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Picture: 123RF/SEZER ÖZGER
Picture: 123RF/SEZER ÖZGER

From 1994 onwards SA has had a charmed existence on the international stage. Since the advent of democracy the country has been given something of a free pass when it comes to its international conduct. Many in the international community have overlooked the strange excesses and conduct of SA on the world stage.

The global perception of SA’s so-called bloodless miracle gave the country this free pass. The subsequent spirit of “rainbowism” further pushed the wider world to root for SA’s success. And who would blame them? This was the pin-up example of the peaceful resolution of a seemingly intractable conflict.

This goodwill was particularly apparent across capitals in Europe and in Washington, and it continued to be the case as “Ramaphoria” took hold. This meant that in practice SA’s strange foreign affairs conduct was given that free pass even as the country systematically undertook to associate itself with every international pariah it could.

Whether SA sided with Iran on sanctions at the 12th meeting of the SA-Iran Joint Commission in 2015, and continued supporting Cuba or, perhaps most bizarrely, the governing ANC hosted North Korean officials at its 54th congress, the West continued to offer the country a free pass. The examples flow readily.

The granting of greater leniency to SA was fine for the period when the US  remained the sole global hegemonic power. This was the post-1991 world that emerged after the Cold War, with the US and its vision of a liberal democratic world having won the grand ideological battle with the Soviet Union.

The lone superpower was in a position to overlook insults being thrown its way by a minor regional power on the tip of Africa. With rivals out of the way, SA’s strategic position no longer mattered to the extent that it did for most of the 20th century. In the absence of competition, it could overlook the insults and work with SA.

However, that world — one dominated by the US — is changing. The war in Ukraine has rapidly, and shockingly, accelerated this process. Liberal democracies are frantically scrambling to adjust to the new reality coming into play.

The exact geopolitical parameters of what will emerge are unclear. Will we move back to a bipolar arrangement with the one pole in Washington and the other in Beijing, or will we move to a more multipolar environment last seen in the pre-1945 period? This is unclear, but I think we can rest assured that the unipolar moment is over.

The US will remain one of the major powers, but it will no longer stand alone on the stage. It is at moments of changing geopolitical power dynamics that great powers get tetchy, and want to more clearly know where the sentiments of the minor powers lie.

With this increased tetchiness SA’s free pass on the international stage will be revoked. The war in Ukraine means the revocation will occur now, not in the near future. Eyes in the West, Moscow and Beijing are now focused on carefully assessing where sentiments lie in Africa and across the developing world.

Western eyes — those of the former providers of the free pass — will be watching SA with particular interest. It wasn’t so long ago that SA was included in a Group of Seven meeting, along with other so-called Indo-Pacific countries Australia, South Korea and India. Let’s see if that happens again.

It does seem the governing party is aware of this tectonic shift in geopolitics; this is clear even from a quick perusal of its recent “discussion documents” for the 2022 ANC policy conference. But there is, as always, a distinction between the ANC realising that something is the case, and it doing anything about it. To see just how cack-handed the governing party is on the international stage, consider the following.

On February 24 SA government officials attended an event at the Russian embassy in Pretoria to commemorate “Russian Motherland Defender’s Day”. As the SA officials, including the defence & military veterans minister, were sipping their champagne and toasting the might and honour of the Kremlin’s military forces, the Russian army was sweeping ruthlessly across the Ukrainian border.

On the same day, the department of international relations & co-operation released a statement that in essence condemned Russia’s invasion. Its rapid release suggests it was prepared well in advance. That statement was subsequently disowned. It seems the international relations dots were not being connected up well in Pretoria on February 24, a date on which some of the greatest geopolitical shifts since the end of the Cold War were becoming frighteningly obvious.

One could forgive Western observers for thinking SA had chosen a side. However, SA continued on the same course as if a free pass was still in place. Working on its “rainbowist” credentials it thought it could become some kind of peace negotiator, along with the Turks, and therefore should maintain an air of neutrality.

If the reason for being neutral on the Russia-Ukraine War was to act as some kind of mediator, Pretoria was sorely mistaken. SA is not Turkey. It lacks real influence and power. It is not geographically proximate to the conflict and its perception that it can work off the negotiated settlement of the early 1990s is running out of currency on the international stage. SA thinking it could be a mediator in ending the Russia-Ukraine war is a delusion based on the tacit assumption of a free pass.

If the country genuinely wants to remain non-aligned, in a way that properly weighs the new geopolitical context and plays to its own interests, it will need to first acknowledge that its free lunch has come to an end. SA is going to have to get a whole lot smarter if it wants to eat at the table again.

• Jubber is an SA academic living and working in London.

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