Exactly a year after its launch, the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg hosted a public seminar on ‘Russia-Africa Relations in the 21st Century: Renewed Focus and Engagement’, with H.E. Mr Ilya Igorevich Rogachev, Ambassador of the Russian Federation to South Africa and Lesotho, as the main speaker.
The discussant was Dr Essop Pahad, former minister in the South African Presidency, and the event was chaired by Khadija Patel, editor in chief of the Mail & Guardian.
The seminar was well attended, among others by diplomats, policy-makers and planners, and academics. It took place in the wake of the first ever Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum (the Sochi Summit), held in Sochi, Russia, on 23 and 24 October, which was attended by 45 African heads of state and government as well as regional and private sector representatives.
Opening the seminar, Prof Peng Yi, CACS Co-Director, spoke about the Centre’s role in fostering mutual understanding between not only China and Africa but also Africa and other countries in the Global South.
Recounting some of the comments made by Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation, at the close of the Sochi Summit, Khadija Patel noted that the seminar would seek to unpack the high-level discussions and closing declaration, focusing on how Russia intended to achieve its stated goal of achieving a mutually beneficial partnership with Africa.
In his presentation, the Ambassador placed contemporary relations between Russia and Africa in the broader context of the continent’s relations with the Soviet Union, which, he said, had played a vital role in partnering with the continent’s liberation movements in combating ‘colonialism, racism and apartheid’.
‘Russia is returning to Africa’
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Russia went into a recession, and these relations became less active. However, the friendship and solidarity between Russia and Africa never ceased. Today, be declared, ‘Russia is returning to Africa’, pointing out, among others, that the Federation had already cancelled some US$20-billion dollars in debt owed by African countries.
The Sochi Summit, which was co-hosted with the African Union, was not only symbolic but was also flanked by business meetings and round-table discussions on various topics. Besides the main declaration, agreements were concluded on trade, investment, and security cooperation. A total of 500 Memoranda of Agreement were signed, including agreements on minerals with Morocco, on railroad construction with Egypt, on manufacturing and robotics with Nigeria, on nuclear energy with Ethiopia, and on scientific development with Rwanda and Zambia. Added to this, security cooperation in the war-torn Central African Republic would continue.
Ambassador Rogachev expressed his appreciation for the platform provided by the CACS which, he said, had enabled him to clarify his country’s policy in Africa, and promote mutual understanding.
In his response, Dr Pahad commented further on Soviet assistance to Africa going back as far as 1956 during the Egyptian Suez Canal Crisis. According to him, the Soviet response gave impetus to a wave of decolonisation in Africa. The presence of Soviet troops in Angola in the late 1980s helped to precipitate the collapse of the apartheid regime. Moreover, Russia’s social scientists had placed a valuable role in helping to theorise the struggle against apartheid, including, among other things, developing the concept of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR).
He suggested that improved relations between Russia and Africa should not only involve security and economic issues, but also continue to involve an exchange of ideas, theorising current global trends, and exploring what they mean for the Global South as a whole.
The discussions dwelled on Russia’s role in infrastructural development in the light of Africa’s rapid urbanisation, as well as the reform of the United Nations Security Council. Noting that Moscow was one of the five most digitised cities in the world, Ambassador Rogachev stated that Russia was willing to accelerate technology transfers to African states. On UNSC reform, he stated that this would require consensus among the world’s major powers represented at the UN. The system needed to be modernised, but some features of the UN were fundamental.