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Authoritarians and democrats: Where does the ANC fit in?

Authoritarians and democrats: Where does the ANC fit in?
(Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Brace yourself for a year of naked opportunism as a desperate ANC searches for votes wherever it can find them while facing the possibility of falling below the 50% electoral votes threshold required to form a government.

Facing a series of domestic crises around water, electricity, rampant crime and corruption, expect the ANC to pivot to the international arena where the delivery stakes are lower and rhetoric rules.

This follows a year in which the party attempted to reset South Africa’s global positioning. The plan was to pivot firmly away from “the West”  in favour of the ruling party’s autocratic friends who turn a blind eye to its failings as they try to build a new world order where autocratic personality cults call the shots and the peasants be damned.

The alignment was natural given the ANC’s obvious lack of excitement at the hard work required to improve the lives of ordinary people. Much more interesting to its leaders was its project to maximise the extraction of rents for its elite, even if this meant the collapse of service delivery.

One promising source of rents has been Russia, which operates in the gas, nuclear and oil space where billions are thrown around as it seeks markets for its strangled economy.

This attempted pivot required South Africa to shelve the last of its values and put its weight behind Russia in its unjustified attempt to colonise Ukraine.

Old “struggle” connections were dusted off as cover. At the same time, the ministers of defence and international relations took every opportunity to publicly fawn over the Russian war machine, conducting joint naval exercises and hosting the Kremlin’s apologist-in-chief, Sergei Lavrov.

Even as the Iranian drones rained down on Ukraine’s civilians, and the democratic world sought to isolate Vladimir Putin, International Relations Minister, Naledi Pandor – eyes shining with love and admiration – told Lavrov in January: “I look forward to the implementation of our commitments and a continued closer working relationship. Our goal is to work unrelentingly towards the upliftment of our respective nations… through the instruments of foreign policy that we have at our disposal.

“Our shared goal, I believe, is to witness a significant and imminent increase in economic, social, cultural and scientific interactions between our countries.”

BRICS summit

The Putin love fest continued as South Africa hosted the BRICS summit in August. After it was clear that the courts would not protect Putin from arrest under an international warrant, the Russian leader participated through a virtual connection. 

South Africa, Russia and China, with India and Brazil watching warily on, expanded BRICS to include Iran, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Argentina (the latter, now under new leadership, has declined the invitation). Overlooked were large African democracies such as Nigeria and Kenya.

Putin was so pleased with this development that he was moved to state: “I would like to note, as it turned out this was challenging work and President Ramaphosa showed unique diplomatic mastery as we negotiated all the positions including when it comes to BRICS expansion.”

Pandor and her department, now the home of fiercely anti-Western ideologues like her director-general Zane Dangor, believed that “the West” would ignore or tolerate anything South Africa said or did for pragmatic reasons. They were wrong.

Agoa pivot

It soon became apparent that South Africa’s benefits from the Agoa partnership, which allows South Africa easy access to American markets for automobile exports, among other things, were not to be taken for granted. Voices in Washington began to ask why a country that overtly fawned over Russia’s colonial aggression was allowed to be a beneficiary.

With an Agoa summit looming in South Africa in November to review the lucrative trade arrangement, it was clear that the Russia infatuation had to be repackaged to make it look more acceptable to the country’s chief sources of foreign currency – the engine which drives the country’s rents, as any ANC accountant will tell you.

South Africa suddenly remembered that its cadres had been trained on Ukrainian soil and the Russia pivot was blunted, filed and eventually reshaped into a giant olive branch. 

South Africa’s indelicate embrace of the Russian war machine, it turned out, had been a giant misunderstanding.

As the Agoa summit got under way, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) surprised the world by announcing that South Africa would host the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, immediately after the summit.

“We are one of the few countries around the regions of the world that can speak to both Ukraine as well as Russia,” Pandor said after the meeting.

She noted “that Ukraine then, as part of the Soviet Union, provided to the freedom struggle” – a significant editing of the narrative that South Africa was closer to Russia because it assisted the exiled ANC.

