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Ukraine – South Africa is not neutral, we are non-aligned


Alvin Botes is South Africa’s Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation.

We have maintained a clear position that wars can only be prevented through dialogue without conditions, and that once wars have started, the only way to end them is through negotiations.

The global order has remained relatively static over the past 70 years, that is until recently. Up until two months ago, before the invasion of Ukraine, the post-World War 2 victors continued to be the dominant players shaping global politics. The war between Russia and Ukraine has laid bare the myth that the “end of history” is at hand given the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. 

The big powers continue to flex their muscles around the world with a sense of impunity. The numerous conflicts between the big powers themselves over the past few decades suggest that the Cold War never in fact ended. 

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, conflict in fact proliferated. These conflicts violated the territorial integrity of other countries, as competing former Cold War adversaries exploited discontent within developing countries. They instigated violent conflict by arming factions which they believed would support their respective agendas and narrow interests.

The war in Ukraine is the latest instalment of the big powers contesting for hegemony through a proxy war. As is the case in Ukraine, these wars have been for the most part illegal under international law, and without sanction by the United Nations. Other examples were the invasions by Western powers of Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia. Countries comprising the so-called coalition of the willing were never held accountable for their gross violations of international law. 

Unilateral collective action is no less illegal than when Russia takes unilateral action. Wars inspired by liberal imperialism are no less illegal and abhorrent than wars inspired by conservative nationalism.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Pretoria says don’t poke the Russian bear as SA remains neutral in Ukraine crisis

Over the past few weeks, some of the most disturbing statements we have heard included suggestions by European diplomats that the war in Ukraine was worse than other wars as Russia is an “autocratic” country, invading a “democratic” country. The inference was that other countries were perhaps deserving of being bombed because their governments were not democratic. These diplomats hardly noticed the racism implicit in their statements, as most of the countries subjected to military aggression since World War 2 have been in either Asia, the Middle East or Africa.

There has always been a violent edge to the civilisational discourse that shaped colonialism, the League of Nations and even aspects of the United Nations Charter.

The acceptance of wars associated with liberal imperialism and its racism partly explains the difference in the global responses to the war in Ukraine and other illegal wars. South Africa has not taken a neutral position on the war in Ukraine, but rather a non-aligned one since it prefers not to be aligned with any of the protagonists or major powers involved. 

South Africa’s position has consistently been that no country deserves to be invaded and subjected to endless conflict. 

The war in Ukraine and the wars waged against Iraq and Afghanistan are similar in nature in that the big powers have executed their aggression with a sense of impunity. Most of the protagonists in these wars are not state parties to the International Criminal Court (ICC). This is because the big powers prefer to operate outside of the norms and rules provided for by international law. 

Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger stated that the use of force is a legitimate tool of diplomacy, and that the US would not want this tool to be subjected to scrutiny, or for the US to be held accountable by an international institution, including the ICC.

What Kissinger articulated forms part of the ideology that gave rise to the notion of “endless wars” as being part of the duty of great nations.

Wars take on an endless character when two conditions are met: when a belligerent pursues objectives while lacking the capacity to achieve them; and when despite the inability to achieve its objectives, the belligerent is not at risk of being defeated. When these two conditions hold over a prolonged period with no clear possibility of change in sight, endless war emerges.

South Africa is not immune from these geopolitical realities, and the proliferation of endless wars. We have maintained a clear position that wars can only be prevented through dialogue without conditions, and that once wars have started, the only way to end them is through negotiations. In other words, there can never be a military solution to violent conflict, since peace is only sustainable through political solutions. 

Given the ramifications of “endless wars” for the global economy and the developmental agenda of the Global South, we are in urgent need of a revitalised non-aligned movement that can push for the transformation of the system of global governance. 

The non-aligned movement must advocate for transformative internationalism to effectively address issues such as persistent inequality, poverty, climate change and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. 

South Africa’s foreign policy is based on principles derived from our foundational values and informed by the needs of our people. These guiding principles allow us to be consistent in our foreign policy stance, and there is strength in this type of consistency since we can explain and justify our actions. 

At times our positions will be at odds with our friends and allies, but we are confident in the fact that we take positions guided by our commitment to human rights, international law and the equality of nations. DM


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  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Mr Botes, you are clearly a good man …doing nothing.

