From Friendship to Fiendship? SA’s Foreign Policy Since Mandela

Under Nelson Mandela, South Africa regained its international prestige and position. But Greg Mills and Ray Hartley argue instead of capitalising on the goodwill of the 1994 transition, the ANC descended into the murk of identity politics mixed with Cold War thinking, where the party's interests trumped those of the nation.

24 July 2023 ·   16 min read

From Friendship to Fiendship? SA’s Foreign Policy Since Mandela

There was a brief moment on the date of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2002, when the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, boldly stated:

South Africa calls on Russia to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine in line with the United Nations Charter, which enjoins all member states to settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice are not endangered.

It was doing the obvious - taking a stand against the unprovoked and violent invasion of a democracy by an autocratic state. This was in line with the foreign policy guideline enumerated by Nelson Mandela, when he wrote:

Human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs.

But, whoever crafted that statement about Russia did not properly understand the peculiar definition of the "national interest" that was materialising in the bowels of the department (or the ANC's Johannesburg Luthuli House headquarters).

The statement was quickly walked back, and by the time South Africa abstained from voting for a UN resolution condemning the invasion, it had become a "neutral" observer, calling on both sides to cease hostilities.

Twenty-eight African countries voted for the 27 February 2023 UN General Assembly resolution calling for Russia to halt its invasion and withdraw its forces from Ukraine.

Most of these are democracies, while most of the 17 African countries that abstained or voted against the resolution are - with a few democratic exceptions, including South Africa and Namibia - authoritarian or hybrid regimes.

This voting pattern was reproduced during subsequent UN resolutions on Ukraine.

The latest, on 23 February 2023 on the eve of the anniversary of the start of the war, saw the majority of African countries voting for the resolution condemning Russia, 15 abstaining, including South Africa, and two (Mali and Eritrea) voting against.

Mercenaries from the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group are playing a major role in supporting the junta in Mali, while Eritrea's foreign and domestic policies have seen it isolated from Western support.

The resolution, drafted by Ukraine in consultation with its allies, passed overwhelmingly 141-7, with 32 abstentions.

In between these resolutions, South Africa has ramped up its support for Russia from supposed "neutrality" to a more active interest.

In January 2023, the Russian arms transport vessel, Lady R, docked in Simon's Town naval base outside Cape Town to shift cargo in the middle of the night.

This was followed the same month by the visit of the foreign minister of the Russian Federation, Sergei Lavrov, to meet his South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor.

South Africa, she said, attached "great importance to fostering and deepening our strategic partnership by strengthening the structured bilateral mechanism between our two countries".

Lavrov said he appreciated the "well-balanced" and "considerate" approach of South Africa to the Ukraine war, which Pretoria has maintained must be resolved diplomatically and through negotiation".

"As South Africa, our sincere wish that the conflict in Ukraine will soon be brought to a peaceful end through diplomacy and negotiation," Pandor said, while defending South Africa's right to maintain bilateral relations with whichever countries it wants and not be dictated to by the West.

She emphasised although South Africa had initially called on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine, this was no longer its position.

"To repeat that … to Mr Lavrov today would make me appear quite simplistic and infantile, given the massive transfer of arms [to Ukraine] … and all that has occurred [since]," Pandor said.

She emphasised South Africa would not be dragged into taking sides and accused the West of condemning Russia while ignoring issues such as Israel's occupation of Palestinian territory.

Hollow claims

Her claim the country was "not taking sides" rung hollow when South Africa hosted a joint naval exercise with Russia and China on the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine.

Six South Africa-based diplomats from NATO or EU countries told the news agency Reuters they condemned the exercise.

"It's not right, and we told them that we do not approve," one said.

Democracy is, however, not just one of several nice ideas enunciated in South Africa's Constitution.

It sits at the heart of that document and is the foundation on which the entire constitutional edifice stands.

It is a differentiating feature of South Africa in much of Africa. Moreover, an open, transparent, accountable elected government is a necessary, but not a sufficient precondition for the delivery of a better life for all. For that to happen, the government has to do its job.

Over the last decade and a half and particularly under the stewardship of Jacob Zuma, the government has failed to do its job, and democracy has been somewhat of a nuisance standing in the way of a process of accumulation in which rent-seeking and its administrative counterpart of "cadre deployment", the placing of party apparatchiks in influential posts, has been the method.

The current dire circumstances of key South African state-owned enterprises, including electricity parastatal Eskom and the railway system run by Transnet are the two most publicly visible illustrations of the consequences of this system, leading to continuous blackouts and overcrowding on the country's roads. But foreign affairs is not immune.

