Maverick Citizen

TUESDAY EDITORIAL

South Africa’s foreign policy should not preclude loudly denouncing Russian aggression

South Africa’s foreign policy should not preclude loudly denouncing Russian aggression
The Russian cargo ship Lady R is brought into Simon’s Town Naval Base by two SA Navy tugboats on Tuesday night, 6 December 2022. (Photo: Hugo Attfield)

South Africa’s foreign policy should align with the Constitution and the values that were embedded in it when, after a two-year process of consultation, it was signed into law by Nelson Mandela at the dawn of our democracy. Our foreign policy should be an extension of the values and principles that the government is legally bound to follow at home: pro-poor, pro-peace, pro-human rights, pro-democracy.

In one of the latest furores to beset our beleaguered government, South Africa has been criticised by the US for allegedly secretly shipping arms to Russia.

Whether they did or not, we do not yet know. If they did then it’s both immoral and unlawful. South Africa’s foreign policy ought to be able to recognise an illegal invasion by an authoritarian kleptocratic dictator and call it out. 

Regardless of its reading of the historical context of geopolitics, the provocations by Nato and the US, South Africa should unambiguously stand on the side of the Ukrainian people, as well as the mass of ordinary Russian people, who have been press-ganged into the war and are being coerced or misled to slaughter on its frontlines. That would have been the position of the original Russian communists, like Lenin and Trotsky, who some in our government claim they still draw inspiration from.

South African foreign policy should be guided by the United Nations Charter and rules of international law that were painstakingly built up over decades to try to limit imperialist aggression from any quarter and entrench the idea of fundamental human rights within states and between states.

Having said all of that, the US is in no position to lecture South Africa on morality or the need to respect international law. 

Our world is once more in a dangerous and divided place and much of the current instability in the world can be laid at the door of an expansionist US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. As pointed out by respected British lawyer Philippe Sands KC in his book Lawless World, first published in 2005, since 9/11 the US has often been a law unto itself, working to “refashion the global legal order” around its own interests.

Despite their support for anticolonial liberation struggles in the 20th century, China and Russia are today hyper-capitalist states, a millions miles from the socialist values on which their modern states were founded.

According to Sands: “International law became the bogeyman, a constraint on America’s ability to defend itself, prosecute the war on terrorism and protect its economic and military interests around the world.” 

Sands argues: “It is one thing to re-evaluate the adequacy of international laws in the light of changing circumstances, like new terrorist threats and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It is quite another to impose them on the rest of the world without proper consultation or consideration of the likely consequences.”

Arming the world’s autocracies

Unfortunately though, imposing its will, and having a different standard for its own behaviour, is something built into the DNA of the US. In the context of arms sales, for example, a recent report in The Intercept, a credible US news organisation, reveals that “from a study of recently released government data” the US is selling weapons to the majority of the world’s autocracies:

“Of the 84 countries codified as autocracies under the Regimes of the World system in 2022, the United States sold weapons to at least 48, or 57%, of them.”

In addition, in 2022, arms sales under the Biden administration exceeded those of the Trump presidency, now at $205-billion a year and rising fast.

According to Jeffrey Sachs: “America’s annual military spending is now around $900-billion, roughly 40% of the world’s total, and greater than the next 10 countries combined. US military spending in 2022 was triple that of China.”

Read more in the Daily Maverick: US government’s addiction to war and military spending fuels its chronic debt crisis 

As it positions itself against Russia and China, the US shows it is willing to make friends with the likes of Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, and Bongbong Marcos Jnr in the Philippines, despite their involvement in gross human rights violations against their own people. 

It turns a blind eye to the sustained assault by Israel on Palestinian people, which has cost 117 lives already this year, according to data from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It ignores the bulldozing of schools, the scaring of children literally to death and the humiliation of a whole people with events such as the annual Flag March in Jerusalem.

But criticism of the US should not therefore mean tacit support – even while proclaiming neutrality – for its enemies. 

Despite their support for anticolonial liberation struggles in the 20th century, China and Russia are today hyper-capitalist states, a millions miles from the socialist values on which their modern states were founded. 

Their rapacious, kleptocratic elites will align with whoever is willing to embrace them. 

On our own continent, Russia, with its shock mercenary brigade, the Wagner Group, is responsible for a growing number of atrocities and destabilisation including in Mali, the Central African Republic and now in Sudan

Read more about Russia’s military, mercenary and criminal engagement in Africa

The dignity and human rights of the world’s poor, especially in Africa, are clearly the least of their concerns.     

An independent policy based on peace and the protection of human rights

In 1990, in a famous interview with Ted Koppel soon after he was released from prison, Nelson Mandela was questioned about the ANC’s support for Cuba and the PLO. He answered that “it was a mistake of [US] political analysts to think that their enemies should be our enemies. That we can and will never do. We are grateful to the world for supporting our struggle, but nevertheless we are an independent organisation with its own policy.” 

Watch the interview here.

Thirty-three years later the world’s politics looks dramatically different. South Africa’s sovereign independence remains sacrosanct. Nobody questions that. But the ANC has become a political party, a leader of a government and state party to the United Nations. It has also ratified all the binding international human rights covenants of the UN.

The pursuit of war and rearmament is not just distracting the world from tackling climate breakdown – our greatest human security risk – but fuelling it.