Middle East crisis

With its Russia policy taking on water, South Africa cast around for a substitute and found it in the Middle East. 

On 7 October 2023, Hamas launched a bloody terror assault on Israeli military and civilian targets, killing 1,200 people including youngsters attending a music festival. Footage of the assault was distributed on social media by the assailants and included the bloody, naked corpses of young women being paraded about amid cheering and celebration.

On the same day, Dirco issued a press statement which was notable for its failure to condemn the assault. Instead, it spoke of “the recent devastating escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, without referring to the widespread incidents of terror.

Instead of condemnation, it sought to justify the assaults, saying: “The new conflagration has arisen from the continued illegal occupation of Palestine land, continued settlement expansion, desecration of the Al Aqsa Mosque and Christian holy sites, and ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people.”

When Israel retaliated, South Africa withdrew its diplomatic personnel from Israel in protest and put the wheels in motion to close down Israel’s embassy in South Africa. They were beaten to the punch when Israel recalled its ambassador before they could fulfil this objective.

As if to underscore that South Africa would, just as it had done with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, swallow the narrative of one side – in this case, Hamas – hook, line and sinker, Pandor placed a call with Hamas and appeared in Tehran at a meeting with the Iranian foreign minister.


Any hope of South Africa presenting itself as a powerful mediator vanished as it took sides, and, apparently oblivious to the irony, it went so far as to end the year with a formal request to the International Court of Justice to investigate Israeli (but not Hamas) actions which it described as “genocide”.

Attempting to explain the condemnation of Israel and the condonation of Russia, Dangor produced these verbal gymnastics

“Recently I was asked why South Africa is so clear in its support for the people of Palestine and not for the people of Ukraine. While we could have been clearer in many aspects of our response to the war in Ukraine, and this could be the subject of another article, there are a few areas that we were very clear on.

“While we may have stated that we understood Russia’s security concerns with regards to Nato’s expansion, we were very clear that the use of force by Russia on Ukraine was unlawful. We were also very clear that the acquisition of territory through force was unlawful.”

The truth is somewhat different. South Africa abstained from resolutions condemning the unlawful occupation of Ukraine and even from a resolution on humanitarian aid to Russia, and then conducted military exercises with Russia while conducting frequent high-level defence and foreign affairs engagements.

Among those on South Africa’s legal team to prosecute Israel for genocide is Prof John Dugard. Overlooked for the Constitutional Court and then overlooked for the position of head of South Africa’s Human Rights Commission by the ANC after it came to power, it is not without irony that Dugard is now on the payroll to polish up the ANC’s human rights credentials.

Tony Leon wrote the following about the snubbing of Dugard:

“The exclusion of Dugard was, I thought, shocking and ominous. I wrote him a letter of commiseration and thought his reply rueful and revealing: ‘Obviously I was disappointed not to be included, but I cannot say I was surprised. I think/fear that it is easier for the proverbial camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a liberal to enter the Kingdom of the New South Africa’.”

The world is a more uncertain place, increasingly resembling the 1950s, with proxy wars and probing, this time less for the Russians (though they remain important for reasons of alliance nostalgia) than Beijing. South Africa, a regional power with global pretensions, is little more than a useful idiot in this new Cold War.

As the ANC’s domestic record cuts into its electoral support, anticipate more focus on international relations. But don’t expect South Africa’s twisted foreign policy to pass through the eye of the human rights needle any time soon. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Con Tester says:

    The ANC has successfully bred a widespread culture of dependency in SA to convince the great unwashed that they cannot survive if the ANC is not in power. From the ostensible magnanimity of social grants, through the “mercy” of despicable euphemisms such as “load shedding,” sustaining feudal tribal fiefdoms and greedy monarchies, the promise of a BIG and the NHI scheme, and spreading the shameful myth—unofficially, of course—that people will lose their grants should they not vote for the ANC, the ANC’s political machinations include vote-buying, mendacity, fear-mongering, and unsubtle coercion.

    Taken together, all of these titbits paint a persuasive picture of the ANC’s ravenous appetite for autocratic rule. They are conscience-bereft goons who would happily dictate to their own mothers if it further cemented their rule. And they would also happily bankrupt the country towards the same end.