Missed opportunity

The world changed in 2022.

South Africa's foreign policy orientation has, in the process, shifted from obtuse irrelevance to dangerously discordant to its constitutional and historical values, needs and interests.

This has occurred despite considerable investment in foreign affairs. South Africa has one of the highest number of missions abroad, with 69 embassies and 75 consulates worldwide. And this has been a long time in the making.

South Africa's experience with democracy is akin to a game of two halves.

The first 15 years, under Nelson Mandela and subsequently Thabo Mbeki, saw the country regain its international prestige and position, elevated by its regional economic pre-eminence and Mandela's global stardom together with considerable post-apartheid international goodwill.

The second half of the post-apartheid era, however, has been terrible, particularly since the advent of the government of Jacob Zuma in 2009, a decline which has continued despite the resurgence of favour with the removal of Zuma and installation of his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, in 2018.

But there are some longer-term trends which span this post-apartheid era.

Since 1994, South Africa's foreign policy has been a relatively cost-free means of ensuring the ANC's radical credentials.

Cosying up to Cuba and other Cold War allies, banging on about multilateral reform, defending African human rights transgressors in the name of continental solidarity, and polemic on South-South cooperation and regional integration became stock in foreign policy trade.

This wasted opportunity was not cost-free, far from it.

Instead of capitalising on the goodwill of the 1994 transition, after the Mandela years, the ANC descended into the murk of identity politics mixed with Cold War thinking, where the party's interests trumped those of the nation.

Rather than using South Africa's resurgent diplomatic position to build free trade regimes and boost inward financial flows - since trade and investment, skills, technology, and jobs go hand in hand - political capital was squandered on trying to make ideological points and on payback politics.

Overall, South Africa's posture has been less about foreign "policy" than about the distribution of rents to party officials in the form of postings abroad, frequently, it turns out, to deal with a domestic political embarrassment.

The result is that ambassadors are not being chosen for their capabilities and ability to persuade but rather because of twin drivers of payback and because they are not wanted at home.

The large size of the diplomatic corps is more to do with a large number of cadre deployments on offer than a substantive global intervention of any sort.

The net result is South Africa has lost its foreign way. Instead of pressing authoritarians to open up their political systems in its own image, it sought to pursue a rhetorically anti-imperial agenda in a (at least until now) post-imperial age.

And the rhetoric seldom matched the commitment. Instead of building a powerful regional regime, which could act as a tool of external assistance and discipline in the manner, for instance, of the European Union, Africa built the superstructure in Addis and the acronyms and little else in the sub-regions.

And now, the world has changed, but South Africa's foreign policy is failing to change with it.

Pretoria's moral disintegration did not start with its underwhelming response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but most publicly with its tortuous defence of the regime in Zimbabwe.

Now that the world has obviously changed, South Africa is left horribly exposed, and yet is still banging, tone deaf, on the same drum.

Three recent markers stand out:

First, in August 2022, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation released its latest policy framework, South Africa's National Interest and its Advancement in a Global Environment.

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The document suggests that far from being the neutral arbiter of global conflict, South Africa should align itself with those striving to challenge "the predominance of the Western powers and the liberal international economic order".

Second, on her return also in August 2022 from an international security conference in Moscow, Defence Minister Thandi Modise defended her attendance in Parliament, stating South Africa and Russia enjoyed cordial relations and "the acceptance of the invitation was seen as a crucial step to articulate South Africa's position on the need for the maintenance of international peace and security".

When questioned about the reasons behind the Russian invasion, Modise answered: "I do know that whatever it is, it must be taken right back to NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] and the inability of the United Nations to intervene when it should have intervened.

"That is why," she added, "we have been calling for a relook at the power relations in the UN. The big brother, little sister syndrome there … we must also be looking at the power that is vested in the countries that make up the UN Security Council. When the UN was formed, we thought that all members would be equal."

Bias in SA's foreign policy

The irony that Russia uses its veto to prevent the Security Council from chastising its imperial adventures appears to escape the ANC.

An obvious reform would be to cause nations implicated in resolution to abstain from voting, preventing naked self-interest from triumphing over values, but this is never proposed.

Even then, Russia could spam the council with phoney resolutions on NATO and insist the US, UK and European members recuse themselves.

From its voting pattern in the UN, South Africa does not apparently appreciate fully the principles and nuances of multilateral politics.

It also seems uncertain on what reforms it can agree on outside of broad brushstrokes of "reform". And it clearly does not understand what it takes to make regional bodies work to common advantage in setting conditions of membership and standards of behaviour.

The evidence is everywhere.

The day before Modise's parliamentary answers, on 30 August 2022, Lavrov and Pandor spoke.

