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ANC govt position on Ukraine invasion inconsistent with...

South Africa

FOREIGN RELATIONS OP-ED

ANC government’s position on Ukraine invasion unprincipled, inconsistent with SA values

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky during a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, 15 March 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE/ANDRZEJ LANGE) | President Cyril Ramaphosa during an interview at the South Africa Investment Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Thursday, March 24, 2022. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

It is astonishing that South Africa’s government still assumes a stance of international moral authority and appears to believe that it ought to be accepted as a good-faith actor on the international stage.

On 24 February 2022, Russia attacked Ukraine, launching missiles at military targets, and invading the country with a considerable military force. Russia described the invasion as a “special military operation” to “demilitarise and denazify” the country. It is common cause that Russia has violated the sovereignty principle of the UN Charter, to which South Africa is a signatory, and that the attack constitutes a crime of aggression under international law. It is very likely that Russia has committed war crimes in Ukraine.

Between 2 March and 7 April the UN General Assembly voted on resolutions deploring Russia’s aggression, calling for the protection of civilians in Ukraine and that Russia be suspended from the UN Human Rights Council. In all three instances, South Africa abstained from supporting the resolutions.

Technically, an abstention during a UN vote is regarded as a display of neutrality, which may be warranted in cases where violations are not obvious or flagrant, but there is little doubt that Russia’s actions in Ukraine constitute an ongoing war crime. Part of South Africa’s response appears to be based on perceptions of Western hypocrisy given interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria.

Accordingly, Pretoria called for mediation and dialogue in abstract terms. Members of the government suggested that Russia and Ukraine are involved in a mutual conflict. Ukraine was said to have provoked the attack by aiming to join Nato like other former Soviet satellite states. Yet Ukraine is not (yet) a member of Nato, and states that did join exercised their sovereign right to do so. Diplomats indicated that South Africa appeared to be acting in Russia’s interests.

Some explanation for the government’s apparent support of Russia can be found in its misreading of history. The “anti-imperialist” ruling party is said to be indulging a “misguided nostalgia” for the Soviet Union, which aided its struggle to end apartheid. Yet the Soviet Union was itself also an imperialist power which colonised Ukraine and killed four million Ukrainians in a campaign of mass starvation.

It is also suggested that South Africa’s position is based on a realpolitik assessment of its economic ties with Russia and Brics, yet these are minuscule compared to its economic ties with the EU.

SA’s foreign relations record

The government’s position on Russia’s aggression comes on the back of the sorry tale of its approach to international relations globally and in Africa.

South Africa’s voting record at the UN reveals a concerning pattern. Demonstrations of a principled stance on human rights have been rare. In most cases, as Dr Kate Dent wrote in Daily Maverick, the government has expressed “a plausible-sounding rationale for a position” based on its central commitment to the primacy of sovereignty “but… ended up taking a stance that has been criticised for undermining human rights”. In many cases, the supposed adoption of neutrality has had the net effect of supporting autocratic regimes.

The country prevented discussion of Zimbabwe’s political violence in 2005; challenged a 2007 UN draft resolution condemning rape and ethnic cleansing as war tactics; refused to support UN Security Council measures to protect civilians in armed conflicts in 2011; abstained from condemning human rights abuses in North Korea in 2014, in Burundi in 2016, and Belarus in 2017; abstained from supporting a UN Human Rights Council resolution protecting the rights of peaceful protestors in 2016; voted against a resolution on human rights and extremism in 2015, along with Russia and Venezuela; voted against a 2016 resolution to protect civil society actors against authoritarian governments; supported a 2017 Russian-sponsored resolution aimed at preventing countries from imposing sanctions on each other on the grounds that this would cause harm to citizens of sanctioned countries; abstained from supporting a 2016 resolution protecting people against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender; and abstained from a 2017 resolution on ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.

In Africa, the country has lost ground on the continent since the end of Thabo Mbeki’s presidency. Incidents of xenophobic violence against Africans in the country since 2008 have invited expressions of concern from governments around the continent, including that of Nigeria. The success of Nepad, under which South Africa and Nigeria agreed to exercise soft power on the continent, was followed by South Africa’s bullying approach to taking the AU chairpersonship in 2012.

