By: Stef Terblanche
The well-known proverb says you will be known by the company you keep.
This proverb dramatically came to mind when on 11 May 2023, the United States ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, broke diplomatic protocol and publicly claimed that South Africa had secretly supplied arms to Russia in December 2022. He was referring to an incident when a US-sanctioned Russian cargo ship, the Lady R, docked in the Simonstown naval base to offload and/or upload cargo. Its transponder, which reveals a ship’s location, had been switched off for the duration of its visit and tight security and secrecy was maintained. The incident remains a developing story and the full circumstances and details have yet to be clarified.
However, the international furore and media storm brought about by Brigety’s accusation again fuelled a year-old debate around South Africa’s officially claimed neutrality around the Russia-Ukraine conflict versus popular accusations that it was actually siding with Russia. Was it mere coincidence that at the height of the outcry against South Africa with possible serious American repercussions looming, President Cyril Ramaphosa suddenly announced an initiative by himself and other African leaders to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine, or was this deliberately meant to deflect attention away from a nasty situation?
Anyhow, while Ukraine has officially said it “understood” South Africa’s wish to remain neutral, its ambassador in South Africa, Liubov Abravitova, has also voiced her unhappiness over South Africa’s abstention from several UN resolutions condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, instead of speaking out against Russia’s aggression. After the latest incident Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky also warned South Africa against supplying arms to Russia. Clearly he doesn’t seem to trust Ramaphosa or his peace initiative.
The Lady R incident followed a long and growing list of engagements between South Africa and Russia over the past year since the start of the war in Ukraine, mostly of a military cooperation nature with some shrouded in secrecy, and a few also relating to trade or diplomatic relations. President Ramaphosa has also had numerous direct contacts with Russia’s President Putin. In contrast his contacts with Ukraine’s President Zelensky have been limited to two known phone calls, the most recent to share the proposed African-brokered peace initiative with Zelensky.
At the same time South Africa is widely viewed as fostering ever closer ties with its biggest single-country trading partner, China. To clarify, the European Union (EU) as a bloc of countries is by far South Africa’s biggest trading partner, followed by China, the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom, as single countries in that order. In 2022, Russia did not feature among South Africa’s top 25 trading partners, taking up only 0.02% of South African exports. Its trade, investment and development aid in South Africa is miniscule by comparison, and its fraternal relationship with South Africa centres largely around military matters and Moscow’s self-centred energy and mining-related aspirations.
Historically, however, the relationship between South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) and Russia and China, should be viewed against a background going back to the Cold War era and the anti-apartheid struggle when the ANC established strong relations with and received much support from among others the communist parties of the Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, China.
At the time Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, lest we forget. But in the words of Swiss-based multiple-prize-winning Russian author Mikhail Shishkin in an interview in The Guardian, “Ukraine was able to escape from this hellish circle, to escape from our common, monstrous, bloody past. For this reason, it is hated by Russian impostors. A free and democratic Ukraine can serve as an example for the Russian population, which is why it is so important for Putin to destroy the country”.
In the post-Cold War era these relationships were further built upon, initially in the context of trade and South Africa’s membership of the BRICS group of countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) as a Global South alternative to traditional Western-dominated trade, economic, finance, security and diplomatic groupings, forums and institutions. More recently there have been moves to expand BRICS membership, specifically in respect of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Algeria, Argentina, Mexico and Nigeria, and possibly Turkey. This has actively been pursued by South Africa’s International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor.
Russia’s war in Ukraine – tentatively launched in 2014 and dramatically escalated in 2022 – has also thrust South Africa’s growing relationship with Russia under the spotlight, raising much concern in Western capitals. In contrast, Western nations are often – erroneously – still viewed across much of Africa as having been supportive of apartheid South Africa, despite the fact that Western sanctions and isolation of South Africa from the 1970s onwards played one of the biggest parts in helping to bring an end to apartheid.
Nonetheless, Western narratives of the war in Ukraine are casting Russia as the aggressor, a war criminal and pariah state led by a controlling autocrat if not a bloodthirsty de facto dictator, Vladimir Putin. The opposite narrative, to which a number of African countries subscribe, view the West as the expansionist aggressor that sought to extend its influence and control over Eastern Europe via NATO, the EU and Ukraine. In the process it was thought to present a threat to Russia’s sovereignty, security and best interests in general and therefore needed to be stopped.
It is against this background that a realignment of global forces and the shaping of a new world order is taking place: a Western bloc led by the US and the EU, versus an emerging Eastern and Global South bloc dominated by China, Russia and India. South Africa apparently finds itself drawn to the latter and, by virtue of its BRICS membership is already part of it. Since 1994, South Africa’s foreign policy has also undergone significant shifts away from its traditional Western allies and trading partners and into the Russia-China-India fold.
