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To see how a non-aligned foreign policy works, South Africa should look at BRICS partner India

To see how a non-aligned foreign policy works, South Africa should look at BRICS partner India
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin prior to a meeting in New Delhi, India 06 December 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Harish Tyagi)

India’s non-aligned policy on Ukraine closely mirrors that of South Africa, and it has abstained from successive UN votes condemning Russia. Yet, India and South Africa’s policies on Ukraine have produced very different outcomes.

South Africa’s policy of non-alignment in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the subject of considerable debate. South African officials defend the policy as one that promotes “peaceful resolution of the conflict through dialogue and negotiation”, while critics have described it as “inexplicable and incoherent”.

To some extent, this debate misses the point. While “non-alignment” is a useful starting point for thinking about foreign policy, it is not, in itself, a strategy. Non-alignment can be implemented in different ways, and these differences in implementation can produce very different outcomes.

To understand this, it is useful to compare South Africa’s version of non-alignment with that practised by its BRICS partner India, which also adopted an explicit policy of non-alignment in response to the Russia-Ukraine war.

India has a long history of non-alignment. It was one of the organisers of the Bandung Conference in 1955, and a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. It remained formally non-aligned throughout the Cold War, although in practice it tended to maintain friendly relations with the Soviet Union. Today, India has continued to take a non-aligned stance in response to the Russia-Ukraine war.

One of the most striking results of India’s non-aligned stance on Ukraine is that its relationship with Western countries has actually improved since the conflict began.

In some respects, India’s non-aligned policy on Ukraine closely mirrors that of South Africa. Like South Africa, India has avoided acknowledging Russia’s role in starting the conflict, and it has abstained from successive votes condemning Russia in the United Nations.

And yet, despite these similarities, India and South Africa’s policies on Ukraine have produced very different outcomes. The primary distinction is that India has practised a pragmatic and inclusive form of non-alignment which is focused on achieving its clear interests and maintaining good relations with all sides.

India’s non-aligned strategy is motivated by its desire to counterbalance its two main regional rivals, Pakistan and China. India has long-standing territorial disputes with these two countries, and it is engaged in ongoing, low-intensity military conflicts with both of them.

To maintain its security, India seeks to maintain good relations with both Russia and the West. It depends on Russia for the bulk of its military equipment, and it wishes to maintain its friendly political ties with Russia in order to avoid forcing the latter into closer alignment with China.

However, India also has important economic ties and security partnerships with Western countries, and it wishes to preserve these relationships. India’s non-aligned stance on Ukraine is an attempt to achieve both of these goals simultaneously.

To illustrate how India balances these competing interests, consider its policy of buying fuel from Russia at discounted rates. Access to cheap fuel is, of course, economically beneficial for India. However, this policy has also been surprisingly successful from a diplomatic perspective.

While Western countries are disappointed that India is indirectly financing Russia’s war effort, they are at least somewhat mollified by the fact that Russia is forced to sell its oil at below-market rates. Russia, by contrast, would prefer to sell its oil at the market rate – but by exporting to India, it can at least sell at prices that are higher than the EU-imposed price cap. In this way, India has been able to advance its economic interests while avoiding alienating either side in the conflict.

Indeed, one of the most striking results of India’s non-aligned stance on Ukraine is that its relationship with Western countries has actually improved since the conflict began.

In a recent visit to the US, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was feted by the White House and signed several high-profile deals. These included cross-national investments in manufacturing; the transfer of advanced aerospace technologies from the US to India; enhanced military-to-military cooperation; relaxed immigration policies for Indian migrants to the US; and space programme cooperation.

Modi then visited France, where he received a similarly lavish welcome and signed agreements on defence cooperation and nuclear energy. This is an extraordinarily successful result – especially considering that Western countries have legitimate misgivings about India’s human rights record under Modi’s religious nationalist administration.

Few benefits for South Africa

South Africa, like India, has made several moves that appear calculated to maintain good relations with Moscow. In September 2022, South African officials allowed members of the ANC Youth League to visit eastern Ukraine and endorse Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory.

In March 2023, it carried out naval exercises with Russia and China, effectively helping the Russian Navy to train and improve its war-fighting capability while it was launching strikes on Ukraine.

Read more in Daily Maverick: War in Ukraine

Most controversially, in December 2022, South Africa allowed a Russian cargo ship, the Lady R, to dock at Simon’s Town Naval Base and transfer cargo under mysterious circumstances. The South African government has not given a clear explanation of exactly what happened in this incident, although President Cyril Ramaphosa has promised to investigate it.

Unfortunately, South Africa appears to have gained few concrete benefits from Russia in return for these actions. In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed an African delegation led by Ramaphosa, but did not agree to any policy concessions. Despite pleas from Ramaphosa and the African Union, Russia then declined to extend the Black Sea grain deal, thereby putting South Africa’s food security at risk.

In one particularly galling incident, Russia was unwilling to suspend its policy of carrying out missile strikes against Kyiv when Ramaphosa was visiting that city.

At the same time, South Africa’s perceived sympathy for Russia has threatened its relationships with Western countries. There are widespread fears among South African businesses and trade unions that the country’s membership of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, under which it receives preferential access to the US domestic market, is now in jeopardy. In July, South Africa tried to save the deal by sending Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel and Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana to the US, only to have them face awkward questions over the Lady R incident.

If it were to emerge that South Africa did indeed use that ship to supply arms to Russia, this would expose it to the possibility of secondary sanctions – a catastrophic scenario that was considered serious enough to warrant mention in the Reserve Bank’s May financial stability report.

The contrast in outcomes between South Africa and India suggests that the debate over South African foreign policy should not necessarily be framed as a debate about non-alignment.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Punching below our diplomatic weight – why SA foreign policy fails on Ukraine

If we accept that the goal of a nation’s foreign policy should be to advance its interests – a position that is known as “realism” in the academic study of international relations – then a strategy of non-alignment is sensible. Ukraine and Russia are far away, and South Africa possesses few tools that could influence either of the parties.

It is perfectly defensible to argue that South Africa should simply stay away from the conflict and avoid exposing itself to the risk of retaliation from either side. However, within the broad framework of a non-aligned strategy, there are many possible variations.

Overall, India’s version of non-alignment can be seen as a pragmatic attempt to extract benefits from both sides in the conflict. While this does not make any of India’s diplomatic partners completely happy, it operates according to a consistent logic, and its motivations are understood by all.

By contrast, South Africa’s moves seem to generate confusion and distrust, without yielding policy concessions in return. DM

Laurence Caromba is a researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra) and a PhD candidate in International Relations. He writes in his personal capacity.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ludovici DIVES says:

    A clear concise article that once again highlights the immature and biased self serving ANC policies that Ramaphosa subjects the country to for their own personal selfish satisfaction.

  • Pieter Joubert says:

    Since we are siding with Russia, why aren’t we receiving cheap oil?

  • Desmond Bob says:

    I think the article mistakes opportunism for “neutrality”; who said neutrality must necessarily in material benefit? At the same time, it can be argued that the West and its proxies have prevented South Africa from extracting the same kind of benefits as India from Russia’s predicament by labeling what the call prudent when done by India as “sanctions busting” when done by South Africa. The reality is the West is soft on India because it hopes to coopt and weaponise it to neutralize China while it has no such strategic intentions for South Africa except as a vassal that must obey its historic masters from colonial times.

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