The world is changing fast and to keep up you need local knowledge with global context.
Paul Bell, former South African journalist and strategic communications consultant, discusses South Africa’s position in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Bell highlights the South African population’s general contempt with the political trajectory of their country and outlines South Africa’s relevance (or lack thereof) in the international political arena. He explains South Africa’s historical relationship with Russia and how this relationship, BRICS’ steady drift away from Euro-Atlantic political practices and South Africa’s foreign policy of indifference mean that South Africa will not take a stand against the Kremlin.
Relevant time stamps from the interview:
- 00:46 Paul Bell on his view of South Africa’s future in 1994
- 02:31 On his perspective of South Africa’s future today
- 04:03 On South Africa’s place in his NATO essay, Democracy, Power, and our failing imaginations
- 05:34 On South Africa’s relevance in the international political arena
- 07:29 On the weight that South Africa’s stance on Russian and Ukraine carries
- 12:26 On how South Africa’s position in BRICS impacts their stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine
- 17:37 On the possibility of a revolution in South Africa & the likelihood of a revolution’s success
Paul Bell on South Africa’s political stature both continentally and globally, and the nation’s overestimated sense of importance
I think you have to see South Africa in its continental context. South Africa is still a significant player within Africa, within the 52 [or] 53 states of Africa. Its economy is not what it was but it remains, relatively speaking, a powerful economy: a magnet for people throughout the Southern African region and indeed from further afield. There’s no question that there are serious conflicts in different parts of Africa and we have had a lot of migrants come to South Africa because it offers relative peace, stability and opportunity to people who come, if you like, from even less. So in that sense, South Africa is significant [and] has to be taken into account as a player in the global scene. Perhaps we always took ourselves a little bit too seriously, given the fact that we’d had decades of being in the global spotlight because of apartheid. Perhaps this gave us a deeper sense of our importance than we were actually entitled to.
Bell on the weight that South Africa’s stance on Russia carries, and the country’s historical relationship with Russia
[South Africa’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine] doesn’t carry a lot of weight. You have to ask yourself, why does South Africa take the position that it does on Ukraine? You know, there are two perspectives, different points of view from which to look at this. The one is a very partisan perspective, one that somebody like me with my background and my experience, you might perhaps expect me to take.
It’s true that for South Africa and the continent as a whole – just bear in mind that South Africa is a part of Africa, and the attitudes of its leadership, [which] are part and parcel of that, have shaped and are shaped by the African context in which they live. It’s no surprise, therefore, that South Africa would feel beyond just simply the historical loyalties [to Russia]. Policymakers would look at Ukraine and say: Well, do we have a stake in this? Do we have reason to be concerned that we might end up on the wrong side of this conflict? Are we not experiencing some of the backwash that this war is costing us in terms of impact on our economies and so on?
So, [South Africa has] much less commitment to supporting one side or another, perhaps more commitment to saying: Well, can we find a quick peace? An end to the conflict? Would that not be better for us all? And arguably, they would be right, unless of course, you were putting that proposition to a Ukrainian or to a European, like I am or have become, who feels much more closely connected to what is happening in Ukraine and to the potential consequences of a victory for Russia.
On South Africa’s position in BRICS, shifting away from the political practices of the “Euro-Atlantic” power and how this impacts SA’s stance on Russia
Until the rise of countries like China, and in its wake India and so on, the international order has been very much dominated by a Euro-Atlantic perspective: by the power of its economies, by the nature of its liberal democracies [and] all of these big dynamics in the way that the the world or world order has been managed. That’s now significantly challenged by the rise of China and other nations who are basically turning around to the [Euro-Atlantic] North and saying: Your priorities aren’t our priorities, okay? We have large numbers of people who have been and remain historically disadvantaged, who remain poor, whom we have to create opportunities for.
And several of those countries aren’t especially democratic. China is an authoritarian state or totalitarian state, in fact. India is becoming increasingly authoritarian. Other countries like Brazil and South Africa find themselves confronted by quite significant challenges to the notion that they should be democracies. So these are people who are finding it complicated to actually do everything the way the northern hemisphere would like. And they resent its power. They resent its history. They resent the fact that relations between North and South have been fraught by issues like colonialism, slavery, etc.
You have to look at some of the conflict that has been going on, that has been driven by the actions of countries like the United States. For example, [the USA] invading Iraq [and] invading Afghanistan, looking at the French and English intervention in Libya and the consequences of that – these inconsistencies as [the south] see it, inconsistencies in the application of international law. So arguing back to some extent: Well, you complain about Russia invading Ukraine, but didn’t the United States invade Iraq?
I think the other thing that is important in Africa and South Africa as a part of this, is that there’s a long tradition of non-interference in the affairs of other states. I’ve always believed that African foreign policy generally is governed by the principle of: there but for the grace of God go we. So therefore, it’s better that we stay out of somebody else’s internal issues and problems and not actually have anything to say about these issues because who knows? It might be our turn next.
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