South African Foreign Policy’s Ultimate Test

Invasion of Ukraine - South African Foreign Policy’s Ultimate Test

On 24 February 2022 (1), Russia invaded Ukraine. The invasion kick-started a flurry of international political and military conversations and, in April 2022 (2), the United Nations’ General Assembly voted on a resolution to suspend Russia’s participation in the UN Human Rights Council. This, after allegations that Russian forces had committed atrocities against Ukrainian civilians. South Africa abstained. The resolution was ultimately passed.

Since South Africa became a democracy in 1994, it has been a strong proponent of not trying to influence the international affairs of sovereign states and, in line with the principles of the African Union (AU), has adhered to the doctrine of the inviolability of borders. Additionally, the nation has been strongly opposed to regime change imposed on countries by external powers and has encouraged negotiation and dialogue among warring parties to arrive at a settlement. Given this approach, its abstention at the UN seems especially jarring.

This paper will explore South Africa's foreign policy objectives – and the erosion of its foreign policy values, using the invasion of Libya, the annexation of Crimea and the Russia/Ukraine conflict as examples. It will also expand on the country’s UN history and unpack the possible consequences of South Africa’s abstention from the April resolution.

History of South Africa’s foreign policy

Although a Western concept, notions of sovereignty (3) were warmly embraced by the newly independent nations of Africa and Asia following the Second World War and into the 1960s. The African Union’s (AU’s) predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), established in 1963, adopted principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of states and the inviolability of African borders drawn up by Europeans in 1884 (it would have been too much effort and cause too many ethnic or cultural issues, to redraw Africa’s borders). South Africa’s new democracy upheld the OAU’s values, integrating them into its foreign policy. In 1994 (4), new President Nelson Mandela and the governing African National Congress (ANC) stressed that human rights were their core concern; namely, the economic, political, environmental and social rights of all South Africans. Other principles included respect for international law, the support of disarmament and peace and universality. For the democratic government, liberation from the apartheid regime was, in many ways, a struggle for human rights. So, it would make sense for the new government to covet human rights as a fundamental basis for its emerging foreign policy.

Additionally, South Africa’s new government was eager to join and be active in the international community. The contrast between the apartheid government and the ANC was indicated by foreign representation (5). By 1990 the apartheid government had 30 international missions; by 1996, Mandela’s government had 130 with membership in 45 international organisations. South Africa’s new democratic government gained further prominence by hosting and chairing several international bodies such as the Commonwealth, the World Trade Organization and WAM. However, following spat over human rights with Nigeria, the newly formed democratic government changed gears. South Africa made the harsh misstep of aligning with western values over the African dogma it so proudly preaches. South Africa, under Mandela’s leadership, tried to impose sanctions onto Nigeria in order to quell power from its dictator. Rather than focusing on human rights through the lens of Western acceptability, the ANC government began to focus on conventions specific to context, culture and creed. It didn’t entirely abandon human rights as its core foreign policy concern – rather, it interpreted the principle in terms of good governance and democracy.

SA’s foreign policy (6) in the early to mid-2000s, under then-President Thabo Mbeki’s leadership, prioritised the consolidation of the African agenda, the promotion of South-South cooperation, north-south dialogue and global governance. An important element of Mbeki’s approach to policymaking was explicitly ideological: Africanist, anti-imperialist and democratic. The focus was on indefinite commitments to law and international conduct between states, international peace, internationally agreed-upon conflict resolution and a commitment to Africa’s place in world affairs.

