Where do SA’s best interests lie globally?

Ukraine shouldn’t have worn such a short skirt. It invited trouble. It’s Ukraine’s fault that it got raped.

Some of the contextual and historical analysis of why the Russian invasion took place blames Ukraine. It shouldn’t have been so independent, so democratic — or, in some absurd accounts, so “neo-Nazi” — nor should it have aspired to Nato or European Union membership.

It’s a thin line between trying to explain why a war has broken out and what could and should have happened to prevent it, and blaming the victim for military aggression that is causing death and destruction to its people and its cities.

South Africa’s foreign policy, and its position at the United Nations, does not cross this line, despite the gnashing of teeth of certain Western diplomats and politicians. What irks them is a belief that Pretoria is appeasing Vladimir Putin or supports Russia. 

This is neither accurate or fair, nor reasonable. To say that it does represents a failure to grasp South Africa’s place in the world and to understand what its diplomatic efforts have been trying to achieve. 

But it was fuelled by South Africa’s position at the UN last week when two humanitarian resolutions were debated at the General Assembly. A fair analysis requires an understanding of what transpired and why. 

As a first humanitarian resolution was drafted, the “pen-holders” were France and Mexico, whose aim was to achieve wide and diverse support. Most humanitarian resolutions are relatively uncontroversial and are dealt with by the UN Security Council. This one could not because it condemned the military action of one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, which enjoys a veto right. So, it went to the General Assembly. South Africa, with the backing of other countries, wanted the resolution modified to maximise support. 

Pretoria neither hoped nor expected to persuade Russia to support the resolution — it couldn’t since its proposed modified resolution also spoke to the need to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as to refrain from destroying buildings and infrastructure — in line with Pretoria’s view that Russia is in breach of international law. 

The department of international relations and cooperation had spelt this out to the ANC in a briefing days after the start of the invasion, asserting the view that Russia was violating international law by using force without the sanction of the Security Council or without there being a credible and imminent threat of the use of force by Ukraine. 

South Africa’s ambassador, Mathu Joyini, was especially busy, encouraged by some EU diplomats to think that there was an opportunity to mould one resolution. Her view was that the best outcome would be a resolution that would attract maximum support and therefore make it harder for Russia to ignore a strong resolution calling for specific action on creating humanitarian corridors. 

Pretoria gets that Putin is dangerous; it buys into the idea that Putin would use nuclear weapons if he is pushed into a corner, and recalls his chilling statement shortly after the invasion started that “Why do we need a world if Russia is not in it?” Which is why Pretoria is focusing so much attention on diplomacy that works, rather than grandstanding, and which might succeed in driving Putin towards a peaceful negotiation process rather than more and more dangerous bellicosity. 

This may be misjudged, or naive, or may over-reach South Africa’s influence, but it is not ill-intended. 

In the event, Ukraine closed the door on further revision of what by then had become its resolution. It wanted wording of condemnation of Russia. It won a clear majority, with 140 in favour, but with 38 abstentions, many of whom might have supported a single resolution that focused on the humanitarian issues rather than on condemning the Russian offensive. 

What is harder to understand is why South Africa persisted with its resolution. One answer provided by the department of international relations’ diplomats is that since it had the support of a significant number of countries it was important to table it and have it voted on.

Was this a wise decision, given the blow-back that Pretoria has faced since? Was the harm to its global reputation worth risking? 

Probably not, since the argument on the resolution was already lost. It was poor decision-making, perhaps, but not “bending over backwards to serve Russian masters” as some have suggested, and certainly not deserving of any “Mampara” award. 

Joyini, along with colleagues such as Ambassador Ndumiso Ntshinga and Zaheer Laher back at HQ, who lead on the UN side, are seasoned diplomats, people of professional integrity. 

I wonder how many of those who have passed judgment have looked at the precise wording of the two resolutions, still less troubled to speak to the people at the diplomatic coal-face. 

The non-alignment position is consistent with the past two decades of South African foreign policy — with the exception of former president Jacob Zuma’s ex-spook strong-man bromance with Putin. Ramaphosa is still trying to reverse out of the dubious “obligations” that Putin’s embezzlement of Zuma in relation to the unlawful nuclear power procurement process created, and that may have some influence on how Ramaphosa deals with Putin. 

But again, I can find no direct link with Pretoria’s UN stance on Ukraine. 

It is a question of a difference of worldview, as well as a different set of interests, and it is surprising that so many Western diplomats and commentators cannot recognise this. 

It is unreasonable of Western capitals and diplomats, who tend to see Ukraine in binary moral absolutist terms, to expect a country of the Global South, such as South Africa, with a long track record of non-alignment, to jump into line in support of Western unity. 

The one time Pretoria did depart from its non-aligned approach in the case of Libya in 2011, it ended in tears when South Africa’s planned abstention on the no-fly zone UN resolution, which led to Western military intervention and the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, was overridden at the last minute by Zuma, putting South Africa on the wrong side of that history. There is scar tissue from that incident, which may also explain Pretoria’s trenchant non-alignment. 

Ramaphosa’s instinct is to try to preserve good economic and diplomatic relations with a diverse range of global players — the US, the EU and the United Kingdom; but also Russia, India and China. 

Fair enough. But, early in his presidency, in 2018, he went to Saudi Arabia to raise much-needed investment and returned with a $2-billion commitment in his back pocket, along with the memo on Saudi human rights violations in Yemen that the department of international relations and cooperation had prepared for him but which apparently he chose not to open and raise with Riyadh. 

Economic diplomacy prevailed. Since then, International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor has returned to Riyadh and has subsequently welcomed her opposite number to Pretoria. This puts the country on thinner ice. South Africa needs jobs and inward investment, hence the interest in a good relationship with the Saudis. 

But it weakens Pretoria’s criticism of the West for lack of consistency in the application of international law. Far harder to complain that “European lives matter more” than Yemenite ones when you yourself are doing business with war criminals. 

The geopolitical landscape is shaking. Big questions are still to be answered, such as whether Putin will survive, the US will emerge stronger or weaker, Nato’s relevance will be fully restored and renewed or further questioned, and whether a new post-globalisation era of trading blocs built on the back of new strategic political and military alliances will form. 

Regardless, the world order will not be the same again, with profound implications for everyone, including South Africa. 

Where, thereafter, and in the longer-term, do South Africa’s best interests lie — not in a narrow trading or development aid perspective, but in relation to what sort of global human society it is desirable to have? One in which autocratic bullies have power and dictate the terms of global security, regimes that behead people and barely recognise women’s rights, control the price of fuel, and nationalist fascists undermine multilateral attempts to address the climate emergency?

It may be simplistic to cast the next era as a battle between liberalism and illiberalism, but South Africa needs to think much harder about where its interests really lie and position itself accordingly. 

A new, multipolar world order may seem appealing, but governments  must be careful what they wish for.

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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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