-long plunder of Africa by Western countries, which swivel into lecture mode whenever an African democracy flounders.

There are many justifiable reasons for the ANC elite to loathe the West, but a decision was made after the fall of apartheid to install a liberal democracy where apartheid once smouldered. Indeed, the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was instrumental in drafting the gloriously progressive constitution that became law in 1996. But since then, as liberalism – or, more specifically, neoliberalism – has failed to benefit the majority of South Africa’s Black population, and as the ANC has lurched from scandal to scandal while facing off with a vigorous media, a (mostly) functioning judicial system and a slate of opposition parties, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has started to look like an attractive option.

South Africa is hardly the only democracy to harbour dreams of illiberal authoritarianism, but since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, foreign policy has been catching up with the domestic-policy bucket list. Mr. Ramaphosa’s administration was quick to promulgate a non-aligned stance, but in practice, until very recently the country seemed securely in Russia’s corner on this one.

International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor has appropriated the lectern, lecturing Western leaders on the pitfalls of NATO expansionism and the double (or triple) standards of supporting the invasions of Iraq and Libya while abandoning the Palestinian cause and ignoring wars on the African continent.

Generally, she’s repeated established Russian talking points on the “special military operation.” But her position is undermined by the fact that there have long been allegations of Russian involvement in South African mining contracts that have likely benefited the ANC. Major ANC politicians have often flitted off to Russia for “medical treatment” – Mr. Zuma is currently hiding out there in order to avoid returning to jail to complete a sentence for contempt of court. These aren’t ideological alignments. They’re business deals, and they come at the expense of a more coherent approach to what’s actually happening out there in the real world.

Things got impossibly silly last December when a Russian ship called Lady R docked at the Simons Town port near Cape Town, and was loaded up with who-knows-what under the cover of darkness. This incident prompted U.S. Ambassador Reuben E. Brigety II to later allege that the Lady R sailed away with a hold full of South African arms, and he was démarched by Ms. Pandor for the pleasure. Since then, however, the risk of economic sanctions has cooled South Africa’s Russophilic tendencies.

Hanging over all of this was the planned BRICS summit, scheduled for August in South Africa, which would see the heads of state from Brazil, India, China and – yes – Russia gather to discuss the concerns facing their new-ish alliance. There is no question that South Africa, along with other African countries, would benefit from a multipolar world, and there is some hope that BRICS can lead to, among other things, dedollarization and increased competition for commodities, while lessening the influence of the U.S.-led West. After all, we can dream.

But there was one small problem. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has called for Mr. Putin’s arrest over allegations that Ukrainian children have been forcibly trafficked to Russia during the course of the war. As a signee, South Africa would be obligated to detain Mr. Putin should he land on local soil. Which, as Mr. Ramaphosa correctly pointed out, would be a declaration of war against Russia. For months, Mr. Ramaphosa has maniacally attempted to ward Mr. Putin off from making the trip. It turns out that Mr. Putin – famously averse to being within spitting distance of other human beings – agreed to send his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, in his stead. Mr. Putin will appear by Zoom.

This is what it means to be a pariah, and it begs the question: How long can South Africa’s Putin fetish last before it entirely kneecaps the delicate balance required in matters of foreign policy during wartime? As the country descends further into chaotic decline, as corruption proves nearly impossible to uproot, as inequality widens seemingly by the day, Mr. Putin’s Russia remains an enticing paragon. As South African democracy self-immolates, Red Square looks like an increasingly inviting place to waste away the hours until doomsday.

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