The new cold war between the United States and Russia and China is having divisive consequences in South Africa. For some of our compatriots, it is so obvious that we should line up behind the US that any other views are seen as incomprehensible, if not downright immoral.
But what appears to be “common sense” for the mostly white pro-US camp among the commentariat and in the media is not “common sense” for many — and perhaps most — South Africans. There is no serious argument in South Africa that suggests that we should surrender our autonomy and become some sort of client state of Russia or China.
But there are many people who feel that South Africa should be non-aligned, or at least keep some sort of critical independence from the pressure to become a client state of the US. Some of these people actively welcome the idea of a “multipolar world”, a world in which there are multiple centres of power.
The idea of multi-polarity is very popular across Africa and most of the Global South, and has recently been supported by French president Emmanuel Macron who is keen to see a multi-polar future with the US, China and Europe as the leading powers.
Its proponents do not all hold the view that rival powers to the US will necessarily conduct themselves better than the US, but just that the world will be better off if it is not dominated by one state.
But across the Global South, there is also a deep sense that the West, first led by Europe and now by the US, has been a deeply oppressive force. Critics of the West will point to the genocides of the indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australia, the enslavement of African people, colonialism and then the domination of the former colonised world via enforced “structural adjustment” programmes, US-backed coups against elected governments and so on.
Those who charge that all this is in the past and that today the US is a democratic force in global affairs forget that it is only 20 years since the US invaded Iraq, a criminal action that in the end took a million lives. They forget that the US continues to fund and arm the settler state in Tel Aviv and to back the ruthless dictatorships in Riyadh and Kigali.
For most of humanity, the West has been an oppressive force and the emergence of a world no longer dominated by the West seems like a major step forward for humanity. This does not mean that people assume that a more diverse global power structure will provide some sort of utopian alternative.
Just as we in South Africa see the end of white rule as historical progress despite the disappointments of the present, most of humanity will see the end of the centuries of white rule over the planet as historical progress without assuming that there is some sort of utopia around the corner.
A recent article in Daily Maverick by Stephen Grootes drove home how quickly the geopolitical issues arising from the new cold war become questions of personal identity, of, ultimately, racial identity. Grootes wrote that many South Africans believe that Russia and China “present a global threat to our civilisation”.
Used in this manner the term “civilisation” is deeply racially coded. Colonialism imagined itself as a superior civilisation, one with a right and duty to dominate other lesser civilisations. To speak of “our civilisation” being under threat from Russia and China can only be understood in terms that are immediately cultural but ultimately racial.
After all, how could a Palestinian or an Iraqi imagine that “our civilisation” is something to be celebrated and defended? We must ask what is the meaning of the idea of this “civilisation” in the light of genocide, slavery and colonialism?
If all South Africans fully identified as Africans it is highly unlikely that many of us would think of the US as leading a crusade in defence of “our civilisation”. On the contrary, we would approach global affairs with the interests of Africa at the centre of our concerns, and a deep awareness of what white and Western supremacy have meant in the modern world.
Grootes was, correctly, describing a view held by “many South Africans”. Another recent article in Daily Maverick, this time by academic Herman Wasserman, presented a picture of Africa under assault from Russian and Chinese disinformation and stressed the need for a critical approach to this disinformation.
Of course, Wasserman is correct that Russia and China attempt to shape global opinion in their interests, and that as consumers of media and other sources of information we should always be critical of what we are told.
But by framing the problem of disinformation as solely a matter of the actions of the Russian and Chinese states, Wasserman implicitly places himself on one side of the new cold war, on the US side.
It was remarkable that Wasserman, writing on the 20th anniversary of the destruction of Iraq by forces led by the US, made no mention of US disinformation. After all, the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction is probably the singularly most damaging piece of political disinformation in the last 20 years.
And that piece of disinformation did not just come from the US state. It was repeated by respected Western media outlets such as the New York Times, CNN and so on. Why does Wasserman not ask us to engage these kinds of outlets critically?
And let us be clear, the lie about weapons of mass destruction had particularly devastating consequences, but it is far from an aberration. When the US calls Israel “the only democracy in the Middle East” or refers to Rwanda as a “democracy” it is engaging in disinformation, something that it does constantly, as do all major powers.
The US has far more capacity to shape the public sphere in South Africa than the Russian or Chinese states. It has more money, more institutions and much more global power, including the soft power of Hollywood, its universities, its established media houses, its capacity to train leading journalists from around the world and its various donor agencies and the organisations and projects they support.
To warn South Africans about Russian and Chinese disinformation but to say nothing at all about the disinformation of the West and its far greater power to spread disinformation, is quite astounding.
It is clear that Wasserman has taken a side in the new cold war and it seems likely that he is one of those who Grootes describes as seeing “our civilisation” as under threat by Russia and China. It is impossible to escape the racial dimensions of this.
Wasserman would serve his academic work and his students much better if he worked on all forms of disinformation, and not merely those of Russia and China. And like other white South Africans who instinctively identify with the West, he would do well to think carefully about what the long rule of the West has meant for most of humanity.
It would be outrageous for anyone to suggest that South Africa or Africa should line up behind the Russian and Chinese states, or to pretend that because Vladimir Putin is the enemy of the West he is anything other than another corrupt and authoritarian political thug.
But it is entirely legitimate to argue that the West does not have a right to rule the world in perpetuity and that it is appropriate for South Africa to take a non-aligned position in this new cold war.
And as we navigate what seems likely to be a tense period in global geopolitics it is absolutely necessary that we engage all the major players critically. DM