/ 15 May 2023

Calm heads required as ‘new Cold War’ intensifies

Topshot Oly 2022 Beijing Opening Vips

Pretoria’s decision to take a non-aligned position in the war between Russia and Ukraine is generating increasingly intense criticism in some quarters at home and in Western capitals. South Africa’s continued abstentions at the UN have generated significant hostility among some actors.

These have been described as a turning away from “Western values, such as democracy and human rights” and the country’s “natural Western allies” towards autocratic states with which it has “nothing in common”. 

However, in much of the world, the West, and in particular the US, is known for a litany of wars and coups, as well as economic coercion. Moreover, countries representing the majority of people in the world have chosen to remain non-aligned in the proxy war between Russia and Nato taking place on Ukrainian soil.

The fact that South Africa is due to host the annual Brics summit later this year, and that Pretoria has invited Russian president Vladimir Putin to the summit, has further heightened tensions between the West and South Africa. 

Simmering tensions became glaring when the International Criminal Court announced a warrant of arrest against Putin, putting further pressure on South Africa with calls for the country to uninvite Putin or to arrest him if he does come to the summit. These tensions have manifested in South Africa not being invited to the G7 this year, after having been a regular guest in the past.

It has been argued that there is a precedent arising from the judicial response to South Africa’s decision to not honour the warrant of arrest issued against the former president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, which binds the country to arrest Putin if he sets foot on South African soil. 

However, the two warrants are different. Unlike in Al-Bashir’s case, the conflict in Ukraine has not been referred to the ICC by the UN Security Council. Furthermore, Russia is not a signatory of the Rome Statute.

The pressure on South Africa has been ratcheted up, with the US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, taking the unusual and undiplomatic stance of calling a press conference to make serious public accusations against his host country. 

At the press conference, Brigety accused South Africa of giving arms to Russia. These accusations were made without any evidence being presented. The fact that, during the press conference, Brigety said that he would “bet his life” on these claims, appears to be accepted as proof enough by some.

Let us not forget the US insisted that there was intelligence to support its claim that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” to legitimise its invasion of Iraq, which saw over a million people killed. 

This claim was supported by much of the media in the West and is now recognised to have been bogus. 

The Department of International Relations and Cooperation has, since his media briefing, stated that Brigety has unreservedly apologised for his utterances. Brigety, however, only said the following late on 12 May, on social media: “I was grateful for the opportunity to speak with Foreign Minister Pandor this evening and correct any misimpressions left by my public remarks. In our conversation, I re-affirmed the strong partnership between our two countries and the important agenda our presidents have given us.” 

Whatever the truth is, it is clear that the US’s patience with South Africa and the country’s foreign policy has run out. Pretoria is seen as having got too big for its britches by constantly refusing to toe the line. 

The accusation by a US ambassador of arms being given to a country under US and Nato sanctions has not only reverberated in South Africa but around the world. Immediately after the accusation was made, South Africa’s currency depreciated to record lows last seen at the height of the pandemic in 2020.

In veiled threats during the press briefing, the US ambassador pointed out that South Africa is free to conduct its foreign policy the way it sees fit, as is the US. This comment seemed targeted at South Africa’s access to Agoa — the African Growth and Opportunity Act — which is due for renewal in 2025.

There is another issue at play though, which is the intense disquiet from Washington and other Western capitals about the probable expansion of Brics and the growing calls for the grouping to find ways to conduct trade without having to use the US dollar. The fact that Brics wants to position itself as an alternative to Western-dominated alliances does not sit well with the US or the uncritical pro-West chorus in South Africa. In his press conference, Brigety referred directly to this threat to US hegemony.

Let us remember that US interest in Africa has mostly been about countering the desire for socialism at independence, bringing as many countries as it could into line during the old Cold War and protecting its economic and security interests as well as those of its corporations. US interests on the continent have never really been developmental. Claims that US aid offers a road to development are, at best, overblown. More often than not, aid has benefitted the aid agencies, their workers and the patronage that grows around them rather than the people it is supposed to help.

The attacks on Pretoria should not be surprising as in recent months anti-government rhetoric has been intensified in some media, from the official opposition and among the business class, with one business baron after another decrying government policy. No one would begrudge concern about issues such as the electricity and economic crisis, but the shrill attacks on South Africa’s membership of Brics and non-alignment in regard to the war being fought in Ukraine, along with demands that South Africa should side with the US and Nato, are another matter. There is an unmistakable racial dimension to all of this, with repeated reference to the discourse of civilisational superiority and a complete disregard for the victims of the West.

Most South African state-owned enterprises, including arms producer Denel, have been felled by years of corruption and maladministration. Denel is no longer the arms giant that it once was and in recent years has even been unable to pay its staff. It seems incredible that it had enough useful weapons to fill a cargo ship bound for the frontlines. Surely, the country that gave the world the Kalashnikov does not need to be armed by South Africa?

Granted, the South African government sometimes shoots itself in the foot, and the right hand doesn’t always seem to know what the left is doing, but for South Africa to supply Russia defies logic. What would the country have to gain from this? If it was supplying Russia with arms why dock the ship in Cape Town, in a city and province governed by the official opposition? Would it not have made better sense to do this in Durban, Richards Bay or Gqeberha, which are controlled by the governing party, giving them better command and control over the situation?

We must be mindful of the way in which the “weapons of mass destruction” lie was taken as fact by so much of the Western media and the recent debacle in our media with the bogus Eskom report. Unless clear facts are brought to bear on this allegation it can only be treated as an allegation.

At this point, this appears to be a game of diplomatic brinkmanship, with the US reminding South Africa to “toe the line or else”. It is another example of why groupings such as Brics are so important and why South Africa, and the rest of the Global South, need to diversify their trade and political alliances.

Repressive states around the world, such as Rwanda and Pakistan, are rewarded and supported by the US and its allies, yet South Africa is being put on notice for daring to unshackle itself from the demand to become the next Kenya —  a client state of the US.

Nontobeko Hlela works for Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and is seconded to the office of the National Security Advisor as a researcher. She writes in her personal capacity.

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