Defend Truth


SA’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exposes the moral and strategic incoherence of our foreign policy


Mandla Lionel Isaacs is head of policy for Rise Mzansi.

We are aligned with Putin’s Russia based on former liberation movement nostalgia, not any coherent analysis rooted in the present and future.

During our liberation struggle we asked countries in the world to stand on principle against the repressive apartheid regime. Many of us remember bitterly those countries that ignored injustice by their erstwhile ally.  

Yet today, our democratic government struggles to stand up for core democratic and international relations principles – as Kenya and Ghana have done – because of its questionable alliance with the Russian Federation. We are aligned with Putin’s Russia based on former liberation movement nostalgia, not any coherent analysis rooted in the present and future.

As most South Africans have focused on our domestic challenges in recent years, important features of our foreign policy have escaped notice. High among these is our close alignment with Russia, seemingly as an unintended consequence of our membership in BRICS, which is normally positioned as benign cooperation between leading emerging economies. Distracted by our domestic challenges, our government’s drift closer to Russia over the last decade has gone largely unnoticed by most South Africans.

Until now.

In completing the invasion of Ukraine which Russia began in 2014, President Vladimir Putin has launched a war of choice and threatens to destabilise Europe. Deeper questions need to be asked. How is it that one of our closest allies is in such flagrant violation of international law and norms? The whole point of international alliances is that you stand together on key international relations issues. Are our national interests served by a close alliance with Russia? How did we get here?

Let’s start with the last question. 

Our close alliance with Russia is due to the idiosyncrasies of the ANC, not a sophisticated analysis of our national interest. While the ANC has always had a fondness for Russia due to the former Soviet Union’s support of the liberation movement during the struggle against apartheid, our current position as a junior partner to Russia (and China) on the world stage is one of the many unfortunate outcomes of the Zuma era. 

It was then President Zuma who drew us into Russia’s orbit by joining BRICS in 2011 and subsequently seeking greater Russian investment (most exemplified by the infamous aborted nuclear power deal) and establishing close Kremlin to Union Building ties, as illustrated by Russia becoming the treatment centre and convalescence refuge of choice for Zuma and later, Deputy President David Mabuza.

Our national interest can be discerned by asking a series of questions. Which countries share our core values and worldview? What are our political and economic objectives in international affairs? What countries do we have cultural ties and affinities with? And finally, what is our grand strategy in international affairs, and what does this dictate with respect to the nature of our alliances?

We are a liberal democracy with a deep commitment to human rights, due to our painful history of colonialism, apartheid and state repression. It would seem natural that we would choose as our closest allies other democratic countries with a deep-stated and importantly, practical commitment to human rights. South Africans should question why our government would want to closely align us with autocratic, repressive states whose values we don’t share. 

Our world-view is profoundly shaped by the legacy of Western colonialism in Africa. As such we are most sceptical, to say the least, of Western powers who dominated and looted Africa, and forged the international political and economic system in their favour. Hence our complicated relationship with the US and Western Europe, and myopia in regard to bad behaviour by non-Western actors. 

We value economic and developmental partnership with the West, while beneath the surface, our leaders see us as locked in an ideological contest with them. The ANC’s Nasrec conference report talks of global ideological contestation between “reactionary forces on the one hand; and progressive forces on the other.” (It would be interesting for the ruling party to explain this week which countries are which.) As the ANC went on to note the “hypocrisy” of developed countries and Nato in destabilising the Middle East and North America, we have been far less critical of the role Russia has played in Libya and Syria.

Some Africanists defend Russia, as they will anyone they see as being in opposition to the West. We would do well to remember the words of the eminent African-American historian Dr John Henrik Clarke: “Some stories don’t have any good guys.” 

We should be against imperialism, irrespective of which power is practising it. Whatever Russia’s feelings about sovereign European countries’ decisions to join Nato, one of the core principles of the international system is that countries cannot wake up and decide to invade, occupy and annex each other’s territories for their strategic purposes. As a middle power in international affairs, we should be guided by our long-stated commitment to a rules-based international order based on peace and dialogue, not locked into Cold War-era alignments. 

Politically, our primary interest is a peaceful, prosperous, integrated Africa in charge of its own affairs, and influential on the global stage. Accordingly, we have long wanted African permanent representation on the United Nations Security Council. I am not aware of Russia supporting this position. 

Economically, we should be seeking to develop through sustained growth in the export of increasingly complex goods and services. Eleven years after joining BRICS, only China and India in that grouping are among our top 10 export destinations. Russia doesn’t make the top 30. Germany (R117-billion of SA exports in 2019), the UK (R96-billion) and the US (R92-billion) – the reactionary forces? – bought 17 times, 14 times and 13 times the R7-billion of sales we do with Russia.

Culturally, of course, we are closest to our African sister countries, even as our hostility to African immigrants undermines our claims of pan-Africanism. There is an opportunity for us to grow stronger political and economic connections with the African diaspora around the Black Atlantic in the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe. 

What I have tried to illustrate here, is that we have little in common with Russia politically and economically. Culturally, there are other areas of the world with which we have stronger affinities. 

We lack a grand strategy. It is ironic that for all the ANC’s rhetoric against Western capitalist forces, BRICS is arguably not even the brainchild of any of its members, but that of “If Western capitalism was a person”, the then Goldman Sachs economist and now British Lord, Jim O’Neill.

My argument is not that we should leave BRICS. Rather, it is that we should treat it as a forum for economic cooperation, as India and Brazil largely do, not as a geopolitical club to which we are beholden.

