ANC and DA support opposite visions of SA’s international future — authoritarian global order vs Western democracy
The position of the government and the ANC regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to huge criticism from many quarters. For many, this is a question about the ANC’s true values. But it may also be about the future direction of SA and whether it moves closer to the West or increasingly authoritarian countries such as Russia and China. Recent moves by the ANC and the DA illustrate these choices for South Africa in sharp relief.
Over the weekend, the ANC confirmed that it had sent a delegation of its leaders to Russia, to meet with the United Russia party (URP), the main party in that country, which closely supports President Vladimir Putin.
At the same time, at its federal congress, the DA condemned Russia and strongly backed Ukraine. A resolution to take South Africa out of BRICS was proposed, and had strong backing, but was not passed by delegates.
This was one of those moments that illustrate the divides in our country, and how different people have very different aspirations and ideologies, often formed by historical differences.
On Monday morning, the deputy chair of the ANC’s subcommittee on international relations, Obed Bapela, explained on SAfm why he and others went to Russia.
He said that this was part of a much bigger meeting involving parties from 30 different countries which all believe there should be a change from the current “unipolar” world.
He also introduced important nuance into the conversation, saying that the ANC’s real historic ally in Russia had been the Communist Party since 1963 and which still exists, albeit in a much-weakened form. However, the ANC had established ties with the URP, and thus attended this meeting, stating that while “our ideologies are not the same, internationally we are one”.
He is certainly correct that their domestic ideologies are different. The ANC formally is defined as “progressive”, while many people describe the URP as “conservative”, with friends.
Apart from little interparty contact, the URP also seems to share little political ideology with the ANC. The URP is generally regarded as a “conservative” party and has established ties with several far right-wing populist political parties, including the Alternative for Germany and the Austrian Freedom Party.
Bapela also made the point, several times, that the ANC is opposed to “neocolonialism”, which in this case may well be a reference to Nato, the West and perhaps particularly the US.
However, he also said, “We are not condemning the war, and we are not condoning the war at the same time.” He went on, the war “shouldn’t have happened”.
Later, when asked if it was not the case that one country invading another surely fits the definition of colonialism, he said that while “invading any country is not correct”, if that country is being used as a proxy by others, the “other one will not keep quiet”.
All of this mirrors how the SA government has (mis)managed this issue.
First, our Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) called 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…”
But then our government refused to vote in favour of United Nations resolutions condemning the invasion. And since then, it has pursued a stated policy of “neutrality”.
At the same time, the SA government has kept open the invitation to Putin to attend the BRICS summit here in August, while also being aware of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC’s) decision to indict him.
It may be important to remember here that this legal obligation is not imposed upon South Africa by the ICC. It is imposed on the government by the fact that that government itself, and with its free will, signed up to the relevant protocols, and then domesticated the ICC into our law.
At the danger of repetition, this was not at gunpoint or under any kind of pressure, but a decision of the ANC government.
However, just three weeks ago, the Justice Ministry formally stated to Parliament that it would not go ahead with a plan, developed in the aftermath of the Omar al-Bashir case, to withdraw South Africa from the ICC.
In other words, as the government was inviting Putin to come here, it was also deciding it wanted to remain in the ICC. Surely people in the government, and the ANC, would have known the situation which would result, and the impossible contradiction awaiting them?
Even Dirco Minister Naledi Pandor, who says Russia is a “friend”, acknowledges this means that while Putin is being invited, she herself believes her government would have a legal duty to arrest him if he did accept her invitation.
The question of neutrality
This all gets to the question of whether the ANC is really neutral. While Bapela and Pandor have both spoken at length about the importance of remaining what they describe as neutral in this conflict, there are several other issues in the context of this which suggest this is not the case.
First, there is the event of this weekend, in which senior ANC members went to Russia while it is at war with Ukraine. There is no public record of ANC members going to Ukraine on a similar visit.
Then there is the military exercise involving ships from our navy, that of Russia and that of China. South African soldiers were working with soldiers who are currently at war.
