Following United States (US) Ambassador Reuben Brigety’s accusations that South Africa supplied arms to Russia, attention has rightfully focused on the credibility of the allegations and the impact on South Africa’s economy and relations with the US.
For a seasoned diplomat like Brigety, these remarks were not likely to have been miscalculated. They may have been induced by frustrations that came to a head during a recent US visit by a high-ranking South African delegation. The reaction to Brigety’s claims from Pretoria and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) would also have been anticipated by Washington.
What hasn’t attracted enough attention is the tactical foreign policy parallel between Pretoria and Washington. The US’ willingness to cast serious aspersions on South Africa’s credibility without presenting evidence largely mirrors the ANC’s framing of the US and its Western allies as the main culprits behind the Ukraine-Russia crisis.
In making his case, Brigety quoted official ANC policy that says the Ukraine conflict ‘can no longer be described simply as a Russia-Ukraine war – it is primarily a conflict between the US and US-led NATO and Russia’ (emphasis added).
The ANC justifies this argument by drawing on the US’ 30-year-old Wolfowitz doctrine and Washington’s recent framing of China and Russia as systemic threats to the international order. According to the ANC, that is why the ‘US provoked the war with Russia over Ukraine, hoping to put Russia in its place’ (emphasis added). This reasoning squarely aligns with Moscow’s justification of its ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.
The ANC also draws on its June 2022 national policy conference, which called for ‘an end to countries being used as proxies for other countries' wars such as Ukraine being used as a proxy by the US and its European allies.’
Neither of the two ANC documents mentions any wrongdoing on Russia’s part. There is no reference to the plight of Ukrainians and no word about South Africa’s responsibility to defend and uphold the principles of the international rules-based order as enshrined in the UN Charter.
Instead, the documents frequently refer to working more closely with like-minded global partners committed to progressive internationalism. This refers to a shared opposition to imperialism perpetuated through power imbalances between countries of the global North and South. The choice of partners (such as former liberation movements) is almost exclusively framed against this benchmark, with no reference to common values such as democracy or a commitment to human rights, international law or free and open societies.
This reveals one of the most significant factors in the ANC’s posturing on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: that Russia’s clear violation of the UN Charter is completely discordant with the ANC’s ideological view of the international system. That view is rooted in the historical abuses of colonial and imperial powers, and the perpetuation of these injustices through North-South power dynamics.
The ANC’s unyielding ideological commitment has forced the party into a difficult corner of its own making. It must attempt to reconcile its progressive internationalist outlook with calls to condemn Russia – a longstanding like-minded ally. These contradictions reinforce the party’s view that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a proxy battle between the US, NATO and Russia, not a conflict to be understood in isolation. Unless framed in this manner, the ANC’s worldview becomes invalidated, and allusions to a non-aligned position are unjustifiable.
In sum, the ANC’s approach has been: if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it has got to be an American turkey mischievously masquerading as a duck.
To be clear, South African foreign policy is not ANC policy. But there is no denying that party ideologues hold major sway in the foreign policy-making establishment. In some cases, the ANC’s commitment to progressive internationalism has advanced national interests and raised South Africa’s global profile. Opposition to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and consistent support for the Palestinian cause have driven a foreign policy aligned with the country’s constitutional character.
However, defaulting to an inflexible ideological posture on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not a workable foreign policy and does not serve South Africa’s national interests. It gambles on the country’s already strained economic prospects, undermines its global credibility and casts doubt on the government’s commitment to the upkeep of the international rules-based order.
South African foreign policymakers must acknowledge that the underlying basis for their non-aligned position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is fundamentally flawed. Non-alignment can be effective, but only if substantiated by a dispassionate, consistent and objective reading of global geopolitics. Since February 2022, it has become clear that South Africa’s take on these developments is not persuasive.
Over 50% of African states have regularly supported the adoption of UN General Assembly Resolutions condemning Russian aggression. Around 70% to 80% of states in the Asia-Pacific, and Latin American and Caribbean regions respectively, voted the same way. Many of these countries historically formed the backbone of a global non-aligned movement. But even so, they see the Ukraine conflict as a clear war of aggression by Russia in violation of international law – not a proxy battle between East and West.
Pretoria accordingly needs a pragmatic foreign policy that reflects the country’s constitutional democratic values and principles on the world stage. Such a policy can simultaneously be non-aligned and unafraid to take a stand when the foundations of the world’s shared rules-based order are under attack.
More importantly, a wholesale review of bilateral relations with Washington is needed. South Africa should express its concerns and longstanding grievances with US foreign policy while strengthening ties in areas of common interest and benefit.
Ignoring Russian wrongdoing while accusing the world’s only superpower (and its allies) of being responsible for the Ukraine conflict simply cannot be squared with the ANC and South African government’s rhetorical commitment to non-alignment.
A business-as-usual approach based on ideological posturing will, at best, leave the country bobbing aimlessly against geopolitical undercurrents. At worst, it will fail to reverse years of economic underperformance and a waning international profile.
Priyal Singh, Senior Researcher, Africa in the World, ISS Pretoria
Image: © DIRCO/Flickr
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