In the run up to and during the Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum, held in Sochi, on October 23–24 (see EDM, October 28), Russia’s high-level officials repeatedly emphasized their country’s unyielding commitment to equality in partnership with African states, juxtaposing Russian/Soviet versus Western practices on the continent. As such, the central themes of the mega-summit’s proceedings pointedly included the “legacy of colonialism” and “white domination” in Africa, premised on the maltreatment of the local black populations and unjust redistribution of national wealth (see Part One, EDM, December 4). However, a closer look at routine Russian media coverage of African affairs in years past shows some visible disparity with the rhetoric espoused in Sochi.
Starting from 2016, major Russian information outlets collectively embarked on an aggressive campaign aimed at depicting ongoing developments in some countries of sub-Saharan Africa as an “Apartheid turned upside down”—that is, black nationalism deliberately discriminating against the remaining local white populations. For instance, various reputable Russian sources argued that during white rule, “local [Zimbabwean and South African] land resources were used with skill and intelligence,” whereas, after the end of the racial segregation, agriculture has stagnated (Vzglyad, May 30, 2016). Conservative pro-Kremlin sources also underscored that “everything South Africa has today […] was achieved exclusively due to the up-to-date agro-technological achievements of the whites,” whose potential exclusion will result in the “Zimbabweization [zimbabwizatsiya] of South Africa” (Tsargrad.tv, December 22, 2017). Some sources went even further, claiming that it was “the white people, who brought civilization. South Africa used to be one of the best-developed countries in the world. And where is it today? The dream of the blacks has come true. Now, the power is in the hands of their tribesmen” (Newizv.ru, December 5, 2017).
From 2018 onward, Russian media launched yet another seemingly coordinated propaganda campaign, claiming that South Africa’s white population was ready to abandon the country en masse and move to Russia (to the territory of Stavropol Krai). According to RIA Novosti, in the next several months, “up to 15,000 Afrikaners are likely to move to Russia […] those who have not yet made a definitive decision are ready to invest in the economy of Stavropol” (RIA Novosti, July 30, 2018). Russian officials additionally argued that the Russian Federation has “43 million hectares of the finest arable lands that have not yet been tilled,” which could be transferred to Afrikaners “escaping racial oppression and xenophobia”; purportedly, “each [refugee white South African] family is now ready to invest at least $100,000 of its financial capital into the Russian economy” (Glavred.info, July 12, 2018). Other propaganda-heavy sources claimed that “up to three million South African Boers [the total number is close to 2.7 million, whereas the whole white population is close to 4.5 million—Statssa.gov.za, accessed December 3, 2019] are now considering moving away from the country and seeking refuge in Russia” (Versia.ru, July 30, 2018).
The Russian state-connected media’s portrayals of developments in South Africa aim to present a picture of rampant “black nationalism” seeking revenge for the previous transgressions of “white domination”—to the point of alleged readiness to physically exterminate the remaining white population. In a documentary entitled White Cross of Africa (Belii Krest Afriki), commissioned by Russia 24, Russian propagandist (twice deported from Ukraine) Alexander Rogatkin presents a deplorable image of South African society, ravaged by growing inter-ethnic hatred (not merely along the black-white divide but also Afrikaners versus English speakers) and dominated by black racism. According to the documentary’s underlying message, South Africa was doing far better under Apartheid than after the officially promulgated regime of racial segregation was finally dismantled (YouTube, December 22, 2018). The TV channel Russia 24 is fully owned by the notorious state-sponsored propaganda outlet VGTRK, known for publishing extreme anti-Western narratives (Sergey Sukhankin, “The Western Alliance in the Face of the Russian (Dis)Information Machine,” Canadian Global Affairs Institute, September 2019).
Another key storyline routinely broadcast by Russian propaganda is the supposed nexus between Western-supported “liberalism” and “black radicalism,” which, together, is allegedly “killing the South African economy.” Referring to the local black populations in Africa as the “successors of hunters and nomads,” Russian propaganda outlets close to the Kremlin imply that these nations, thus, cannot develop the agricultural sector as effectively or efficiently as did the whites. Moreover—claiming an ongoing “genocide [sic] of the white population”—Russian sources extensively quote from letters of some Afrikaners allegedly “pleading to Russia for help” and praising Russia’s “spiritual renaissance, patriotism and adherence to centuries-long values and traditions” (Tsargrad.tv, July 5, 2018). In turn, Russian information outlets habitually take pains to reiterate the role the Russian Empire played in the Afrikaners’ struggle against the British Empire (Tsargrad.tv, June 26, 2017, December 11, 2017). And these media sources point to the involvement during the First Transvaal War (1899–1902) of Russian “volunteers”—an instrument Russia continues to employ to this day, in Africa and beyond (see Jamestown.org, June 25). It is important to add here that Russian propaganda tends to blame the current “situation” in South Africa on the democratic West’s unwillingness to recognize the “genocide” and the supposed rise of “black Nazism [sic]” thriving under the umbrella of the governing African National Congress (ANC) (Topwar.ru, March 30, 2018). Ironically, during the Cold War, the ANC was rather tightly engaged by the Soviet Union (which trained its fighters); and the political party remains a member of the Socialist International (SI).
Russian political scientist Irina Filatova, a senior research fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa, stated a year ago, “No one here [in South Africa] has heard anything about the looming exodus of the Afrikaners… I learned about this from the Russian media.” She did admit to certain existing race-motivated frictions in South African society but contended that the Russian sources are artificially inflating the matter for propaganda purposes (Krymr.com, October 27, 2018).
It is quite clear that Moscow—despite its optimistic rhetoric and hearty welcome of the African delegates to Sochi two months ago—is determined to inflame existing race-driven frictions within African societies, and has been actively engaging in such an information campaign for years. Aside from internal goals (showing domestic audiences examples of deep malaise in other societies), Moscow pursues a “divide and rule” strategy in Africa, seeking to weaken and undermine internal unity and (already rather fragile) cohesion among African states it wishes to engage on its own terms.