AFTER THE BELL
Telling Russia where to get off is kicking against the BRICS
How many times have you heard that diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip? Or that diplomats are honest people who lie for their country? Or that diplomats are the people who step on your toes without spoiling the shine?
Jokes about diplomacy work best when the consequences are not life or death.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is such an extraordinary and obvious breach of international law, not to mention international civility, that you might hope South African diplomacy would recognise it as such.
The invasion is motivated by imperialistic goals, which the SA government and the ANC purport to despise. And it’s an invasion by a borderline autocratic state against a borderline democratic state. Does the ANC no longer support democracy despite being the beneficiary of it?
Instead, what we have is some … how can one describe it? … very diplomatic language. To put it another way, curious circumlocutions demonstrating wilful misunderstanding posing as high moral values. Put more simply, bullshit.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said SA has opted to “engage in dialogue and mediation” (because they need us so badly for that) as opposed to taking a more “adversarial” position (standing up for what is right) to help contribute to a resolution (not likely).
But SA does suggest that, in principle, countries should refrain from the use of force against territorial and political independence or other states. Well, that’s a relief. In principle, but clearly not always.
What a contrast to the reaction of SA at the decision by the US and UK to invade Iraq in 2003. At that point, everybody who was anybody in the SA power structure – from former president Nelson Mandela to Archbishop Desmond Tutu – went absolutely berserk. Then president Thabo Mbeki said it was an example of “international bullying” and warned that African countries would be next. Mbeki compared the invasion of Iraq to force-feeding a person on a hunger strike, and said that real democracy was the product of evolution, not something to be imposed.
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Oh, well. The days of hoping for consistency in politics are well and truly gone. What intrigues me, though, is what the real reasons are for SA’s boorishness. I think there are three.
First, there is the ANC’s long-standing and somewhat disguised anti-Western underpinning. At the government level, SA has striven in the post-democracy years to be more or less even-handed in its international diplomacy. But at a grassroots level, the ANC is riven with anti-Western tendencies, some of which have to do with fears of economic dominance, nostalgia for the Soviet era, residual bitterness at having been colonised and a fear that its socialist economic instincts will be compromised in an alliance with the capitalist West.
Second, there is a perplexing and, to be frank, somewhat unconvincing economic argument. The economic issues are well examined in the latest Reserve Bank Bulletin, which examined SA’s economic position vis-à-vis Russia.
It’s depressing, to be honest. SA’s trade, in broad terms, with Russia is minuscule and getting smaller. SA’s foreign assets in Russia were about 0.03% of its total foreign assets at the end of 2020.
South Africa’s foreign liabilities with Russia accounted for only 0.003% of SA’s total foreign liabilities at the end of 2020. This is a bit misleading because it excludes Russian assets held by SA-owned or SA-dominated corporations with headquarters in third countries. But whatever the case, it’s tiny.
The asset positions of South African banks with Russia declined to only R3.2-million in March 2022, from a recent high of R125-million in March 2021, the bank noted. That’s less than the value of a house in Obs.
On the other hand, SA’s trade with Russia has actually been increasing sharply over the past decade, but it’s still small: exports are about R1.2-billion and imports about R1.8-billion, the bank reports.
If anyone in government thinks there is some economic upside to supporting Russia in the war, they are thoroughly deluded.
But the problem is a bit wider. Russia is part of the BRICS grouping, and the grouping as a whole is now really material to SA. Both exports and imports from the BRICS group have exploded over the past 15 years, with the majority going to and coming from China, and to a lesser extent India. Imports are up from R50-billion in 2005 to R400-billion last year, and they are currently about 30% of trade. With China supporting Russia, SA’s position on Russia from a trade point of view is tricky.
But here is the strange thing: SA is currently running a trade surplus with the world, but a horrible deficit with all the BRICS countries.
SA’s exports have increased, but total exports to the group are now about R250-billion, which means there is a huge, huge mismatch compared with the R400-billion in imports.
Is it really to SA’s advantage to support a group that so utterly dominates us in trade? It’s a bit like, how should one say, kowtowing to one’s imperial masters. Too soon?
There is a third issue, which I think is the most defensible. Like many countries around the world, SA just doesn’t want to be forced to make a definitive choice between “the West” and “the rest”. And, arguably, it shouldn’t exacerbate the West/rest split by definitively choosing sides.
Personally, I think this is shortsighted. If you don’t want to choose sides, then don’t – and rather say, we are not choosing sides. But overall, SA should at least lean towards geographic integrity and international law.
As it did during the invasion of Iraq. BM/DM