In the burgeoning conflicts between the world’s largest military powers there is no good side for South Africa to align with. Both East and West are mired in hypocrisy and self-interest. The escalating conflicts between them, and their dismissal of international law, are leading the world towards a place of grave danger. 

Even the warmonger, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, recently told The Economist that he believes “we are on the path to great-power confrontation”; America and China, he says, are on the path to World War 3.

If and when that happens it won’t help South Africa to be on any side. There will be no victors.

Further, the pursuit of war and rearmament is not just distracting the world from tackling climate breakdown – our greatest human security risk – but fuelling it. According to one study by Brown University in the US, the US Defence Department is “the world’s single-largest consumer of oil – and as a result, one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters”. According to Scientists for Global Responsibility, the world’s militaries are responsible for about 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The Constitution requires in South Africa that the public should be consulted on all matters of policy. Foreign policy is not an exception.

These are reasons that South Africa’s national interest is not being served by our present murky and poorly articulated foreign policy. 

South Africa has a right to be neutral in the proxy wars, but this does not preclude loudly and clearly denouncing aggression by Russia and calling for an unconditional peace. 

Instead the claim to be non-aligned, while currying favour with both sides, is causing confusion. Cosying up to the Russia military, participating in photo ops with the butcher Putin, changing the law to try to evade the ICC, is not serving South Africa’s interests; as usual it is serving the interests of the ANC’s funding flows and some of their toadies in keeping the proceeds of State Capture.

The Constitution requires in South Africa that the public should be consulted on all matters of policy. Foreign policy is not an exception.  

Our foreign policy should align with the Constitution and to the values that were embedded in it when, after a two-year process of consultation, it was signed into law by Nelson Mandela at the dawn of South Africa’s democracy. Our foreign policy should be an extension of the values and principles it contains: pro-poor, pro-peace, pro-human rights, pro-democracy and pro-transformation (in this case of the UN). When it comes to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine it should be focused on advocating for a just peace, based on human rights, self-determination and rebuilding international law.

As I have written before, the world desperately needs a peace movement, just as it once had a global anti-apartheid movement that shaped the world’s rejection of racism. Real leadership by South Africa at this perilous moment could place us at the head of expressing the interest of the world’s poor.

Read more in the Daily Maverick: War: Where’s the movement for peace when we really need it

This would mean making allies with the peoples of the world – reaching out to and through civil society, trade unions, faith-based and sports organisations that involve billions of people – and with the handful of genuinely democratic governments, who have no stake in the coming wars between the elites.

This may sound utopian and naive, but being carried along in the wake of militaristic realpolitik spells only disaster. 

As our own philosopher Rick Turner explained 50 years ago in his banned book The Eye of the Needle, “utopian thinking” sheds light on the irrationality of the status quo, opening up the possibility of imagined futures.

At this moment the world desperately needs independent and truly non-aligned countries that will be vocal and intransigent on behalf of global citizens and planetary interests. There is a vacuum for a non-aligned people’s movement for peace and human rights. If only South Africa wanted to fill it. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    if a country is under threat of a belligerent neighbor, they beg for help to protect them from what is more likely to be a pal of putin than a pal of Nato. As of now, putin gets his 154mm artillery rounds from North Korea, Iran and Syria (and possibly its 155mm from SA). We are in terrible company along with Israel that welcomes oligarchs while refusing to denounce the invasion of Ukraine.

  • Derek Jones says:

    Thanks for pointing this out Mark. I guess tho we can count on nothing like this from this ANC government now in the pockets of anyone that will provide them with loot.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    What South Africa should actually be doing is keeping its nose out of the conflict completely. We’re not in Europe, we have no dog in the fight of the geopolitical shape of Europe, we’re not a global power with a voice that carries weight: all we are is a mid-sized economy, fading fast with no leadership at all in government. If South Africa was truly non-aligned I could live with it, but we’re not. We are very much pro-Putain, whatever lies the government tells us. However, what gets to me most is that the ANC would rather throw South Africa under the bus than give up on the taps that Vlad the Impaler has opened for them. So desperate is the ANC for huge amounts of money, that its prepared to finally trash the country to keep the cash and the lifestyles. I hope that when a change of government comes, that this rotten mob are tried for crimes against humanity and murder, for the lives they’ve cost here in pursuit of Putain’s purse. Scum, from Ramaphosa down.

  • Grumpy Old Man says:

    Excellent piece Mark! The importance of your point about pursuing a foreign policy consistent with the values of our Constitution cannot be overstated
    Doing so allows you to condemn human rights abuse consistently no matter who the perpetrator & with equal moral authority
    The problem (I believe) is that the Governing Party blurs the lines completely between the values the ANC holds dear versus the values which our Constitution requires they uphold & pursue.

  • Anne De Wet says:

    The problem is that the ANC and its president is also an ‘autocratic, authoritarian, kleptocratic dictator’ – who does exactly what he wishes!
    And he is in bed with very suspect partners.

  • Clifford Heydenrych says:

    From an idealistic point of view it is hugely hypocritical that the ANC denounces European colonialism of the past, on behalf of all the people South Africa, while turning a blind eye to Russia’s effective colonial aggression under Putin.

  • Peter Utting says:

    There’s no need to be a pal of any one, regime, and so on, but to be an adherent to our Constitution that eloquently sets out who we are as free individuals – not to beliefs that usurp our rights in some greedy misinterpretation of that misguided power. We fought for freedom – not for greedom!

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