On Thursday, 22 June, as part of my visit to the United Kingdom, I had the privilege of addressing the SA Chamber of Commerce in London on the peculiar geopolitical times in which we find ourselves.
The world appears to be in transition, as superpowers realign, while smaller countries have the opportunity to rethink and repurpose their foreign policies, trade relations and ultimately decide where their values and interests are best served.
Just days prior, our home country, South Africa, was caught up in a tense diplomatic stand-off where the president’s security personnel and news reporters were held on the tarmac of Warsaw’s airport for more than 24 hours, and disbarred from participating in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s “peacekeeping” mission to both Russia and Ukraine.
A result of logistical bungling, the airport “incident” not only deflected attention from the gravitas and purpose of the visit, but served as a stark reminder of the importance of foreign policy for any country.
Who you are friends with impacts on how you are treated. And for South Africa, it is clear that the ANC government is non-aligned in the streets, but pro-Russia in the sheets.
De facto ally
As things stand, South Africa has acted as a de facto ally to Russia since the onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The collective actions of the government have shown favourability to the Russian Federation. In August of 2022 the South African Defence Minister, Thandi Modise, departed for Moscow for the “10th Moscow Conference on International Security at the invitation of the Russian Minister of Defence, General Shoigu”. In October 2022 South Africa was one of 35 countries that abstained from a vote condemning Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territories.
In November 2022 South Africa abstained from a UN General Assembly resolution calling for Russia to pay reparations for the damages inflicted on Ukraine.
In February 2023 South Africa abstained from a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling on Russia to withdraw its military forces from Ukraine.
In total South Africa has abstained five times from motions of this nature. Not only have we abstained from voting to condemn Russia, but the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov received red-carpet treatment when he came to South Africa for talks in Pretoria in January of 2023.
South Africa held a joint military exercise with Russia and China in February around the one-year mark of the war in Ukraine.
Most recently Minister of International Relations Naledi Pandor has said that “South Africa has made it clear that Russia is a friend and we have had cooperative partnerships for many, many years… while we are friends with many in the world we cannot become sudden enemies at the demands of others.”
This approach is outdated and makes us dependable allies shackled in liberation-era loyalty.
It is only the beginning of the far-reaching consequences facing the South African economy and its people. South Africa’s African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) status is the latest consequence, as it appears US lawmakers want to terminate South Africa’s membership when it is up for renewal in 2025.
Agoa, which provides South Africa with preferential trade access to the US market by allowing the duty-free export of goods to the US, has substantially boosted our economy since its inception in 2000.
South Africa exports in excess of R20-billion in goods, primarily in the automotive and agriculture sectors, which has created thousands of jobs. In 2019 South Africa exported goods worth more than R15-billion to the US, of which agricultural exports totalled R7.3-billion.
While our financial system is deeply entrenched in the West, we have trade relationships with nations from both the West and the East. China is our top export trade partner, followed by the United States, then Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom.
In terms of our present trade dynamics, our economic ties are stronger with the Western bloc and particularly the G7 nations at this moment in history. That does not mean we are “pro-West” or “anti-East”. But, in reality, Russia is not a major trade destination for South Africa at this time.
Held to ransom
And yet, the governing party’s nostalgic ties with Russia are holding our economic interests to ransom. And South African citizens, the creators of economic value, are forced to stand by and watch powerlessly as elected leaders make decisions without consulting these actors, and, worse, in contravention of a signed trade agreement.
The insight here for us is: there are no permanent friends in international relations, there are only permanent interests. And a Build One South Africa-led national government will always focus on South Africa’s interests.
The delivery of employment for our citizens, security for economic enterprise, stability in democracy and ensuring that our foreign policy is updated to meet our future needs on climate change, security, digitisation and diplomatic relations is paramount.
This must always be the guiding principle when making tough international relations decisions.
As a result of our multipolar economic ties, we must not act in ways that entangle our economic futures with the political moves of rival powers on the global stage.
Real numbers must take precedence over relics of the past. We are in 2023, and the world will leave South Africa behind if we don’t adapt and remain nimble, agile and alert. DM