The West has been pressuring African countries to condemn Russia for the ongoing conflict with Ukraine. Even countries with relatively more independent foreign policy like China and India have not been spared the pressure. But it appears that African leaders have chosen to stay aloof and non-aligned. In the case of South Africa, beyond a principled stance in favour of dialogue, there are historical and economic considerations behind the country’s refusal to condemn Russia.
At least 25 African countries did not vote for the United Nations resolution condemning Russia, with South Africa particularly targeted in the hope that it would have a mushrooming effect on the rest of the African countries.
South Africa did not just abstain but explained why it did so. The president of South Africa, during the question and answer session in the National Assembly, emphasised that South Africa’s position is to seek a conducive environment ‘that makes the achievement of a durable resolution of the conflict possible’. In his weekly open letter to the public, the president reiterated that the need for a peaceful resolution through dialogue is pivotal to South Africa’s foreign policy:
“We remain steadfast in our conviction that achieving world peace through negotiation, and not force of arms, is indeed attainable. This is a principle on which we have been consistent since the advent of our democracy, and which remains an important part of our foreign policy orientation.”
From South Africa’s perspective, the resolution taken by the UN was done prior to rigorous engagement of the fundamental causes of the conflict. Some have described South Africa’s position as a risk or a ‘diplomatic suicide’, but we need to understand South Africa within the context of its affiliation as a member-state of BRICS and its historical ties with the former Soviet Union.
During Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, South Africa explicitly opposed the imposition of sanctions on Russia, which might have resulted in the exclusion of Russia from participating in the G-20 summit in Australia later that year. South Africa’s position during that time (and perhaps even now) is to see the balance of power in the current world order change to reflect the rise of emerging powers. Just like other African states, South Africa has been critical of the complete domination of the West in all important international institutions, which usually impose the rules governing international relations. The true expression of South Africa’s rejection of the West’s domination is expressed in its willingness to be a member state of BRICS. For this reason, South Africa holds its BRICS membership in high priority. Hence, its determination to preserve its good relations with Russia.
Apart from being a member of BRICS, South Africa has good historical relations with Russia. The first links between the African National Congress (ANC) and the former Soviet Union can be traced back to 1927 when one of ANC’s founding fathers, Josiah Tshangana Gumede, visited the Soviet Union to show the party’s ideological solidarity against western imperialism. This visit took place after Gumede had attended the ‘League against Imperialism’ summit in Belgium. When the Apartheid regime banned the ANC in 1960, the Soviet Union took it as its responsibility to support ANC’s liberation struggle. The help the ANC received from the Soviet Union surpassed the support it received from the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), for instance. Around the 1970s, the Scandinavian donations to South Africa were more than that of the Soviet Union, but these donations were limited to peaceful aid only. It was the Soviet Union that provided military equipment to ANC’s armed forces – Umkhonto We Sizwe. In the late 1980s when the Apartheid rule was coming to an end, Moscow helped to prepare the new South African Defence Forces by training them in warfare tactics that combined guerrilla warfare and conventional warfare (including naval and air force training). Up to this day, the liberation movements of countries like Angola, South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique still regard Russia as the inheritor and custodian of the Soviet Union’s history and traditions.
Different opinions were also raised around this issue among South African political parties. It is unsurprising that both the Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) took an unapologetic stance in support of Russia, given these historical considerations. Indeed, their trail of argumentation bordered on these historical ties, especially the contribution of the Soviet Union to (South) African liberation. On the other hand, the Democratic Alliance, which is regarded in many circles as an offshoot of the apartheid regime, condemned the ANC’s stance on Russia.
Most importantly, the position taken by African states on the invasion of Ukraine by Russia derives from the realization that this war was nothing more than a proxy war waged by the US. Hence, it has nothing to do with them. As far as South Africa is concerned, a lot is at stake. South Africa is a direct ally of Russia by virtue of being the only African state that is a member of BRICS. Its historical ties with the former Soviet Union and its foreign policy which prioritises dialogue and seeks a peaceful resolution to conflicts over any form of military confrontation cannot be simply dismissed by those who insist that African countries must condemn Russia. Failure to take into consideration South Africa’s concerns, and by extension the concerns of African countries, will only lead to more incomprehension. It is simply counterproductive.