Why is South Africa not condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

As the Ukraine crisis escalated precipitously over the past two weeks and world leaders scrambled to formulate their responses, I recalled a time 20 years ago when Fink Haysom, the legendary public interest lawyer and legal adviser to Nelson Mandela, was commissioned by the Dutch government to visit Zimbabwe to assess the deteriorating situation as Robert Mugabe’s time in power degenerated rapidly. 

The Dutch government’s starting point was political dialogue and non-partisanship. But, the question that they had decided they needed to confront was this: had things become so bad that taking a side — even against a democratically elected government — was justified? 

Having visited the beleaguered neighbour to South Africa, Haysom reached an unequivocal conclusion: yes, it was necessary and justifiable to take the side of the pro-democracy resistance led by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Did that approach work? No. Mugabe survived for more than another decade, with further harm caused to his nation’s economy and well-being, and even deeper erosion to human rights and the rule of law. 

Was it still the right thing to do? Probably. Sometimes you just need to be on the right side of history, as a matter of principle, regardless of pragmatic considerations. 

Similar contemplations have juddered through the minds of South African foreign policymakers in Pretoria and New York this week. 

Instinctively, as the first Russian tanks rolled across the border into Ukraine, senior officials in the department of international relations and cooperation opened their draft statement in response with the habitual mantra of the past 28 years — political dialogue. The rest of the statement followed on predictably, with references to the United Nations Charter and the need to use UN institutions to resolve conflict and arrive at peaceful outcomes. 

Yet, in the middle of the statement there was an unexpected line calling on Russia to withdraw. It is not known who exactly wrote the line. But the minister for international relations and cooperation, Naledi Pandor, signed off on the statement — not surprisingly given the importance of the matter. 

Western diplomats were pleased by South Africa’s stance. Apparently, President Cyril Ramaphosa was less enamoured. Since then, the line has disappeared; this Tuesday’s statement to the specially convened UN General Assembly makes no reference to Russia or to its invasion. 

On the one hand, Pretoria’s consistency is to be admired. It’s senior officials have formulated positions such as this mindfully over many years, and their refusal to bow to populist Western pressure reflects both professional discipline and principle. 

Western capitals and their Pretoria missions struggle to grasp South Africa’s reasoning. But they forget that she is not a Western power or Nato member but a country of the Global South with a deeply ingrained tradition of nonalignment (albeit that the nonaligned movement has itself withered on the vine in recent years).
But it does leave nagging concerns. First, why is it not possible to condemn Russia’s invasion as well as emphasise the need for political dialogue and the pursuit of a peaceful outcome through multilateral engagement? Russia has clearly breached international law and trampled over Ukraine’s sovereignty

Second, what if this was the United States invading, say, Mexico, in the event that Mexico had threatened to join a competing geopolitical power bloc? Pretoria’s stance would be very different. 

The answer, according to senior officials in the international relations department, is context. Context – and history – does matter; as hypocritical inconsistency in Western positions: why not the same outrage and collective global action in the case of Israeli international law transgressions and incursions in Palestine, for example?

But there is a thin line between sage and legitimate contextualisation, on the one hand, and intellectually vacuous “what-aboutism”, on the other. 

Moreover, it runs the risk of falling into the trap of naiveté. By definition, South Africa’s position on political dialogue must be premised on the supposition that the main protagonist — Vladimir Putin now; Mugabe 20 years ago — will be willing to engage in dialogue in reasonably good faith. 

Is this not a misreading of Putin (just as it was of Mugabe), who “lives in his own world” as former Germany chancellor Angela Merkel once said. 

Putin is a right-wing autocrat; a demagogic nationalist; a rogue actor in global affairs, whose respect for sovereign nation autonomy has been conspicuous by its absence — as evidenced by his meddling directly or indirectly in the internal political systems of numerous countries, the US 2016 election (read the detail of the Mueller Report, not the headline) and in the Brexit referendum. 

