South Africa


South Africa’s favouritism towards autocratic nations poisons its recipe for democracy

South Africa’s favouritism towards autocratic nations poisons its recipe for democracy
International relations and co-operation minister Naledi Pandor. (Photo: Flickr / GCIS)

If the authors of the ‘National Interest’ policy were serious, they would have placed democracy in its rightful place within the constitutional furniture and made it the cornerstone of foreign policy. 

What is in South Africa’s National Interest? South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) has attempted to define this and its meaning for foreign policy in a new policy framework, ‘South Africa’s National Interest and its Advancement in a Global Environment’.

Running to 33 pages, it is a brave attempt to do the impossible: Marry inspiration from South Africa’s boldly democratic Constitution, with the country’s desire to do nothing to defend democracy and its institutions abroad.

This is achieved by a sleight of hand. The document repeatedly claims the policy draws its inspiration from the Constitution, but it chooses the parts of the Constitution that are broad enough to allow it to stand with countries that patently don’t support democracy.

“South Africa defines its National Interest premised on the values and ideals as enshrined in its Constitution and informed by the needs of its people. These include the eradication of the legacy of apartheid and overcoming the triple challenges of inequality, unemployment and poverty,” it states in its introduction.

Democracy is mentioned later on: “As a country, South Africa upholds the values of democracy as a system of governance that provides for an open society, which allows its people to express themselves on who and how to be governed. It is similarly a political aspiration that is firmly protected and promoted on the African continent and beyond.”

The trouble for the authors with democracy is that it does not chime nicely with the government’s flirtation with distinctly undemocratic states such as Zimbabwe to the north and Russia, whose invasion of Ukraine it has decided (after a minor kerfuffle) not to condemn.

About the kerfuffle: There was a brief moment on 24 February when Dirco, reacting to the Russian invasion boldly stated: “South Africa calls on Russia to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine in line with the United Nations Charter, which enjoins all member states to settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice are not endangered.”

It was doing the obvious — taking a stand against the unprovoked and violent invasion of a democracy by an autocratic state.

But, whoever crafted that statement did not properly understand the peculiar definition of the ‘national interest’ that was materialising in the bowels of Dirco (or Luthuli House). The statement was quickly walked back and by the time South Africa abstained from voting for a UN resolution condemning the invasion, it had become a ‘neutral’ observer calling on both sides to cease hostilities.

putin ramaphosa cooperation

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: / Alexey Nikolsky / Sputnik / Kremlin pool) | President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Twitter / @PresidencyZA)

The democracy point is important because democracy is not just one of several nice ideas enumerated in the Constitution. It sits at the heart of that document and is the foundation on which the entire constitutional edifice stands. 

An open, transparent, accountable elected government is a necessary, but not a sufficient precondition for the delivery of a better life for all. For that to happen, government has to do its job. Over the last decade and a half and particularly under the stewardship of Jacob Zuma, the government has not done its job and democracy has been somewhat of a nuisance standing in the way of accumulation. 

Let us not forget the proposed ‘media tribunal’, attempts to securitise freedom of expression, the assault on the previous Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, and the appointment of her apparatchik successor, Busisiwe Mkhwebane. There were those ANC ‘meetings’ with judges to berate them for daring to take it to task. And there was cadre deployment which continues to hobble the delivery of services.

Fortunately for the country, many of these efforts to hollow out democracy were thwarted by the Constitution and its defenders in civil society, among opposition parties and in the media. 

That period of brazen theft is now hopefully behind us, although such optimism must be carefully couched.

For the deleterious effect of these assaults on democracy linger — a public service unable to deliver services effectively, government machinery that stands in the way of job creation and a continued populist assault on democratic values.

If the authors of the ‘National Interest’ policy were serious, they would have placed democracy in its rightful place within the constitutional furniture and made it the cornerstone of foreign policy. But they didn’t. While democracy is vital to South Africa, it is apparently not necessary in other countries with whom we wish to be friends for opaque reasons.

Perhaps the authors agree with Lenin who stated: “It is true that liberty is precious; so precious that it must be carefully rationed.”

Of course, if democratic accountability were to be accorded its rightful place, there would be consequences. The aforementioned flirtations with Zimbabwe and Russia would not be able to continue and the ANC would lose the money it is given by a Russian oligarch. 

