Since Russian forces invaded Ukraine on 24 February, South Africas public conversation has been sputtering with incredulity at the position taken by its leaders on the matter. Why was it beyond the repertoire of a constitutional democracy to condemn aggression by one country against another? 

Melanie Verwoerd, former African National Congress parliamentarian and diplomat, and whose News24 columns are frequently supportive of President Ramaphosa, invoked a comparison to apartheid, stating that ‘a neutral position is not an option.’ 

This was all of a piece with others. The Mail and Guardian published an article by Drew Forrest entitled ‘Ukraine: SA’s feeble response betrays its own history’. A Daily Maverick editorial by Branko Brkic asked rhetorically, ‘Is this what YOU really want, South Africa?’ Former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela said she was ‘disappointed’ and had hoped for a response that was ‘a little bit principled’.

After a false start in which the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) called for the withdrawal of Russia’s military from Ukraine, the government’s stance has been a suite of bromides about diplomacy and negotiation. Partisanship and condemnation are inimical to progress, it said. There was certainly little sense that this was a situation involving an aggressor, least of all one based in Moscow.

For a flavour of this, Clayson Monyela, Head of Public Diplomacy at DIRCO, pronounced on South Africa’s position: ‘In keeping with our independent foreign policy, we have adopted a non-aligned position and sought to discourage a war in which the chief protagonists are essentially the big powers, with the people of Ukraine being on the receiving end of post-cold war disagreements on what would constitute a safer Europe and Russia. We called for dialogue based on honouring long-standing agreements. We are firmly aligned to peace, security and justice, and not to the key protagonists.’

Across the 950-odd words, there is an invocation of general principles and a statement of the importance of context; the latter is especially revealing. For Monyela, the real context is Russia’s security concerns and the reckless disregard for them by NATO. 

Security concerns

‘Any diplomatic process must address the security concerns of all parties’, he wrote. ‘Had NATO given Russia the security assurances they required and were promised since the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the region would not likely find itself in the situation it is currently in. Russia has been asking NATO for legally binding guarantees that NATO membership would be denied to Ukraine and Georgia, and that NATO’s eastern expansion would end.’

His article presents Russia’s position on the matter, but interestingly not Ukraine’s – nor for that matter (of some importance since NATO expansion is of such centrality to his narrative) the reasons for which newly admitted countries or Ukraine might have sought NATO membership. There is nothing on Russia’s own conduct. NATO’s conduct is criticised in specifics; Russia’s not at all, except in the most roundabout, passive-voice terms. One might even forget that this unfortunate ‘conflict’ involves Russian troops and ordnance on Ukraine’s territory, and assaulting Ukrainian cities. These are not matters to which Monyela draws any attention.

Narratives matter a great deal, both in terms of the messages they convey, and whence they come. Monyela’s intervention is noteworthy because it comes from a senior civil servant – not a soapbox politician – and can thus justifiably be read as the position of the South African state. In its various elements, this has been the line expounded by the ANC and the government. Most recently, Deputy President David Mabuza laid the blame squarely at the door of NATO. ‘The best way to resolve all the problems that have accumulated for all these years [through] the expansion of NATO, the aggression of NATO and the response from the Russian Federation we think is a possibility of opening a platform where we can mediate’, he said in response to a question in the National Council of Provinces.

There is a notable subtlety to be discerned in all this. Public commentary has emphasised the pro-Russian sympathies in South Africa’s official position. This has been attributed to Cold War nostalgia, historical loyalties, to South Africa’s membership of the BRICS group and even to the ‘capture’ by Russia of South Africa’s foreign policy. But this typically misses something – South Africa may have taken what is essentially a pro-Russian stance but this is matched by an active antipathy to NATO. NATO is, after all, in its view, the prime cause of the ‘conflict’. Its narrative around the ‘conflict’ is built as much around opposition to NATO as around sympathy for Russia. The two impulses may be closely related, but they are not the same thing.

Kindest interpretation

Dr Greg Mills and Ray Hartley of the Brenthurst Foundation came close to recognising this in a contribution headlined ‘Et tu Cyril? Your Russian petticoat has been exposed’: ‘The kindest interpretation of its foreign policy is that the ANC is misguided and useless, an echo chamber of radical slogans and posturing of the 1960s, girding up only to tilt at ideological windmills, rather than to encourage the investment and skills that will fix services, create jobs and build a better South Africa.’

It’s worth exploring that a little further. Their description of foreign policy as ‘useless’ actually receives some back-handed endorsement from the National Development Plan. It noted that South Africa was ‘overstretched diplomatically’, had seen a ‘relative decline’ in its global influence, and has ‘lost a great deal of the moral authority’ it once held. It points out that part of this decline is linked to domestic decay and failure. It would be necessary to review South Africa’s diplomatic representation thoroughly, audit its costs (particularly salaries) and to ensure that it had skills appropriate to its goals. There is little to suggest that anything has changed since the Plan was produced in 2012.

