Pretoria wants to be both a democracy with a progressive constitution and a friend to dictators
South Africa’s foreign policy has become a study of inconsistency. One moment it is about to depart the International Criminal Court. The next moment it isn’t. Here it is condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There it is accusing the US of having provoked it.
Sometimes South Africa is a democracy with a progressive constitution and moral clarity in matters of equity and social justice. The next time you look it is throwing in its lot with dictators in the name of a new multipolar world that will break Western hegemony.
Even the ruling African National Congress isn’t sure what the country’s foreign policy is. President Cyril Ramaphosa has just ordered an inquiry to get to the bottom of it. That was prompted by US allegations that it has been shipping arms to Russia. Pretoria is outraged that Washington should have made such a stinging accusation. But it cannot be sure it isn’t true.
That the government does not know if arms have been exported to Russia from its own secure naval base near Cape Town is astonishing. (Next thing you know, someone important will discover millions of rand unaccountably stuffed down the back of a couch.) Assuming US intelligence is correct, either South Africa’s government is covering up illicit arms sales, or it has lost its grip over the most sensitive parts of the state apparatus. Sadly for South Africa either could be true.
The haphazard nature of South Africa’s foreign policy owes much to the ANC’s misplaced nostalgia for the Soviet Union, which helped finance its liberation struggle against apartheid. Leave aside the fact that the Soviets murdered millions of their own citizens and created an empire of unwilling subjects. The ambiguous stance may also be related to links between Russian oligarchs and the ANC, which have bought the loyalty of another kind.
But the disarray speaks to a wider issue: how non-western nations position themselves as the world order fractures.
Developing countries, broadly defined, have massively increased their global clout. In 2000, they made up 43 per cent of global economic output in purchasing power parity terms, according to IMF calculations. By next year, that will have risen to 63 per cent. That marks a profound shift from west to east and, to some extent, from north to south. The institutions forged after the second world war and the assumptions that underscored them simply do not reflect the world as it is today.
The shift in power has been compounded by an isolationist streak in the US, which flared under Donald Trump. Under the more outward-looking Joe Biden, the US finds itself in a cold war with China and something rather hotter with Russia.
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Countries that have played second fiddle in the post-1945 world order want to change. They see both danger and opportunity. Opportunity because they are being courted, commercially and diplomatically, by multiple would-be partners. Danger because they may be forced to choose.
Yet the idea that countries in what it has become fashionable to call the global south to speak with one voice are fantasy. The new rules-based order may turn out to have few rules. China and India see eye to eye on very little. Africa is split down the middle on Ukraine. In some ways, South Africa, an upper-middle-income economy, a democracy and a heavy carbon emitter, has more in common with the global north than the global south.
Then there are the limits of ambiguity. South Africa wants it both ways. It has hitched itself to two wagons pulling in opposite ways. It enjoys preferential access to European and US markets. Exports to both underpin its manufacturing base, especially its auto industry.
At the same time, it likes being at the table with China, India, Russia and Brazil in Brics, a grouping that may yet expand if Saudi Arabia and others are allowed to join. That has not been a problem hitherto. But as the world diverges, South Africa — and others like it — risk being pulled in different directions.
As a sovereign country, South Africa is free to calculate its interests. But privileging ties with Russia, a rogue nation that accounts for 0.2 per cent of its exports, over the US, which accounts for 9 per cent, is an odd way of going about it. China is of course another matter.
Ramaphosa insists that South Africa has “not been drawn into a contest between global powers”. But it palpably has.