  • Craig B says:

    What a load of Russian rubbish. It’s not a proxy war. It’s an imperial war. Government that just talks absolute rubbish.

  • Robert Mckay says:

    Let’s add to the facts that Russia was also a victor after the 2nd World War and merrily installed pro USSR governments in all the countries under its mitary jurisdiction after the 2nd World War and suppressd any dissent. I am not taking anything away from the article but if one is going to be non aligned at least have a balance of facts. Three of the most non aligned countries in Europe are seriously reconsidering their stance. Two are joining Nato after years of neutrality…pause for thought there. Now think of all the countries and citizens who supported the anti apartheid movement. Many of them also believed in a negotiated settlement. And that was achieved that through sanctions and serious internal resistance. Non aligned does not mean sitting on your posterior. It means actively supporting the most effective non military tool to drive the parties to the negotiating table. Ukraine is willing and all it wants is the restoration of territory that was annexed and invaded…reasonable enough. Perhaps a couple of billion to rebuild..So sanctions are needed to drive Russia to the table. And that pressure does not come from being non aligned.

  • Karsten Döpke says:

    Oh dear. The old argument that the west has made mistakes in the past, which justifies the awful behaviour of the ANC’s buddies.

  • Bruce Sobey says:

    You say ” there can never be a military solution to violent conflict, since peace is only sustainable through political solutions.” Really – I thought that it was the military that won the Second World War and brought peace after an unconditional surrender of the belligerents.

  • Joe Trainor Trainor says:

    Minister your article is just garbage. Lets simplify things: Russia is doing something very evil. Ukraine is the victim of that evil. SA needs to support Ukraine. Not Russia. Get it?

    • Louis Potgieter says:

      In support, evil in action can be judged by its effect on people. Deliberate destruction of economic infrastructure and killing and terrorising of people? – check. The writer’s politics get into the way of his morality. Also, in this case Russia fits the writer’s criteria for an ‘endless war’ protagonist.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Russian money speaks I suspect. Your points are well made but SA should not fence sit, that is just spineless.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    12 weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine our esteemed government at last sees the need to explain its “position” to its citizens. Unfortunately it is as riddled with lies, half-truths, obfuscations, and skewed world-views as a previous President’s stance on HIV/Aids. It’s like the whiskey is talking, again. “We are not neutral, we are non-aligned”, stupid. Like you were in the American invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan? I won’t include the country previously known as Yugoslavia, because it wasn’t invaded, and in fact had ceased to exist by the time Nato got involved. The dissolution of Yugoslavia was by choice of the various ethnicities that were forced together by their colonial master, Russia, which subsequently walked away from the Balkan bloodbath. You are not non-aligned but pro-Putin, as every action – or inaction rather – has clearly shown. “… we take positions guided by our commitment to human rights, international law and the equality of nations.” Really? This is why the Dalai Lama has been refused an entry visa several times, and the warrant of arrest for the war criminal al-Bashir was wilfully ignored? The Department you work for, sir, has no policy to mention, makes decisions with far-reaching consequences, almost always negative, and often in the ANC’s interest, not the country. It is an utter disgrace, and if you defend it, so are you.

    • Martin Ernst says:

      I could not have said it better – the delusion that Mr Botes thinks he has any moral standing after the disgraceful, cowardly stance of the ANC is mind boggling (of course the ANC lost any moral standing many years ago so this isn’t surprising)

  • R S says:

    Ofc, and all those countries that did nothing about Apartheid were not neutral either, they were “non-aligned”. What a load of rubbish. Just because previous US governments have committed crimes that does not justify what Russia is doing in any way, shape, or form.

    It is also clear that Russia is the aggressor here. They lied so many times before and during this “special operation” that it is clear they cannot be trusted.

    Finally, clearly the DIRCO needs to get some new lawyers after Paul Hoffman touched them on their studio a day or two ago.

  • Bob Marsden says:

    A minister speaking for the government talking sense – coherent rational political morality. There’s a rare thing. Bravissimo.

    “South Africa’s position has consistently been that no country deserves to be invaded and subjected to endless conflict. “ Post-Mandela, yes; pre-Mandela, no – persistent military invasion of and interference in its neighbours and putative ‘enemies’, dissenters from US imperial expansion.