Other policy missteps included South Africa’s deployment of SANDF soldiers, 13 of whom died, to the Central African Republic, reputedly to protect private interests; Jacob Zuma’s signing of the 2014 Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit protocol (set aside by the Constitutional Court); the Zuma administration’s failure to arrest Sudan president and accused war criminal Omar al Bashir in 2015; and its attempt to withdraw from the ICC (also set aside by the courts).

The geopolitical situation

In a recent document, the ruling party states that its foreign policy stance going forward is based on the view that the world has changed, but it radically misreads these changes by its assumption that the change involved “shifts in hard and soft or mental power from West to East”. China’s rise as an economic power is not in question, but it is likely to result in a multipolar world, not a shift in power from East to West.

Moreover, China’s economic success is based on huge debt, now estimated at triple the size of the economy, the result of “the greatest debt run-up in history” (Zeihan, Disunited Nations, p40). The US, meanwhile, is also massively in debt, but at 108% debt-to-GDP ratio. This misreading is likely a consequence of Pretoria’s continued emphasis on relations with Brics, though the country has benefited very little from its participation in that grouping.

Its economy is now the second-largest on the continent, after Nigeria, and looks set to slide further down the scale as the government continues to ignore the importance of hard economic power. Indeed, the ruling party’s economic mismanagement has extended to policies which have effectively driven Eskom, its monopoly power generation utility, to the brink of failure, seriously hampering productivity and national life more generally.

Lack of critical insight

Perhaps the single most important factor in the government’s misreading of the geopolitical context in which it operates is its failure to recognise its own massively diminished credibility globally. To formulate an effective strategy, the historian John Lewis Gaddis points out, actors must understand the knowns, probabilities and unknowns of their environment. Crucially, the knowns generally include the actor’s own capabilities. Not in South Africa’s case, however.

If anything is clear, it is that South Africa has lost its standing internationally and in its own region, for domestically, too, the government has lost standing. Factors include former president Thabo Mbeki’s Aids denialism; the Marikana massacre in 2013; an attempted insurrection in July 2021 attributed to a faction within the ruling party; and above all State Capture, which has seen the ANC-dominated Parliament’s connivance in massive malfeasance.

Indeed, the government’s failed domestic policies and appalling economic management have resulted in the coining of a word to describe its style: ineptocracy, meaning a government whose leaders are least capable of leading.  

It is astonishing that South Africa’s government still assumes a stance of international moral authority and appears to believe that it ought to be accepted as a good-faith actor on the international stage.

Foreign policy and the national interest

It is widely recognised that foreign policy involves a complex mix of economic, political, security, regional and domestic issues. Analysts argue that there are two senses of the concept of a country’s national interest: its long-term goals and the specific policies of the government of the day. Little or no understanding of the difference between these two senses is evident in the government’s foreign policy.

Disturbingly, there are indications that the government’s support for Russia may be due to the private interests of certain senior ANC party figures and the party itself. The government’s position on Ukraine also contradicts the government’s own stated policy as regards the defence of human rights.

Moreover, its support for Russia’s aggression is in direct contrast to its positive obligation to “respect, protect, promote and fulfil the Bill of Rights” at home.

Finally, the government’s abstentions from the UN votes on Russia’s aggression suggest that the ANC has used the formal appearance of non-alignment to position itself alongside countries such as Russia and China, a duplicity that represents a real threat to the country’s independence.

The Constitution does not impose a direct obligation on any South African government to support and promote its own domestically entrenched rights in foreign policy, but the government’s unprincipled foreign policy performance over the last 15 years at least indicates that the absence of positive requirements and constraints on a government’s foreign policies in respect of the country’s own principles and values in foreign policy is clearly a matter of serious concern.

In conclusion

South Africa has experienced two short windows of effective foreign policy over the last 100 years.