According to the Russian media release on the substance of the telephone conversation, "the interlocutors exchanged views on the main issues of bilateral relations and current problems on the international agenda, including the situation in Ukraine".

It noted "the interest of Moscow and Pretoria in the further progressive development of bilateral political dialogue, the increase of mutually beneficial trade and economic and other co-operation, and the co-ordination of positions in BRICS, the Group of Twenty, the UN and other international platforms are confirmed".

The bias in South Africa's foreign policy is most evident in its voting patterns at the UN.

Since 1994, the annual voting coincidence in the UN General Assembly between South Africa and the US has averaged 26%. It declined from the mid-30s under Mandela and Clinton in the 1990s to the teens under Mbeki-Bush, the low 20s during the Obama years, and 18% for 2017.

South Africa agrees on just one in five issues in the UN with one of its largest trade partners and investors.

On human rights, voting overlap peaked at 62.5% in 1995 and reached its nadir at 8.3% in 2013, early in Obama's second term.

On issues of economic development, the coincidence of interest has been just 8.2% between 1994 and 2017. By comparison, South Africa's votes with China most of the time: in the high-80s and early-90s, averaging 89.1% since 1994.

South Africa has consistently voted against discussions on human rights in Zimbabwe, challenged resolutions condemning ethnic cleansing and rape as a tactic of war, abstained on resolutions condemning human rights in North Korea, has voted alongside Russia and China on a resolution aimed at "protecting" civil society actors, and voted against resolutions on human rights in Myanmar, Burundi, Syria, Iran, Belarus while voting for the Russia co-sponsored Resolution 36/10 in 2017 that prevents individual states from imposing sanctions on another state as a coercive tool.

The ANC has not sought balance, as its claims, in its foreign relations, even where instability in its own neighbourhood presents an acute threat to South Africa and African wellbeing.

Shifting focus and sleight of hand

This dilution of the human rights guidance that Mandela once provided can be seen in the tortuous debate that gave rise to the Department of International Relations and Cooperation's South Africa's National Interest and its Advancement in a Global Environment document, which attempts to define the impossible: Marry inspiration from South Africa's boldly democratic Constitution, with the country's desire to do nothing to defend democracy and its institutions abroad.

This is achieved by a sleight of hand. The document repeatedly claims the policy draws its inspiration from the Constitution, but it chooses the parts of the Constitution that chime nicely with its desire to stand with countries that patently don't support democracy.

"South Africa defines its national interest premised on the values and ideals as enshrined in its Constitution and informed by the needs of its people. These include the eradication of the legacy of apartheid and overcoming the triple challenges of inequality, unemployment, and poverty," it states in its introduction.

Democracy is mentioned later on:

As a country, South Africa upholds the values of democracy as a system of governance that provides for an open society, which allows its people to express themselves on who and how to be governed. It is similarly a political aspiration that is firmly protected and promoted on the African content and beyond.

The trouble for the authors with democracy is that it does not fit nicely with the government's flirtation with distinctly undemocratic states such as Zimbabwe to the north and Russia, whose invasion of Ukraine it has decided not to condemn.

This is not to say South Africa ought to align itself with the West. It would be wise for it to live up to its promise not to align itself with any power bloc.

It should, however, align itself with democracy and against assaults - particularly violent ones such as that undertaken by Russia - on fellow democracies.

The West does not own democracy; it belongs to the world of free peoples. Surveys have shown time and again it is the political system preferred by Africans across the continent.

It is conveniently forgotten more African countries voted to condemn Russia's invasion than abstained or voted against the UN resolution. Yet, no one asks if South Africa was out of step with the continent.

Perhaps the real issue is that by not voting to condemn Russia at the UN, South Africa has alienated itself from its fellow Africans.

After all, Benin, Botswana, Cabo Verde, Chad, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Malawi, Mauritania, Mauritius, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Tunisia and Zambia all voted to condemn the invasion.

If African solidarity is a key marker of South Africa's foreign policy, it missed a profound moment of African solidarity against this colonial invasion and to underscore South Africa's commitment to defending democracy and the sovereignty of a fellow democratic nation.

If foreign policy is to be informed by domestic policy, it should be aligned accordingly.

The two domains intersect in the goals of territorial and human security by creating the domestic and foreign conditions necessary for economic growth and job creation, including expediting foreign trade and investment, and ensuring cordial relations.

If this is the starting point, strategy and not narrow domestic political interests should dictate foreign policy.

Instead of allowing race, ideology, or legacy issues to trump principles, the aim must be to protect people, not governments, and promote business and create jobs, not ensure monopoly interests.

