South Africans should not ‘take sides’ in Ukraine invasion, DIRCO tells parliament

South Africa has taken a China-like stance of “quiet diplomacy” on the Russian war on Ukraine, urging citizens not to “take sides”, the deputy minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Candith Mashego-Dlamini, said during a parliamentary debate on the economic impact of the conflict on Tuesday.

“As [the] government of South Africa, we urge all South Africans not to take sides [in] the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, as this could go against our principles. In addition, South Africa has good bilateral relations with both countries,” said Mashego-Dlamini. 

The mood in the house, however, was anything but quiet or neutral as members of the national assembly declared their support for and against Russia – the ANC’s historical ally – and Ukraine, while heckling those who dared to hold an opposing view.

Some highlighted human rights abuses in other parts of the world such as Palestine, Iraq and India, asking why no-one was concerned about these crimes, while others noted SA had negotiated a peaceful transition to democracy and could assist with mediation.

As parliamentarians debated the impact of the conflict after SA abstained from voting in support of Ukraine at the UN Council, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky told representatives of the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) via video link on Tuesday that the country could never join Nato.

He urged other European nations to help his country, warning that they could be targeted by Russia.

Mashego-Dlamini said South Africa’s approach to the Russian invasion of Ukraine was rooted in its foreign policy.

She said the government expressed “deep concern at violations of the UN Charter and international law, the loss of life, the humanitarian impact and the forced displacement of people as a result of the war in Ukraine”.

She said SA respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states and had together with other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries expressed concern at conflicts across the world.

“BRICS leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of states and reiterated that all conflicts must be resolved by peaceful means and through political and diplomatic efforts, in line with the international Law of the UN charter,” Mashego-Dlamini said.

“As a nation birthed through negotiation, South Africa is always appreciative of the potential dialogue has in averting a crisis and de-escalating conflict. In line with our strong commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflict, South Africa urges all parties to devote increased efforts to diplomacy and to find a solution that will help avert further escalation,” she added.

She urged both sides to uphold and protect human rights and abide by international law.

“South Africa supports the resolution process of inclusive talks led by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to address all the issues of concern to any of the parties….” 

Democratic Alliance (DA) leader, John Steenhuisen, said the government’s “neutrality” placed it on the wrong side of history, and that it was siding with “the oppressor” who had committed an “unjustifiable act of war”.

“The world is facing its biggest threat of war in 80 years. A tyrannical aggressor with a finger on the nuclear button has invaded a far less powerful neighbour and is shelling civilian targets as we speak. Over two million Ukrainians have become overnight refugees as their homes and hospitals are bombed to rubble. President Vladimir Putin is acting with the impunity of a despot with nothing to lose,” Steenhuisen said.

“Every world leader with a moral conscience has condemned it and called on Russia to withdraw. But not South Africa’s President Ramaphosa. Under a shameful veneer of ‘neutrality’ the ANC government has effectively pledged its tacit support for Putin’s imperial march to restore his lost empire,” he said.

He condemned defence minister Thandi Modise’s attendance at a cocktail function at the home of Russian ambassador to SA, Ilya Rogachev, on the day Russia invaded Ukraine.

“When a lone call by DIRCO for Russia to withdraw its army is hastily retracted and the minister admonished, you don’t have to read between the lines. And when our president calls Putin in the middle of his invasion, pledging to strengthen bilateral ties – as the rest of the world isolates him – you don’t have to read between the lines,” Steenhuisen said.

“The same ANC that once relied on global solidarity in its fight against oppression has now openly sided with the oppressor,” he said.

But Economic Freedom Fighters MP, Floyd Shivambu, described Russia as a close “friend”, fighting former imperialist expansion in Eastern Europe, which SA must “never abandon”. He said the USSR and Russia had dedicated resources to the struggle against apartheid.

He said the EFF would never forgive Nato for the killing of Muammar Gaddafi.

“We stand as the EFF to affirm that the relationship built through blood and common purpose against colonialism and Apartheid must be strengthened. We stand as the EFF to reaffirm our relationship with Russia,” he said.

PAC MP, Mzwanele Myhontso, said the war would affect all African countries.

“The price of oil, petrol, and gas has gone sky high. We take a stand and condemn Russia and America for threatening world peace. We condemn Russia and America for abuse of power which affects the lives and livelihoods of Africans and call for them to immediately end the war,” he said.

Aljamah’ah MP, Mogamad Hendricks, said Steenhuisen’s remarks were “very unpatriotic”. He said his party supported meaningful engagement and a ceasefire.

NFP MP, Ahmed Emam, said a negotiated settlement would prevent loss of life, but he questioned the partiality of concern.

“When people in Palestine, Syria and Iraq are losing their lives, raped and murdered, we hear nothing. When Ukrainians violate the human rights of other Ukrainians there is no concern. In India, why are people not raising the issue of the rights of Christians and Muslims whose rights are being violated by the government?”

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