Most of the current or aspiring BRICS members (listed above) with which South Africa now consorts, are not exactly beacons of democracy or defenders of human rights. In fact, some are outright dictatorships, and some are known for the way in which they brutally trample on human rights. In various related respects, China, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia and Egypt come to mind.
This begs the question then, to what extent does or will South Africa’s shifting foreign relations impact or affect its own adherence to democracy and protecting human rights. Does its perceived support of Russia, or alternatively its silence over Russia’s aggressions, mean South Africa is already turning its back on its once-treasured democratic values and defence of human rights? Do these new relations pose a threat to South Africa’s still young and developing democracy?
You will be known by the company you keep. But another proverb also says, mix yourself with the bran and get eaten by the pigs. Could this apply to the company South Africa is increasingly keeping?
Of course, there are always two sides to any story. South Africa’s more recently perceived foreign policy and international relations shifts are often described as moving away from Western democratic and human rights values and turning its back on its natural/traditional Western allies. But the West – particularly the US and some European countries – with which South Africa has had good/close relations for many years, also have blood on their hands. Their sinister involvement in various wars, coups and economic coercions are well documented. And some of them, particularly the US, frequently turn a blind eye to undemocratic practices and human rights abuses in strategically important client and allied states, making them complicit in such abuses. Sometimes they even actively participate in such practices. So, where does one draw the line?
South Africa’s post-1994 foreign policy was already being normatively shaped during the liberation struggle by organisations such as the ANC who claimed the moral high ground and focused on issues like a majoritarian democracy and the centrality of the protection of human rights. These ideals found expression in documents like the Freedom Charter among others, even if these organisations themselves did not always practice what they preached.
Nonetheless, the successful negotiated transition to a democracy in 1994 and its new constitution that followed, positioned South Africa as a democratic beacon of influence that provided a moral compass for others. The “democratic miracle” and the coming together of the “rainbow nation” were more than just slogans. This was underpinned by a 1993 article written by Nelson Mandela who emphasised that South Africa’s new democratic-era foreign policy would be guided by a commitment to democratic values, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law, the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and economic cooperation.
In various subsequent iterations or discussions of South Africa’s foreign policy, these guiding principles remained central, at least on paper, even if in practice they sometimes tended to become less binding. It should be noted that just as national interests and values determine a country’s foreign policy, international developments can determine shifts or adjustments. By 2022 South Africa’s foreign policy had undergone several significant reinterpretations by Pretoria, justified by among others, events in northern Mozambique, the Covid-19 pandemic, global economic and related pressures, and most importantly, the conflict in Ukraine. The latter, especially, opened the door to a shift closer to Moscow even if denied officially by Pretoria under its defence of adopting a ‘neutral’ stance.
As already indicated, this claim of neutrality is highly suspect given the litany of events and actions enacted by Pretoria that seemed to favour Russia to Ukraine’s detriment (potentially or actually). While these did uphold South Africa’s insistence on peaceful resolution of conflicts, it did fall short on issues such as human rights, the sovereignty of nations, international law, and more, when South Africa abstained from voting on UN resolutions that condemned Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and its subsequent actions there.
But the cracks in South Africa’s foreign policy or the values and ideals that guided it appeared long before that, arguably as far back as with former President Thabo Mbeki’s HIV/AIDS denialism and refusal to implement strategies and treatments that could have saved many lives. However, lapses in moral guiding principles more directly linked to South Africa’s foreign policy and international relations started appearing on numerous other occasions, among others in respect of:
These are just a few examples, and individually they may seem small, but incrementally and together they demonstrate just how far South Africa, under its ANC government, has already strayed from its initial principled approach to foreign policy, democratic values and human rights. At home, atrocities such as the police killing of Andries Tatane and the Marikana Massacre, and the lingering plight of the impoverished masses versus the criminal self-enrichment of business and political elites, tended to do the same.
This then raises the question, what are the risks involved in South Africa embracing states that show disdain for democracy, the rule of law, peace, and human rights in a newly configured world order? Should South Africa not rather be seeking true neutrality in a non-aligned position? Will Russia, for instance, intervene in some or other way to keep the ANC in power? Can South Africa retain its moral rectitude under the negative weight of those it consorts with? Will this lead to the kind of retributive ostracization by Western nations that will finally bring the South African economy to its knees? These are questions we won’t get answers to until it may arguably be far too late. But the warning signs may already be there.
Stef Terblanche is a Cape Town-based political analyst and journalist. He writes in his personal capacity.