Trade relationships must not be seen as some Cold War ideological zero-sum game but as a means to grow the pie for all.

Understanding South Africa's motives

This begets the question: Amid all the fawning flip-flopping statements, why does the ANC government support Moscow in its invasion of Ukraine?

Leaving aside legal norms and niceties and questions of morality, the US outscores Russia as a partner in every objective, commercial measure from investment to trade.

With 700 companies operating in South Africa, employing 220 000 people, the US is the largest foreign investor. US companies invested just under R10 billion in 2021 alone.

The only comparable investment by a Russian company is that of the (sanctioned) oligarch Viktor Vekselberg in United Manganese, South Africa's fourth-largest manganese mine, through his vehicle Rusal in a joint venture with the ANC commercial front Chancellor House.

Russia's total stock in South Africa amounts to about US$1.5 billion compared to the US total of US$7.8 billion just in 2019.

South African two-way trade with Russia is under US$1 billion, less than 10% of the figure with the US, and nearly 2:1 in South Africa's favour.

This is in part down to the 2000 US African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows South African goods in tariff and quote free. Russia has no trade deals with South Africa.

The US outscores Moscow too in other aspects, not least that the West is by far preferred as a emigration destination.

South Africans, it turns out, do not share the ANC's enthusiasm for autocrats like Russia and China. Having experienced the whip under apartheid, they value freedom, democracy, and the quality of life in an open society.

But even a pretence of neutrality - or non-alignment - has been firmly abandoned now in Russia's favour by South Africa’s diplomatic mandarins led by Naledi Pandor, whose embarrassing public pledge of fealty to Lavrov has to mark the low point for human rights in post-apartheid South Africa.

Being hosted by Pretoria and in other African capitals provides Moscow an opportunity to build its fake news playbook (see, even democracies love us) and suits the Russians perfectly.

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Their new strategy across Africa appears to be to subjugate African nations using their Wagner mercenaries while extracting minerals worth billions for oligarchs. This is state capture on a scale that even the ANC cannot compete with and must lust for.

Moscow's relationship has changed with the West, it hasn't fallen in love with Africa

Intelligence and media operations, platoons of bots and bags of diplomatic bluster are the weapons of choice as it tries to roll back the tide of democratisation in Africa.

The Africans who have been taken in by this new-found pal (a minority, sadly for the Russians, if UN voting is used as a measure) seem to forget Lavrov's love has not come about because the Russians suddenly have a change in attitude about Africa, but because Moscow's relationship with the West has changed as a result of its military misadventure in Ukraine.

The threat posed by Russia in Africa goes beyond the role of Wagner in Mali, the Central African Republic and Burkina Faso.

It centres on the appeal of the Russian model to authoritarians in Africa, one which promises unchecked wealth for the elite with little threat of accountability or losing power.

This appeal is not lost on the ANC.

It has tried to hamstring the media with security legislation and "media tribunals" and has attempted to delegitimise opposition while capturing the state.

All these efforts have failed, thanks to the entrenchment of democracy and openness in the Constitution as the ANC's support base has dwindled.

Most recent polls show it dropping to around 40% in the 2024 elections. Most ANC voters - almost three-quarters of them - believe Russia's invasion of Ukraine should be condemned.

And South Africa's failure to see this (or to be kinder, to believe a Ukrainian victory would pose a threat to its own options with the West), has all manner of implications, not least about the state of South Africa's own security, both economic and military.

Take the February 2023 naval exercise, in which the South African Navy hosted their Russian and Chinese counterparts for 10 days off the port of Durban.

What, pray, could South Africa's navy, itself in dire straits with just one (of four) of its main fleet and one of its (three) submarines serviceable, learn from the Russians?

Just as one would not expect the Springboks to learn anything from playing Pakistan at rugby, the abject performance of the Russian military, their murderous philosophy, their appalling kit and their history of disasters, cockups and accidents is hardly the kind of thing South Africa would want to emulate.

Donations to the ANC

So, there must be another reason.

Either the Russians have some Kompromat on South African decision-makers; they're paying them off; or South African decision-makers are incompetent and lacking any awareness of the objective of international relations and diplomacy. Or it could be a combination of the above.

That Vekselberg's United Manganese of Kalahari is today the largest donor to the ANC hints at the nature of the relationship.

DA national spokesperson Solly Malatsi criticised the donation, saying: "This explains what the ANC government's approach to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is because it's on the receiving end of millions of rand in donations from Russian oligarchs."

As for the South African position that Russia is no longer obliged to withdraw from Ukraine, it is short-sighted in the extreme. Such rules around sovereignty exist for a reason.