From South Africa’s democratic inception, it faced a major hurdle: idealism. Mandela’s government, initially, appeared to be Africa’s saviour. It was a shining light for political, social and economic achievement. The new government acted as a buffer between the international community and Africa, gaining much praise and applause. Additionally, the state was Africa’s economic powerhouseIn 2004 (7) the nation's GDP was at $228.6 billion versus its closest economic rival Nigeria’s $136.4 billion. Plus, SA under both Mandela’s and Mbeki’s leadership, peacefully negotiated resolutions between conflicting nations, for example between New Zealand and Canada. Democratic SA entered the international community in a blaze of glory; the drawn-out liberation struggle placed great weight on SA’s aspirations for political, economic and social success. And so, having successfully and peacefully navigated its way out of the apartheid regime, the ANC government believed it could successfully – and without reproach – tackle the world's affairs. 

Under President Cyril Ramaphosa, SA’s foreign affair (8) objective structurally, carries the values of the first democratic government but also echoes the Mbeki era’s sentiments. In its five-year plan (9) , the country strives for a united and cohesive continent that works towards shared aspirations of sustainable development and prosperity, enhanced regional trade and relations in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the promotion of peace, stability and security across the continent. It has also committed to using its membership of and engagement in the international community to further Africa’s agenda.

The policy also states, that considering the UN’s near-universal membership and vast agenda, it remains the most important multilateral institution and global governance centre. “As such, engagements with the UN, and active participation in its processes, are of vital importance to South Africa and the advancement of the country’s foreign policy priorities.” (DIRCO, 2022)

South Africa’s UN participation history

South Africa was one of the 51 founding members of the United Nations in 1945 (10). Today the UN has 193 member states.

In 1964 South Africa was suspended from participating in the UN General Assembly because of international opposition to the country’s apartheid policies. It was readmitted when it became a democracy in 1994. Twelve years later it was elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council for the first time, between 2007-2008; it again attained this status in 2011-2012 and in 2019-2020. In all three instances it received heavy endorsement from SADC and the AU.

But South Africa’s global standing has declined (11). Its reputation as Africa’s economic leader and voice in international affairs, earned through post-apartheid international respect and driven by value-based and innovative foreign policy, has been replaced by a more transactional and tactic driven approach (alliances, power bidding) , sparking first African and now international criticism. 

The annexation of Crimea

Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution (12) ended in late February 2014, with former President Victor Yanukovych fleeing to Kyiv and eventually to Russia. The Rad, Ukraine’s parliament, appointed an acting president and prime minister and made clear its intention to strengthen ties with the European Union (EU) by signing an association agreement with it.

Almost immediately thereafter, armed men began occupying facilities and checkpoints on the Crimean Peninsula. Russian President Vladimir Putin first denied knowing who the men were but later admitted that they came from Russia and commended their commanders. By March, Russian troops had seized the entire peninsula; in March 2018, Crimean and Russian officials signed the Treaty of Accession of the Republic of Crimea to Russia. President Putin ratified the treaty three days later.

Elements of Russia’s civil society historically align with the progressive anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, strongly opposing Western economic and political imperialism. South Africa had gone so far as to characterise the interim government  (13) in Kyiv as fascist and as a junta, arguing that the West’s support of the Maidan protest was a breach of the non-interference principle. 

South Africa, in determining its response to Crimea, had to consider several issues. Although relations between Russia and SA were not initially a priority for either, this changed when SA joined the then-BRIC bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China). It did not wish to upset its fellow BRICS member, Russia. However, South Africa should have been more forthcoming in condemning Russia for its military actions in Crimea as well as its unilateral changes to the border of a sovereign state. SA’s credibility as an advocate of certain values and processes is eroded by the adoption of equivocal positions. After all, the country's soft power is fashioned on building legitimate and accountable processes for resolving conflict. 

The Libyan evolution

In September 1969 (14), a 27-year-old captain of the Libyan Air Force, Muammar Gaddafi, and his cohorts from the Free Officers Union, successfully staged a military coup, seizing control of Libya from King Idris 1. Gaddafi assumed leadership of the nation as head of the Revolutionary Command Council, which was composed of his fellow military officers. Qaddafi shifted the nation's political and economic power from the Sanusi (the former royal empire) base in Cyrenaica to the east, to Tripolitania in the northwest.

