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EFFECTIVE DIPLOMACY OP-ED

Here’s what a South African foreign policy should look like

Here’s what a South African foreign policy should look like
The ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula participated in the Forum Of Supporters Of The Struggle Against Modern Day Practices Of Neocolonialism ‘For The Freedom Of Nations’, which is taking place in Moscow, Russia. (Photo: X / myanc)

South Africa has drifted so far from its democratic moorings that the only way to make coherent sense of its foreign policy is that it is doing the bidding of the rogue nations and organisations it strongly identifies with, from Russia to Hamas and Iran.

Last week the ANC’s Fikile Mbalula addressed the Fosotsampon — that’s the Forum of Supporters of the Struggle Against Modern Practices of Neocolonialism, for those who are falling behind on their acronyms or confusing it with one of Joe Biden’s speeches.

The event, opened by that glorious champion of human rights, Syria, and hosted by Moscow, was a gathering of anti-democratic states seeking to entrench the idea that unelected vote-riggers who run their countries like personal fiefdoms are the best guarantors of freedom.

South Africa — for now a democracy — stuck out like a sore thumb until Mbalula spoke and it became clear from its secretary-general’s utterances that the ANC was firmly in the authoritarian camp, a wholly owned subsidiary of Moscow.

“We have been honoured to be invited as the ANC to this profound gathering under the banner of the Forum of Supporters of the Struggle Against Modern Practices of Neocolonialism, which is aimed at ushering the freedom of nations,” said Mbalula, wearing a suit and tie. Bejewelled yellow tracksuits are apparently not in fashion with Russia’s nomenklatura.

navalny

A portrait of deceased Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is positioned between flowers during a rally in reaction to his death in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, on 18 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Clemens Bilan)

It was a pity for Moscow’s propaganda apparatchiks that President Vladimir Putin’s strongest critic, Alexei Navalny, chose the same week to die. Never mind, they released a statement that he felt ill after a short walk and then passed away.

The truth was less flattering. It is common cause that Navalny was denied medical care and spent more than 300 days in solitary confinement before his death.

It was a further pity for Russia’s spin doctors that Putin had no choice but to bar Boris Nadezhdin, an opposition leader, from standing against him on an anti-war ticket in Russia’s forthcoming rigged election. Nadezhdin was rapidly gaining popularity and people were queuing around the block to sign up for his campaign, which garnered more than 100,000 signatures in a very short space of time.

nadezhdin

Boris Nadezhdin (centre), Russian presidential candidate from the Civil Initiative party. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Maxim Shipnekov)

With the casualty count hitting 400,000 for Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, Russia’s Central Election Commission had no choice but to rule Nadezhdin out of order quickly, the Fosotsampon gathering notwithstanding. What is a comrade to do?

Mbalula appears to have missed these events and made no mention of them. The initial response from South Africa to Navalny’s death was arrogant and dismissive. Dirco spokesman, Clayson Monyela told City Press there would be no statement. “There are other politicians who’re being held in prisons and dying. If we issue a statement about one, we must be consistent,” he said.

But as a growing chorus of world leaders denounced the murder, the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Dr Naledi Pandor did an about-turn, noting “with concern” Navalny’s death and hoping that his death would “thoroughly investigated” by the Russian authorities. Rather like hoping that Steve Biko’s death would be thoroughly investigated by the apartheid state.

Grave consequences

The trouble with being a wholly owned subsidiary of Moscow is that you become enmeshed in its shadow world of sleazy deals and backhanders and find that you have to follow the party line or the consequences might be grave, so to speak.

Gaza is on Russia’s list of acceptable causes, Ukraine is not. Nor are Sudan or Ethiopia. And in the Venn diagram of international relationships, Iran and Russia make common cause over Syria and Gaza. This anti-Western overlap attracts the radicals and zealots in the ANC, as much as it suits those seeking to ensure their commercial dealings.

South Africa has drifted so far from its democratic moorings that the only way to make coherent sense of its foreign policy is that it is doing the bidding of the rogue nations and organisations it strongly identifies with, from Russia to Hamas and Iran.

This approach reduces the country’s interests to those of the ruling party which has, to put it mildly, acquisitive tendencies. The lure of party funding and giant rent-laden infrastructure projects such as the recurring desire to build nuclear power stations override all else. The same rule of rent applies to those with business interests in Iran.

Core values

What then is the correct posture for South Africa’s foreign policy?

