NICHOLAS WOODE-SMITH: Opposition parties must unite behind better foreign policy
Drunk on Soviet nostalgia and corruption, the ANC lets its personal politics get in the way of SA’s foreign interests. It's time for opposition parties to step up to the plate
The ANC's tacit support for Vladimir Putin’s regime and Russia's actions in Ukraine is a repeated display of the governing party’s propensity to embrace bad foreign policy that does not reflect the interests or wishes of the SA people. Opposition parties should be using this international faux pas to secure local and foreign support by presenting themselves as a united and professional alternative to a government drunk on Soviet nostalgia and corruption.
On March 3 the DA declared its support for the Ukrainian war effort and called on the SA government to do the same. Since then the ANC has responded by reaffirming its friendship with Russia. Since the Russian invasion began, SA defence minister Thandi Modise has attended a reception at the Russian embassy to celebrate the Russian armed forces, and the ANC publicly hailed 30 years of Russian-SA friendship over drinks.
This is more than just unspoken support, and definitely not benign neutrality. SA is expressing open, if not honest, support for Russia in a time of unjustified war by a superpower against its comparatively smaller neighbour. The ANC government has a responsibility to the SA people to embrace a foreign policy that serves the interests of the country.
Morally, the Russian invasion is inexcusable and should be condemned. Russian claims about Luhansk and Donbas self-determination are hypocritical considering Russia’s treatment of its own territories and are clearly just a ruse. And the Russians' behaviour during the war, characterised by mass looting and brutal attacks on civilian areas, just adds to the fact that they are not the good guys.
Practically, SA is placing itself on the wrong side of the dominant world order, isolating itself from trade partners and potential allies. Rather, it is seeking friendships among dictatorships and warmongers. This is a terrifying realisation when one considers that governments, like people, often come to reflect the company they keep.
It is clear that SA’s interests do not align with those of Russia. We should be siding with the moral and practical imperative. Condemn Russia's actions, side with the freer world, and seek trade and goodwill wherever possible. Aligning with warmongers does not accomplish that.
Nostalgia for the good old days of communism, modern corruption or just petty global tribalism against the West means the ANC is letting its own personal politics get in the way of SA’s practical and moral foreign interests.
This is not the first time the ANC has embraced foreign policy that does not reflect the interests of South Africans. Its love affair with the People’s Republic of China only benefits the pockets and ideological machinations of ANC officials, not SA’s manufacturing industry, nor our prospective freedom. Our export industries would do far better prioritising a trade relationship with Europe and the US, not to mention fellow African states.
The ANC is not just failing its domestic duties — it’s failing how it interacts with the world. And we suffer for it.
An embarrassing, immoral government
During Jacob Zuma’s presidency, SA’s foreign policy came to reflect the corrupt and patrimonial relationships of the president. The Guptas became a matter of state interest, using SA's international powers to benefit them and their dishonest partners in the country.
Not to mention that we almost left the International Criminal Court, a move that would have further undermined civil society’s ability to hold our government to account. It is obvious that the ANC has not had our best foreign policy interests at heart — for years.
This is where opposition parties can and should step up to the plate. Foreign policy should not be a sacred category of public policy that only the governing party can dictate. It affects all the diverse constituents of SA and should be debated by all parties.
Opposition parties must hold government accountable for bad foreign as well as domestic policy. Already ActionSA and the DA have condemned the ANC’s stance on Russia and Ukraine, providing an important contesting voice against a government that thinks it can unaccountably embarrass South Africans on the global stage.
But, it shouldn’t stop here. Opposition parties should unite behind common foreign policy interests in the same way they should unite behind common ideologies and values, because this government is not just failing its domestic duties — it’s failing how it interacts with the world. And we suffer for it.
A coalition of opposition parties could accomplish much in becoming a more professional and moral alternative to the governing party. This coalition would not only represent the interests of SA constituents on a global stage, but could also start mending SA’s global reputation — letting foreign governments and people know we aren’t all as immoral and corrupt as our government.
• Nicholas Woode-Smith is an economic historian, analyst and author based in Cape Town.
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