Sunday Times E-Edition


As US-SA ties grow increasingly strained, it is worth considering how South Africa’s stance on Ukraine might be influenced by its relations with Beijing, writes

David Monyae ✼ Monyae is associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Johannesburg and director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies

Russia vs SA vs USA: Two sides of the triangle

It is patently clear that all is not well between Pretoria and Washington. Indicators of the increasingly strained relationship include the Sandton terror alert issued in October last year by the US embassy, the tabling of a resolution in the US Congress in February calling for a review of the bilateral relationship, the White House’s explicit disapproval of South Africa’s joint naval exercise with China and Russia, and the failure to invite President Cyril Ramaphosa to the G7 summit now being held in Japan.

Of course, underlining the growing friction are the divergent approaches to the Ukraine war.

The latest and perhaps most devastating diplomatic row was sparked by US ambassador Reuben Brigety’s startling accusation that South Africa loaded arms onto the Russian cargo ship Lady R when it docked at Simon’s Town naval base in December last year.

While diplomatic spats are a normal occurrence, this one has far-reaching implications, not least because it concerns a major war the outcome of which could upend the US-dominated post-1945 global order. It is a war that has been dubbed a battle for the global soul between democracy and authoritarianism.

Brigety’s allegation paints South Africa as having chosen to fight on the side of authoritarianism and autocracy by aiding and abetting Russia’s adventure in Ukraine. If true, this would erode South Africa’s most-prized asset — moral capital — not least by undermining the ANC government’s professions of non-alignment and neutrality.

The issue also jeopardises the country’s economic relations with the US and its Western allies. Economic relations between South Africa and the US are thriving, with trade reaching $21.2bn (about R411bn) in 2021 — accounting for about a third of the value of total US trade with Africa.

This is helped by South Africa’s participation in the US Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which gives selected African countries preferential access to the US market. The US is South Africa’s largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI), which was valued at more than $7bn in 2018. South

Africa also benefits handsomely from the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar), which was set up in 2003. The programme has provided $8bn for antiretroviral drugs administered to about 4-million HIV patients in South Africa — which is the single largest beneficiary of Pepfar.

Brigety’s assertions seem calculated to force South Africa’s leadership to think about the substantial material benefits that its foreign policy is putting on the line, and could be a pretext for punitive action. The saga recalls the tactics of the Cold War era, when the US dangled economic carrots to lure desperate African countries to its side in its ideological contest with the Soviet Union.

Many commentators are dumbfounded as to why South Africa is risking the substantial economic benefits accruing from its relationship with the US by refusing to toe Washington’s line on Ukraine. For some, South Africa’s seeming alignment with Russia is tantamount to an abdication of its constitutional values.

Why is it that the moral and economic implications of South Africa’s stance on the war are so clear to everyone except Pretoria’s foreign policy mandarins? The question demands a more nuanced explanation.

First, history is a big factor. The former Soviet Union, whose seat of power was in Moscow, supported the ANC financially and militarily during its anti-apartheid struggle. This is in direct contrast to the US, which maintained its relations with the apartheid regime while designating the ANC and other anti-apartheid movements as terror organisations. The CIA even played a role in the arrest of Nelson Mandela in 1962. The US and the UK consistently vetoed UN Security Council resolutions that would have imposed sanctions on the apartheid government.

So it is difficult for the ANC-led government to join the Russia-bashing posse led by the US. Discarding history is not as easy as it may seem. Historical experiences are an important determinant in how people view the world and the decisions they make, and this cannot be simply wished away.

Second, the US itself is not that squeaky clean. It led illegal, unilateral invasions in Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, grotesquely disregarding international law. The protests of South Africa and other countries were ignored. It may be that the ANC government is not convinced that the US has the moral gravitas to tell other countries how to react to the Russian invasion.

Moreover, the China factor in South Africa’s foreign policy calculus cannot be ignored. China has become South Africa’s biggest trading partner, with trade now valued at $54bn. This is more than double South Africa’s trade with the US. Chinese FDI in South Africa was estimated at $5.4bn in 2020. Like Russia, China also supported the antiapartheid struggle. China and South Africa both espouse non-alignment and share a desire for a more multipolar world. Both countries have abstained from the UN resolutions condemning Russia.

If South Africa had fallen in with the US over Ukraine, this could have alienated an historical ally and its biggest economic partner — one that is bigger than the US. These and other factors explain Pretoria’s foreign policy ambivalence.

However, South Africa’s awkward strategy of having its feet on both sides of the geopolitical divide is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain under US pressure. The ANC government will soon be forced to adopt a more definitive and decisive posture.

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