Defence minister defends South Africa’s decision to push ahead with Ex Mosi II

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South Africa’s Department of Defence (DoD) has defended its right to host exercises like Mosi II with China and Russia, and sees it as an opportunity to strengthen bonds with those two countries, in spite of criticism that South Africa appears to be supporting Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

Cornelius Monama, Spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans, issued a statement on 22 January explaining the decision to proceed with the trinational naval exercise, scheduled for 17 to 27 February between Durban and Richards Bay.

“The envisaged exercise will benefit all countries involved through Interoperability of the naval systems, joint disaster systems management enhancement, maritime cooperation and anti-piracy exercises,” said Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Thandi Modise. In addition, Exercise Mosi II will serve as a platform for the three nations to share operational skills, expertise and experience, the Ministry added, with the exercise set to “benefit all three participating nations”.

There has been considerable opposition to the Russian presence, especially as the exercise coincides with the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. The Ministry of Defence stated that, “contrary to the assertions by our critics, South Africa is not abandoning its neutral position on the Russian-Ukraine conflict. We remain firm in our view that multilateralism and dialogue are keys to unlock sustainable international peace. We continue to urge both parties to engage in dialogue as a solution to the current conflict.”

South Africa has claimed to be neutral regarding the Ukraine conflict, and called for mediation and diplomacy to end the war. It abstained from voting for the suspension of Russia from the UN Human Rights Council when war broke out.

The Ministry of Defence stated that South Africa enjoys diplomatic relations with all member states of BRICS (Brazil, Russia and China) at a bilateral level, in addition to the multilateral level. “We also enjoy defence diplomatic relations with several countries across all the continents of the world since we have become an integral part of the community of nations and no longer a pariah state.”

Pointing out its other defence diplomacy ties, the Ministry reported engagements with counterparts in recent months in the United Kingdom, the People’s Republic of China, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. “There was no hype about any of these countries, especially with regard to the USA wherein we held an even longer exercise, known as Exercise Shared Accord in KwaZulu-Natal last year regarding our military health capabilities.”

Defending Mosi II as business as usual, the Ministry said that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) plans and budgets for military exercises with other nations across the globe, both at bilateral and multilateral levels, with Mosi II “no exception”.

“In addition, the biennial maritime Exercise Oxide between South Africa and France took place in November last year at the Simon’s Town Naval Base.”

“We wish to state categorically that South Africa, like any independent and sovereign state, has a right to conduct its foreign relations in line with its own diplomatic relations and national interests. South Africa sees Exercise Mosi II as an opportunity to contribute towards further strengthening the strong bonds that exist between South Africa, Russia and China.”

This will be the second time such an exercise will be taking place involving the three naval forces with the first one held in November 2019 in Cape Town. Exercise Mosi II will see over 350 SANDF personnel from various arms of services and divisions participating alongside their Russian and Chinese counterparts.

Opposition Democratic Alliance party shadow defence minister Kobus Marais said of Exercise Mosi II that, “It is an awkward time in global geopolitical history due to the Russian war in Ukraine and the devastation of civilian targets in Ukraine. While the South African government claims to be neutral, this is another of many incidents where the majority party has shown its favouritism toward Russia and has in fact done nothing but showcase and prove government’s bias.”.

Further evidence of Russia’s close ties to South Africa comes in the form of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavros arriving in South Africa on Monday for a working visit. His Ilyushin Il-96 landed at Air Force Base Waterkloof and, according to Russian news agency TASS, he is expected to meet with International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor.

“The ministers are most likely to discuss preparations to the second Russian-African summit and conference that are slated for July 26-29 in St Petersburg. They could also exchange views on BRICS, where South Africa is holding presidency this year, engagement on other international platforms, bilateral issues and key international events,” TASS reported.

Lavrov is also expected to visit Eswatini, Botswana, and Angola after South Africa before moving to North Africa in February for visits to Tunisia, Mauritania, Algeria, and Morocco.