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The South African government has lost its way with its Putin-friendly foreign policy


Gregor Jaecke is the head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation’s South Africa office.

The US (and the EU) could impose sanctions against South Africa if it has supplied weapons to Russia. This is already causing massive uncertainty among investors and is an additional burden on the already catastrophically weakened state of the economy.

These days quite a few South Africans wonder what their former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Nelson Mandela, would say about the ANC government’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In 1993, the South African icon declared that “human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs”. Three decades on there is little sign of this.

On the contrary, instead of emphasising respect for human rights, the territorial integrity of Ukraine, or even respect for international law, South Africa’s government aims to strengthen military cooperation with Russia. South Africa’s military chief recently made a special trip to Moscow for this purpose.

Furthermore, there is a serious allegation that arms were supplied to Russia from a South African military base last December. If this allegation is confirmed it would undoubtedly have serious consequences, for South Africa would then be participating – at least indirectly – in the killing of innocent Ukrainian civilians.

Moreover, supplying the aggressor with weapons would make a mockery of the South African government’s official position (namely, to do everything it can to help end the war).

One wonders how credible the diplomatic initiative with other African heads of state (recently unveiled by President Cyril Ramaphosa) to end the war actually is.

Former SA liberation fighters were trained in Odessa … in Ukraine

All this shows once again how much South Africa’s foreign policy is shaped by ideology. Above all, the enduring sympathy for the former USSR, justified by its support of anti-apartheid activists at the time, plays a role. The fact that a large number of former liberation fighters were trained in Odessa (ie on the territory of today’s Ukraine!) is completely ignored.

Shortly after the invasion, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor condemned it, but was apparently then immediately harshly reprimanded by the president himself and amended her stance to merely call for mediation.

More recently, she called the demand by the international community for Russia to withdraw from sovereign Ukrainian territory “infantile” (due to the arms deliveries made by the West that allow Ukraine to defend itself). Political observers also speculate about the extent to which large donations to the ANC by a Russian oligarch close to the Kremlin influences the ruling party’s position on the war.

The fact is that since the start of the invasion, the Rainbow Nation has abstained from all votes in the UN General Assembly that dealt with the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine.

It is no longer possible to speak of a neutral position, if not already before, certainly since the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Pretoria at the end of January, as well as the 10-day naval manoeuvre jointly conducted with Russia and China off the coast of South Africa.

There is no doubt that Lavrov’s visit also served to expand economic relations between the two countries. However, one should mention that Russia – in contrast to the USA and Europe – is not a significant trading partner of South Africa, while South Africa’s current diplomatic actions imperil relations with trading partners that actually are significant.

The US (and, as a consequence, the EU) could impose economic sanctions against South Africa on the basis of allegations that South Africa has supplied weapons to Russia.

The debate about this is already causing massive uncertainty among investors and is therefore an additional burden on the already catastrophically weakened state of the South African economy.

A possible exclusion of South Africa from the US’s African Growth and Opportunity Act, Agoa, would additionally cause severe damage to South African supply chains and thus businesses and workers.

From a geopolitical point of view, South Africa wants to show that it is pursuing an independent foreign policy that promotes a multipolar world, in line with its rejection of the alleged hegemony of the West.

However, the issue of how “respect for human rights” can be completely ignored at this point is shown to be incomprehensible even to ANC supporters, who clearly side with the attacked Ukraine in a recent survey conducted by the renowned Brenthurst Foundation.

Constitutional crisis not impossible

The BRICS Summit to be held in Durban in August, with the participation of all heads of state of the alliance, could put the South African government in a real dilemma – and furthermore plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.

If Vladimir Putin, who is the subject of an international arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court, decides to set foot on South African soil, he would have to be arrested on the spot. South Africa is a signatory to the Rome Statute and would therefore have to act accordingly. However, no one believes that the South African government would execute such an arrest.

What to do? South Africa could withdraw from the Statute of the ICC beforehand. This was even publicly announced by the ANC, but a short time later it was declared to be a “communication error” and withdrawn. There is no doubt that a possible withdrawal would not go down quietly nationally and internationally. Moreover, it would only take effect legally after a period of 12 months and would therefore not be valid at the summit in August.

While the South African government seems to have lost its way in its pro-Kremlin policy, a large number of South African opposition parties, as well as large parts of civil society and major churches, have clearly positioned themselves against Russian aggression.

Which brings us back to Nelson Mandela, who took a stand against obvious injustices throughout his life. DM

This article was first published in the Swiss daily, Neue Zürcher Zeitung. 


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  • Rory Macnamara says:

    “human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs”. Sadly Mr Mandela, the lights have gone out literally and figuratively as has our international standing. as for the opposition we heard a few bleats when this all started with Putin and no more. this is one time for opposition to keep up the noise but alas, they seem to be just as bad.

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