Another conversation springs to mind. In 2017, as the wind of change began to blow through the corridors of Luthuli House threatening to blow away the pirates of Polokwane, a veteran ANC politician approached me on the subject of party political funding with his willingness to take up the issue inside the ruling party underwritten by a deeply-held concern that his organisation was being subject to “party capture” — by Moscow.
And with good reason. Putin ensnared Zuma even more than the Guptas did; as a result there was even a form of “state capture” of parts of the international relations department. The extent of Putin’s malign reach is not yet known, but just as it has been wheedled out by brilliant journalists such as The Guardian’s Carole Cadwalladr in the case of malign Russian interference in European domestic politics, so in due course it will emerge here. 

Again, context and history reminds us that Western powers have meddled incessantly in the internal affairs of sovereign nations for centuries. But, once again, that is not the point.

The overriding concern here is that while it may be true – as the international relations department believes to be the case – that Western/Nato positions on Ukraine are likely to entrench Putin’s resolve and lead to greater rather than lesser belligerence from the Russian dictator, calling for political dialogue without a requirement for cessation of military action and a withdrawal amounts to appeasement of brutal bullying and the breach of international law. 

Does this mean that Haysom’s boss, Mandela, would be turning in his grave now? I doubt it. After all, although he tried for a while to maintain a “two Chinas” policy post-1994, in the end he succumbed to the irresistible pressure of realpolitik and economic self-interest. Taiwan was dropped

These are the tough choices that political leaders have to make. As the world staggers blinking into what would appear optimistically to be the final phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, it now stands on the brink of a potentially even more seismic crisis. Once again, the decision-making and judgment of political leaders is in the spotlight. 

The bigger the crisis the greater the pressure on those with the power to lead — and the more that those whom they lead expect them to lead judiciously and also decisively. 

Against this intense backdrop, it is worth reflecting on what constitutes a crisis, since such analytical reflection may have important implications for how leaders respond, as well as what citizens should reasonably expect of their political leadership. 

“Crisis” is one of the most overused words in politics. It adds gravitas to a political position or policy statement that might otherwise be lacking. It can provide ostensible justification for what in a time of “non-crisis” might be a socially or politically unacceptable stance — the Covid-19 lockdown regulations spring immediately to mind. 

There is academic literature on the point, much of which in recent years has revolved around the stimulating pivot of Janet Roitman’s 2014 book, Anti-Crisis. Roitman argues that crisis no longer marks a decisive moment in time, but rather “a state of enduring crisis”. In turn, this prompts the insight that the right question is not “what went wrong?” but rather “what is wrong?” 

Given that the challenges that humanity faces now are systemic and not event driven — the climate breakdown emergency that threatens human life on Earth; the harmful, chronic inequalities in and between nations; the ongoing racial injustice that has deep roots in the colonial era — leaders need to confront the “what is wrong?” question rather than react to the “what went wrong?” one.
Which brings us back to Ramaphosa’s crisis leadership — both in relation to South Africa’s domestic economic, fiscal, social and political crisis, and the crisis in international relations and security caused by the war in Ukraine. 

On the former, Ramaphosa is fighting on multiple fronts as he attempts to reform and rebuild after the damaging years of state capture and institutional hollowing out, worsened by the economic harm wrought by Covid-19. His recent State of the Nation address suggested a step-change in his approach — bolder and more willing to confront the crisis head-on. 

If so, the leadership challenge as he attempts to meet the 100-day challenge he has set himself to forge a “new consensus” — one that must inevitably resolve some acute trade-offs between key economic players such as business and labour — is to not just respond to ‘“what went wrong” but to take on the bigger mission of “what is wrong” — in other words, the underlying structural constraints. 

On the latter, as it pertains to South Africa’s role in the world, Ramaphosa will have to remind himself of the old adage that in foreign relations there are no friends, only interests. 

The trickier — and murkier — and unresolved question is what exactly are the interests that are driving South Africa’s positioning? If it is a principled commitment to political dialogue, determined by the professional diplomats in the international relations department, however naive this may be, so be it. 

If, however, “what is wrong” is that South Africa is now beholden or contaminated by Russian interference, as part of a wider and deeper contamination of the political system, then the diagnosis requires a very different prescription.

Richard Calland is associate professor of public law at the University of Cape Town and co-author with Mabel Sithole of the forthcoming book The Presidents: Leadership Lessons from Mandela to Ramaphosa in an Era of Crisis.

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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