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South Africa must take the moral high ground in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine

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Anthony Norton is the founder and managing director of boutique regulatory law firm Nortons Inc. He is a Rhodes scholar, and has a Master’s in Law from Oxford University.

The war in Ukraine is not just some trouble in a far-off land. South African consumers will feel its economic fallout in months to come. But that’s not where our concern should end. South Africans need to demand of our government a response that is rational, moral and consistent with our international legal obligations.

The war in Ukraine has starkly demonstrated that the nature of decisions that are made by political leaders can have far-reaching consequences not only for the countries that are directly affected by these decisions, but also for the world as a whole.

Many seem surprised and are aghast at the fact that the future trajectory of their lives may be linked to decisions made by foreign leaders in relation to conflicts which have no immediate connection to them, including the potential possibility of nuclear war.

Leaving aside this extreme possibility, it seems likely that, as a result of events taking place in Ukraine, consumers may face significant increases in the price of food and petroleum products and there may even conceivably be global food shortages.  

The fate of millions of people – and indeed certain aspects of the global economy – hangs in the balance.

In this rather bleak context, countries are having to take sides in a potentially long-lasting conflict that will determine the future of Europe and may have significant global implications.

The European Union, the United Kingdom, the United States and 141 other countries (including several African countries) have thrown their weight behind Ukraine, although they have avoided outright military intervention in the interests of seeking to avoid a European-wide or even an international conflict.

By contrast, outright supporters of Russia’s position include North Korea, Belarus, Eritrea, Venezuela and Syria, while China, India, Pakistan, Cuba, South Africa and a number of other countries have chosen to avoid outright condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

There is the old adage that you are judged by the company you keep.

Little has to be said about the likes of North Korea, Venezuela and Syria – failed states presided over by despots who have demonstrated a complete absence of leadership that is consistent with the interests of their people.  They are all beholden in one form or another to Russia. Bashar al-Assad of Syria would have been overthrown long ago had it not been for Russian military intervention in Syria, and likewise, Nicholas Maduro of Venezuela and Kim Jong-un of North Korea have Russia to thank for their remaining in power.

The BRICS club of the world’s leading emerging market economies, consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, have largely adopted a common stance since the Ukrainian conflict unfolded and (other than Brazil) have avoided outright condemnation of Russia’s conduct.

While South Africa initially issued a statement from Dirco calling on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine, this position appears to have been countermanded by the president’s office.

Some may suggest that this is not South Africa’s fight and that perhaps adopting a somewhat neutral position (including proposing mediation to resolve the conflict) may be best in the circumstances. The difficulty with this approach is that it is not consistent with South Africa’s international legal obligations, but even more importantly it raises questions not only about its morality and ethics, but also about its rationality (and pragmatism).

The governing party has already demonstrated that its moral and ethical compass is largely broken, given the endemic corruption and wasted expenditure that have characterised its administration. Its foreign policy initiatives have been problematic. It has sided with successive dysfunctional administrations in Zimbabwe, Sudan and Libya and has generally declined to criticise human rights abuses in any of the BRICS countries. 

It is, therefore, of little surprise that it has adopted the current stance of not wanting to criticise the Russian war with Ukraine.

It is one thing for the South African government to point out that the United States and the United Kingdom are not paragons of virtue in relation to invasions of sovereign third party countries, and that there may be a degree of hypocrisy in their approach to the Ukrainian conflict. It is quite another to tacitly condone Russia’s actions in Ukraine and to choose to ignore the gross abuses of human rights and violations of international law, as well as the concurrent wholesale destruction of freedom of the press in Russia.

Former president Nelson Mandela outlined what he believed should be South Africa’s approach to foreign affairs in a speech in 1993:

“South Africa’s future foreign relations will be based on our belief that human rights should be the core concern of international relations, and we are ready to play a role in fostering peace and prosperity in the world we share with the community of nations.”

If human rights are, in fact, at the core of South Africa’s international relations policy, we can hardly be seen to be endorsing, by tacit acquiescence, a scenario where one of the world’s largest military powers unilaterally elects to invade a sovereign country and proceeds to target civilians and non-military infrastructure in a manner that can only be characterised as war crimes which should be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court.

At a purely pragmatic level, the European Union and the United States are also extremely important trading partners for South Africa. The perception that South Africa has chosen to side with Russia could, in time, have potentially very serious negative implications for political and trading relationships with these countries and may exacerbate the risk of  exorbitant price increases in food and petroleum-related products that ordinary South Africans will have to endure as a consequence of the conflict.

The dreadful conflict in the Ukraine has once again reinforced the importance of ethical leadership. Various Western countries thought they could simply overlook Russia’s military incursions in Syria, Crimea and Chechnya because they were not directly affected. They miscalculated and believed that Russia’s territorial ambitions were limited to certain specific geographic territories, clearly assuming that Russia would not act in a way that materially threatened European security more broadly. Had they conceivably acted in a more principled and decisive fashion from the outset, Russia might not have engaged in the outrageous invasion of Ukraine.

The South African government needs to appreciate that consistency and ethical leadership may not always prove popular, but the price of political expediency may in the long run prove far more costly. DM

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All Comments 4

    • Unfortunately true, too late to stand up and be counted. With all the outstanding people that this country produces it is always the politicians that let us down and make the entire country a loser. But big time losers. Cyril are you taking note, it’s you that represents us and it is you that has failed us at every turn.

      • I agree ……. also lost here is opportunity. He should have squarely stood on the constitution rather than play stupid politics …… this is going to be a stink on him internationally at a time when the country is desperate for business

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