Russia-Ukraine: Discretion is the better part of valour for South Africa

In his 1990 memoir, Against the Grain, the Russian Federation’s future first president, Boris Yeltsin, regularly flogged his then Communist Party chairperson Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last leader, for being indecisive and a man of “half measures” in the face of the catastrophe facing the collapsing Soviet Union. 

The same cannot be said of Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin’s eventual successor. Even before the events of 24 February, Putin had always presented an image of decisiveness and action, by any means necessary, in addition to a brash anti-Western style that perhaps so many wish their own leaders would take up in some measure. His image is crafted primarily for his domestic audience, but in today’s hyperconnected world, he has admirers the world over, including in our own shores. That is part of what has produced a rift in South African opinion towards his invasion of Ukraine

One take-away from the popular reaction towards the invasion, and there are many conclusions to be drawn, is that South Africans yearn for some measure of decisiveness from the leaders. But as I see it, the country has a higher sense of its importance than it should. Both those who condemn Russia and those who “stand with it” demonstrate an illusion about what South Africa can do, and how much it should aspire to. 

Those who sympathise with Ukraine imagine that the conflict is somehow South Africa’s to resolve, without offering any concrete appraisals of the situation beyond true but banal statements: wheat, rights, international law, and defence of Ukrainian sovereignty. South Africa has neither the resources nor the power to act in this conflict, which is not of South Africa’s making and is characterised by power jostling beyond its league or even intuitive comprehension 

Those on the Russian side, and many have made it clear that they are, demonstrate a romanticism about the past that borders on caricature, steeped as it is in a lack of deep reflection about the Soviet era: namely, who has the rightful claim to the Soviet past? Also missing is a demystification about the late Soviet period and the totality of its contribution to our freedoms. 

There is also no clear-eyed analysis about the real significance of the Brics bloc, made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Let us have these frank discussions.

On the first question, it merits reiterating the obvious, that the Soviet Union was a union of soviet socialist republics (SSR). Successive leaders of that regime went to great pains to ensure representation of the various constituencies of that empire (for what else could it be called?) after the 1950s. One such republic was the Ukraine SSR. The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (SFSR), it was made clear, had no special claim beyond Moscow being the contingent seat of the government, and having been merely a first among equals. In this arrangement, as one Oxford historian in the 1960s put it, Ukraine was the second brother. 

When the Soviet Union withered away as a formal entity on 8 December 1991, it was through agreement of three leaders: the Russian SFSR, the Belarus SSR and the Ukrainian SSR. The international community came to the agreement that Russia was the successor state of the Soviet Union, inheriting, for example, its seat at the United Nations Security Council, where so much of the political theatre over the conflict has played out in recent weeks. 

But this was not without negotiation and trade-offs. For example, the Soviet Union’s nuclear stockpiles in Ukraine were given to Russia under the agreement that its security and territorial integrity would be assured by the nuclear powers. Russia in turn also inherited the USSR’s $72-billion debt, mostly accumulated in the 1980s.

This raises the important question, then, of the assumed natural alliance between Russia and South Africa on account of what the USSR contributed to the struggle against apartheid. Such contributions, made as they were under the banner of the entire USSR, can be attributed to all of the USSR’s successor states. 

If we are to be historically consistent, Russia has no exclusive claim to this history any more than Ukraine. In other words, if South Africa were to break up, would Gauteng be the sole inheritor of the country’s legacy of goodwill, where it enjoys any, with all the other provinces being forced to start from a blank page? 

It is also worth mentioning, too, that some of South Africa’s leaders have put the USSR’s posture towards South Africa under some question. For example, in his book Towards a New Deal: A Political Economy of My Lifetime, Rob Davies, South Africa’s former trade and industry minister, has argued that by 1987, Soviet attitudes towards the liberation movements had soured, with some of its foreign policy thinkers suggesting greater compromise by the ANC (proposing that it take up “consociational democracy” or “race bloc democracy” for example). 

It is worth quoting Davies at some length. “We soon encountered a new generation of [Soviet] researchers who were unpacking everything and showing a distinct inclination to fundamentally challenge every previously established position. This included an inclination, at least implicitly, to see the ANC as out of touch with reality on the ground in South Africa and no longer a major factor.” 

The assumed alliance between South Africa and today’s Russia is thus ill-informed both about the rigorous criteria regarding the nature of alliances and about South Africa’s place in the world. A common myth about the Russian flag — put out of commission after the 1917 Revolution and brought back after the collapse of the Soviet Union — is that it was inspired by the flag of the Netherlands, which the tsar of Russia (Peter the Great) saw when he travelled to Western Europe with the intent of modernising his country along their model. Both have the same colour scheme, with the Russian version having the colours rearranged. 

The history of this “Dutch connection” is of significance far beyond vexillology, and has direct implications for how we understand our own historical links to Russia. In the 17th century, when the Cape was being settled by Dutch employees of the Dutch East India Company, there were alongside them a Russian contingent. Although its roots did not settle as it did for their Dutch counterparts, the Russian presence had the endorsement of its government in Moscow, which could not take up colonies in Africa and elsewhere outside of Europe because of its effective landlocked status (despite its vast size, Russia’s ports are frozen over most of the year). 

This is not insignificant. The first Cape-born governor general of the Cape (between 1739 and 1751), Hendrik Swellengrebel (born 1700), was a descendent of this Russian-Dutch stock, a fact explored deeper in a ground-breaking 2021 article by the Dutch-Russian research team of Boris Gorelik and Gerrit Jan Schutte published in the South African journal Historia

“Dutch expatriates were known for their loyalty to the tsarist government, the profitability of their commercial activities and the value of their organisational and technological skills for modernisation of Russia’s industries, healthcare and armed forces,” the article finds. 

During the South African War of 1899-1902 (like many scholars, I prefer this term to the archaic and inaccurate “Second Anglo-Boer War” which ignores Black victims of the conflict), about 270 Russians enlisted as volunteers (alongside many Americans and Europeans) in the conflict as Afrikaner sympathisers.

I have written at length on Brics, specifically on how little it has meant for South Africa economically and on security. Suffice it to say South Africa’s principal trade and investment partners in that platform are China (far and ahead of the other partners) and India, followed by Russia and then Brazil. But the trends seen in South Africa’s commerce with these countries would drum on without the Brics platform. 

The association is sometimes described as an alliance by those who desperately wish for it to be one. Others see not an alliance yet, but an alliance in the making, with it being at least an engine room for an ideological alternative to the West’s dominance of the international order. This may have had a grain of truth in the early days, when genuinely left-leaning governments led Brazil and India. That is less so today. 

Allies share information, communicate objectives, and consult one another before undertaking such major moves as invading other countries, lest they expose their friends to international and domestic embarrassment. This surely never took place leading up to 24 February, and Tshwane was left only to react upon the actions of its purported friend. 

The first two days of the escalated conflict, characterised by indecisiveness in the cabinet, ushered in a reckoning that we must confront about South Africa’s foreign policy, or rather its absence. The country champions idealistic notions and ideological principles but has no known red lines. It seeks to be a middle power but it has a shrinking normative and financial capital base such that it cannot seriously enter into or formulate platforms of its own. 

Space for action is being closed by China and regional powers on the continent it once could claim to lead. Its leaders speak in populist-driven, disparaging, Cold War terms about the Global North, but appeals to foreign investors see them leaning West nonetheless. 

South Africa’s foreign interactions can be best described as diplomacy without foreign policy.

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Bhaso Ndzendze
Dr Bhaso Ndzendze is a senior lecturer in the University of Johannesburg. His latest book is Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies in International Relations (World Scientific Press, 2021).

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