/ 7 February 2023

South Africa navigates crucial 2023 diplomatic calendar

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In August South Africa will host the 15th Brics summit in its capacity as the current Brics chair. Photo: Getty Images

South Africa has an unusually busy diplomatic calendar set out for 2023. 

Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister was recently in the country to meet with his South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor. Janet Yellen, the US Treasury Secretary met with President Cyril Ramaphosa on 25 January. 

In August South Africa will host the 15th Brics summit in its capacity as the current Brics chair. Pretoria will receive Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have also pledged to visit the continent this year — likely including South Africa

Lula, a leading figure in the global left, is one of the founding personalities behind Brics. In his first term as president of Brazil he had a strong and good relationship with South Africa and there was fraternal cooperation between his administration and Pretoria. His visit to South Africa is likely to be one of his first visits overseas since his re-election. Lula has considerable support in South Africa from within government as well as trade unions and social movements. He is sure to want to build on his high standing here to drive the reinvigoration of Brics towards its original ideals of enhancing cooperation and fostering political and economic independence for the Global South.

Narendra Modi has moved India to the far right and his administration hasn’t shown much interest in Africa save for wanting to build military bases, especially in the Horn of Africa. Although India is strongly aligned with the West on some issues, such as Israel, Modi has kept a degree of independence and has been adept at playing both sides in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. It has managed to continue to trade with Russia and maintain its status as a friend of the West. 

No doubt the furore in the mass media that accompanied the recent visit by Lavrov and the planned naval exercises between South Africa, Russia and China was merely the overture to the tsunami of outrage that will accompany Putin’s visit. 

South Africa’s consistent stance of non-alignment with regard to the conflict between Russia and the West has been met with shrill outrage from powerful sections of the South African commentariat. Strikingly there is no similar outrage when South Africa collaborates with the West despite its record of unlawful invasions. 

It is clear that for this lobby the only acceptable position is for South Africa to fully align itself with the West, and that anything short of this means South Africa is a completely unethical actor that should be lumped with “pariah states”. There is no appreciation of the simple moral point made by Noam Chomsky: “If it’s wrong when they do it, it’s wrong when we do it.” 

We are in the midst of what Siphamandla Zondi calls “massive information warfare”, and have to keep clear heads, examine all the evidence clearly and think for ourselves.

When it comes to the recent UN resolutions we need to understand that the South African position is hardly an aberration. Many countries have taken similar positions. We should also recall that on numerous occasions the US and its allies — Britain, France, West Germany and others — either abstained or voted against resolutions put to the UN General Assembly condemning South Africa’s apartheid regime and Israel’s sale of arms to the regime or those seeking to declare the apartheid regime as “illegitimate”. 

It was only in 1986 that the US Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which called for the ending of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela. 

Saudi hypocrisy

At the time it was not argued that the US had been “captured” by Pretoria. Yet today, Greg Mills and Ray Hartley have the temerity to declare that Pretoria has been “captured by the Russians and Chinese all along”, as if, in that old colonial trope, as Africans we can’t think for ourselves. No doubt the uncritically pro-Western lobby here will now turn on Lula after he has made it clear that Brazil will also take an independent position on the war in Europe.

All states take at least some positions based on their strategic interests. There are no exceptions to this. This is, of course, true of the US too.

The same US that is supporting “human rights” in Ukraine continues to have a very warm and lucrative relationship with Saudi Arabia, a country that is not known for its commitment to human rights. Indeed Saudi Arabia is a despotic state that has brutally killed its own citizen and US resident Jamal Khashoggi. Biden even visited that country in 2022. 

When a bill was introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders to stop US support for Saudi Arabia’s war effort in Yemen, the Biden administration opposed the bill. Clearly there are interests that the US is protecting in Saudi Arabia, interests that trump human rights.

These interests include the thriving American arms industry that benefits from the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia as well as the importance of the oil reserves in Saudi Arabia for the US. 

Having a simplistic “us and them”, “good versus bad” approach to geopolitics is easy and lazy. States do sometimes take positions on the basis of principle — such as Kenneth Kaunda’s decision to give sanctuary to the anti-apartheid forces in Zambia — but they also make strategic calculations based on their interests. 

Understanding all this requires careful thought, and nuanced analysis. A world where the opinions of the loudest and the most monied are the only voices that matter is a world of unquestioning sheep.

The Russia-Ukraine war is not the first time that South Africa has taken a policy position independent of the US, and it will not be the last. South Africa never cut ties with Iran or Venezuela despite intense pressure from the US. And despite the US’s long-standing blockade against Cuba, South Africa has been and continues to be one of Cuba’s most vociferous supporters and advocates. 

Hidden energy agenda

As much as there is genuine concern for ordinary Ukrainians within the US we cannot be blind to the fact that the Russia-Ukraine war is also benefiting the US in various ways. There is, for example, some speculation that the US is helping prolong the war in order to ensure that its companies get full control of the energy sector in the EU. Leaders across Europe fear distortions in transatlantic trade from the United States Inflation Reduction Act, which will pour billions of dollars into US-made, climate-friendly technologies. 

Energy, like everything else, is political. Concerns have been raised in South Africa with regards to Yellen’s visit and the US push for South Africa to abandon coal, especially now with these unprecedented levels of blackouts. The argument that the West, which has put more carbon into the atmosphere than any other part of the world, must carry the bulk of the burden of moving the world towards clean energy. It is neither irrational nor immoral for South Africans to argue that, given our economic crisis we cannot simply give up coal during a major energy crisis. 

As the great African-American intellectual W.E.B. du Bois asked in 1915:  “What do nations care about the cost of war, if by spending a few hundred millions in steel and gunpowder they can gain a thousand millions in diamonds and cocoa?” In 2023 we need to examine the full set of reasons for the war in Ukraine and ask who stands to benefit the most by not encouraging dialogue and thereby prolonging the war. 

Henry Kissinger famously said that “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests”. This still holds true for the US today. South Africa and the rest of the African continent need to remember this. We also need to remember that our own interests and support for any country have to be determined with the interests of our own people in mind.  

The conversations with Lavrov and Yellen must be driven with a concern with concrete benefits for South Africa, and a more open world order, one in which Africa has more autonomy. The same concerns need to drive our engagement in the Brics summit later this year, and when Biden, the most powerful man in the world, visits. Our foreign policy needs, like all other countries, to take our own interests seriously. We cannot be dictated to by an increasingly hysterical pro-Western lobby at home.

We as Africans need a clear understanding of the history that has impoverished us, and the current geopolitical realities that keep Africa poor. We need a clear vision of a world order that will expand our autonomy, and that of the rest of the Global South, and allow us to take our rightful place in the world. 

This new scramble for influence in Africa is, in some respects, an opportunity to renegotiate important aspects of our international relations. We need to approach it with clear eyes and a clear commitment to advance our own position. If we don’t act on an informed and assertive basis we will find that when this wave of interest in Africa moves on we will, once again, sit licking our wounds and wondering how when everyone was courting us we still remain alone, destitute and with no tangible benefits.