    But what is even more soul-destroying is that no opposition party has seen through these intrigues. None. Not even one. Instead of energetically tackling such on-the-ground matters, they expend a great deal of energy and futile bluster mainly on denouncing the ANC’s systemically corrupt character—an issue that clearly only a small fraction of the electorate actually cares about.

    And that is why the ANC will win again this year.

    • Graeme de Villiers says:

      Well said Con. Bluster and platitudes from the opposition parties are as futile as the metaphorical camel passing through a double-laned tunnel, never miond the eye of a needle.

    • Geoff Coles says:

      And in addition, keep the population uneducated and unemployed though COSATU has some involvement with pursuing minimum wages.

    • Con Tester says:

      DM moderators, please delete this spam and block the user from posting more of the same.

      The same spam was posted elsewhere, e.g., in Takudzwa Pongweni’s article of 03/01/2024 titled “‘Terrible start to 2024’ — nationwide rolling blackouts kick off again, signalling dark year ahead.”

    • Paddy Ross says:

      How on earth was this post allowed to be published!

  • Ken Shai says:

    The author buys into US propaganda that calls its geopolitical allies “democracies” and its adversaries “autocracies”. Russia is definitely much more of a democracy than US ,since Putin enjoys 80% popular support for his tremendous achievements since he took power 20 years ago in turning economy in disastrous crisis around whereas US is called a “democracy” despite the fact that any kangaroo judge there can overrule the decision of a President, and despite the fact that Biden is only in power thanks to mail in ballots all of them counted after election day; if the result of US election is taken as of the end of election day Trump won every one of the 6 swing states! The fraud was so blatant and massive in US but thousand of kangaroo judges bought up journalists and hypicritical politicians told the voters that voters should trust the lying officials and not their own eyes. We should be pleased that ANC does not buy into US propaganda that anyone who is a geopolitical ally of US is a democracy whereas anyone who is opposed to US colonization of the world is a dictatorship.

    • Con Tester says:

      The ANC doesn’t have enough savvy, variously scruples, to buy into anything other than its own schemes of self-aggrandisement and self-enrichment. In fact, if the ANC was collectively even just 5% as crafty at fulfilling its governance obligations as it is about dreaming up new ruses for stealing from the taxpayer and the poor, SA would be the envy of the world.

    • Mr Mersault says:

      The only part of your comment that is true is that we should be glad the ANC doesn’t buy into US propaganda other than that you just veered way off course

    • Graeme de Villiers says:

      Wataloadofkak. Again

    • Paddy Ross says:

      Another post that should not have been approved as it is blatant misinformation.

      • Ken Shai says:

        That is what the Biden regime is counting on , anything that contradicts the lies coming out of the Biden regime is blatant misinformation. It was quite obvious for anyone who watched the evens of 2020 US election, that Biden only one due to massive and blatant fraud, just like ZANU-PF

  • dexter m says:

    Oh Greg Mills again. Your comments on ANC local failings i agree completely . But then you have to go spoil it with all that rambling , i know as a lobbyist for US and Israeli interests you have to pay the bills, but be original do not crib Biden’s autocrats and democrats narrative.

  • dexter m says:

    Be original , do not crib Biden’s narrative

  • Peter Slingsby says:

