“Russia is our friend through and through,” South Africa’s minister of social development Lindiwe Zulu was quoted as saying in a recent New York Times article. South Africa’s professed neutral, but clearly sympathetic, stance towards Russia following its invasion of Ukraine has surprised many observers. What explains it? And what might it mean for South Africa?
In part, allegiance to Russia is born of misplaced loyalty to an ally in Africa’s postwar liberation struggles. Recall that while the Cold War was cold elsewhere, it was hot in Africa, with proxy wars across much of the continent. Often, it pitted liberation movements fighting for independence against colonial powers. Many of those liberation movements were avowedly Marxist in ideology and were supported by the Soviet Union.
While elsewhere in Africa independence movements had largely ousted colonial powers by the mid-1970s, in South Africa apartheid endured until 1990. The African National Congress (ANC), which was banned after 1960, spearheaded the fight to end apartheid. Like other African liberation movements, the ANC received funding, arms and training from the Soviet Union. By contrast, the West – especially the US and UK – was perceived to support the apartheid government. The fact that Putin’s government bears little resemblance to that of the Soviet Union matters less than the depth of loyalty engendered by the latter’s support during the struggle against apartheid.
It is also true that the ANC has had, at best, an ambivalent attitude and approach toward violators of human rights. Bowing to pressure from China, it repeatedly denied the Dalai Lama a visa, even when one instance led to the cancellation of a summit of Nobel Peace Prize recipients in South Africa. It refused to denounce liberation ally Robert Mugabe for human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. And despite being a party to the Rome Statute, it refused to arrest visiting Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and extradite him to the International Criminal Court on an outstanding warrant for war crimes and genocide. In short, sympathy for Russia, despite the illegality and immorality of its invasion of Ukraine, is not an outlier for the ANC.
Nor is South Africa alone in Africa. A number of other – but by no means all – African countries abstained in the two United Nations resolutions condemning Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.
Of course, South Africa has tried to present its stance on the Russia-Ukraine war as neutral. But its sympathies clearly lie with Russia. For instance, on 10 March 2022, South African President Ramaphosa posted a tweet “Thanking His Excellency President Vladimir Putin for taking my call today, so I could gain an understanding of the situation that was unfolding between Russia and Ukraine.” No similar call, apparently, has taken place with President Zelensky.
At the UN, South Africa drafted a resolution on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine that enjoyed Russia’s support, in part because it made no mention of the invasion as the cause for the plight of so many innocent people. Ukraine criticized the South African draft for being drawn up without its input, and eventually South Africa’s version was dropped in favor of a Ukrainian resolution that passed the General Assembly.
It might be argued that South Africa is no different from other non-aligned countries, including major emerging economies such as India or Brazil, that are unwilling to take sides in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
But that misses a critical factor. South Africa’s enduring legacy is as a beacon for self-determination, exemplified in its long and ultimately successful struggle to rid itself of apartheid and to establish democracy. The fact that it managed a transition from minority rule to democracy peacefully and with open dialogue (‘truth and reconciliation’) is one of the great political achievements of the second half of the 20th century. Democratic South Africa has its roots in self-determination, as well as in the application of morality and ethics in the sphere of politics. Indeed, when it was an outlawed organization, the ANC appealed to a sense of global justice and human rights to help bring about the end of apartheid.
Sadly, the ANC’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not the first time that it has taken a position at odds with its fundamental roots. But it may be the most consequential one. It matters because investment in South Africa is still very largely dominated by the West, particularly western Europe, which accounts for over 70% of the foreign direct investment stock in South Africa. China, in contrast, accounts for just 5%, and Russia doesn’t even register in the data. Portfolio investment, which can more easily shift, is even more western dominated, with Europe and the US each accounting for about 45% of holdings. It can hardly be in South Africa’s economic, or financial interest, to side with Russia.
But more importantly, it matters because of South Africa’s proud history of struggle, as well as the miracle of its own largely peaceful transition to democracy. As the world begins to once again cleave along ideological lines that echo those of the Cold War, it would be a moral, diplomatic, and economic error of immense proportions for a country so full of promise and so rich in achievement to end up on the wrong side of history.