Far from being the neutral arbiter of global conflict, the policy suggests South Africa aligns itself with those striving to “challenge the predominance of the Western powers and the liberal international economic order.” This is more or less what Russia, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Cuba see as their mission. It follows that South Africa prefers and promotes an alternative, illiberal world order and is intent on undermining the West. If South Africa’s lack of support for democracy, its preference for autocrats, and its voting patterns in the UN were not sufficient hints, you have now been warned. 

The document says: “Thus far, the developing countries have used their growing influence and their numbers to advocate for collective action, especially in demanding an increased role in the decision-making echelons of international organisations. These new actors are now in a position to challenge the predominance of the Western powers and the liberal international economic order.”

It is an odd approach for a country which claims to be proudly democratic. Like it or not, it is an objective fact that the West’s political systems have much more in common with South Africa than do those of, say, Russia or China. There are a growing number of populists venting their spleen but some of them, such as Donald Trump, have been defeated in democratic elections as the system does its job.

Minister Naledi Pandor has bemoaned threats to punish African countries that did not toe the Western line on Ukraine on the grounds that this is their sovereign right. Not only did she put sovereignty before democratic principles, but she ignored the reality that this is a two-way street: national choices can have international consequences.   

This is not to say that South Africa ought to align itself with the West. It would be wise for it to live up to its promise not to align itself with any power bloc. It should, however, align itself with democracy and against assaults — particularly violent ones such as that undertaken by Russia — on fellow democracies.  The West does not own democracy; it belongs to the world of free peoples. Surveys have shown time and again that it is the political system preferred by Africans across the continent.

It is conveniently forgotten that more African countries voted to condemn Russia’s invasion than abstained or voted against the UN resolution. Yet no one asks if South Africa was out of step with the continent.

Perhaps the real issue is that by not voting to condemn Russia at the UN, South Africa has alienated itself from its fellow Africans. After all, Benin, Botswana, Cabo Verde, Chad, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Malawi, Mauretania, Mauritius, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Tunisia and Zambia all voted to condemn the invasion. 

It is notable, too, that most of the group of 27 African countries that voted for the UN resolution calling for Russia to halt its invasion and withdraw its forces from Ukraine, were western aligned democracies. Most of the 17 African countries that abstained or voted against the resolution were, with a few democratic exceptions including South Africa and Namibia, authoritarian or hybrid regimes. 

If ‘Pan-Africanism’ is a key marker of our policy, we missed a profound moment of African solidarity against this colonial invasion and an opportunity to underscore South Africa’s commitment to defending democracy and the sovereignty of a fellow democratic nation.

The problem with ‘South Africa’s National Interest and its Advancement in a Global Environment’ is that it suffers from two infections which plague the ANC: A desire to cosy up to authoritarians and the default to avoiding making decisions.

‘To govern is to choose’ was Pierre Mendes-France’s maxim when Premier of France in the 1950s. It is axiomatic that failing to choose is failing to govern. DM

Greg Mills is the Director of The Brenthurst Foundation. Ray Hartley is the foundation’s research director.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Peter Doble says:

    Winston Churchill once said that: “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” Of course democracy comes in different guises with the added issues of accountability, party and self interest – show me a pure politician.
    South Africa has too many skeletons to classify itself as a democracy. So it flirts in the geopolitical marketplace while trying to perform a tight balancing act as a credible commonwealth country with an outmoded communist ideology while accepting cash from all comers and colours. A technicolour dreamcoated unprincipled hooker.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    And how does bashing Israel at every opportunity fit in with the national intetest when the AU has welcomed Israel with open arms because of the benefits of that relationship. Just now after Israel reacted against Islamic Jihad after month’s of terrorist attacks, SA couldn’t wait to roll out the hackneyed polemic against Israel ( which even anti semitic Malaysia has stopped doing) but hasn’t said anything about Russia’s brutal destruction and mass murder in Ukraine. Ironically the ANC seems determined to act against its own interests, almost begging the civilized world to isolate it.

  • Trevor Pope says:

    Perhaps the authors could rewrite Dirco’s document to properly reflect the values in our constitution? Something we can use after the 2024 elections to reassert some moral authority in the world.

