South Africa


Ukraine – South Africa should protect its relationship with progressive European democracies

Ukraine – South Africa should protect its relationship with progressive European democracies
Ukrainian expatriates during a peaceful protest against Russian invasion of Ukraine outside Russian Consulate on 24 August 2022 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / ER Lombard)

South Africa has reasons to prefer a multipolar world, and is therefore not inclined to join a Western coalition that aims to isolate and weaken Russia. But it should also recognise that a permanent split between itself and Europe will not serve its own national interests.

The war in Ukraine has scrambled many of the old alliances in international politics. Finland is abandoning its long-standing policy of neutrality and now hopes to join Nato. Russia and China, which almost went to war in 1969, now have a relationship that is “better than an alliance”, according to former Russian ambassador Andrey Denisov.

Meanwhile, Europe and the US, which became highly antagonistic towards each other during the Trump administration, are once again firm allies.

There is another shift that is less dramatic, but is nevertheless worth considering: the growing rupture between South Africa and the European left.

South Africa has traditionally had good relations with “progressive” European governments and political factions. Both sides share similar views on issues such as climate change, nuclear weapons, gender equality and the rights of sexual minorities. They have cooperated successfully in the past; in 1997, for example, South Africa worked with Western states such as Norway, Austria, Belgium and Canada to create the Ottawa Treaty, which banned the use of anti-personnel landmines. This treaty has been enormously beneficial to Africa, but Russia, China and the US have all refused to sign it.

Today, however, South Africa is increasingly being driven apart from progressive European states by the war in Ukraine – an issue that has come to overshadow every other aspect of their relationship.

The problem is that both sides have a fundamentally different understanding of the conflict. In general, left-leaning Europeans tend to view the war as an anti-imperial struggle. They regard Russia as a colonial power that is attempting to reconstitute its old empire through military force. And they feel a sense of solidarity with Ukraine’s war of resistance, akin to left-wing support for the Republican faction in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.

In addition, Europeans who sit on the centre and the left-wing of their political spectrums also tend to view Russia as an ideological threat to their own democratic systems.

Under the presidency of Vladimir Putin, Russia has adopted an ideology of right-wing Christian nationalism, and has carried out cyber operations in support of authoritarian right-wing politicians in other countries – for example, Marine le Pen in France and Donald Trump in the US.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Putin’s trashing of international norms will encourage rulers with malevolent ambitions

Finally, in terms of realpolitik, Europeans – especially Eastern Europeans – also have direct security interests at stake in the conflict. Simply put, they fear that if Ukraine were to be conquered, their own countries might be threatened next.

This is very different from the way that South Africa views the conflict. While the government also tends to view the conflict through the lens of anti-imperialism, it sees the US as a quasi-imperial power and Nato as a de facto American sphere of influence. As such, it tends to regard Russian objections to Nato expansion as legitimate, even if it does not support Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukrainian territory.

In terms of realpolitik, South Africa is geographically distant from Russia and is not directly threatened by Russian expansionism. On the contrary, South Africa has reasons to prefer a multipolar world, and is therefore not inclined to join a Western coalition that aims to isolate and weaken Russia.

Furthermore, South Africa has bitter memories of the 2013 Libya intervention, when it agreed to European proposals for a no-fly zone to protect the city of Benghazi, only to have this used as a pretext for a policy of regime change. The distrust caused by this event continues to poison Europe’s relationship with South Africa to this day.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Analysis: Military and politics play in parallel over empty Libyan skies

Could South Africans and European officials bridge this divide through dialogue, and arrive at a common position on Ukraine? It seems unlikely. There is simply too much divergence between the interests and epistemological assumptions of both sides.

However, while South Africa does have legitimate reasons to avoid being drawn into a European conflict, it should also recognise that a permanent split between itself and Europe will not serve its own national interests.

Ultimately, when the war in Ukraine eventually comes to an end, South Africa will still need the cooperation of progressive-minded democracies in Europe and elsewhere to achieve its interests on other issues: climate change, pandemic preparedness, vaccine equity, international development, and so on.