It begins with the country’s core values as espoused in the Constitution. We ought to be defenders of human rights and promoters of open, accountable and transparent democracy. We should raise our voices when civilians are unnecessarily killed in conflicts, as we have done in Gaza, but we should not allow foreign powers to dictate which conflicts are acceptable and which are not. We should be even-handed in this: Congolese, Sudanese, Syrian and Ukrainian lives are as important as Palestinian lives. Human rights are indivisible.

While doing so, we must place the need for open, transparent and accountable democracy at the forefront of our approach.

The decoupling of human rights from democracy is at best naïve, at worst manipulative. Our Constitution is clear on this: There can be no lasting, sustainable human rights without a system of government where the people choose their leaders in free elections and where institutions are given the power to prevent and halt abuses. On the other hand, less democracy equals more exposure to corruption.

We need to be very clear that the likes of Hamas in Gaza or its sponsors, Iran, or the Central Spider Apparatus in Moscow do not share this view with South Africa. They believe in the iron-fisted rule of an unelected, oligarchic power monopoly that subjugates the people. Naively believing that Hamas is a “liberation movement” paves the way for the perpetual repression of the Palestinian people by an unelected leadership with a proclivity for the worst types of violence.

Calling out Israeli military excesses is not good enough. If we really care about the Palestinians, we should want them to live in a democracy where their rights are protected by a free state. There is none of this in our vision.

If the South African government was serious about ending the Israel-Palestine conflict and wanted to walk to the talk of its own liberation negotiation experience, it would have taken a completely different tack to the one that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s regime has followed since 7 October.

Even before then, Pretoria should have been vociferously critical of the rocket attacks to which Israelis were constantly exposed, as much as it was critical of the Netanyahu government’s unwillingness to birth a two-state solution.

Instead of continuously criticising the Israelis’ failure at talks, going back to Camp David in 2000 with Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak and subsequently between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, it should have also taken the Palestinians to task over their failures to deliver something more than keeping the dream alive.

But South Africa’s greatest failure is its inability to take a leaf out of its own (increasingly mythologised) history, and assiduously build common ground.

ramaphosa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Dwayne Senior / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Instead of appearing with Palestinian scarfs and rhetorically hammering Israel after 7 October, when the Jewish nation had just experienced its bloodiest day since the Holocaust, Ramaphosa and his fellow travellers should have visited Israel, placed wreaths at the massacre sites, and gone to Ramallah, if possible Gaza, and, if necessary, Iran, Qatar and whomever else needed to be brought into the tent. While it was happy to speak to Hamas and Iran, the ANC government forced the Israeli ambassador out of South Africa.

Ramaphosa could have engaged in his own version of shuttle diplomacy, talking also to Washington and Brussels, using SA’s role in the Global South for something constructive and in South Africa’s strategic interests. Instead, Pretoria took a case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), now failing twice in its attempt to get the court to stop the Israeli operation.

While Pretoria (of course) claims a victory at the ICJ, it was not the victory it (or the Iranians, or their Hamas proxy) sought. Instead of asking Hamas to leave or lay down its arms to protect the civilian population, and using this as a bargaining chip with Jerusalem, Pretoria expects a unilateral solution.

An effective foreign policy demands a little humility, not least given SA’s internal travails. People in glass houses, after all… 

The only conclusion to such a cockeyed foreign policy methodology, is that South Africa is not interested in peace. Rather, it is interested in grandstanding politics, grabbing power and getting money. 

Effective diplomacy is also a much tougher road than building up a TikTok following. It requires statecraft — the ability to project South Africa’s democratic project as a worthy global example and the willingness to be the party that can talk to both sides — and strategy, the means by which one can achieve this goal. 

Becoming partisans for Russia’s view of a dystopian world ruled by autocratic oligarchs is at odds with the very core of our society. South Africa should step back from this alliance of global misfits and regain its balance.

We are dependent on the world in ways that few other countries are. Advanced economies in “the West” consume our manufacturing exports such as cars and agricultural produce while we are exporters of resources to China and others. Our ledger is somewhat skewed by our outsized imports from China, which is worrisome.

But we need to be exporters of more than cars and resources. We need to start exporting the ideals that underpin our democracy. That will mean speaking out when Russia invades Ukraine or when China suppresses the Uighurs. That’s a tough road and it may mean we skip the next Fosotsampon and pack away the yellow tracksuits of Gucci socialism.

But then what would the ANC have to show for itself? DM

Greg Mills and Ray Hartley are with The Brenthurst Foundation

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    I can’t wait for the predictable band of sycophants to jump all over this rationally worded essay, for the sake of trumpeting their own twisted whataboutisms and ideologically-driven rants. Reason and common sense are in short supply in South Africa’s leadership at the moment.

