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Picture: Gallo Images/Jeffrey Abrahams
Picture: Gallo Images/Jeffrey Abrahams

SA is not alone among developing countries in struggling to manage the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Surging imported inflation transferred through international food and fuel prices, and navigating between the hostile global blocks that have emerged between the West and the new authoritarian alliance of Russia and China, are among the challenges. However, the governing ANC’s approach is unique in its neglect of SA’s own interests and for stranding itself on the wrong side of history in its tacit support of Russia.

Countries of the Global South are focusing on narrow national interests — some declining to condemn Russia outright but also avoiding antagonising the West. India has a cold eyed view of what its interests are — cheap Russian oil and arms supplies are among them — but is clear that it needs American and EU engagement far more. It also has the geopolitical weight to pull off this balancing act in a way SA does not.

SA is taking diplomatic damage from its position on the Ukraine-Russia war. Officially it is neutral and declines to condemn Russia’s invasion and ongoing aggression in Ukraine, in favour of peace negotiations. It abstained from a UN General Assembly vote in March on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine — its own draft text, which ultimately failed to gain support even from Russia, was regarded as a little disguised effort to protect Moscow — and it abstained again in April on a vote to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council due to atrocities against Ukrainians. Neutrality needs to be credible, and the government is not pulling this off. It has done little to hide its affinities to Russia — President Cyril Ramaphosa has echoed Russian talking points blaming Nato for the war, for instance — and its deep antipathy for the West.

Foreign policy

Countries do not have friends, they have interests, said Charles de Gaulle. What then can be made of the ANC’s strange stewardship of SA’s foreign policy? Our main foreign interest as a developing country is to ensure trade access and integration to international markets on favourable terms. In 2020 China was SA’s largest single export market, taking 13% of the total — as the ANC frequently reminds  us — while Russia was a at 0.5%. But the US, EU and rest of Western Europe collectively account for nearly 40% of exports, and if Western or Western-leaning Japan, South Korea, Canada and Australia are included, according to UN ComTrade the number is 47%.

These countries are the only markets of note for SA’s manufactured and value added exports — cars, iron & steel, machinery and chemicals — versus commodity-dominated trade with China. Moreover, they account for the majority of private foreign direct investment in export-orientated manufacturing output in SA. The trade is sustained by preferential market access through the EU-SA trade agreement (and follow-on 2016 Southern Africa Development Community economic partnership agreement) and the African Growth & Opportunity Act (Agoa) in the US. 

One would assume these trading relationships are something any government would want to build on, but you would not know this from government actions. Since 2012 bilateral investment guarantee agreements with EU countries have been torn up at the insistence of the department of trade & industry, despite this being a major anchor for foreign direct investment. Agoa expires in 2025 and will require investment in diplomatic resources to ensure the US extends it again. The US noted in 2018 that SA has a voting record on par with North Korea in voting against American positions at the UN.

Trade flows

Instead of building on the reality of existing trade flows, government has lashed its fate to the Brics bloc — a weak and artificial construction that cannot, and never will, be the basis for a coherent trade and foreign policy. Excluding China, Brics countries accounted for 5% of exports in 2020. A pragmatic policy would go on cultivating both China and the West as sources of investment and a destination for exports. This is what nearly all developing countries, including African ones, are doing. But the ANC seems wedded to a peculiar view of a world irreversibly divided between ideologically hostile blocs. And it has declared which side it is on, openly willing the collapse of the West as an imperial, neocolonial and neoliberal force.

It is nearly 20 years since any Western leader devoted serious diplomatic or other effort to SA affairs — taking us back to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair at the time of Thabo Mbeki’s presidency. It is difficult to imagine any Western leader expending political capital to do so now. Who would they find to talk to and work with in today’s ANC?

The policy documents prepared for the weekend’s ANC policy conference are evidence of the ossified thinking associated with the Cold War that still guides the party and its policy choices. These blame Nato’s “unceasing expansion” for provoking the war in Ukraine, lament draconian sanctions against Russia and blame the supply of weapons to Ukraine for turning the conflict into “a costly war”.

Peace negotiations 

Lacking is any sense of Ukraine’s sovereign right to chart its own path or that without fighting back Russia would now be occupying the country and dictating who would be running it. Calls for peace negotiations while Russia is determined to carry on with its invasion, grabbing and incorporating more territory regardless of the cost to Ukrainians, itself or the global economy, underline the intellectual decay and policy incoherence that characterises the ANC as a party now.

Ukraine has a popularly elected democratic government and an open, vibrant civil society. It has broad domestic support in choosing a path towards EU integration as the best way of ensuring future prosperity and cementing democratic governance at home. The alternative Vladimir Putin offers them is as hellish a future as Belarus. By associating itself with the crypto-fascist nationalism that animates Putin’s determination to conquer Ukraine, the ANC is part of a historical continuum — the useful idiots of Lenin’s day would be comfortable in Luthuli House.

• Mason is an associate of Johannesburg risk and resilience consultancy Eunomix. He is on extended assignment in Ukraine.

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