Indeed, if parts of the South African government’s response to the ‘conflict’ are to be taken seriously, one can only conclude that it has learned very little. The idea that South Africa might mediate this issue is beyond parody. South Africa lacks the global heft or the experience in inter-state or territorial conflicts to offer anything credible here. A transition from a racial oligarchy to a non-racial democracy was an achievement in itself, but it is simply not comparable. 

Besides, as Greg Mills and Ray Hartley remark, South Africa’s performance in mediation efforts has been mixed, to say the least. This has been so even where it held enormous potential influence, such as in Zimbabwe or Lesotho.

Narrowly focused

One reason for this was quite simply that South Africa’s foreign policy has been not so much misguided as narrowly focused. Emeritus Professor at the University of Pretoria (and former ambassador) Gerrit Olivier described in a 2006 article the increasing role of ideology in foreign policy after the accession to office of Thabo Mbeki. In this, he saw an increasing distance between South Africa and the geopolitical West, despite the critical important of the latter for South Africa’s economic fortunes and even in view of the threadbare human rights and democratic credentials of some of its allies. Havana and Harare, he said, were closer to South Africa than Washington and Brussels. ‘It seems’, he wrote, ‘as if ideology will always take precedence whenever there is a choice to be made between support for the developing world or the West.’

Prof Olivier obliquely returned to this theme in a newspaper article last year: ‘Ideologues simply took over the top echelon of the foreign policy establishment and packed it with economically illiterate generalists and mostly redundant ANC “deployed ambassadors”, leaving the country with a dysfunctional foreign service and neither fish nor fowl foreign policy for the past decade.’

Recognise that South Africa’s foreign policy is deeply ideological, and much of what appears incomprehensible really becomes quite consistent. Factor in a particular fixation on ‘imperialism’, and it makes eminent sense. To appropriate the official narrative, South Africa is being true to itself.

From this perspective, Ukraine is being drawn into an imperialist agenda (driven by NATO, the US,  the European Union). Russia is not an ‘imperialist’ power, but rather a victim and target of imperialism. Imperialism and the Ukraine-NATO-US-EU onslaught constitute an existential threat to Russia, to which it has responded. Neither the South African government nor the ANC is in favour of war – there’s no reason to believe that this position is insincere – so they are in a difficult position. They support Russia’s cause since Russia is an ally, and is also challenging Western imperialism, though they do not (and cannot) endorse its actions. To resolve this contradiction, there is a resort to a combination of incredible bluster about a possible mediatory role, and a narrative in which NATO as the avatar of imperialism is the real villain. 

Imperialist machinations

Resisting NATO and its imperialist machinations, in other words, is part and parcel of South Africa’s response. 

Indeed, should anyone be surprised by this position, a glance at the past positioning of the government and the ANC would provide some valuable insights. In a discussion document in anticipation of its 2015 National General Council, the ANC described itself as ‘a revolutionary national liberation movement which is an integral part of the international revolutionary movement to liberate humanity from the bondage of imperialism and neo colonialism’.  Its reflections on the place of Russia, shortly after Russia had carved off pieces of Ukraine, bear extended quotation:

Russia has not been spared the wrath of US-led Western imperialism. As with China, the Russian leadership is constantly being portrayed in the Western media and official discourse as monsters abusing human rights. As with China, counter-revolutionary demonstrations and marches are being staged and given huge publicity in the Western media in order to destabilise and/provoke the Russian government.

Whatever genuine concerns may exist within the Russian population and populations of former Soviet Union, there is a clear plot to exploit this in order to contain the rise of Russia globally. It is an encirclement strategy that seeks to isolate Russia in the manner that is being attempted on China as well.

This is the context within which the crisis in Ukraine should be understood by the world progressive forces. The war taking place in Ukraine is not about Ukraine. Its intended target is Russia. As with China, Russia’s neighbours are being mobilised to adopt a hostile posture against Moscow, and enticed to join the European Union and NATO.

Pro-West satellite states are being cultivated or as we saw with the coup in Ukraine, even invented, to encircle Russia and allow their territory to be used for the deployment of NATOs hostile military hardware faced in the direction of Russia. These Western manoeuvres, directed from Washington, are reminiscent of Cold War. They have vowed in Washington that there will be [no] Russia or China to challenge the US hegemony.

Washingtons sponsored destabilisation is not limited to Russia and China. We see it unfolding in the streets of Latin America including in Venezuela which the US has strangely declared a threat to its national security, in the Middle East and in African countries with the sole intention of toppling progressive democratically-elected governments. This has a bearing on the nature of conflict and the scourge of terrorism we see in the world today.

The South has been rising in a manner that promises to alter the international balance of power and offer opportunities for the emergence of a post-Western world order and Washington is in a fighting mood to ensure that this does not happen.

 Very clear symmetry

Astute readers might recognise a very clear symmetry between this position – by the ANC close to seven years ago – and the position articulated by Russia today. And there is also a strong echo of this in the words of Clayson Monyela. It’s worth dwelling for a moment on the implications of all this. Protest against authoritarian governments to which the ANC are sympathetic can be dismissed as externally directed conspiracies – it’s not as if people in Russia, China or Venezuela might find their own governments abhorrent or wish for a change in their condition or in their incumbent rulers – while a ‘war’ in which Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil is defined as a ‘war’ against Russia. That is in contrast to the generic ‘conflict’ that occurs when Russian forces advance on Kyiv and Kharkiv.

