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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
HomeNewsSA Heads to Polls Amid Concerns of Russian Disinformation Campaigns

SA Heads to Polls Amid Concerns of Russian Disinformation Campaigns

By Anyway Yotamu

South Africa heads to a crucial election this Wednesday amid concerns of possible interference by Russia-linked companies, with statistics indicating that the Cyril Ramaphosa-led African National Congress (ANC), the post-apartheid victor and liberation movement, might obtain at least 40 percent of the vote for the first time since 1994, according to Social Research Foundation (2024).

Online campaigns are playing a pivotal role in this high-stakes contest and with them come massive disinformation agends which recent reports revealed have already been playing out in the run up to the May 29 elections.

While the online space can inform about parties’ policies and manifestos, the risk of intentional distortion of information is considerable as at least 26 million people use social media in South Africa, and the number is rising.

Russia’s organizations linked to Vladimir Putin’s long time ally, late leader of mercenary military group Wagner, Yevgenuy Prigozhin, come into the picture via the Internet Research Agency.

The man behind the world’s most serious disinformation campaigns made attempts to mobilise and advocate for the ruling ANC in the previous election using disinformation in order to suppress democracy in the Southern African country.

Prigozhin was known for his links to the paramilitary Wagner group which was sanctioned by the US in 2014 for its role in the Ukraine war.

It’s active participation in the Ukraine war has continued, and the group has been recruiting young African men serving in Russian prisons to fight at the battlefront. Two young Africans were killed at at war at the peak of Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine – Zambian Lemekani Nyirenda and Tanzanian Nemes Tarimo.

Wagner is active in several African countries, including the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Libya and the Sudan. In August 2018 three Russian investigative journalists were murdered in the CAR — they were reportedly investigating the Wagner group.

Russia, SA Ties

South Africa’s historic ties to Russia, and divisions over the Ukraine-Russia and Israel-Gaza conflicts, provide fertile ground for foreign friends and foes of the country’s political elite to meddle.

Most recently, former president Jacob Zuma’s new party, the MK Party, was also being said to be the potential recipient of the Russian support ahead of the elections, via disinformation campaigns to weaken democracy.

In February this year, ANC led by it’s Secretary General, Fikile Mbalula, joined several political parties from the Global South in Moscow to discuss and form an organisation which seeks to challenge the dominance of the West and erode neocolonialism.

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The warning in support of the ANC significantly raises the stakes for the upcoming elections being witnessed by intense inter- and intra-party fighting, at its most severe, including political assassinations.

Vote-seeking campaigns deploy increasingly populist rhetoric, and recent policy announcements were seemingly made by the ANC primarily to keep a grip on power.

Moscow’s Transactional Relations With African Coountries

Harare based International Relations Expert, Lazarus Sauti, says Russia’s interference in electoral processes in some African countries is informed by Moscow’s foreign policy, defined by transactional relationships between ANC led government and Moscow.

“Russia is notorious for suppressing democracy in Africa through the co-option of political leaders. It is thus shaping the African governance structure. In South Africa, Russia is interfering in the country’s electoral processes to the detriment of South Africa’s sovereignty and democratic consolidation. The interference is informed by Russia’s foreign policy, defined by transactional relationships between the ANC-led government and Moscow.

“States, by nature, are selfish. This applies to the Russia-South Africa relationship. Russia uses its companies in SA to exploit natural resources and penetrate in other economic spheres. Recently, a Russian-owned mine bailed ANC. Russia is also funding a disinformation campaign against ANC’s opponents. All these maneuvers are to support ANC and protect Moscow’s interests,” Sauti said

The neutral stunts by South Africa in the ongoing Russian Ukraine conflict shows deep relationship between Pretoria and Moscow, he notes.

“The ruling ANC and South African government’s non-aligned and/or neutrality stance in the ongoing Russia and Ukraine conflict shows a deep relationship between South Africa and Russia. South Africa is critical of the West and Ukaraine than Russia. It supports Russia thanks to the transactional relationship between the two states. Russia has no interest in Liberal democracy and its involvement in South Africa’s upcoming elections is worrying. The involvement of Russia is not good for democracy but prolonging its interest in the southern African country,” Sauti added.

The London based Dossier Centre revealed that Prigozhin, or his emissaries, in 2019 used the same modus operandi for opportunities in South Africa.

The ‘Blood’ Gold

According to South Africa related documents at Dossier Center, deals were being explored with “Zana Gold” to mine gold, tantalite, copper and chromium deposits in Zimbabwe, clearly showing Russia’s broader interest in the region beyond interference in the democratic processes.

A translated document stated: “At the moment, on the territory of South Africa, there is one of the high-ranking military of Zimbabwe, who asks about a possible meeting and negotiations with the Russian side related to the military-industrial complex. The second representative of the Zimbabwe army is … ready to take part in the negotiations on its territory.”

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Emmanuel Gumbo, a Zimbabwean Human Rights Defender based in Oslo, Norway, condemned Russia’s behavior of undermining democratic proccesses.

“I strongly condemn Russia’s interference in South Africa’s elections. Such actions undermine democratic integrity, erode public trust, and threaten human rights by manipulating public opinion and exacerbating political tensions.

“The Russia’s ownership of significant mineral claims in South Africa explains its interest in supporting the incumbent ANC to safeguard these assets. This vested interest compromises the fairness of elections and jeopardizes the nation’s sovereignty,” said Gumbo

Gumbo also said South Africa is secretly aiding Russia’s human rights violations in Ukraine.

“South Africa’s inability to condemn Russia is likely tied to these economic dependencies and political alliances. This reluctance further diminishes its stance on human rights and indirectly endorses violations of international law, such as Russia’s actions in Ukraine. It is crucial for South Africa to investigate these allegations, ensure free and fair elections, and resist foreign interference to uphold democratic principles and protect human rights,” said Gumbo.

Ukraine War Suppressing Democracy

Russia has been using its war in Ukraine to suppress democracy in most African countries.

A recent survey by the Centre for Information Resilience reviewed that several accounts on X praising Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been seeking to rally support for Jacob Zuma’s new MK party, highlighting additional risks to electoral integrity from foreign interference.

Aditionally, today’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies are making it easier to create and disseminate disinformation, so as to create content to persuade voters or to simply sow confusion and erode trust in democratic institutions.

In 2019, the Daily Maverick had revealed some disinformation attempts by the ANC. Some South African-related documents, verified by the Dossier Centre, revealed planned campaigns to favour the ANC and the “preparation of recommendations to discredit DA and EFF” and the “development of proposals for theses for use in public rhetoric of the ANC”, the Daily Maverick had reported.

It also suggested the “Preparation of recommendations to discredit the EFF leader Julius Malema”. Zuma was at the time at the center of this plan, it further reports.

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