South Africa said on Monday it was "friends" with Russia, as it hosted Russia's top diplomat for a visit that has sparked criticism against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.
A continental powerhouse, South Africa has refused to condemn Moscow's invasion of Ukraine and last week announced it will host joint maritime drills with Russia and China in February.
Minister of International Relations Naledi Pandor defended the move on Monday as she welcomed her counterpart Sergei Lavrov for talks in Pretoria.
"All countries conduct military exercises with friends," Pandor told a press conference after the talks.
She thanked Lavrov for the "most wonderful meeting", which she earlier said would have helped "strengthen the already good relations", with what she described as a "valued partner".
South Africa recently assumed the chairmanship of the BRICS, a grouping that also includes Brazil, Russia, India and China to challenge the dominant US and European-led global governance structures.
It has resisted taking sides over the war in Ukraine, that has triggered sweeping Western sanctions against Moscow and attempts to leave it diplomatically isolated.
But the links with Moscow have triggered criticism, with some accusing the government of having abandoned its neutral stance.
- 'Openly siding with Russia' -
"It is becoming increasingly clear that the South African government is openly siding with Russia," said Darren Bergman, a lawmaker with the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party.
"Friendly engagement" with Russia was "not appropriate" unless aimed at persuading it to end its involvement in Ukraine, he said.
Lavrov said Moscow appreciated "the independent, well-balanced and considerate approach" taken by Pretoria.
Russia did not "refuse negotiations" with Ukraine, he added.
"But those who refuse must understand that the longer they refuse, the more difficult it is to find a solution," he said.
Officials in Moscow have blamed the closure of diplomatic channels on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has said he will not negotiate while Russian leader Vladimir Putin is in power.
Despite the public overtures, the Kremlin has so far shown little willingness to soften its approach on the ground.
In Pretoria, members of Ukrainian community in South Africa held a small protest against the visit, with some waving signs reading "Go home Lavrov" and "Stop the lies! Stop the war".
More than 350 South African army personnel are to take part in the joint naval exercises scheduled for February 17 to 27, off the port city of Durban and Richards Bay.
Last week, the foundation of late South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, called the planned naval exercises "disgraceful" and "tantamount to a declaration that South Africa is joining the war against Ukraine".