  • Nic SA says:

    Completely wrong as usual on Israel-Palestine. You make false equivalency between a free and powerful country with the full backing of the most powerful military on earth, and a people trapped in an open-air prison who lash out in desperation after decades of imprisonment. There is no equivalency between Israel and Palestine, the conflict could end in seconds if Netanyahu actually wanted a lasting peace.

    “it would have taken a completely different tack to the one that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s regime has followed since 7 October”

    You lose all legitimacy when you refer to the SA govt. as a “regime”. Would you refer to the Biden “regime” or even the Trump “regime”?

    SA is an electoral democracy where the ANC (and Ramaphosa) won through free and fair elections. Do not insult South Africans by comparing our govt. to those of undemocratic countries. You might not like SA’s foreign policy but this is what South Africans voted for.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      If the authors of this clap-trap garbage parading as ‘analysis’ had listened carefully to the secretary general of the UN (which strangely has not yet been placed on the list of western ‘terrorist’ states!) and heeded the observation “the history of the Palistinian conflict did to NOT start on Oct 7” … they may have arrived at slightly different conclusions ! BUT no … it repeats the cheap Zionist and ‘western’ rhetoric and rational, and predictably arrives at the same cheap predictable conclusions … an echo chamber of ‘western’ non-intelligence ! Shameless repetition of the IDF spokespeople propaganda the BBC and company, haul out night after might .

      • Sydney Kaye says:

        but the UN is itself is part of the problem, enabling rogue and terrorist sympathetic states to sit on the UNHRC and negatively focusing on Israel from top to bottom. The ICJ is a political court in that the judges vote on the instructions of their governnents and the UNGC is an anti Israel mob. I don’t need to use the word anti semitic because it is self evident that both the Muslim ones and the ones who form part of, or sympathise with, the Axis of Evil have that desease.

      • Henry Coppens says:

        And the shameless repetition hauled out night after night trying to justify Hamas.

        If you don’t like what your neighbour is doing you don’t jump over the fence and kill him. NO MATTER what the background and history are (Same applies to Russia and Ukraine) . These are the sort of things the forces of evil in the world perpetrate and try to justify. Jaw, Jaw, before waw, war – Churchill. Oh by the way, funny none of the main Arab states supported SA’s ICJ !mission. They could easily have done their own ICJ complaint against Israel.

    • Ritey roo roo says:

      Naive

    • Ben Harper says:

      Sheesh that was quick – you nailed it Graeme

    • JDW 2023 says:

      You are missing the point I think. I for one found the author’s words to be spot on for where we are as a country and our joke of a government. There is absolutely no consistency in the ANC’s foreign policy and its never-ending moralizing. The comparisons to other undemocratic countries were also completely within context and pretty relevant I would say. And why get yourself in a fuss about the word ‘regime’. Go read the definition of it and reread this article again without emotion. Have a good day further.

    • Henry Coppens says:

      SA did NOT vote for the type of relations where only autocractic countries matter. They voted for democracy and none of these countries have this. A no brainer. But it has since become clear that the ANC has no favour for democracy – they used it only to gain power so that they could emulate these autocractic countries in the hope of making SA one of them – Read the ANC’s NDR.

  • Nigel Ipp says:

    Thank you for this thinking. For those who are genuine about the SA constitution, for it is THAT which makes us South Africans, this article explains how this fertile soil should have grown its garden. How far from being a proud South African bearer of the Constitution the ANC have strayed. It is heartbreaking that the African culture of Ubuntu respect and responsibility, has hardly impacted the need for deep sharing and upliftment of the People. So much more should have been achieved by the ANC since apartheid ended. Simply being reasonable with salaries, hard work and proper distribution of taxes, would have afforded politicians and most others, the good life founded on our constitution. Instead the ANC support and are supported by countries whose constitutions are the antithesis of SA. Be assured, this support from abroad is NOT for the proud constitution on which South African lives should be experienced.

  • Dov de Jong says:

    From your mouth to the ears of G-D

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Brilliant as always! To the point, insightful, balanced and true. To our eternal and disgusting shame that SA, under this treacherous and treasonous anc misgovernment, is an absolute disgrace to be associated with the most vile, bestial and murderous bunch of psychopaths on earth, who want to force the world into the Dark Ages. One only has to see who the participants are to know that this is nothing but a grossly sick exercise on steroids of the most hypocritical, wicked, duplicitous, dishonest and immoral!!

