Issued by FW de Klerk Foundation on 28 February 2023 

Exercise Mosi II between South African, Russian and Chinese naval vessels off Richards Bay concluded on 27 February. It was the second exercise involving the three countries, the first of which took place off the coast of Cape Town in 2019.

Since then the world has changed: the competition/confrontation between China and the United States has intensified – and, most crucially, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has resulted in deep divisions within the international community. Provocatively, the naval exercise took place during the first anniversary of the invasion.

Last week – on 24 February – the UN General Assembly adopted a non-binding resolution in which it called on Russia to end hostilities and withdraw its forces from Ukraine. The resolution was supported by 141 countries; 32 abstained – including South Africa, China and India – and seven voted against – Russia, Belarus, Nicaragua, Syria, North Korea, Eritrea and Mali.

In its explanation of the vote, the South African representative went through diplomatic contortions that would have made an Olympic gymnast gasp in admiration: although South Africa believed that “the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of all States (including Ukraine) should be sacrosanct”, it had not voted for the resolution because the international community had been unable to come up with concrete proposals” to end the war. This was despite the resolution’s support for “the efforts of the Secretary-General and Member States to promote a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in Ukraine, consistent with the [UN] Charter, including the principles of sovereign equality and territorial integrity of States.”

The naval exercise and repeated abstentions on UN votes condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine raise serious questions regarding South Africa’s orientation in an international arena that is increasingly dominated by the growing tension between the United States and NATO on one side – and Russia and China on the other.

South Africa has long prided itself on its alignment with “progressiveforces within the international community. The tilt is definitely against “neo-liberalism” and in favour of socialism; against the United States, the West and increasingly, Israel – and in favour of China, Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, Zimbabwe and the Palestinians.

In its Policy Discussion Papers for last year’s Policy Conference, the ANC fell into line with Russian terminology by describing the war in Ukraine as “a military operation” – and not as an invasion. It went on to criticise the US’s unilateral sanctions against Iran, Syria, North Korea, Nicaragua, Russia and Venezuela, the economic blockade against Cuba (more than 60 years already)”, which it claimed were “perfect examples of this bullying conduct that is intensifying.

It recommended that the ANC should “sharpen its revolutionary and progressive character and improve its ability to build effective alliances with a broad section of progressive forces in and outside state power towards a shared desire for a more equitable, just and fairer world.”

South Africa is, of course, a sovereign state and has the right to adopt its own independent foreign policy. In most countries, foreign policy is formulated within the framework of traditional alliances, perceived national interests and national values.

In the case of South Africa, the ANC has strong traditional ties, dating from the struggle era, with “progressive” states such as Cuba, China, Zimbabwe and Russia (although it is difficult to see where neo-Tsarist Russia fits into the progressive paradigm).

The problem lies in the fact that none of these countries passes muster when measured against South Africa’s foundational values in section 1 of the Constitution. They are not multiparty democracies; in none of them are their constitutions and the rule of law supreme; and none of them respect human rights and freedoms.

What, then, of national interest? South Africa’s trade is overwhelmingly with countries that voted in favour of last week’s UN resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine. South Africa also has a strong interest in the maintenance of an international order in which powerful countries may not invade their neighbours with impunity.

South Africa’s naval exercise with Russia and China and its increasingly anti-US posture have not gone unnoticed. On 21 February, four members of Congress proposed a resolution that took note of the naval exercises and of South Africa’s refusal to participate in the planned ‘‘Cutlass Express’’ military exercises with the United States in 2023. The resolution “calls on the Biden administration to conduct a thorough review of the current and future status of the United States-South Africa bilateral relationship” and to provide regular briefings to Congress on positive economic results stemming from South Africa’s inclusion in the African Growth and Opportunity Act and the United States-South Africa Trade and Investment Framework signed in 2012.”

The resolution is not expected to make much progress – but it is, perhaps, a warning shot across South Africa’s diplomatic bows. South Africa will at some stage have to decide where its national interest lies – with its progressive friends or with its major trading partners and the clear requirements of international law and its own constitutional values.