/ 9 April 2024

Foreign policy autonomy matters

President Biden Meets With South African President Cyril Ramaphosa In The Oval Office
Presidents Cyril Ramaphosa and Joe Biden. Photo by Pete Marovich-Pool/Getty Images

There is a clear and aggressive agenda in the US and US-aligned circles in South Africa to paint Pretoria’s foreign policy as inconsistent and in some formulations even “rogue”, as well as detrimental to the economic growth of the country.

This is all code for the fact that South Africa doesn’t want to toe the line drawn by the West on its relations with other states, which means only befriending the countries approved by London and Washington.

The idea that, as Ray Hartley and Greg Mills assert, this is a matter of choosing to ally with democracy and against authoritarianism is patently nonsense. Many of the states aligned with the US are authoritarian, such as Rwanda and Egypt and some of its critics are democracies, like Brazil and Bolivia. Moreover, the US has deposed a long list of elected democratic governments over the years.

Granted no country in the world gets the balance right on its foreign or domestic policies. If this were not so, then there wouldn’t be the type of dissonance and dichotomy between the West’s responses to the invasion of Ukraine and the decades of illegal occupation of Palestine by Israel, and its ongoing ethnic cleansing, genocide and starvation of the people of Gaza. Realpolitik is complex and no state only has relations with democracies.

Pretoria’s foreign policy is pro-Global South, pro-Palestine and non-aligned in the revival of a Cold War between the great powers. However, some would have South Africa fall in line again and be used as an American proxy as happened during the Cold War when the apartheid regime fought wars on the continent in support and furtherance of the US’ ideological war with the USSR.

As South Africans head to elections, we should, together with considering which parties will best serve our interests at home, also think about what parties we want formulating our foreign policy positions and sending representatives to the UN and other world bodies.

Do you, as a voter, want a political party like Rise Mzansi, a newcomer that recognises the injustices taking place in Gaza where an entire people are being wiped off the face of the earth, their history, culture and way of life being pulverised on our television screens? Or will you be okay with parties like the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Build One South Africa (BOSA) that want Pretoria to support Ukraine but think that South Africa should not have taken Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). 

Maimane might have left the DA, but his policies align with his former home. He, like the DA, wants South Africa to be a proxy of the West and for its foreign policy to be determined in London and Washington.

We have to guard against those who embrace the crimes of the West and would have us believe that the moral stance taken by South Africa against Israel at the ICJ is immoral and wrong. While the DA and BOSA would rightly have Pretoria be more vocal on Zimbabwe and other countries on the continent because of their human rights practices, they see no contradiction in being silent on the mass murder of Palestinians. 

It has been argued in some quarters that Pretoria’s decision to ask the ICJ to intervene in Gaza is what prompted two US senators to draft a bill for the US to review its relations with South Africa. 

What this suggests is that Pretoria should have been quiet and, like the US, be complicit in the destruction of Gaza and its people.

Despite the ICJ maintaining that there is a plausible case of genocide against Israel, the US senators and those that support them in South Africa like the DA, BOSA, the African Christian Democratic Party, Freedom Front, Patriotic Alliance and others, would have us believe that Pretoria’s brave actions to use the ICJ to try to stop the mass starvation and murder of the people of Gaza was “theatrical”, “a joke”, a “political stunt”, not appropriate, unfounded and “insulting to Christians”. 

The fact that Ireland, Spain, Belgium and other countries and organisations from around the world have joined South Africa’s case against the marauding, genocidal Israeli state has not placed them under similar pressure from the West. US legislators are not reconsidering their foreign relations with these countries. 

South Africa is being singled out because as a middle-income African country it is supposed to have “better sense” and to “know its place”. Such behaviour can be tolerated from European countries but not from “the natives”. Colonial logic has always held that if one native revolts and finds the temerity to think and make decisions for themselves it will allow others to think they can be similarly audacious. 

This is why “slave breakers” were brought in to douse the spirits of rebellious Africans in the slavocracy of the US South. That colonial impulse still exists in the realm of international relations. Uppity behaviour cannot be allowed and natives who do not bow and scrape before the master must be taught a lesson, one devastating enough that others do not even think about following in their footsteps.

This is a stark lesson in power politics where what is deemed to be right or wrong is determined by those with the power, where some people can be rendered invisible and their pain non-existent. Any attempt to develop some nuance in the unfolding purging of the people of Gaza, or on the war in Ukraine for that matter, is completely shut down and castigated as being pro-Hamas or pro-Putin, because there must be only one narrative. 

This is nothing more than a ridiculous form of moral blackmail. Being opposed to the genocide in Gaza does not mean that one is pro-Hamas and being concerned about the conduct of Nato does not make one pro-Putin.

Principled people have been slandered in our media for the crime of being critical of the West and have been misrepresented as patsies for Hamas, Iran, Putin or the Chinese state.

South Africa was formed as a nation geographically by colonialism. It was forged as a nation in the political sense by the struggle against colonialism. In light of this history, we cannot fall in line and cower in subjugation to the West. We cannot accept the constant browbeating by the West and its local proxies in party politics and the media. We need to insist on the right to think and act for ourselves.

We need bold leadership at home and in international relations where policy choices cannot and should not be decided by convenience and in capitals far from Pretoria. To stand on the side of what is right sometimes means making hard and unpopular decisions. Supporting Palestine and ending the violence in Gaza is the right choice. 

Frankly, it is unbelievable that so many liberal figures in our national debate, mostly but not all white, demand that we line up behind the West to enable genocide. 

Nontobeko Hlela is a research fellow with the Institute for Pan African Thought & Conversation and a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg.