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South Africa’s foreign policy has become a minefield of contradictions that risk isolating the nation from Western trade partners and allies. While aligning with the “global South” and being critical of the West, South Africa’s failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its support for Hamas have raised concerns. This, coupled with confusing diplomatic episodes, jeopardises its standing on the world stage. As the country leans towards Russia and diverges from Western positions, it faces potential repercussions that could lead to greater isolation.
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Playing with fire: SA’s foreign policy mess
By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen*
South Africa is bumbling along from one foreign policy mess to another.
The real risk is that at some stage, the West, where most of our trade and interests still lie, might say they have indulged us for too long. They will then place us in the same general category as some of our better friends, like China, Cuba, Russia and Venezuela: others that face trade embargoes, sanctions and isolation.
In foreign policy, South Africa has built a brand, albeit one with a host of glaring contradictions. It is for the “global South” and anti-imperialist, but it does not see the Russian invasion of Ukraine as anything like imperialism. It is certainly anti-American, yet it wants an extension of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, AGOA, which gives us and much of Africa extensive tariff-free access to the US market.
It dislikes the West, but Europe, particularly Germany, is the source of the luxury vehicles so favoured by the elite.
South Africa, along with many other countries, has condemned Israel for bombing Gaza and killing civilians. But Pretoria did not condemn Hamas for its October 7th terror attack on Israel in which about 1,300 civilians were killed, and more than 200 hostages taken. And it did not condemn Russia for its bombing of Ukrainian cities.
In the UN, human rights groups long ago labelled South Africa as a “friend of torture”, because its voting record belies the legacy of rights violations under apartheid.
While South Africa favours self-determination for the Palestinians, a just cause upheld in the two-state solution, it does not really seem to favour this in our neighbour, Zimbabwe. South Africa has not questioned a succession of elections in Zimbabwe which most observer missions have said were neither free nor fair.
In August most election observer missions to Zimbabwe, including that of the Southern African Development Community, SADC, found that the elections were rigged. But this finding was shrugged off by South Africa and other governments in the region, except for Zambia. President Cyril Ramaphosa did not even wait for the final SADC observer mission report to be released, before travelling to Harare to attend Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s inauguration.
The glaring contradiction here is that apartheid deprived millions of the right to vote in South Africa, yet Pretoria lacks the backbone to speak out about an unfree election in a neighbouring country.
It is our leaning towards Russia after its invasion of Ukraine and our stance on the October 7th Hamas terror attack on Israel that may have put us in the other camp for much of the West.
What has really upset the US was South Africa’s failure to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Lady R incident, and the naval exercises between South Africa, Russia and China in the seas off Durban earlier this year.
While South Africa has insisted that the Lady R was not taking on weapons when it docked in Simonstown, the official inquiry has not been made public, and there have only been denials from South Africa. Significantly, there has been no apology from the US for the accusation that weapons were being loaded, and the US Ambassador to Pretoria remains in place. So a joint decision might have been made to simply let the matter drop.
Our participation in naval exercises with Russia and China in the seas off Durban was almost designed to get up America’s nose. These were hardly serious naval exercises, as South Africa’s contribution was minimal and did not even include a frigate or a submarine. Moreover, it is difficult to see the Chinese and Russians sailing outside their spheres of concern to our aid.
Benefit of the doubt
While the US is unhappy about our support for Russia and our failure to condemn Hamas, it does not want to push things too far with Pretoria at this stage. It would rather that South Africa remain part of AGOA and that channels of communication are kept open than for relations to substantially deteriorate. Rather than push matters, Washington has decided to give South Africa the benefit of the doubt, but there is a subtext which says “don’t do anything to seriously upset us in the future.
If relations deteriorate with the US, they will also deteriorate with Europe. State visits by European monarchs should not delude us into thinking that in two key global conflicts there are wide differences of opinion.
It might not be one key difference or incident that could bring on the breaking point in our relations with the West. It is the general direction of our travel on foreign policy. Pretoria’s failure to condemn the Hamas terror attack on Israel, or even label it, as did India and other countries, an act of terrorism, has reinforced our foreign policy reputation, not for the better.
Many countries pointed to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as a factor in the attack, but condemned Hamas.
Even after this failure to condemn the attack, how did International Relations and Cooperation Minister, Naledi Pandor, end up on the phone last week with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh?
The phone call is bound not to be forgotten by the US and European Union, which regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation.
Pandor’s department at first denied that they had spoken on the phone, then admitted that they had done so, just to discuss humanitarian aid. Hamas rules Gaza, but all aid goes through Egypt with the help of the Egyptian Red Crescent, and therefore there was no need to discuss this with Hamas.
Then how did the news emerge – untrue, says the department ̶ that our Minister had offered support for the Hamas attack on October 7th?
Was she being used by Hamas?
The entire episode has become very messy and confusing, and for South Africa, acutely embarrassing.
And then our rulers still presume that South Africa can act as a mediator between Israel and Hamas. This is after South Africa withdrew its Ambassador to Israel, and the ANC declared it wants to break off diplomatic ties. We have effectively sided with Hamas in the war. Any mediation between Israel and Hamas will be mainly led by the US, Egypt, and the Saudis.
Clearly, the ANC still has big foreign policy ambitions. But the experience of apartheid and the subsequent negotiations do not give us an automatic standing to act as a broker in peace deals.
South Africa has taken clear sides in these wars and there are bound to be repercussions. Financial transactions with us are already marked by a big red warning sign because of the grey-listing, and a degree of weakening in our exchange rate and bonds is probably attributable to global worries about where we stand. From now on, a step too far in our direction of foreign policy travel could mean drifting to even greater isolation.
In the scheme of global affairs, we are a small country, so our position on the big issues of the day does not really matter to the world. But it really might matter to us.
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*Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist.
This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission
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