A sound strategy for South Africa is to be geopolitically non-aligned, especially in a new era of great power competition between the US, Russia and China. We should certainly not be junior partners of the West or the East. We must zealously guard our own, and Africa’s independence. This is the strategy that regional powers such as Brazil, India and Indonesia have long pursued, shrewdly allowing themselves to be wooed by all suitors while becoming permanently attached to none. In so doing, these countries have preserved their strategic autonomy and avoided becoming entangled in fights that are not their own.

In international relations there are no permanent friends or enemies, only interests. As we’ve learned at a great cost this past decade, the interests of the ANC are not necessarily the interests of South Africa. With all our domestic challenges, our incoherent foreign policy has escaped notice. It is time we citizens take a more careful interest in our international affairs and pressure our government to pursue a foreign policy that reflects our interests and values. DM


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    The writer clearly and wisely unpacks our government’s foreign “policy”, and makes only one misstep – the assumption that the ANC governs. Tom Eaton describes this so-called government as a collection of neglected pot plants and dust balls gathered from beneath the couch who fails even at failure.

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    we should ban all visits to Russia from any source including deputy Presidents who does not think our highly qualified medical cannot handle his malaise.
    excellent article though but does SA have a foreign policy or does it change with the wind?

  • Chris Green says:

    Well analysed and written. Those of us who are on tier 3 or higher in Maslow’s hierarchy have sufficient time (and sometimes the intellect) to muse a world view and will agree. The bulk of our people are subjected to such human rights abuses by the ruling party/govt that they remain in levels 1 or 2 of said hierarchy and cannot find the time to develop a world view. Our Africans Nationalising Corruption have a very clear thing in common with Russian leaders and that is to steal, plunder and murder (via car accidents ala Bob Zanu) from the very citizens they purport to have saved from colonialism. Please keep writing your articles.

    • Chris Green says:

      And it’s reported that Vlad has decreed that all Russian companies exchange 80% of their foreign holdings into roubles LOL – hey CR-ook, remind you of the apartheid president and govt which did a similar thing with the implementation of the Financial Rand. And your party supports this lunatic !! ORT, the Sisulus, Steve B and all those now gone must be saddened by your moral descent.

  • Gerrie Pretorius Pretorius says:

    “South Africans should question why our government would want to closely align us with autocratic, repressive states whose values we don’t share.” The answer is very simple. We do in practice share the values of all repressive states. What else is BEE and AA in the manner that the anc implements it? Cadre deployment to enrich the elite few. State Capture. All in the name of ‘anc power and so-called unity.’

  • Rencia Cloete says:

    How can ordinary South-Africans like me, let the world know that we do NOT stand with what our president and his government say on this issue??!!
    Vehemently disagree!

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    Lost all my respect for CR. I have very little hope left. Nothing, but nothing the ANC does is rational or adds any value. They are SA’s biggest liability.

  • Helen Swingler says:

    We are caught in a tragicomedy. Perhaps it’s time for Evita Bezuidenhout to move back into diplomatic circles.

  • Rob vZ says:

    Russia doesn’t care about SA, and I am sorry to burst your bubble, Cadres, but they never cared about the emancipation of people of colour. They supported the ANC as South Africa was proxy battleground state against the West during the Cold War. They are not our friends. Our constitutional democracy shares no values with their current regime. Where once SA was a beacon of human rights, we now align with the worst despots in the world. Our debasement at the UN yesterday was thoroughly depressing.

    • Thinker and Doer says:

      Indeed, neither Russia or China have Africa’s interests at heart, it is all about gaining deals, securing resources, and spheres of influence. The article highlights that neither the West nor the East have Africa’s best interests at heart, and African states need to develop their approaches on a principled basis of promoting human rights and democracy, and developing and maintaining a stable internaitonal order based on the rule of law, while taking a clear eyed view also what is in the best interests of their countries. Kenya and Ghana seem to be examples of coutnries that are doing much better in adopting that sort of an approach. South Africa is increasingly placing itself in a very isolated, vulnerable, and undesirable position in terms of South Africa’s real interests, and from the perspective of promoting human rights, democracy, and internaitonal law principles of self-determination. The approach adopted by South Africa in relation to the UN Resolution was indeed depressing, and raised some shock and much dismay among commentators. Unfortunately, it seems very unlikely that South Africa will undertake the necessary thorough reassessment of its international relations stance, and South Africa will continue to slide into isolation, obscurity, and an increasingly precarious situation in international relations.

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    Thank you very much for a very cogent and thought provoking assessment of the state of South Africa’s international relations. South Africa certainly does need to do a very deep reassessment of its international relations approach, as the author has outlined. South Africa has made a serious misstep in adopting the “neutral” approach in relation to the war in Ukraine, and unfortunately it has left South Africa in an increasingly isolated position, and undermined its standing and credibility completely. It is extremely risky to be in a very limited grouping that is so dependent upon Russia and China. The full extent of the fallout from this stance on investment, trade, and tourism will be seen. It is still a very thought provoking question, why the government is so set on being to tied to Russia and China, especially when in the case of Russia in particular, there are no tangible economic or trade benefits? Unfortunately, the proposed nuclear energy build programme, which government is still pushing, perhaps may have had some influence, among the historical close political ties with Russia. As advocated in the article, a strongly principled (focused on human rights, democracy, self-determination, and compliance with the rules of international law) and very cogently and thoroughly considered international relations stance would best serve South Africa’s interests, Unfortunately, that is not what is underpinning South Africa’s international relations approach currently.

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