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Graphic: DOROTHY KGOSI
Graphic: DOROTHY KGOSI

SA and other countries that have abstained from voting against Russia at the UN General Assembly in response to the war in Ukraine have come under intense international pressure. In SA there has also been extraordinarily shrill domestic criticism. It is frequently assumed that abstention means SA supports the Russian invasion, and that this is either due to corrupt relations between Russian and SA elites or Cold War nostalgia, or both.

There is seldom any acknowledgment that non-alignment, in this case refusing to be aligned to either the US and its allies or to Russia, can be a principled position as well as an astute tactical engagement with geopolitical realities.

As founding figures in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Josip Tito and Jawaharlal Nehru said in a joint statement in December 1954: “The policy of non-alignment with blocs ... does not represent ‘neutrality’ or ‘neutralism’, neither does it represent passivity as is sometimes alleged. It represents the positive, active and constructive policy that, as its goal, has collective peace as the foundation of collective security.”

The Global South contains more than 80% of the world’s people, yet its countries are systemically excluded from any meaningful say or decision-making in the key international organisations that make decisions in the name of the “international community”. Since independence from colonial rule, countries across the Global South have been advocating for the UN, and especially its Security Council, to move away from the zero-sum game of the Cold War mentality that continues to drive it.

Then Nigerian foreign minister Jaja Wachuku posed a still relevant question at the UN’s 18th session in September 1963, asking whether the organisation really wanted to hear the views of African states in important organs of the UN, or “are we only going to continue to be veranda boys?”

Almost 50 years later the countries of the Global South are still “veranda boys”, watching the adults make the rules and deciding the path the world must take. They continue to be lectured and chided when they do not do as expected. Divided by the enticements of weapons and economic assistance, the countries of the South often work against one another. When new international institutions are proposed they are often not properly capacitated with the vast talent that exists in these countries, and as a result of the lack of political will required to make them work, are stillborn. This needs to change.

It is time for a new NAM, but this will only succeed if the leaders of the countries in the Global South put their egos aside, think strategically on a global scale and put their considerable human capital, natural resources and technological ingenuity to better use. The Global South includes an ascendant China, the second-biggest economy in the world. It has India, one of the leading countries in medical care and technological innovation. Africa has a young and growing population and the natural resources needed in the mushrooming artificial intelligence and cleaner energy industries. However, these resources are still extracted for profit to be accumulated in far-off capitals, while Africa and much of the Global South remain underdeveloped, with millions still stuck in the desperation of impoverishment.

A new NAM has real potential if time is taken to build new institutions and buffers against the economic warfare the US has been waging against countries such as Cuba and Venezuela, now unleashed against Russia. Financial autonomy is critical. The Brics bloc has a bank, and in Southern Africa there is the Southern African Development Bank, yet the reserves of the countries participating in these projects are still kept in US or European capitals. It is time for our leaders to wake up and realise that given the type of economic warfare being let loose on Russia, weaker countries across the Global South have no meaningful autonomy.

When it is clear that the West can, at the drop of a hat, decimate entire countries’ economies and livelihoods, it is time to rethink how we conduct politics, economics and foreign policy in the South. After all, the economic weapons being built against Russia will be available for use against other countries that have the temerity not to toe Washington’s line in future.

In June 1969 then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger told Gabriel Valdes, foreign minister in Chile’s Christian Democratic government: “Nothing important can come from the South. History has never been produced in the South. The axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, crosses over to Washington, and then goes to Tokyo. What happens in the South is of no importance.” This is the logic that sits at the heart of imperialism.

The Brics grouping has been disappointing in many respects, but it has opened some space for the countries of the Global South   — with their many differences in creed, culture, political and economic systems — to find a way of working together. The rejection of intense pressure to bend the collective knee at the UN Security Council is an encouraging example of rejecting the assumption that they should remain permanent “veranda boys”.

The decision to abstain at the UN was not a tacit condoning of Russia’s actions. War should be rejected anywhere and everywhere, no matter how provoked. This decision was a rejection of polarisation. As the US rapidly escalates its new cold war against Russia and China and expects other countries to fall in line, there is now an urgent imperative to reject this mentality and the two camps that continue to want to divide the world along old, acrimonious lines. The Global South should reject this view and call for respect for international law by all countries. It makes a mockery of the concept of human rights and international law when they are only invoked when those we dislike and disagree with that break them.

The new NAM needs to be guided by the principles of its founding figures, but also by the refusal to continue to accept subjugation. Only by standing together and speaking with one voice can the countries of the Global South hope to have any influence in international affairs and not continue to be mere rubber-stampers of the positions of the US and its allies.

A new NAM would need to be confident and bold and not seek permission from the Global North. The new NAM leaders would need to understand that they are there to serve their people and protect their interests, and not allow the temptation of being included in the “big boys club” to sway their stance on issues. They need to constantly keep in mind that they have been kept as “veranda boys” for far too long, and unless they truly take their destiny into their own hands they will forever be at the foot of the table, with their people fed the scraps from the wealth accumulated by the global economy, much of it from the exploitation of the South.

• Hlela is a researcher for the SA office of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, a Global South think-tank.

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