While there have been similar exercises with our navy and that of the US in the past (including arguably, while the US was at war in Afghanistan), the timing of this most recent exercise was surely telling.
And then, perhaps more important than all of that, is the secrecy around the visit of a Russian ship to the Simon’s Town Naval Base.
Very little is known about this visit, which was largely carried out under cover of darkness. But the secrecy itself will lead to questions about what was happening, and why a Russian vessel (under Western sanctions) was allowed to dock at a navy base in such a way.
Also, last week, was the visit of Russia’s minister of natural resources and environment, Alexander Kozlov. During that visit, Pandor said: “We have made it clear that Russia is a friend and we have had cooperative partnerships for many years, including partnerships as we combated the apartheid regime.”
All of this suggests that the ANC is not as neutral as it claims. And that our government is thus not neutral either.
For the party’s critics, there is also the dictum that to remain neutral on a moral issue is itself immoral. Considering the lengths the ANC went to (correctly) condemn the US invasion of Iraq 20 years ago, its silence now may be telling.
There is no such claim to neutrality from the DA.
Its delegates voted to back Ukraine this weekend. Its leader, John Steenhuisen, went to Ukraine in the early weeks of the war and the party has been loudly critical of the ANC’s stance on this issue. It has strongly condemned Russia’s invasion. It has consistently backed the position taken by the US and Nato.
A strong moral dimension
Of course, this entire issue is about the fact that Russia invaded Ukraine. It is not about Ukraine invading Russia, which is why it has such a strong moral dimension.
To oversimplify, it may be that the DA, and its members and supporters, look to the West, and see themselves as part of that liberal order.
The ANC and its members and supporters look to Russia and perhaps China, believing the future lies there, in their authoritarian nests.
This may be one of those issues which demonstrates that sometimes we reflect different countries. There are many people who agree with the ANC; to put it bluntly, they do not trust the West in any way, and particularly not the United States.
They believe the US is an imperialist power and remember how the West (and in particular the US) refused to implement strong sanctions against apartheid South Africa.
But many other South Africans support the US, and see Russia, and in particular Putin, as not to be trusted. They believe that Russia (and China) are not democratic, do not believe in freedom and present a global threat to our civilisation.
One of the consequences of debates like this in our society is that because of their complexity, they can be virtually never-ending. It is always useful for political parties to show their domestic constituencies where they stand. This is perhaps why Steenhuisen went to Ukraine, and why the ANC’s delegation went to Russia. They are sending messages to demonstrate their identities to voters here.
However, there are real-world consequences.
As has been noted many times, the US is a huge trading partner for South Africa, and our firms have preferential access to its markets through the African Growth and Opportunity Act.
The US is also a major player in the financing of the Just Transition deal, which would see hugely preferential deals for Eskom to move away from coal.
Again, our divisions are demonstrated here. Some in our society have claimed that this is an “experiment” by these countries being conducted on our economy. There are echoes of the claims about “neocolonialism” in this.
That said, it is surely true that the ANC’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could have huge economic consequences for our country.
But again, so complicated is this issue, there could be a response from the ANC to that. Which would be to say that our foreign policy cannot be for sale.
They might point to how the US did not impose strong sanctions against the apartheid regime when US President Ronald Reagan vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1985 because it was “economic warfare” (Joe Biden, the then senator for Delaware, supported the sanctions).
The ANC might also say that it is following principles, not economics.
To which the response would obviously be, where is the principle in supporting a larger country slaughtering the civilians of a smaller country?
Also, while the focus is often on the ANC’s relationship with Russia, the key to this is the ANC’s relationship with the US.
As early as 1998, President Nelson Mandela was telling US President Bill Clinton at a live press conference that he would not give up his friendships with Libya and Cuba.
Long before that, just months after Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he told the US television anchor Ted Koppel that the ANC would not forget its friends, including Cuba.
For the US television audience at that time, this was heresy. And yet, internationally, Mandela has the status of a saint today.
All of this shows how complex these issues are, the depth of their roots and how they will not be resolved any time soon.
And how they will continue to divide our society. DM