SA FOREIGN POLICY OP-ED
Naledi Pandor — Minister of utter incomprehensibility and obstruction
South Africa’s foreign policy this century amounts to, at best, a horrible report card.
Standing in for President Cyril Ramaphosa at last week’s 77th UN General Assembly, the Minister for International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor, threw what in diplomacy amounts to a temper tantrum.
According to her, the war in Ukraine, despite involving a belligerent nuclear power and tens of thousands of lives lost in seven months, is not as urgent as a laundry list of lefty causes — some with some merit, others to signal virtue — that the ANC has gathered over the last three decades.
On the ANC’s list were Cuba, Palestine and the disputed Western Sahara region. She asked that the global community should “treat all conflicts across the globe with equal indignation, no matter what the colour or creed of the people affected.”
In proposing the lifting of sanctions on Zimbabwe and the embargo on Cuba, she stated the need for a rules-based system predicated on international law and adherence to the charter of the UN. The ANC is, its seems, the world’s most aggressive anti-sanctions combatant.
“South Africa calls for an end to the embargo against Cuba,” she said, “which continues to impede the right to development of her people. In the same vein, we call for an end to unilateral coercive measures against Zimbabwe, which have compounded the problems experienced by the people of Zimbabwe and have a detrimental effect on the broader Southern African region.”
There was no mention of the human rights and democratic deficit of either of these apparently model states.
Having listened to leader after leader speak on Ukraine, Pandor’s incomprehensibility went up a notch in suggesting that the biggest global challenges were not the rule of international law or the risk of nuclear war caused by the Russian invasion on 24 February, but “poverty, inequality, joblessness and,” wait for it, “a feeling of being entirely ignored and excluded.”
Have some sympathy. Dropping down the global rankings from cause célèbre arguing for sanctions against an oppressive regime to ‘failed-state-in-the-making’ pleading for sanctions against autocracies to be lifted, must be bruising. And it must, surely, be someone else’s fault. It was less Miss Congeniality than Missed Opportunity.
In a new spin of the old victim habit, the Minister failed to comprehend, entirely it seems, that South Africa is ignored and excluded precisely because of her government’s lack of convergence with partners in its priorities and the nature of its values. Where once it might have been listened to, its lack of domestic success combined with its dubious reasoning and support for human rights transgressors undermines its international standing. Rather than calling out African regimes, including that in Ethiopia currently waging a bloody war on its own people in Tigray, in which food is again weaponised in that region, she preferred to point fingers outside the continent, as has become SA’s standard foreign operating practice, never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
And, yet, in this, the Minister has been aided and abetted by the outside world, including the West, which appears not to bother to correct Pretoria’s deviancy on diplomacy and double-standard on human rights because it either doesn’t care enough and could not be bothered to invest the time and effort, or does not wish to tip whatever relationship it still has entirely over the edge. Or perhaps it’s because diplomats find the path of least resistance in their default setting, or because everyone discounts such stump politicking. Let’s hope the latter reason is true.
For South Africa’s foreign policy this century amounts to, at best, a horrible report card.
Its aspiration to play various mediation roles — including in Ukraine — have bombed because it forgot or mythologised the components of its own successful transition. South Africa’s was not a victory by one side, as is commonly portrayed, but the result of a combination of external pressure on both parties (through sanctions on the white government and pressure, too, on the ANC as a result of the end of the Cold War), internal consensus on the gains which could be made through settlement rather than continued fighting, and the need for leadership.
Ending conflict peacefully demands pressure on all parties to change the cost-benefit calculation.
You can’t have negotiations by pressuring one side, nor can you have a settlement if one party to the conflict believes it has more to gain by fighting than suing for peace. Ending apartheid did not require neutrality either, which South Africa has favoured over the Russia-Ukraine conflict, in refusing to support the UN resolutions respecting human rights and humanitarian international law.
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Perceptions of South African bias may explain why presidents Zelenskyy of Ukraine and Ramaphosa only spoke on the phone two months into the war — and seven weeks after the South African president called president Vladimir Putin for his version.
Rather like a referee in a sporting contest, successful mediation demands fairness within a set of rules, in this case international law.
For similar reasons of impartiality, South Africa has been wholly unsuccessful at promoting democracy and stability in Zimbabwe. Pretoria has preferred to tilt, quixotically, at the existence of international sanctions on members of the regime as the reason for the country’s economic collapse. The reason, just about everyone else seems to now know, was the land invasion policy followed by endemic elite looting of the economy coupled with brutal and systematic crackdowns on opposition in what has become essentially a military junta.
The tell-tale sign of the ANC’s prejudice in this impasse lies in Pretoria’s continuous refusal to describe events in Zimbabwe as Zanu- (rather than sanctions-) inflicted and, more fundamentally, to condemn the ruling party.
Like Ukraine, while South Africa has an opinion on Palestine, it has little voice in ending that conflict, since the Israelis today see Pretoria as a wholly partial observer.
Its defence of Russia is apparently predicated on what others powers might or might not have done earlier. Defending Russia’s action on the basis of an earlier American-led strategic error in Iraq is childish, just as it is erroneous to make a moral equivalence between removing Saddam (a man who had killed quarter of a million domestic opponents in his grotesque ways) from power with that by Russia to remove a democratically-elected government in Ukraine.
It’s the sort of moral equivalence that South Africa never accepted in the fight against apartheid, yet human rights are just that: human rights, whether white or black, just as the foreign minister paradoxically asserted in the UN.
Similarly, South Africa has no role in Western Sahara since this is in the hands of the UN anyway, and Pretoria has again made its bias clear.
Pretoria’s clamour for a rules-based order and UN reform is bizarre without comprehending what this invasion has done to that system. Moreover, South Africa’s voting bias in the UN is clearly and continuously apparent, routinely in favour of China and Russia rather than the West. This fails to acknowledge who pays for this system. In 2021, for instance, Russia provided $69-million to the UN’s regular budget, or some $416-million together with China. The US and EU together contributed $2.3 billion. Russia’s global aid contribution is just 3% of the US total, and 6.7% of that of the EU. And Russia provided just 3% ($193-million) of the UN’s peacekeeping budget in 2021, compared to the more than 50% ($3-billion) granted by the US and EU.
It could be argued that the type of bias shown at the UN by South Africa will in fact preclude reform because, again, it fails to call things as they are rather than how it would like them to be.
There is much more evidence, if ever it was needed, of how South Africa has lost its way. The presence of ANC observers in the sham Russian referenda in parts of Ukraine under military occupation this past week is a new low. At the very least it illustrates either the lack of party discipline or the presence of a clear party line.
There is much to be debated about where South African foreign policy should be focused. But here is some early advice for Pretoria. Lose the chip on your shoulder, and promote the welfare of South Africans through trade and investment. DM
Greg Mills and Ray Hartley are with the Brenthurst Foundation. www.thebrenthurstfoundation.org