SA’s Fickle Foreign Policy Means it has no Principled Approach Towards Global Crises

Why has South Africa applied one standard to Russia and another to Israel? To take it a step further, why is South Africa withdrawing diplomats from Israel but working hard to strengthen relations with Iran?

10 November 2023 ·   4 min read

SA’s Fickle Foreign Policy Means it has no Principled Approach Towards Global Crises

Monday, 6 November was a busy day for South African diplomacy as it sought to find its footing following a disastrous year of alignment with Russia and flirtation with Iran.

The two events of significance which occurred were the meeting between the international relations minister, Naledi Pandor, and her Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, in Pretoria, and the decision to recall South Africa’s diplomats from Israel.

The meeting with Kuleba follows a fractious year of entanglement with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, including a serial refusal to condemn the invasion of Ukraine in the United Nations and the scandal surrounding the docking of the Russian arms carrier, Lady R, by moonlight at the Simon’s Town Naval Base.

Ramaphosa went so far as to say that not allowing Putin to attend the BRICS Summit in South Africa this August would be “a declaration of war”. When it became clear that he would lose his court bid to get Putin into the country, he changed tack and persuaded Putin to attend the summit virtually.

As it turns out, the BRICS Summit pretty much followed the Putin playbook, proposing to admit Iran, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Argentina to the group. Putin, speaking virtually, was moved to say: “I would like to note, as it turned out this was challenging work and President Ramaphosa showed unique diplomatic mastery as we negotiated all the positions including when it comes to BRICS expansion.”

With talks with the US over the renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) subsequently under way and US senators and congressmen starting to ask for South Africa’s exclusion, Pandor’s meeting with Kuleba sent a signal that South Africa was, in fact, pivoting back to neutrality.

“We are one of the few countries around the regions of the world that are able to speak to both Ukraine, as well as Russia,” Pandor said after the meeting.

She noted “that Ukraine then, as part of the Soviet Union, provided to the freedom struggle”, a significant editing of the narrative that South Africa was closer to Russia because of its assistance to the exiled ANC.

She went so far as to say that she hoped to “use this bilateral relationship to build a greater African partnership”.

A cynic might observe that it would be in Russia’s interests to have a loyal friend like Ramaphosa become a key negotiator in the conflict.

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And, it is apparent that most South Africans condemn Russia’s aggression and that continued support for the Kremlin will not play well in next year’s election.

Be that as it may, the optics are much better for South Africa as it projects itself as a neutral party that can talk to all sides.

Double standards

This brings us to the second event of diplomatic significance on Monday. South Africa announced it was withdrawing its diplomats from Israel over its pursuit of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the mounting civilian casualties.

The minister in the Presidency, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, announced: “The South African government has decided to withdraw all its diplomats in Tel Aviv for consultation.”

Remarking on this decision, Pandor said: “We need to have this engagement with our officials because we are extremely concerned at the continued killing of children and innocent civilians in the Palestinian territory and we believe the nature of response by Israel has become one of collective punishment.”

It is, of course, well documented that Russia has committed grotesque war crimes against civilians in Ukraine. Children have been killed in missile strikes and even kidnapped and taken to Russia for adoption and indoctrination.

No such condemnation or withdrawal of diplomats has occurred when it comes to Russia, raising the question of whether South Africa is serious about positioning itself as an interlocutor or just making up foreign policy as it goes along, pleasing this or that international or domestic constituency, pimping any principles in the process

Why was one standard applied to Russia and another to Israel?

To take it a step further, why was South Africa withdrawing diplomats from Israel, but working hard to strengthen relations with Iran?

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Two weeks before she met Kuleba, Pandor herself visited Iran, a known sponsor of Hamas which had days before committed the wholesale murder of more than 1,400 people in southern Israel in a terror attack designed to derail regional peace and halt the thawing of relations between Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.

In Tehran, she met Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, who expressed his appreciation for South Africa’s condemnation of Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks. He was also most pleased that South Africa had opposed Israel joining the African Union as an observer and was keen on “closer economic ties”.

Raisi is to be accorded a state visit to South Africa in 2024.

South Africa’s Iranian expedition followed a phone call between Pandor and the chairperson of Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh. After coming under severe criticism over the call, she claimed that South Africa aimed to play a “mediatory role” in the conflict between Hamas and Israel. Like Moscow, it is likely that Hamas would prefer Pretoria’s mediation services.

“I spoke to that gentleman Mr Haniyeh. I did not express any support for the atrocious action that had occurred on the 7th of October,” she said.

There is now talk that South Africa is unhappy with the statements of Israel’s ambassador to Pretoria, Eliav Belotserkovsky. Apparently, ambassadors are to either agree with South Africa or get out, a curious stance for a country which is trying to present itself as non-aligned and a neutral mediator.

It is uncertain when the West, grudgingly, understands that with South Africa, “She is just not that into you.” Until then it seems hapless in reading — or misreading — SA’s diplomatic behaviour.

What is clear is that South Africa has no principled approach towards these global conflicts. It professes to want to mediate, but it picks and chooses when and which of its principles apply. It is a matter of time before another indiscretion undermines the spin doctoring.

This article originally appeared on the Daily Maverick

Photo: GovernmentZA Flickr