A Kremlin-linked Russian misinformation outfit attempted to sway Wednesday’s general election in South Africa in favour of the ruling African National Congress, according to documents obtained by investigators.
An organisation with ties to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman close to Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, allegedly drew up plans to discredit South African opposition parties, including the pro-western Democratic Alliance.
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The claims, which emerged as voting was underway in South Africa, are the latest to link Mr Prigozhin to a growing network of Russian influence over the continent’s politics.
Known as “Putin’s chef” because his company provided catering services to the Kremlin, the businessman may have deployed as many as 200 political strategists across the continent to help sitting presidents win elections, Russian newspapers have reported.
Mr Prigozhin, who is also linked to the paramilitary Wagner Group, is under US sanctions after he was accused of running an online “troll factory” to bolster Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
Attempts to influence South Africa’s election were coordinated by Peter Bychkov, a political strategist working for Mr Prigozhin, according to documents obtained by the Daily Maverick, a respected South African newspaper, and the Dossier Centre, a London-based investigative unit.
Funded by Mikhail Khordovkosky, a Russian oligarch and Putin critic, the Dossier Centre says it “investigates the criminal activities of various people associated with the Kremlin.”
Mr Bychkov’s team purportedly created a think tank to act as a vehicle to tarnish Mmusi Maimane, the DA leader, and Julius Malema, the populist leader of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters.
The team drew up documents, obtained by the investigators, that listed its proposed tactics, ranging from “generating and disseminating video content” and “coordinating with a loyal pool of journalists” to find ways "to discredit" the opposition.
While it is not unusual for political parties to engage foreign political strategists, most spin doctors act on a commercial basis rather than for shadowy outfits linked to foreign governments.
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There is no evidence to suggest that Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s president and the leader of the ANC, was aware of the plans or whether they were ever implemented.
Given that opinion polls show the ANC winning an overall majority, it is unclear what the Russian group hoped to achieve.
However, the documents show it predicted, disingenuously, that the party would fall short of 50 percent, raising the possibility of Mr Ramaphosa having to rule in coalition with Mr Malema – an attempt, perhaps, to show its indispensability should the ANC achieve a clear win.
Other documents suggest that Mr Prighozin also hoped to secure lucrative assets in South Africa’s mining sector and to sign a deal to sell the government arms.
The allegations may cast a shadow over Mr Ramaphosa’s predicted victory.
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But, despite growing political disillusionment, election day in South Africa still evinces an atmosphere rarely seen elsewhere, with older black voters still revelling in an experience that was denied them so long under apartheid.
Emily Sefelane, a 62-year-old domestic worker voting in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton, remembered how tough life used to be before white rule ended.
“It was so hard here in those days,” she said, recalling how she and her friends were often detained by police because they did not have permission to work in Johannesburg.
But if voting remains an exciting and moving experience for older black South Africans, the country’s younger generation are turning away from politics amid anger over corruption and the government’s failure to lower unemployment, lift the economy and reduce inequality.
Some six million people, most of them thought to be young, failed to register to vote and although the ANC will win, enthusiasm for the party that Nelson Mandela led to triumph a quarter of a century ago on Friday is arguably more tepid than it has ever been.