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South Africa joins Russia and China in naval exercises

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia, China and South Africa have launched joint naval exercises off the coast of South Africa, just days before the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. South Africa has officially taken a neutral stance on the war, but critics say hosting Russian warships at this point in the conflict means Pretoria has essentially sided with Moscow. Kate Bartlett has this report from Johannesburg.

KATE BARTLETT, BYLINE: The military games will run for 10 days in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Durban. South Africa said nearly 400 members of its armed forces will take part in the exercises with its Russian and Chinese counterparts. Russia has sent its battleship, the Admiral Gorshkov, which is armed with Zircon hypersonic missiles with a range of a thousand kilometres. The U.S. and other Western nations have accused South Africa of picking sides in a broader geopolitical conflict.

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DAVID FELDMANN: Is this the right time for South Africa to support the war fighting capabilities of Russia during its invasion of its sovereign neighbor, Ukraine?

BARTLETT: The spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in South Africa, David Feldmann, told local radio station Power FM that the optics look bad.

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FELDMANN: By participating in this exercise, South Africa is supporting the development of those naval warfighting capabilities at a time when the Russian Navy is blockading the Port of Odessa and preventing food from reaching African nations.

BARTLETT: But the South African government has warm relations with Russia, dating back to the days when, as the USSR, it supported the anti-apartheid movement. Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, paid a visit only last month. South Africa insists it won't be dictated to by the West.

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THANDI MODISE: We are nobody's surrogates. We respect every other country's wishes. We would wish others to respect ours. So, yes, we are looking forward to the games because we belong to the BRICS family.

BARTLETT: That was South Africa's defense minister, Thandi Modise, referring to the group of emerging economies that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The government says South Africa has participated in military exercises with many friendly nations in the past, including the U.S.

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MODISE: These games are important for us - the exercises, the coordination pact. So it is not just a selfish game of men playing with little boats in the water. No, it's important for us.

BARTLETT: This is the second time they have hosted such an event with China and Russia, but this time is a mistake, insists Kobus Marais, shadow defense minister for main opposition party the Democratic Alliance.

KOBUS MARAIS: South Africa plays the role of the useful idiot in this clearly Russian propaganda exercise against the West.

BARTLETT: South Africa abstained from condemning Russia's invasion last year at the U.N. Steven Gruzd from the South African Institute of International Affairs says this is all about South Africa exercising its independence, but it may leave it looking compromised instead.

STEVEN GRUZD: It does make one wonder about what sort of neutrality can be asserted when you are doing military exercises with one of the belligerents in this war. It does seem like you have taken sides, contrary to what many government spokespersons will tell you.

BARTLETT: The foundation of the late archbishop and anti-apartheid stalwart Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu has slammed the exercises, saying they could cost South Africa its integrity. For NPR News, I'm Kate Bartlett in Johannesburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kate Bartlett