South Africa's love affair with Putin's Russia, the big absentee at next week's Brics summit in Johannesburg, dates back to Soviet support for apartheid fighters but extends far beyond that, leaving many observers perplexed.
Its contemporary extension is all the more questionable in that it seems to run counter to the African country's own interests, both commercial and diplomatic.
These ties have come under intense scrutiny since the invasion of Ukraine and Pretoria's decision not to condemn it, which was seen as implicit support for Moscow. The long-standing ambivalence over whether or not the Russian President will attend the Brics summit has fuelled speculation.
Vladimir Putin, who is the subject of an international arrest warrant, finally decided last month not to attend, putting an end to a thorny problem for Pretoria.
The ANC (African National Congress), the party in power since 1994, forged links with the Soviets during decades of "struggle" against white domination. "You could say that their alliance is a friendship built on blood... and bullets", says political analyst Sandile Swana.
But that's not all.
- An "odd couple" -
Politically, the ANC and Putin's party form "an odd couple", notes Steven Gruzd of the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA). United Russia's nationalist values are closely linked to the Orthodox Church, while the ANC leans to the left and defends LGBTQ rights.
Economically, the relationship makes even less sense. Pretoria is under strong pressure from the US and Europe to distance itself from Moscow.
Washington is Pretoria's second-largest trading partner after Beijing, with exports of $4.2 billion in the first half of the year, compared with just $132 million with Moscow.
Recent accusations that Pretoria secretly supplied arms to the Kremlin have prompted Washington to threaten to exclude South Africa from a major trade pact, causing concern among businesses and opposition parties.
The ANC denounced this as an attempt at "intimidation".
But political scientist William Gumede believes it is time for Pretoria to recognise that its allegiance to Moscow no longer serves the country and is based on an "emotional bond" that "we cannot afford".
In June, President Cyril Ramaphosa led an African peace mission to Kiev, underpinning his claims of "neutrality" in the conflict.The trip was welcomed by Ukrainians, who sometimes find it hard to understand how the ANC, which fought against oppression, does not identify with Kiev's fight to counter its own oppression.
The trip was welcomed by Ukrainians, who sometimes find it hard to understand how the ANC, which fought against oppression, does not identify with Kiev's fight to counter its invasion.
Ramaphosa was able to "speak directly" to the Ukrainians and assess the situation for himself, notes Dzvinka Kachur, a Ukrainian association leader in South Africa, who believes that Moscow is succeeding in manipulating and embellishing its image on the continent.
Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, she argues, and contributed "significantly to the anti-apartheid movements".
- Money counts too -
For Putin, nostalgic for the USSR, South Africa is a strategic gateway to a continent that has become a diplomatic battleground, according to experts.
But some believe the relationship has blossomed out of a disconnect between the African country's founding values and what its ruling party represents today, against a backdrop of widespread accusations of corruption and mismanagement.
"The ANC clearly sees something else in Putin's Russia - something ambitious," writes Daily Maverick columnist Richard Poplak. "Russia is the beacon on the hill, a shining autocracy that lights the way to eternal governance," he adds wryly in a July post. Money counts too.
It makes sense for the cash-strapped ANC to get closer to Putin because of the potential financial support expected, Grudz points out.
Last year, the party received more than 800,000 dollars from a manganese mining company linked to a Russian tycoon sanctioned by Washington to finance an important congress in the country.
Last year, the party received more than 800,000 dollars from a manganese mining company linked to a Russian tycoon sanctioned by Washington to finance an important congress, a donation that raised many eyebrows.
"The ANC is siding with Russia for one reason only: because it is funding the ANC, and therefore infiltrating and destabilising South African democracy", accused opposition leader John Steenhuisen in May.
Tokologo Ngoasheng, an ANC official in Johannesburg, retorts that the party has also received donations from "American businessmen".
"It only becomes a problem when it's Russians who support the ANC", he complained, "it's not fair".