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Russia-Ukraine conflict: South Africa still won’t budge on its decision

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Picture: Sergei Supinsky/ AFP – A Ukrainian serviceman walks past destroyed Russian tanks not far from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. South Africa’s refusal to isolated Russia has been emphatically restated by the Defence Minister Thandi Modise’s recent visit to Russia at the invitation of her counterpart, General Sergei Shoigu.

By David Monyae

The global implications of the Russia-Ukraine war on the future of the world order has forced members of the international community, big and small, to take a stance.

Almost every country in the world has made its position known on the war as reflected by voting patterns at the 193-member United Nations General Assembly resolutions on Russia. Countries have also expressed their viewpoints at the national level.

Perhaps because of its status in the international community propped up by the durable Nelson Mandela brand, South Africa’s position on the Russia-Ukraine war has been subjected to considerable scrutiny. The Cyril Ramaphosa administration has taken a consistent position which has seen it abstain in three United Nations resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The African National Congress (ANC)-led government has insisted on a negotiated settlement of the conflict rather than taking a hardline stance on one side of the parties to the war. South Africa even drafted a competing resolution to the UN resolution on allowing humanitarian aid access to Ukraine and condemning Russia for civilian suffering that was passed by the UN General Assembly on the 26th of March 2022.

The draft circulated by South Africa supported humanitarian aid access in Ukraine but refrained from condemning Russia. President Ramaphosa argued that South Africa was able to go through a peaceful transition from apartheid through negotiation and dialogue and thus stands as an important precedent for the peaceful resolution of conflict.

He has talked to both Russian and Ukrainian presidents and explained the country’s position on the war. His administration has stood firm on its position even in the face of prominent western figures such as the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who visited this country in May and August respectively.

South Africa’s refusal to isolated Russia has been emphatically restated by the Defence Minister Thandi Modise’s recent visit to Russia at the invitation of her counterpart, General Sergei Shoigu.

South Africa’s position has been divided opinion. It has been heavily criticised on both moral and national interest grounds. South Africa’s fence-sitting stance on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the critics have argued, is a moral blight as it is casting a blind eye on the suffering of the innocent victims of the so-called Russian aggression in Ukraine.

The Ramaphosa government has been criticised for abandoning a human rights values-based foreign policy, which is a violation of the country’s constitution. Moreover, South Africa has been accused of tacitly supporting Russia’s assault on the world order through its violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and unilateral declaration of war by refusing to vote against Russia or join in the western-sponsored sanctions bandwagon against it.

Some have even argued that the negative perception that would result from South Africa’s association with Russia and China on the Ukraine war would see the country being shunned by western investors who are important for South Africa’s economy.

Others have contended that South Africa’s position on the conflict is self-serving and is possibly inspired by the business opportunities that would arise for South African agri-businesses with the absence of Ukraine from the global food market.

While the criticism sounds logical, it is rather unfair and detached from the context. The critics have been quick to downplay the historical context of South Africa’s position on the war, but history cannot be wished away that easily. History is a fundamental element of any nation’s identity and its policy choices.

The Soviet Union’s well-documented solidarity with the South African ruling party ANC’s during the anti-apartheid struggle surely shaped the government’s perception of the Russia’s decision to declare war on Ukraine.

The Soviet Union, whose seat of power was in Moscow, supported the ANC when the West decided to label the liberation movement a terrorist outfit. Why would South Africa embrace a campaign against Russia on the basis of narratives fabricated by the same West?

Moreover, the critics are dead silent on Russia’s main grievance – the expansion of the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO)’s eastwards expansion towards Russia’s borders.

Russian President Vladmir Putin has long voiced his discomfort over NATO’s expansion to Ukraine as an existential threat to Russia as it places the West’s military might right at the Kremlin’s doorstep. If the US through its Monroe Doctrine cannot accept the presence of a military rival in what it calls its backyard, Latin America and the Caribbean, why should Russia accept the same in its immediate neighbour?

Global peace and security depends on a delicate balance of power and NATO’s desired expansion into Ukraine was going to upset that balance. NATO’s expansionist agenda is a clear and present danger to global security.

The South African government was right, the UN resolutions condemning Russia were political, shallow, and counter-productive. Casting Russia as solely to blame for the situation in Ukraine without taking the broader context into consideration, especially Russia’s concerns on the expansion of NATO, was unwise.

The UN must not allow its platform to be used for geopolitical games. Further, critics have gone on about how South Africa’s position is abetting human rights violations in Ukraine. However, such claims suffer from a credibility deficit because of their source.

Western perpetrated and abetted humanitarian crises in places like Palestine, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen among others have not triggered the same moral outrage as that of Ukraine. Why is it that leaders of South Africa’s main opposition, the Democratic Alliance, have rushed to visit Ukraine and not the other conflict-ridden areas?

Such glaring inconsistencies and selective outrage betray racial prejudices which are at odds with South Africa’s ideals of equal treatment and non-racialism.

Finally, South Africa’s judgment on the Ukraine issue is not based on so-called realist calculations on its relations with Russia and China. The country has more to gain economically from the West than from China and Russia in terms of investments and trade.

Hence, on the Ukraine situation, South Africa is simply exercising its agency by charting an independent foreign policy path in accordance with its principles and values. Not everything should be seen in the Cold War lenses of the West-East dichotomy.

Monyae is an Associate Professor of International Relations and Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.