    Non-alignment is a correct stance in military or commercial imperial matters, whether [mainly] American, Russian, Chinese. But it doesn’t advise on what to do when friendly neighbours are infested with active groups with ideologies mandating arbitrary killings of others not of that faith, AKA terrorism. Especially if these cancerous political tumours metastasis and threaten to, or actually are already, spreading to your home country. Requests from infected regions can be responded to pragmatically, but then what to do if there is no request? I’d be interested in Alvin Botes‘, ideas about that.

    [Many of the comments so far seem to advocate aligning with the US and NATO against Russia, confabulating history to justify it. That’s just the calamitous impetuous rhetorical warfare Botes is side-stepping with non-alignment.]

    • Melanie Arabsky Ledger says:

      The other commenters advocate aligning with Ukraine. The US and NATO are free to make their own decisions unencumbered by any South Africa’s influence or “alignment”.

  • Tim Price says:

    Its embarrassing to read such banal self serving nonsense from our government. This kind of illogical fact free ideology comes from Putin’s own play book, where history is re-written and lies pedaled as truth. The ANC government remains firmly entrenched in the ever shrinking band of non-aligned pariahs.

  • Graeme de Villiers says:

    Well, this is a bit embarrassing, deputy Minister of what-what.
    I wonder if you kept a straight face while typing this nonsense?

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    What a load of codswallop! What severely conflicted and frankly, a special kind of stupidity! Non-aligned doesn’t mean that you keep quiet and look the other way when mass murder, rape, destruction, brutality, deliberate targeting of civilian dwellings, hospitals, schools etc takes place on a massive scale. Next, you would have us believing that SA’s foreign policy is based on human rights when all we do is support and close ranks with pariahs and gross human rights violators and murderers like in Zimbabwe, Cuba, Venezuela, China and of course, Russia. This article and writer denies the very same rights to Ukraine that SA now enjoys – freedom, human rights and the ability to chart our own course – why the duplicity? SA, under this obnoxious and deceitful government, are nothing but crass hypocrites, who have absolutely no shame in supporting evil dictators and their murderous regimes! Rather keep quiet or keep your warped views to yourself and spare us the drivel and sucking-up to your superiors.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    And by the way, this is the same department that wanted to give or gave R50m or more to Cuba to alleviate hunger!!! What about our own people who are starving and some have already died. This is the type of heartless, incompetent and wayward moron heading our government.

  • Anton van Niekerk says:

    The indiscriminate bombing old age homes, schools and hospitals is clearly the ANC’s idea of respecting human rights. I wonder if the author of this drivel will have the moral courage to go stand in Bucha and proclaim his non-alignment. Mandela would hang his head in shame…

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    Russia is without provocation destroying a country and killing innocent people and children and you remain neutral? Much the same as walking past a multiple murder taking place and saying, ‘I’m not getting involved’. The only rationale for this is that you stand to benefit from at least one of the outcomes or, your brother is in there and you owe him trillions. No civilised human being looking on at Ukraine today can remain ‘neutral’. Either you’re extremely naive or you stand to benefit from the situation in some form. Even an attempt to justify the position of the SA government’s position, is embarrassingly sickening and once again shows the narrow self interest of the ANC put above the good of the country. ‘Democracy’ is a sham. It’s a legitimised criminal system that serves the few at the cost of many. Why are we still giving so much power to so few people. Plain stupid!

  • Melanie Arabsky Ledger says:

    A “military solution” is required to encourage an aggressor to negotiate… Do you think Russia would’ve negotiated in good faith if they had captured Kyiv in three days like they had planned? It’s only through brave resistance and military support well Russia even consider any type of real negotiation. Otherwise they would’ve just taken what they wanted and laughed about negotiation… aka: Crimea

  • Michael Forsyth says:

    Do the authors of these op-ed pieces ever read the response? Do you think their minds could be changed? I doubt it. Useless

  • Roy Williams says:


  • Tess Fairweather says:

    Too much Cool Aid – even for an ostrich -waaay too much!
    One has to wonder whether anyone in the ANC can assert that Apartheid would have been ended if there had been no sanctions, no sports boycotts, no protests – just non-aligned blah blah.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Teach people to “Sing for their Supper” ! That about sums up what DIRCO does ! OR as that climate activist Greta would say about ‘commitments’ to climate change …. blah, blah, blah !!!

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