  • Michael Thomlinson says:

    It is becoming increasing clear that the ANC government’s stance, on both Gaza and the Ukraine wars, is that it is doing what it is doing for financial rewards (for the ANC only). The solidarity with Palestinians is simply to curry favour with the Muslim comminity in the Western Cape in a bid to undermine the DA government there. A completely hollow disengenious bunch.

  • Richard Bryant says:

    For the ANC’s idea that russia is the answer to defeating neocolonism, I would suggest they rather look at the parallels of how russia is behaving today and compare that to how the apartheid government behaved.

    Navalny, like Steve Biko mysteriously died in police custody. Prigozhin, like President Samora Michel, died in a questionable air accident. Russia like South Africa, invaded its neighbours in a so called special military operation. Opposition leaders find themselves arrested and put in jail on manufactured charges. A number of leaders like Boris Berezovsky have been found dead as a result of suicide, just like Neil Aggett. Experts like Dr Wouter Basson were responsible for chemical poisoning of troublesome people, as was the case of the death of Alexander Litvinenko using lethal polonium. The russians also employ hitmen to assassinate opposition leaders such as Boris Nemtov who was taken out in a similar way to Anton Lubowski.

    But I guess it may come down to priorities. That if colonialism is the primary enemy, then behaving like the apartheid regime may be embraced and welcomed. Or maybe Fikile Mbalula is just to dumb to know the difference?

    • Derek Taylor says:

      Agree that this is good article and Richards comparisons are spot on. However we have to consider is what Anton Lubowski, Neil Agget Steve Biko and other victims of the struggle were fighting for, what we have now?. Did they have something else in mind. I don’t think so.

  • Steve Du Plessis says:

    If we were really clear, we would support the only democracy in the Middle East in rooting out the genocidal Hamas terrorists. We would also call out the Palestinians from walking away from deals for a state every time one was offered since 1947

    • leslie j says:

      What propaganda you spew. Israel has never even recognised the right to a Palestinian state. Israel is hardly a democracy, unless it’s only for the chosen few? Not to mention all the corruption etc that was news in Israel until Oct 7 took precedence.

  • South African politicians need to do what’s best for South Africa .What is clear from an economic perspective is that we should continue trading with China , USA , EU and UK as its is best for South Africa as these countries and blocks are interested in our goods. The same cannot be said about Russia who offer very little economic value to South Africa . Politically South Africa should be condemning what is happening in Ukraine as much as what we are condemning what is happening in Gaza. The fact SA is not is hypocritical. However what South Africa did at the ICJ was historical and will go down in history for setting the benchmark for a lot of courts and organisations to use to apply pressure on there governments to act according to what is clearly the murder of women and children in Gaza. The Israelis just like the Russians are land grabbing however Western hypocrisy makes South African hypocrisy look like child’s play. The authors of this article are patronising as the one has been been in the past. The particular author I am speaking of used to be the editor of the Sunday Times when the so called SARS rogue unit got exposed and many good people lost their jobs and persecuted. South African tax revenue declined as criminals were now protected by the then Tom Moyane. That same news paper made a public apology as the information was false. This happened after the said author left the Sunday Times. One can only question the credibility and motive of this particular author which I certainly will keep doing.

  • leslie j says:

    This is clearly a piece dedicating itself to the USA’s calls that south africa is captured by Russian interests because it won’t bow to US hegemony. Half this piece is just bemoaning our position on Israel/Gaza, and why don’t we blame the Palestinians more for not being able to do anything against the tyranny they face? There is tiny bits of credible information but its mainly there to obscure the true bias: west is best, and only western powers can talk democracy, even as it destroyed democracy in so many parts of the world. If US can support dictators when it chooses to and flagrantly flout international law, it has no right to dictate to the rest of us. Stooges of America can leave Africa if they want it to bow even more to the west…

  • Sekhohliwe Lamola says:

    The inherent characteristics of global foreign policies, and geopolitical agendas, are not bound nor influenced or informed by these idealised ‘democratic’ values and principles, as same political judgements (by the authors) passed on South Africa government’ foreign policy choices, can be equally extended to the most countries in political West. The latter are speciously supposed to be paragons of such human principles which are not strictly adhered to universally. For instance, in the US the national minorities are, in practice, not fairly accorded the human rights and freedoms. In the foreign policy the rest of the world cringes under the hegemonic power of the US’s foreign policy choices and decisions fortified with power of money from industrial-military complex. Therefore, world’s realpolitik are the essence of reality in real world.

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