There would be some unhappiness in the ANC, for instance, if the West failed to condemn an invasion of South Africa.

As the German post-war chancellor Konrad Adenauer reminds: "An infallible method of conciliating a tiger is to allow oneself to be devoured by him."

During Lavrov's visit to South Africa, he was asked whether the high number of Ukrainian civilian casualties was the result of Russian military incompetence or deliberate targeting of soft targets.

Lavrov's reply was predictably fake, referring to Ukraine's use of civilian shields.

How Pretoria can hold out its hand of friendship to a country that trades in callousness and doesn't care about the law, democracy, and individual rights is as stunning as it is concerning. It's a strange friendship. Or should that be a fiendship?

Either way, the warmth of these relations will attach a premium of risk to everything South African, from investing in power stations to buying bonds.

The assumption in Pretoria seems to be that this is a cost-free strategy. Keep your ideological purity and then exercise what's left of your navy, and the West won't mind. This sentiment has been encouraged by the West rationalising that South Africa was "one of us" really, and if it strayed, this bellicosity was only to keep the radical left at bay.

President Joe Biden welcomed Ramaphosa to Washington last September, saying: "South Africa is a vital voice on the global stage and a leader in the international order," and "but we can still get a lot done, I think."

While the executive might be more willing to turn a blind eye for strategic reasons to South Africa's friendship with Russia, his Congress appears not to share this view.

The introduction into the House of Representatives of Resolution 145 on 21 February 2023 opposes "the Republic of South Africa's hosting of military exercises with the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation" and calls "on the Biden administration to conduct a thorough review of the United States-South Africa relationship".

The ANC will hope it can slip and slide its way out of this.

Ramaphosa will claim he is doing this to be able to help position South Africa to make peace in Ukraine, even though South African credibility is now shot, no more an honest broker in Kyiv as it is today in Tel Aviv.

Anyway, the unprincipled predilection for compromise which would allow Russia to hold onto territory it has stolen by force, won't just now suit the Ukrainians.

"When all else fails, there's always delusion," reminds American TV host Conan O'Brien. He was joking of course, as that's his job, but Pretoria and Pandor appear to have taken this seriously. The jokes on them, but the cost is likely South Africa's.

Moving with the times

Tom Tugendhat, the UK House of Commons foreign policy committee chairperson, wrote in Foreign Affairs:

The global order has been upended, and the events of the past year show that the world has moved into a new era of brutish great power politics. Western democracies now inhabit a world in which multilateral institutions are no longer able to provide the stability or security they once promised.

What should South Africa, a globally connected nation, be doing to safeguard its prosperity and interests in such a new, radically changing world?

First, it should focus on building alliances and systems that strengthen domestic institutions at home and in Africa.

This requires recognising and acting on the need to fortify democracy and the rule of law - and to speak out against authoritarianism; and to cooperate most deeply with those who share its constitutional values, the basis fundamentally of trust and security.

It means using diplomacy to build economic resilience and thus security through growth and jobs.

As Tugendhat notes, "democracy, freedom, and global resilience" are tied together.

The ability of democracies, he argues, "to adapt, rebuild, pivot and rebalance" is key to understanding why they are stronger than autocracies.

And yet he notes "the core values of open societies are at stake: the right to choose and change leaders and direction, to criticise and correct, to experiment and succeed, and, yes, to fail. That's good for every nation, however, it is governed".

South Africa has to become an advocate for the cause of development and justice, and not just a spectator or, worse still, a cheerleader for those seeking to subvert this system.

It can do so by pursuing trade partnerships and by speaking out on authoritarianism. By tying itself to Putin's Russia, South Africa not only threatens this system, but in the process ensures it can only sink further into the developmental mire.

Second, it needs to construct a fit-for-purpose trade regime and diplomatic network through which to pursue its national development goals.

Third, South Africa should seek specific goals for multilateral reform, not least around climate change. And it would have to give meaning to regional concepts and ambitions through its actions, for example by the abovementioned expediting of trade flows at borders and opening up regional logistics to private investment.

Fourth, it should professionalise its foreign service, rooting out placements of political convenience and replacing these with merit-based placements of officials who can move the dial when it comes to asserting South Africa's democratic credentials and to attract investment.

In today's challenging times, foreign policy should be geared less to faux goals about changing the world according to ideological memes than reshaping national fortunes according to the reality of growth, investment, and jobs. To do otherwise is to betray the government's critical constituency: its citizens.

"To govern is to choose," was Pierre Mendes-France's maxim when premier of France in the 1950s. It is axiomatic that failing to choose is failing to govern.

This article originally appeared on news24

Photo: GCIS