    Some the correspondence in response to this very good analysis reveals how alarmingly accurate it is: the ANC’s ‘support’ for the Palestinians in these eyes apparently overrides the deep-seated corruption, the sheer incompetence in so many governmental areas, from electricity to transport to police, the inertia on bringing its own hive of criminals to book, etc etc – to hell with all that, if they support Palestine we’ll vote for them. This country is weird.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    This is a typical Greg Mills article as we celebrate the brave and principled stance of South Africa on the genocide in Gaza perpetrated by the Apartheid racist Israel on the Palestinians. The position of the ANC government on Palestine does not start now because there are going to be elections. It has been a long standing position from Nelson Mandela Presidency when he told Bill Clinton where to get off, when in 2004 we joined the UN on the question of self defence at the ICJ and to the time we withdrew our ambassador from Israel. It is dishonest of Mills to even suggest that the posture of the South African government is as a result of elections. We have opposed the occupation, oppression and routine imprisonment and murder of the Palestinians by the racist regime of Israel. We applaud this brave position of the South African government that has received support in the entire Muslim world, the global South and even by some EU countries like Spain and Belgium. We are confident that the legal team that has been put to hold Israel accountable for the first time for its atrocities is the best and will succeed. We thank Professor Dugard for not pandering to the nonsense of Leon and Mills but to stand up for principle when required by his country as a true patriot. The positive judgement we expect is going to arm the masses are protesting in the US and other Western capitals against their governments that are complicit in the genocide. We thank our government for this position.

    • Con Tester says:

      And yet this supposedly “brave and principled stance of South Africa” was to protect both al-Bashir and Putin when it had a clear obligation to effect their arrest for similar crimes. In fact, its petulant response then was to threaten leaving the ICC and to withdraw from the Rome Statute.

      The uncritical and fawning adulation, selective amnesia, sanctimonious conceit, and manifest bigotry in the above comment flags it as one made by a frustrated would-be fascist. It is certainly not an impartial appraisal of the Gaza situation, and even less so one of the article’s main thrust.

      • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

        I have opposed the withdrawal from the Rome Statute that the US has not ratified and has threatened to arrest ICC judges and prosecutors. I believe we should the biased court inside. They have been very fast on Putin but very slow on the Palestinian cases long brought before the Putin case. They have been ultra slow on Tony Blair. We are not fools and we thank our Minister of Justice for telling them off in the conference. If they are not going to process issues like the ICJ, there is no business to belong to such a structure. If the criminals in the US, UK and other NATO countries as well as Israel are above the Rome Statute and the International Law we are not going to cooperate with the colonial ICC.

        • Con Tester says:

          The ICC’s deficiencies, while debatable, are hardly the issue here; in point of fact, if the ICC is really as prejudiced as the ANC likes to make out, it would do well to avoid the ICC and ICJ altogether. Rather, the issue is the ANC’s palpable hypocrisy and jaundiced partisanship regarding its approach to the ICJ and ICC. This exposes its supposed “brave and principled stance” for the laughable fiction that it is, a stance incidentally that the ANC would also opportunistically claim to be that of the majority of SAns, which it demonstrably is not.

          • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

            The support of the Palestinians in this country goes beyond the religious boundaries and in the Western Cape alone the support was found to be 60% by IPSOS and the DA is in trouble even if the Muslims make 1.6% of the population. All the major Christian Churches support the Palestinian cause except for the very small business churches. The ANC has a mandate from the voters on this issue because it is always in its manifesto. The DA is going to be seeing stars for supporting the Israeli murderers

  • Roel Goris says:

    While South Africa hauls Israel before the ICJ on charges of genocide in Gaza, Ramaphosa hosts Sudanese RSF rebel leader Hemedti Dagalo at the Union Buildings, “welcoming his briefing” on Darfur. Broad smiles and warm handshakes all around. The RSF, armed and aided by the notorious Russian Wagner group, has been and still is committing mass murder and ethnic cleansing in Darfur, mainly aimed at the Massalit people, an African, non-Arab community in Darfur.

    RSF atrocities in Sudan, Russia invading Ukraine, China persecuting its Uygur population, Hamas’ massacre in Israel – are hardly mentioned, no condemnation, in some cases even given justification by ANC government spokespersons. Hypocrisy, selective morality and anti-Western prejudice have become hallmarks of its foreign policy. Apart from the potential of harmful effects on the economy (risk to AGOA trade privileges, PEPFAR Aids support, energy transition funding, to name a few), this poses a threat to democracy itself. When your president tells you to stop criticising the government, and “to be patriotic like the people in China”, you know that the warning lights are flashing.

  • Ann Bown says:

    Where does the ANC fit in? Definitely moving towards authoritarianism. We are in for a bumpy 2024 !

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