/ 24 February 2023

Cold War 2.0 | Where can South Africa stand other than on its non-aligned perch?

Safrica Politics Russia Ukraine Demo March
Protestors holding anti- war posters march on the Golden Mile Beach in Durban, as a show of support for the Ukrainian people, protesting against Russias invasion into Ukraine, and calling for the South African government to condemn the action of the Russian president Vladimir Putin. (Photo by RAJESH JANTILAL / AFP) (Photo by RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP via Getty Images)

This week marks the anniversary of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine, a move that upended global order just as we were all hoping to recover from the pandemic. Beside the economic impact of the war, which fanned the flames of inflation as energy prices soared, it has exposed geopolitical fissures between East and West that had effectively been papered over since the end of the Cold War more than 30 years ago.

For a South Africa that came into being at the end of that war, and because of it, it poses deep questions as to which side to choose if, indeed, history is about to repeat itself.

Were the country to pitch its tent with the West like the apartheid regime did during the Cold War, it would come with hard implications. 

By condemning Russia’s excursion, we’d make an enemy not only of Valdimir Putin in the Brics nations, but it would set a precedent that the state would have to follow through with China. India under Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi has a longstanding territorial dispute with Islamist Pakistan over Kashmir that is in no way close to being settled. China and India are in the top five economies in the world and only getting stronger, especially in the case of the latter.

To go against the West, too, has its costs as the US, Germany, Japan and the UK make up our top five export countries. Despite Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s support of apartheid South Africa, the country has its strongest historical ties to the nations that have come to be known as the West.

It’s a consideration for the ANC as well as any possible future coalition-led government.

With spy balloons flying over US skies, sounds of gunfire and missiles in East Europe, growing discord among Western nations about the future of its relations with Putin’s Russia and China, it reads like any Tom Clancy Cold War thriller.

These geopolitical events are unfolding today in what one would have been imagined to be a more enlightened age — we should know the costs of war by now.

Yet, despite this enlightenment, the distrust and divisions after the end of World War II are as true today as they were then. In years past, the divisions were ideological, a conflict between capitalism and communism. Today, only five countries in the world can be called communist, yet not in the most classical of definitions, as most embrace free enterprise. Democratic capitalism in its many variants across the world won out.

So what divides the world today? 

The destabilisation that China’s “miraculous” economic ascension has caused to many of the developed world’s leading economies. The industrial base of the US, Europe has either been compromised or outright destroyed by the factories across the length and breadth of the Asian giant. Populist leaders have found an audience in the disenfranchised blue collar worker, hence the fraught political climate. 

An economic threat Russia certainly isn’t, but Putin’s romanticism of the Soviet era is a threat to the territorial sovereignty of Europe. 

The invasion of Ukraine that first began with a military excursion into Ukraine’s Crimean province in 2014 can now only be seen as part of his grand ambition to recreate the strength of his much beloved Soviet Union. Its collapse, he once remarked, was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”   

That’s the world that this ANC-led government now finds itself in. Despite choosing to remain non-aligned, the pressures are growing for President Cyril Ramaphosa to pick a side both within the country and outside. 

As a country, we should stand against war and human rights atrocities in the name of territorial expansionism, but we don’t have any other choice but to keep its non-aligned stance. It seems cowardly and morally compromised, but what are the alternatives?