/ 10 May 2023

Only a return to first principles can repair South Africa’s amoral foreign policy

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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is due to visit South Africa for the Brics summit in August, which will take place just months after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for his alleged role in war crimes committed by Russian soldiers and mercenaries in Ukraine.

This has kicked off a fierce debate about whether South Africa should follow international law and arrest Putin or defy it. In 2017, South Africa’s supreme court of appeal ruled that the government is obligated to arrest anyone wanted by the ICC, regardless of whether they are a head of state. 

Although Putin may, for his own reasons, not attend after all, the idea that a weak country like South Africa can arrest Putin is laughable. South Africa does not have the geopolitical leverage to influence anything of international significance, let alone one as contentious as arresting the president of a nuclear power.

But the reason South Africa is in this self-created dilemma has little to do with Russia, and more to do with the outmoded outlook of the ANC and its worryingly poor understanding of modern global dynamics. This outlook reflects old ideological sentiments where the “West” was a “capitalist enemy”, and the “East” were “socialist friends”.

This is far from true today. The two superpowers, whose love and affection South Africa covets to the level of embarrassing genuflection, China and Russia, share little by way of values with South Africa’s supreme law, the Constitution. This does not mean South Africa should cut ties with countries who do not live up to our human rights standards, but we should not be naïve about points of disagreement.

Although geopolitics is complex and no issue is ever black and white, it is important to agree on some kind of anchor for our foreign relations choices and actions. At any time where we have to make decisive choices about any international issue, I believe that the preamble to our Constitution and Chapter 2, the Bill of Rights, should be the basis of our policy decisions.

The preamble asks us to remember the injustices of our past, so that we do not only correct them but make sure they are never repeated, here or elsewhere. In that past, many Western powers took forever to extend a hand of friendship to black liberation movements such as the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress during apartheid. Instead, they sided with the apartheid government by supporting organisations such as Unita in Angola with weapons, which was supported by South Africa’s regime.

In other instances, the British government under Margaret Thatcher steadfastly refused to isolate the apartheid government, claiming that this would harm black South Africans. The preamble means we must always aim to a higher standard and never stoop to the level of the actions of the past when issues of human rights arise in the present and in the future.

That standard is set out in the Bill of Rights. It does not only enjoin us to protect and advance rights in South Africa but to use our influence elsewhere to advance the same. It is ridiculous to obfuscate who is in the wrong between a country that bombs apartment buildings and schools and the one defending itself. Yet, in the case of Russia’s illegal war on Ukraine our government even uses Russia’s propaganda language by calling it a “special military operation”.

Ultimately our concern and friendships must be for and with the peoples of other countries and nations rather than governments and politicians, and the choices they make. In that context, we must be concerned where people cannot freely express themselves or enjoy personal freedoms such as living openly as gay, bisexual or transgender, for example.

We must be concerned for people who cannot live safely and freely, enjoy sovereignty they are entitled to, share their views without being harassed or arrested, start and run news organisations or publish opinion pieces without fear of arrest or imprisonment. It must therefore matter whether a party such as the ANC, whose officials run our government, has such close affection for governments who deny their citizens those basic rights.

This is not to suggest that South Africa should leave the Brics because Narendra Modi’s India oppresses Muslims, Russia bombs its neighbours to smithereens and arrests its citizens for stating that fact, or that in China you get arrested for expressing an opinion we take for granted here. But we can choose what actions we defend otherwise we lose the moral power to condemn anything that is wrong in the world.

How else are we supposed to condemn the next president of the United States for invading a country like Iraq under false pretences and then leaving it in a mess when we can’t see the similarity with what Putin is doing in Ukraine? How are we supposed to speak out for oppressed peoples elsewhere when we are tacitly fine with Ukrainians being bombed into the Stone Age simply because Putin doesn’t believe Ukraine should exist?

And what about loyal friends of our liberation struggle, such as Sweden, who are in such fear of Russian invasion in future that they want to join Nato? Have we decided to toss their historical role aside? And for what exactly?

The Russia-Ukraine issue is not the only contentious issue we have to find a consistent moral wavelength on. Even on our own continent, the ANC government has painted itself into an uncomfortable corner of worthless sentiment.

For example, in Uganda anyone who has a sexual relationship with another person of the same sex can be jailed for life. The Ugandan parliament wanted to impose the death penalty but President Yoweri Museveni bowed to international pressure and returned the bill to parliament.

True to form, the South African government said nothing of any consequence. It also doesn’t say anything of consequence when citizens of eSwatini and Zimbabwe are abused by their governments. Instead, it hides behind the laughable fantasy of being a likely mediator in such circumstances, a task it never even begins.

I also have no expectation that the government will change tack anytime soon. We are likely to suffer the geopolitical and economic consequences of confused, reactionary and haphazard foreign policy choices whether Putin visits or not.

If he does visit, he will simply accelerate a decline that was already in progress rather than cause it. And when we finally become internationally irrelevant, it may look like there is yet another conspiracy against us. In reality, we will be feeling the consequences of foreign policy unmoored from any self-propelling moral idea.

The only way we can have clarity and consistency in our foreign policy is when we have a new government that understands how its constitutional principles should form the bedrock of all policy, domestic or foreign. In such a case, we will have the credibility to criticise anyone as part of the normal course of diplomatic relations, not be an embarrassing, hypocritical poodle that behaves like a vassal state.

Songezo Zibi is the leader of a new political party, Rise Mzansi.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.