The first was its positioning in the world following its participation in the war to end Nazism. As a consequence, the country was at the forefront of the formation of the UN. However, that advantage was soon dispelled by its denial of the rights of black South Africans and the adoption of apartheid.

The country’s second window of influence occurred after the advent of democracy in 1994, when it played a significant part in international affairs for some years. That advantage was, however, soon dispelled by the ruling party’s increasing parochialism.

South African foreign policy over the last two decades has been characterised by a poor understanding of geopolitics, a failure to position the country’s hard and soft powers, repeated failures to live up to the country’s stated positions on human rights and a privileging of narrow party-political and even elite individual interests in the determination of foreign policy.

Under the ANC, South Africa has failed to observe its commitments to international law.

These missteps have harmed the country’s reputation, undermining its credibility in adopting political positions in the international arena. They will also undoubtedly influence how the country is perceived in the future multipolar world. The South African government ought to review and revoke its unprincipled and ill-considered support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

More generally, the government’s unfortunate position on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine shows that there is an urgent need for a national discussion on the elements of authentic foreign policy. Such a discussion should lead to a fundamental revision of the country’s approach to addressing its interests in the international context based on governance principles.

These should include limits on a government’s capacity to formulate foreign policy without reference to the country’s constitutional values, as well as requiring rational evaluations of its long-term interests supported by a reasonable degree of transparency and accountability. DM

A more detailed version of this article can be accessed on Good Governance Africa’s website at https://gga.org/russia-in-ukraine-south-africas-unprincipled-stance/

Richard Jurgens is editor of Good Governance Africa’s research journal, The Africa Governance Papers. A former ANC exile, he is also the author of several books, including The Many Houses of Exile.

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All Comments 11

  • Where do these values fit in with the cosy relationship with Israel which regularly bombs civilians in Gaza? Support for Saudi Arabia that’s been bombing Yemen for years?

    • With regards to Israel and Gaza it’s actually the other way around, but don’t take my word for it, search for “Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel” on Wikipedia and other sources. I don’t expect however that you’ll let facts to get in the way of your convictions.

  • I think due consideration should be given to a few things
    – why eastern Ukrainians speak Russian as a home language. Do they identity as Russian or see themselves as fully accepted and embraced by Western Ukraine? If not why not. Is there a Ukrainian element that rejects them?
    – The open display of SS Nazi regalia by key fighters. This is excused as just for show, to be tough. Nowhere else in the world would this be excused.
    – Historically there has always been a divide between East and West Ukraine. Why?

  • Excellent article. SA will have another window of opportunity to get back our international standing when the current government is no longer in power come 2024.
    All the old and morally corrupt men and women in this government sicken everyone, everyday with the revelations of their nonsensical ways and ineptitude. They are no doubt beholden to Russia over some sort of secret deal.

  • An excellent article by Jurgens. He succinctly summarises the distinct failings and hypocrisy of South Africa’s tortured, mislead and myopic foreign policy.

  • I wonder what putin would have to do to earn a condemnation or even disapproval from Cyril? Execute Ukrainian civilians in front of BBC cameras? Somewhere there has to be a line drawn between loyalty because of Soviet support of the ANC and common decency.

  • What more can one say? This country is so ill-served by this inept, pathetic, dishonest, wayward, hypocritical, thieving and corrupt ANC government! If only the people of SA would wake up and sent this awful mob to the gutter where they belong. They have betrayed its people, its values and its promise of a better life for all. Our foreign policy was always disgusting and disgraceful from day 1, supporting Mugabe – anything but based on human rights. We support and close ranks with the most odious and murderous regimes eg Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, China and Iran. The last straw for me was Ramaphosa supporting Putin who is nothing but an evil KGB thug and mass murderer. I have nothing but utter contempt for the criminal syndicate that is the current ANC – by current I mean after Mandela left as it has been on a downward spiral since then and boosted by the obnoxious Zuma and his rapacious cronies. To hell with them!!!

  • It is tragic that after a proud struggle for human rights our democratically elected government should chose to associate with countries such as Russia and China who have no regard for human rights at all – truly betraying us for pieces of silver….

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