The world’s ‘progressive’ forces must, therefore, understand in which direction to place their sympathies and antipathies. The position of the South African government that its stance is eminently principled is in a way correct. Its position has rested heavily on principle in the abstract, coupled with a selective and ideological reading of real-world developments.

Something very similar played out in respect of Zimbabwe. Concern for the stability of the country (which was probably genuine) was matched by a determined commitment to ensuring that any outcome would leave ZANU-PF in power. ZANU-PF was a sister party of the ANC, and the ANC perspective on the issue was that any challenge to ZANU-PF was an imperialist plot, geared ultimately to taking down South Africa.

Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change was – as then President Mbeki told the ANC’s Parliamentary caucus – a creature of the American CIA, and was not to be trusted. Don’t be a ‘fight-fight’ opposition, deputy minister Aziz Pahad imperiously said of Zimbabwe’s opposition and civil society. And ‘screaming and shouting’ – ‘megaphone diplomacy’ in the terminology of the times – about Zimbabwe would also not resolve the issues confronting that country. Two decades on, Zimbabwe remains gripped by socio-economic and political crises, and observers can judge for themselves how successful South African diplomacy was. ZANU-PF remains in power, so perhaps it was – within its own logic – more successful than it is often credited with.  

International influence 

The wisdom of ‘speaking up’ as a tool of international influence is debatable. Former President Mandela attempted to do so in the 1990s when the Nigerian military regime executed Ken Saro-Wiwa – to little effect, and some embarrassment for South Africa. General Sani Abacha’s government didn’t care, and Mandela’s sentiments failed adequately to resonate across the continent. There might indeed be some wisdom in a country showing restraint in expressing its positions on international matters.

But in South Africa’s case, such discretion has not in fact been a matter of firm principle. Both the government and the ANC adopted an extremely vocal position on the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition. One can still find pages dedicated to this on the ANC’s ersatz website, ‘The American government continues to pursue its criminal war of aggression against the people of Iraq’, declares one on these. It’s difficult to imagine a louder megaphone. 

The US is rolled out by ANC officials as a menace in the shadows, a visible-invisible enemy against whom eternal vigilance is imperative. 

So, in February 2016, then ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe said: ‘As we mobilise our people, we must say: be vigilant. You must see through anarchy and people who are out there in a programme of regime change. We are aware of the meetings taking place regularly at the American embassy…those meetings in the American embassy are about nothing else other than mobilisation for regime change.’ 

And although toned down a notch from the 2015 sentiments, an internal 2017 ANC discussion document warned: ‘We must be wary of countries in the North, particularly the United States (and its allies) as well as France in its former colonies, involving itself by military means on the continent’. 

Imperialist forces

And in 2019, a statement from the ANC president’s office – this being President Cyril Ramaphosa – went full megaphone on some comments about the state of South Africa by a group of Western countries, some of its most important trade and investment partners: ‘The African National Congress (ANC) has noted with deep concern the interference by the Western imperialist forces like the USA, UK, Germany, Netherlands and Switzerland into the affairs of South Africa… The ANC condemns this dramatic holier-than-thou stance of these former colonisers and we would not like to relate to them on the history of master-slave relations…. We do not appreciate a threatening and bullying tone…. They leaked their letters to the media, suggesting they had less than honourable intentions…. The ANC wants to be clearly understood that we will not be fooled into swapping one attempt of state capture and corruption for another! This is how we view the interference of these five countries, as just another form of state capture. The ANC shall not allow South Africa’s constitution and sovereignty to be undermined by these latter day colonialists.’

And as for Israel – a state for which special animus exists – it is doubtful that any megaphone exists that is loud enough to accommodate official South African or ANC sentiment. Indeed, since it is policy (although like much policy in South Africa, this is evidently a policy trapped in stasis) to downgrade relations with Israel, it’s doubtful that in this case South Africa is even interested in engagement anymore.

Greg Mills and Ray Hartley point out that if the imperative of not inflaming the situation or alienating any of the parties by ‘screaming and shouting’ was in fact a major consideration, it might have been more diplomatic in its approach to NATO: ‘Has it not occurred to Ramaphosa that “screaming and shouting” at NATO may rob him of his desired mediation role by exposing his Russian petticoat?’  

In response to this, one might point out that opposition to NATO as an imperialist institution is too hardwired into the ANC’s worldview for them to resist the impulse to damn it. An aversion to ‘screaming and shouting’ is thus a tactical matter, to be employed selectively, not a matter of general principle. General principles, however, are to be found in the high-level, ideological and geopolitical realms, and in a matter such as the ‘conflict’ in Ukraine, they are on full display.

Perhaps the only real question is why anyone should have been surprised at this.

If you like what you have just read, support the Daily Friend

Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.