Then came February 2011 (15) and a spate of protests that precipitated the Libyan revolution, many of them beginning in Benghazi, Cyrenaica’s unofficial capital before spreading to surrounding areas. 17 February became known as the Day of Rage: it officially signified a turning point for Gaddafi’s regime and the revolution. Initial military attempts to defuse the situation were non-lethal; soon, though, live ammunition was fired into the crowds, killing more than 150 civilians (16) over the three days that followed. Gaddafi’s forces seized control of Benghazi by 22 February but lost most of Cyrenaica to rebel forces. By mid-March, an authorised international intervention order by the UNSC Resolution 1973 limited the state to a no-fly zone and allowed the use of “by all means necessary” to protect civilians and civilian populated areas.

The UNSC resolution 1973 created the legal basis for military intervention in the first Libyan War. The resolution demanded an immediate ceasefire and authorised a no-fly zone over the nation. Although the resolution was proposed by the UK, France and Lebanon, it was voted in the affirmative by ten other states, including South Africa (17). However, following the approval of the NATO force's intervention in the region, South Africa – a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council at that stage – backtracked and urged international players to respect the unity and territorial integrity of Libya. This further dented its credibility in the international political arena. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine

On 24 February 2022 (18), Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed the biggest assault Europe has seen since the Second World War. Putin argued that modern, West-leaning Ukraine was a constant threat, and that Russia could not feel safe, develop or exist in its presence. Putin’s goal was to overrun Ukraine, ending its government and crushing the nation's aspirations of joining the Western defensive alliance, NATO. At the dawn of the invasion, Putin told the Russian people that his goal was to “de-militarise and de-Nazify Ukraine” (19), to protect the people from years of bullying and genocide committed by the Ukrainian government.

Moscow went so far as to allege that Ukraine was building a dirty plutonium-based bomb. However, the tides have turned: while there is no evidence for Russia’s claims about Ukraine, the international community has widely alleged that genocide and human rights violations are occurring in Ukraine at Russian forces’ hands.

Months into the invasion and Putin is aiming for the “liberation of Donbas” (20), Ukraine's eastern region. Despite the Russian force's withdrawal from areas around Kyiv, Putin alleges that Russia has completed the first stage of the invasion. Russia is now focusing on seizing two large regions to the east, creating a land corridor from Crimea to the Russian border. It is unclear if Russia wishes to control the entire southern region of Ukraine’s Black Sea Coast. However, Putin has said he is open to peace talks. 

In early April, the UNGC convened for a resolution to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. South Africa abstained. The resolution, prompted by photos and videos from the Ukrainian suburb of Bucha in Kyiv, which showed hundreds of civilians left dead in the streets or dumped in mass graves following the withdrawal of Russian forces, was passed by 93 UNGA members. SA justified its neutrality – as evidenced by its abstention – by arguing that the resolution was premature.

Xolisa Mabhongo, South Africa’s deputy ambassador to the UN in New York, stressed that SA would maintain its neutral position and would not proclaim Russia the aggressor. The country has also maintained that the resolution does not provide a conducive environment for diplomacy, dialogue or mediation. It does affirm that it is deeply concerned by the escalating violence in Ukraine. This is the same hymn sheet it’s sung from for years: the country does not want to incur the wrath of its fellow BRICS member. It appears South Africa has not learned from the backlash against its stance on the Crimean annexation.

The consequences of South Africa’s abstention

South Africa barely has a leg to stand on. It is evident from the Crimea situation that it will not outwardly cause strife with Russia. The nation has had a turbulent foreign policy history that appears to be recurring. Its foreign policy objective, in essence, is to mediate conflict. However, it has a track record of picking and choosing who is subject to its foreign policy principles. This temperamental and unpredictable approach has cost it international respect in foreign policy circles. If it sticks to this approach, it will certainly lose the confidence of many of its peers in the international arena.

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