  • Malcolm McManus says:

    Google John Mearsheimer. He offers his own interesting insight into the war. As for South Africa, I don’t think the people in power in the ANC really embraced the concept of democracy. I believe they just embraced it as a globally supported tool to seize power. Like Zimbabwe, when we reach a point when the ANC is about to lose power, votes will be rigged. Education plays an important role in democracy. Without quality education most people don’t really have a true idea what the significance of their vote is and are easily manipulated. In the hands of a poorly educated population, democracy can be a dangerous think.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    SA under this obnoxious ANC misgovernment are nothing but false prophets. They are riddled with hypocrisy, double standards and outright deception. They forget what their party initially stood for and are absolutely clueless about democracy and how to run a country. On the contrary, they are masters of theft and destruction. The world stood behind our country when fighting for liberation, but how soon the ANC forgets. They are nothing but a corrupt, thieving and predatory criminal syndicate, who desperately need to be dumped into dustbin of history for ever more. They are an impediment to progress and a massive choke chain around our necks. Parasites who suck the life and blood of this country. SA is firmly in the camp of the most vile human rights abusers and murderous regimes, and we meekly and subserviently kiss arse of the most vile thugs like Putin etc. When Cyril and co arrive in the West with their begging bowl, I would know exactly where to send him and his scumbag government.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      You are right to point out what the ‘party’ “initially” stood for during the Madiba era, when you had ethical and moral values and leadership. That has since evaporated ! That is what allowed Madiba to presciently and without any ambiguity say something to the effect of “if the ANC does what the apartheid regime did to this country, then you must do to it what you did with the apartheid regime.”

      • Rory Macnamara says:

        Well said Sir. sadly that day will come.

      • Gerrie Pretorius Pretorius says:

        The arms deal happened under ”madiba”s watch. The anc have never proven to be an organisation with morality as is understood by civilisations around the world. Remember ‘I did not join the struggle to be poor’?

    • Yvonne Riester says:

      Perfect to the point analysis!

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Malcolm, John Mearsheimer is a buffoon. He reminds me of the French and Italian intellectual Left, so wayward and beyond reason, that defended the vilest of the vile, Stalin, well after WW2 and after the the wholesale murder of millions and massive atrocities that came to light. Worse than Hitler if that is possible! NATO is a defensive organisation and is not encroaching. All the ex-Soviet countries jumped at the opportunity set in motion by Gorbachev to free themselves from state terror, oppression, murder, torture and violence enforced only by the barrel of the gun. Anyone in their right mind and nation would do the same!! Ukraine, like Poland, Estonia etc are not and have never been Russian. They are independent nations with every right to sovereignty and be able to chart their path. The thug/monster that is Putin has the same murderous, evil, dictatorial and barbaric DNA as Stalin. He comes from that era in true NKVD/KGB fashion. He has misplaced and false pride about restoring the Russian/Soviet empire, which was never grand, but cruel, genocidal and predatory. The reality is that as the obnoxious Putin continues to the beat the war drum and has in fact launched his illegal and brutal war, the ex countries want security in numbers, which means joining NATO. It is not a clandestine by NATO to overthrow Russia, but rather Putin and the psychopathic Kremlin being terrified that freedom and democracy will spill over to the long suffering and abused population.

  • Aslam Dasoo says:

    “Like it or not, it is an objective fact that the West’s political systems have much more in common with South Africa than do those of, say, Russia or China”.

    SA is acting in perfect concord with the West, which has a great affinity for autocracies all over the world, except for those that challenge its hegemony.
    Like Saudi Arabia and its coterie of Emirati vassal states, Israel, the various “-stans” of Central Asia and numerous commodity rich African states, to name a few.
    The simplistic narrative offers little by way of nuance or and ignores the obvious, such as the aphorism attributed to British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston,
    “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”
    SA, like the West, is steadfast in its adherence to this principle.
    The only difference is that the autocracies favoured at a particular moment may not coincide. But that’s neither here nor there.
    I’ll see your autocracy and raise you a dictatorship. That’s how the game is actually played.

    • Gerrie Pretorius Pretorius says:

      Very true Aslam

    • Pierre Coetzer says:

      Absolutely right. While there are some good points in the article, the notion that the West cares about democracy when it clashes with its core interests is ludicrous. The spectacle of Biden’s visit to to MBS in Saudi Arabia is pitiful. South Africa’s foreign policy is no doubt often incoherent, hypocritical and awkward. Like pretty much everyone else.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Pandor is blinded by the past rather than informed by it. She and other ANC leaders should be shamed of themselves – Mandela and other principled stalwarts are turning in their graves!!

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