Authors: Professor Gerrit Olivier and Michèle Olivier*
A seemingly non-negotiable tenet of South African foreign policy is to side with autocrats and dictators and usually anti-Western, whatever the issues. Warm relations with figures such as the Ethiopian Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Sudanese Omar al Bashir, the Cuban Fidel Castro and the Zimbabwean Robert Mugabe, have characterized our foreign policy under all presidents since Nelson Mandela. With the current government in love with a rabid war criminal like Vladimir Putin, we see the continuation of this policy.
Obsessed with short-sighted partisan ideology and a habitual association with dictators, of course, this comes at a high price, particularly degrading SA’s once high international prestige, role and status, and stunting our all-important economic development. In short, this means that SA’s reigning foreign policy is totally out of zinc with its intrinsic national interests.
According to ANC statements, South Africa would “stick to its principles” and not take sides in this war despite Russia’s blatantly illegal and murderous war crimes. Thus, he abstained from voting against Russia along with a motley minority of 34 other UN members in the March 2 General Assembly resolution (only 5 states voted against while 141 voted for).
Department of International Relations and Development (DIRCO) Minister Naledi Pandor issued a statement calling on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. This clearly upset the anti-Western Marxist faction of the ANC political establishment who then convinced President Ramaphosa to denounce the declaration, no doubt to appease discontent among Russian and local communists.
For many, both inside and outside the country, it was a controversial decision that sparked a rare local public debate about our wayward foreign policy. What emerged was a conflict of opinion between the ideologues and the realists of the foreign policy establishment. A sign of hope, but sadly of little consequence in our fossilized foreign policy establishment of the ANC.
From the start, ideologues accepted that being in cahoots with war criminal Russia was in South Africa’s best interests, notwithstanding normative constitutional dictates and founding moral principles regarding respect for human rights. man, sovereignty, democracy and territorial integrity.
What followed was indeed a case study of timely, if not downright “Walter Mitty” diplomacy. First, President Ramaphosa rushed to phone Putin, ostensibly to enjoy the thoughtful glory and honor of talking to the “great man”. Then he thanked “His Excellency President Vladimir Putin” for responding to his call. At the same time, our “great negotiator” refused to formally engage with the local Ukrainian ambassador as well as with the ambassadors of the European Union, our main trading partners.
At the last General Assembly meeting on Ukraine, South Africa persisted in its pro-Russian pseudo-neutrality, but suffered a humiliating nosebleed after presenting a draft resolution, excluding the country of all blame. No wonder, because this resolution was strictly in line with Kremlin propaganda lies, casting doubt as to exactly where South Africa’s UN diplomats got their instructions.
Ramaphosa’s aim, it seems, is to establish himself as a facilitator in the conflict, reminding parliament at length of his past experiences as a negotiator.
‘Illusions of grandeur’, one might call it, as South Africa’s international status and role during some 3 decades of uninterrupted mismanagement has diminished to almost insignificance. While most of the world reached out to end the horrible and unthinkable human and material misery inflicted on the Ukrainian people, he offered them nothing for their comfort except that he presaged to be a great negotiator reporting for the service.
Belatedly, after heavy criticism, he rejected war as an instrument of policy and signaled his wish to also speak to Ukrainian President Volodimyr Zelinskiy, perhaps impressed by the latter’s excellent performance before the United States Senate and British, Canadian, Israeli, Italian and Japanese parliaments. and the German Bundestag. The piece de resistance of his kindergarten diplomacy was to blame NATO for having been deaf to earlier warnings against eastward expansion, ignoring brutal Russian invasions of, among others, Finland, Latvia, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the previous century without realizing that NATO membership was their safeguard against future Ukrainian-style invasions. It was a wise decision. Indeed, Mr. President, ignorance is bliss….!
Of course, good relations with countries like Russia are important provided they are based on pragmatism and national interest rather than sentimental ideological predilections. However, the ANC still acts like a captive of the Cold War and, as if it still owes a permanent feudal loyalty to Russia at a time when the Soviet Union is overrun and with communism on the ash heap of the ‘story.
While the world is bound to deal with a totally different and dangerous Putinist Russia, the ANC stubbornly refuses to accept that its slavish stance towards that country is not in South Africa’s best interests. . Unfortunately, the global moral imperatives that brought them to power no longer guide its foreign policy. Like the apartheid regime, Putinist Russia is today committing a crime against humanity in Ukraine with the support of the ANC government.
The war in Ukraine may yet have unthinkable consequences for the world as a whole. What is happening there is really a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. Putin does not want a democratic Ukraine on his doorstep exposing his bland authoritarianism and precipitating a “color revolution”. Given the solidarity of the democratic West and the slowness of Russian forces in Ukraine, he will probably end up losing. South African policy makers are patently myopic and fail to realize the consequences of siding with an autocratic war criminal. Like apartheid SA, it would probably end up as an isolated global pariah.
An independent South African foreign policy is needed rather than one subject to the preferences and dictates of Moscow and Beijing. This is the best way SA can regain international respect. Her handling of the Ukrainian crisis has once again laid bare her diplomatic failings, including the lack of clear-headed leadership. This will not change unless foreign policy-making is democratized and professionalized rather than monopolized by a small clique of ill-trained and inexperienced ideologues with the help of a few proponents of the position.
* Michèle Olivier is a consultant in international law