/ 16 April 2024

Why rebuke Naledi Pandor for safeguarding South Africa’s sovereignty?

Icj Delivers Order On South Africa's Genocide Case Against Israel
International Relations and Cooperations Minister Naledi Pandor. (Photo by Michel Porro/Getty Images)

In an article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick, the Brenthurst Foundation’s Greg Mills and Ray Hartley excoriated International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor for failing to treat South Africa like a vassal of the West, the United States in particular. I will ignore the diatribe that is peppered over their piece and try to address the arguments. 

The writers belittle what they believe to be a shop-worn strategy used by embattled South African governments, pre- and post-apartheid when seeking international investments. Fact is, regardless of the political party in office, South Africa’s geopolitical attributes, its strategic geographical location, its ports, economic, physical and communication infrastructure are legitimate features to highlight and do interest potential investors. 

Second, rookie the ANC may be in government, but lecturing them about corridors that need to be navigated around Capitol Hill and the US diplomatic networks is like teaching grandmother to suck eggs. The South African embassy in Washington, DC, is au fait with all that jazz. The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 these critics cite is a product of intensive lobbying in the 1970s and 1980s by the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the US, Randall Robinson’s TransAfrica, Harry Belafonte and many other US civic and business organisations that worked together with the ANC office in Washington, DC, leading to the passing of the Act. That was not before overcoming President Ronald Reagan’s veto, typifying traditional US government sympathy towards the apartheid government. 

Some historical facts: the apartheid administration was an ally of the West during the two world wars — the Korean War, and the Cold War — as the writers say. Worth knowing also is that the Afrikaner Ossewabrandwag, which contributed in no small way to the victory of Pik Botha’s National Party in the 1948 general elections, actively opposed South Africa’s participation in World War II. They were vocally supportive of the Nazis and carried out a campaign of sabotage against state infrastructure. For good measure, the ANC opposed Nazi Germany. 

But it didn’t have an international profile prior to its banning in 1960. Once in exile, its first port of call was the United Kingdom. Both London and Washington declined its request for support purportedly because they were against a violent struggle. The Soviet Union and China offered the requested  support, as did the African Union, Nordic countries and the Non-Aligned Movement. Importantly citizens in Western countries banded together to form the Anti-Apartheid Movement, which became the biggest ever mass movement on an international issue. For the longest  time, the US and UK branded the ANC a terrorist organisation and Nelson Mandela a terrorist. 

Mills and Hartley pooh-pooh Pandor’s pitch for US partnership with South Africa offering to become the gateway to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Their contention is that South Africa has forfeited such a role because of its poor economic growth rates. At first reading I thought they might have been concerned that South Africa was offering to become a Trojan horse for US investments, which would have a deleterious effect on the development of AfCFTA manufacturing efforts. Compared to Asia (at 32.7%) and Europe (39.1%), in 2022, intra-African trade accounted for 12.5% of African exports. But that was the furthest thing from the writers’ minds. 

On the contrary, they dismiss it as a free trade area “whose timescale for fruition is four decades away”. They’re simply “gatvol” with the ANC. 

The world has changed since the invasion of Ukraine, the writers say, and “we picked the wrong side”. Which then, was the right side? South Africa offered to be a mediator, which ruled out taking any of the sides. Most unfortunately, participation in joint naval exercises with Russia in February 2023, in the thick of the Russo-Ukraine war, ruled out any meaningful peacemaker role. In that sense, Mills and Hartley got it right. 

The role of Nato after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in 1991 confounds disinterested observers. The creation of Nato in 1949 was to “provide collective security for the US, Canada, and several Western European countries against the Soviet Union”. This should have signalled the end of the Cold War, which was fuelled by the ideological contest between capitalism and communism. Contemporary Russia cannot by any stretch of the imagination be mistaken for a communist country. 

What then, justifies Nato’s continued existence, to say nothing about its addition of new members and east-bound expansion in Europe? Russian concerns about the importation of long-range missiles into its neighbourhood would seem to have legitimacy. And Ukraine has applied for Nato membership. 

Returning to Pandor’s — and South Africa’s — Brenthurst nemesis. The writers question the minister’s visit to Iran to meet President Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi two weeks after Hamas attacked Israeli civilians on 7 October 2023. Are they aware of the substance of their consultation? They also refer to “numerous friendly meetings” between Pandor and Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. What is the concern about their friendliness”? 

Tehran may be Israel’s and America’s enemy, but it is not South Africa’s. Surely, as sovereign countries, they have a right to exchange visits without seeking anybody’s approval. The proposition that South Africa’s pursuit of its non-belligerent interests in the Middle East and, indeed, anywhere else in the world, should be contingent upon them not being at variance with those of the US must be strongly rejected. 

This principle was underlined during Mandela’s interview with journalist Ted Koppel in Washington DC, in February 1990. Mandela said: “One of the mistakes which some political analysts [and some countries] make is to think that their enemies should be our enemies.” 

Asked about the ANC’s support for the Palestine Liberation Organisation, he said: “The Palestinians, like ourselves, are fighting for their right to self-determination.” He added: “We also recognise Israel’s right to exist.”  

Disagreeing with a domineering big country always entails risks. It stands to reason that a responsible government must always act in the best interests of its citizens. This requires, inter alia, a timely search for viable alternative relationships, the better to prepare them for sacrifices that may need to be made. Mills and Hartley seem to think South Africa should automatically pay obeisance to the paramountcy of US geopolitical interests. The Western nations’ handling of the murderous war in Palestine has shocked and perplexed many people in the world, US citizens included. 

Finally, Pandor’s Brenthurst critics say “the ANC was viewed as a Soviet-backed enemy. By associating itself so closely with Russia and China, the ANC is confirming that stereotype.” I wonder what advice they would dispense to South Africa regarding its membership of Brics, which comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. It came into existence to bring together important developing countries to challenge the political and economic power of the wealthier nations of North America and Western Europe.  

The adage, not taken lightly, says: rather die on your feet than live on your knees. 

In writing this piece, I hold no brief for Minister Naledi Pandor, nor for that matter, the ANC, of which I am a member. The views expressed here are personal.