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

To thread this needle, South Africa should show sensitivity to the security concerns of European states and avoid inadvertently creating the impression that it endorses Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.

South Africa should also make it clear that it supports continued adherence to UN Security Council Resolution 984 of 1995. In this resolution, all five of the recognised nuclear-armed states under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, including Russia, pledged that they would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear armed states.

The request by non-nuclear states that they not be attacked with nuclear weapons has been described as “the most reasonable request in the history of international relations”. A nuclear first-use scenario in Ukraine would be devastating for the entire world; South Africans and Europeans share a clear interest in trying to avert such an outcome.

Although it is now difficult to remember, there was once a popular theory that South Africa’s natural role in the international system was to act as a “middle power”, in concert with democracies such as Canada, Norway, Mexico, the Philippines, Ireland, Botswana, New Zealand, and so on. The hope was that these countries would be able to form a moderate centre in international politics, acting as a check against the excesses of both aggressive democracies such as the US, and authoritarian states such as Russia and China.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Ukraine reports rapid pushback of Russian troops on two fronts

In retrospect, the belief that a “middle power” coalition might become the driving force in international politics was always somewhat naïve. However, this idea captures an important underlying truth, which is that South Africa does have important interests in common with progressive democracies in other regions of the world.

South Africa should take care to preserve its relationship with these countries as it seeks to navigate the Ukraine crisis. DM

Laurence Caromba is a researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) and co-editor of Mistra’s recent book, Reflections on Africa’s Place in the World. He writes in his personal capacity.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Malcolm McManus says:

    When you talk about alliances between countries, you are actually talking about the stance taken by governments and not the people. There are increasing numbers of people on the ground in Europe, revolting against their own governments sanctioning of Russia. Global politics has become a game for politicians and doesn’t truly represent the views of the people. The people vote democratically, but they often choose to vote for the lesser of two evils, for lack of other viable alternatives. European people are fast becoming anti American. The world is getting increasingly tired of being bullied and told what to do by the Americans. Things are about to change quickly.

    • Clive Van Der Spuy says:

      The Iraq War – US invades sovereign state – (20 March 2003 )
      (ANC formal position updated (in the brackets)
      google: anc1912DOTorgDOTza/stop-the-war_a

      South Africans … unite against the War in Iraq (Ukrain).The American (Russian) government continues to pursue its criminal war of aggression against the people of Iraq (Ukrain). As the civilian death toll rises, South Africans . . . are increasingly outraged by the horrors of this imperialist war. In solidarity with the people of Iraq (Ukrain), the Stop the War campaign invites the media to join South Africans . . . THURSDAY 3 APRIL MASS PRAYERS FOR PEACE will be led by the Women`s Interdenominational Prayer League -Manyanos- between 12h00 – 14h00 at the Beyer`s Naude Square (Library Gardens). People of all faiths, especially women are welcome to come and pray in solidarity with the people of Iraq (Ukrain). For further information call Masechaba on …
      The US (Russian) EMBASSY IN PRETORIA will be the venue for a protest meeting between 7PM – 9pm on the evening of Thursday 3 April. Activists and people of faith from all communities will be joined by Smuts Ngonyama Pule Mabe and other leadership of the tripartite alliance and the mass democratic movement to pledge solidarity with the People of Iraq (Ukrain) outside the embassy of the aggressor state. Join in this poignant candle-lit event, which combines prayers with political songs and speeches, choirs and poetry for the people of Iraq (Ukrain).


    • Clive Van Der Spuy says:

      Just to be clear – my contribution is a verbatim reproduction form the current ANC website where its documented stance on the Iraq war is a proud heritage.
      One that I happen to agree with.

  • John Sanderson says:

    Let’s see. Russia invades Ukraine next door. Ukraine being an independant sovereign country that had not offered Russia anything in the way of threats or aggression, nor any other country for that matter. Along comes NATO aided by the US and other European democracies to push the Russians back in to their box, a feat the Ukrainians wouldn’t have had the strength to do on their own.

    Remind me again who is the bully?

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options