South Africa skates on diplomatic ice over Russian-Ukrainian war

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Johannesburg (AFP) – A month into the war in Ukraine, South Africa, one of the few African countries wielding diplomatic influence outside the continent, stuck its head out, adamantly refusing to condemn Russian aggression.

Pretoria says it would prefer to be neutral and allow negotiations to end the dispute.

On Thursday, he sponsored a resolution at the UN General Assembly calling for the provision of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, but avoided mentioning Russia’s role in the conflict.

This resolution was rejected. Pretoria had abstained from voting on another resolution which called for an immediate halt to the Russian assault.

Earlier this month, South Africa was one of 17 African countries to abstain from voting on another UN resolution calling on Russia for a ceasefire.

Back home, heated debates about South Africa’s position on the war rage.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, an experienced conflict mediator, says he won’t be persuaded to take a “confrontational” stance, but blames NATO for the invasion of Moscow.

“The war could have been avoided had NATO heeded the warnings of its own leaders and officials over the years that its eastward expansion would lead to greater, not less, instability in the region,” he recently told parliament.

But Ramaphosa, who has helped mediate conflicts in Africa and Northern Ireland, also said: “We cannot tolerate the use of force or the violation of international law.”

“We are with Russia”

The war has created a strange relationship between the South African government and the radical left-wing opposition party Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

EFF chief Julius Malema said “We are with Russia”, urging Russia to teach NATO and America “a lesson”.

Addressing a recent human rights rally, Malema looked to history to justify his defense of Russia which “armed us, gave us money to fight the apartheid”.

Heated debates over South Africa’s stance on war in Ukraine rage RAJESH JANTILAL AFP/File

“We will never denounce Russia,” he vowed.

The Kremlin and many African countries have strong, long-standing historical ties that date back to the Cold War of the 1960s, when it provided military training and assistance to freedom fighters.

Former President Jacob Zuma also backed Putin, saying the invasion “seems justifiable, … Russia felt provoked.”

“A BRICS member is now in the crosshairs of bullies,” a statement from Zuma’s office said.

Russia had been pushing for South Africa to become a member of the once influential club of emerging economies that includes Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRICS).

Zuma, who was close to signing a multibillion-dollar nuclear power deal with Russia before his forced resignation in 2018, said he knew Putin as “a man of peace”.

The government subsequently abandoned what would have been a hugely expensive nuclear power deal.

Elsewhere, main opposition Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen blasted Pretoria’s “shameful foreign policy decisions” and its “cowardly and immoral stance” on the conflict.

In a show of solidarity with Kyiv, the DA-led Cape Town government this month lit up the historic town hall in Ukrainian national colors of yellow and blue. Nelson Mandela addressed the crowd on the balcony of the hall after his release from prison in 1990.

Even the clergy are furious.

Desmond Tutu’s successor, the Anglican Bishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, said he was distressed by “South Africa’s silence on the horrific bombings of health facilities and civilians in Ukraine”.

“Where is our ubuntu (Zulu for unity), our humanity?” He asked.

“The Diplomatic Egg Dance”

Ordinary people are already reeling from a hike in fuel prices and bracing for another round of hikes next week.

South Africa imports most of its oil from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Angola.

And the government has allayed fears of wheat shortages, thanks to last season’s good harvest.

While many other African countries have remained conspicuously silent on Russia’s invasion of its neighbour, South Africa’s attitude puts Pretoria’s diplomacy in the spotlight.

“The government is creating an escalating public relations disaster … with its diplomatic egg dance,” wrote journalist Peter Fabricius, warning that it risks “quickly losing friends both at home than abroad”.

Jeremy Seekings of the University of Cape Town finds it “extraordinary that a government of democratic South Africa, which came to power after a long struggle for democracy against … the apartheid state which was in imperial power, now defend Russian imperialism and against a democracy”.

South Africa’s “influence” is declining and could lose its power status to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal.

But Chidochashe Chere of the University of Johannesburg sees “nothing that compels South Africa to condemn Russia”.

“It is wise for South Africa to pick their fights, they will want to engage with both countries for the long term.”

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Steven L. Nielsen