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Consistent or confused — South Africa’s foreign policy wobbles on Ukraine invasion


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

In my 2017 book, ‘Consistent or Confused — The Politics of Mbeki’s Foreign Policy 1995-2007’, I argue passionately that there remained some measure of consistency in the application of our foreign policy up until that point. Recent statements from various quarters suggest this is no longer the case.

Mixed messages from our Department of International Relations (Dirco), various ministers and the presidency indicate that confusion reigns supreme. What a shame, since this particular invasion of Ukraine requires bold, consistent and predictable behaviour from our government.  

It was former British Prime Minister William Gladstone who remarked: 

“Here is my first principle of foreign policy: good government at home.”  

As our democracy matures, it becomes pertinent to consider its character, quality and substance. The necessary reflections that we are mandated to consistently practice require a dual process. At once, we are required to introspect about the nature of SA life and the realisation of democracy’s promises for a complex citizenry, and simultaneously seek to comprehend the country’s interaction and location within the larger, profoundly intricate and at times seemingly opaque landscape of international relations. 

This duality is captured by Gladstone, quoted above, who can be seen to invite us to note, to borrow a phrase from WEB du Bois, the “double consciousness” of foreign policy: the way it calls for recognition of sovereignty and interrelation, as well as the moral and ethical demands that democracy places on leaders and states who claim its just and honourable principles as directives. 

It was in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis that we observed what it means for a country (US) to take seriously its sphere of influence and the lengths to which it would go to ensure its national security and its sovereignty. 

History shows us that when the former Soviet Union wanted to deploy weapons of mass destruction on the island of Cuba, directly threatening the security of the mainland of continental North America, the US responded with force and certainty.  

Stopping short of an invasion, it literally surrounded the island and imposed an embargo followed by crippling sanctions, which are still maintained today. The fact that Ukraine wants to join Nato and possibly be a launching pad into Russia is a step too far for Vladimir Putin and, as such, he is more than prepared to go to war to protect “Mother Russia”.

Yet today we see condemnation of Russia when in fact it is doing, in my opinion, exactly what the US did during the Cuban Missile Crisis — protecting its territorial integrity and uncompromisingly protecting its sovereignty and national security interests. Again, the duality I talk about — double standards and its application in world affairs.   

But coming back to SA’s involvement in this international crisis and the need to get involved, albeit through diplomacy and public statements. I hear many pundits and people bemoaning the fact that a relatively small country such as SA should even think of getting involved in such huge international matters, but the fact is that, as a middle power and regional hegemon, SA does have a role to play.  

For starters, SA has membership in BRICS, to which Russia also belongs, and as such can communicate with its ally and express certain views.  Second, as a regional hegemon and former chair of the African Union, SA can also demonstrate interests in a matter that is clearly causing consternation to many countries in Europe and the world.  Third, as a country that is invited to the G20 summits, SA can also claim its space in global affairs, albeit a limited one. 

The realist view of international relations remains a very dominant one and many states and people always only weigh up military power, asking what would happen if Russia decided to attack SA in a full-blown confrontation. But the truth is that, yes, military power remains an important element, but economic, social and political grandstanding are equally important elements — and here SA can make a contribution. 

There is no dispute that many countries see SA as a bridge-builder that can facilitate conflict resolution, manage various stakeholders and be a catalyst in some instances. The DRC and Zimbabwe conflicts, South Sudan and many more, are examples.

So, as political theorist Michael Oakshott reminds us, “In political activity… men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting point nor appointed destination.  

“The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel, the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.” 

Having said this, then, SA can and must express an opinion on this very dangerous situation taking place in Eastern Europe. However, this does require consistency across all government departments, including the presidency. 

Mixed messages and inconsistencies spell confusion. At this point, our foreign policy is very much confused. Not a good sign for our foreign relations, Mr President. DM


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  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    So nothing untoward about the ANC not clearly condemning the actions of a power hungry murderer and it is pure coincidence Russia has had dealing with some of the ANCs finest in the past?

    • Antonie van Wyk says:

      What nonsense. How can you seriously claim that Russia is “protecting its territorial integrity and uncompromisingly protecting its sovereignty and national security interests”? How can you compare the Cuban missile crisis to the Ukraine invasion? Are there US nuclear warheads in Ukraine aimed at Russia? What is Russia protecting its territorial integrity against? Some more whataboutism while a crime against humanity is being committed? With respect, utter garbage.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    Mixed message from you as well.
    I’m some controversies there are two sides however tenuous, but this time there is only one side. Aggressive war is banned under the UN Charter and International Law has that prohibition as its mainstay. No amount of whataboutery can justify it.
    The Cuban incident has certain similarities, mainly manufactured. But that was at a different time. Russia was aggressive, totalitarian and there was real fear of nuclear war. Now, no reasonable person could suggest Nato was threatening Russia.

  • Craig B says:

    What I’ve realised is that the Communist type ideology and it’s jars to really work out what it has morphed into is even worse than apartheid thinking. People recover faster from racism. It’s a horrible thing ……. it makes people talk all funny replacing words with other words that wuphemiatically placed as a type of unconscious psychological stress reduction It looks like.

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    What policy? Government and our president has left us without hope for local and international matters.

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