JOHANNESBURG — With no peace deal in sight to end Russia’s war in Ukraine, South Africa’s economy is feeling the pain from the conflict, about 9,000 miles away.
Prices of grains, chicken, cooking oil and bread — mainstays of South Africa’s food economy — have shot up on the back of Russia’s invasion, which began on Feb. 24. Prices of key food production ingredients like fertilizer have also soared.
With South Africa staring at fuel prices “horror,” observers say that in the coming months, the prices of key foodstuffs could edge even higher. Recently, Tiger Brands, the biggest food company in the country, sent out another warning that prices of wheat bread, cereals and baking flour will go through the roof in June. A crippling 15 to 20 percent price hike is expected, the company said.
By blocking Ukraine’s ports militarily and therefore grain and fertilizer exports, Russia is allegedly weaponizing global food access, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the United Nations last month. The World Food Program estimates that Russia’s invasion has increased the number of hungry people in the world to 323 million from a previous high of 276 million.
The war in Ukraine has wreaked havoc on global grain supply chains, Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist at the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa, said, citing the Food and Agricultural Organization’s Global Food Price Index in April average of 157 points, a rise of about 29 percent year over year. (In May, the index average dropped slightly, but it is still about 29 points higher than in May last year. Vegetable oil and dairy prices decreased last month as cereal and meat prices rose.)
Africa is a net importer of food and agricultural output and spends nearly $80 billion a year on such goods, Sihlobo added.
Although South Africa has imported nearly 30 percent of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia on average over the last five years, it could buy more wheat from Brazil, the US and Canada. But that’s easier said than done, business leaders say.
“A sudden switch from Ukraine and Russia grain is no easy walk in the park,” said Dennis Juru, South Africa International Cross Border Traders Association. He cited recent market protectionist moves like India’s ban of wheat exports as a potential barrier.
South Africa, like many other African countries, has also refrained from publicly condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. But South Africa took a step further in the UN by siding with Russia in sponsoring a General Assembly draft resolution focusing on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, stunning many UN members.
Frightening chicken prices
For South Africans, the results of soaring prices on essentials are devastating. “It’s the chicken price that frightens us more than anything else,” said Elsie Zulu, a mother in Soweto Township, here in Johannesburg, the country’s commercial capital. She added that low-income household budgets are hanging by a shoestring. Zulu, like millions of other low-income mothers in South Africa, is unemployed and relies on a state $20 monthly child welfare grant to get by.
Unlike other African countries with low food-production capacity, South Africa could soften the blow of rising food prices through its highly mechanized agricultural industry. It is underpinned by 32,000 commercial farmers as well as subsidies and good harvests in the immediate past years that could prevent acute food shortages. However, food price increases will certainly be felt by consumers no matter what, Sihlobo the economist predicted.
Paul Matthew, the chief executive of the South African Association of Meat Importers and Exporters, a lobbying group, is warning that South Africa is facing what he calls a “chicken price tsunami” partly from the effects of the war in Ukraine on grain feed imports. If people like Elsie Zulu cannot afford to buy chicken, this could hurt their nutritional health.
“Fears of food riots are not exaggerated,” Juru of the South Africa International Cross Border Traders Association said. The group lobbies for removal of tariffs for goods coming into South Africa from other countries in the continent.
South Africa, whose ruling African National Congress party, or ANC, is an ideological ally of Russia, has pursued a chaotic response to the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. When the ANC was fighting the Apartheid regime of South Africa in the 1980s, the Soviet Union at the time provided assistance to the ANC military wing. (Ironically, the Soviet Union was also composed of Ukraine then.) The ANC is currently led by Cyril Ramaphosa, who has been president of the country since February 2018. There is no hard polling to show whether ordinary South Africans support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One Russian magnate seems to have close commercial deals with the ANC. A mining company partly owned by Viktor Vekselberg donated $330,000 to the election-war chest of the ANC in 2021.
In 2015, when Jacob Zuma was president of South Africa, he allegedly signed an agreement with Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company. Critics feared that the deal would favor Russia’s Rosatom in winning bids to help build South Africa’s nuclear energy plants. In 2017, South Africa’s high court nullified the pact with Rosatom.
So when war broke out in Ukraine in February, South Africa’s government appeared conflicted as to whether to rebuke or support Russia. As the pressure increased soon after the war began and other major African nations like Kenya condemned Russia in the UN Security Council, referring to its colonialist behavior, South Africa wavered between silence and neutrality. In April, its foreign affairs minister, Naledfi Pandor, called for dialogue to end the war, in keeping with strategies proposed by other nonaligned countries toward the conflict.
But in mid-May, seemingly frustrated by the lack of reform at the UN itself, Pandor accused the Security Council of abdicating leadership in the Russia-Ukraine war, saying, “The UN Security Council has failed the world, proving that it cannot be relied upon to preserve peace and security.”
Earlier, South Africa’s sudden tabling of a General Assembly draft resolution in late March to compete with a Ukrainian draft to highlight the damaging humanitarian effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine did not go over well in the 193-member body. Sixty-seven countries voted not to take action on the South African draft, which did not reference Russia’s role as the “aggressor.” The draft failed to be taken to a full vote.
Ukraine’s Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya criticized the South African delegation in the Assembly for submitting a “twin brother” of Russia’s “defunct” Security Council draft resolution, which failed to pass on March 23 and was focused on the humanitarian effects as well.
“Unfortunately, instead of placing the humanitarian crisis and our response at the centre of our deliberations, the political divisions in the Assembly suggest that perhaps, in the minds of some delegations, the humanitarian response is secondary to geopolitical objectives,” South Africa’s ambassador to the UN, Mathu Joyini, said in the General Assembly, regarding the failure of her country’s draft resolution.
A perfect storms looms
“The war in Ukraine means a perfect storm is looming in South Africa,” Stephen Chan, a professor of Africa governance and politics at the University of London, said in an interview. He is also a former dean of the university’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
Chan argued that the hit from Russia’s invasion on South Africa’s economy has worsened the high toll of climate change in the country, the decay in national infrastructure and the lack of dynamic national economic policy.
The opposition Democratic Alliance party has accused South Africa’s government of sending the country’s children to bed hungry because of its hesitancy to take a stand against Russia. Yet South Africa’s refusal to rebuke Russia may not hurt its relations with the West in the long term, including with the US, Chan contends.
“The West will not punish South Africa,” Chan said, predicting that Europe and the US will have enough on their hands aiming to rebuild Ukraine when the war ends and restructuring its entire posture toward Russia.
“In this new Cold War, South Africa and also all the other African states that gave tacit support to Russia are small fry,” he said.
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Nyasha Bhobo is based in Harare, Zimbabwe. She is a freelance journalist covering tech, immigration, climate emergencies, women’s rights and other topics in southern Africa. Her work has been published by The Africa Report, Newsweek, The New Arab, Reuters, CNBC TV Africa and Canada Globe and Mail. She has a B.S. degree from Chinhoyi University of Technology in Zimbabwe.