Sunday Times E-Edition

It’s the wrong fork in the road that leads to Moscow

How do we go wrong in alienating the US and cosying up to Russia? Let us count the ways. By

Xolela Mangcu ✼ Mangcu has been appointed visiting scholar at the Oxford Centre for Life Writing at Wolfson College, University of Oxford.

South Africa’s embrace of Russia just as it pulverizes Ukraine is both immoral and stupid. There is just no sugar-coating a strategic blunder of such monumental proportions. That the government’s position is immoral is a no-brainer, but the reasons that make it so bear repeating for a political party that long ago traded political morality for self-dealing.

The Russian missiles raining on Ukraine constitute a brazen violation of international humanitarian law, specifically the Geneva Conventions of 1949 that protect civilian noncombatants from attack in wartime. Russia’s actions are as evil as the Americans dropping atom bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945.

There is something about the psychology of oppression that seems to inure the formerly oppressed to the suffering of others. History is replete with examples of this cruel irony. After centuries of persecution the Jewish people of

Israel turned around to do the same to

Palestinians. No sooner had the Afrikaners emerged from British concentration camps in the Anglo-Boer War than they brutalised black people. Robert Mugabe did the same to his people, while South Africa’s applause rang to the rafters.

Given this history of mollycoddling dictators it is hardly surprising that we laid out the red carpet for Sergei Lavrov and conducted joint military exercises with Russia. There is a whole lot of money to be made in this kind of alliance. Remember the arms deal, anyone? The very same government tried to convince the nation that it was buying those arms in the national interest. As we now know, that was the beginning of the end of the ANC, as factions fought over the spoils. That deal did more than any other policy to produce the black billionaire class. There is a saying, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” We are being taken for suckers, and perhaps we are suckers given that we keep returning the same lot to office, their depredations notwithstanding.

So, what about the stupid part? Here I am conflicted. I am an Americophile. There is a reason that the biggest public policy problem in the US is immigration, as people clog the borders to get in. The last time I checked there were no such lines at the Russian frontier. On the contrary, Russians are fleeing their country by the dozen.

When I say I am an Americophile I make a distinction between the Washington government and the US people. Their government has done horrendous things in the world. The list is endless but includes the near extermination of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, the lynching of African Americans, the killing of Patrice Lumumba, the overthrow of Maurice Bishop in Grenada, the Vietnam War and most recently the dismemberment of Iraq and Libya.

So I sing no hosannas for the US government. But the situation is more complex when it comes to the country’s people and institutions. It is those people who have often held their leaders in check, forcing them to withdraw from Vietnam and impose sanctions against apartheid South Africa. This is the nation that has given the world the best system of higher education ever developed, and has led the world in technological innovation — from harnessing electricity to building the first heavier-than-air flying machines and inventing the microchip. This is the US that gave us jazz, rhythm & blues and hip-hop, as well as the literature of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison.

Yes, this is the nation that gave us Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, WEB Du Bois and Angela Davis.

This is also the country that is our secondbiggest trading partner after China. And where does Russia list among those trading partners? It does not even make the cut. So why would we pick a fight with the US, a country that passed a law, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, to give countries in Sub-Saharan Africa duty-free access to its market?

We like to punch above our weight, I know, but the reality is that our GDP as a percentage of global GDP is 0.7%. The US economy constitutes almost a quarter of the global economy, while China comes in at 18% and Russia at a measly 3%. What logic is there in aligning ourselves with Russia — other than the self-interest of politicians?

With all our problems, the last thing we want is the opprobrium of the West. I know that is hard to swallow for a people who were oppressed by European nations but most of our investment comes from the EU, which is why our roads are peppered with German cars and other “felicities of bourgeois existence”.

The small boy in the playground is always happy when someone takes on the bully. Our government is acting like that frightened little boy. The logic seems to be that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. The question is what happens to the little boy when the enemies kiss and make up?

This is not as far-fetched as it may sound. In 1986 the Soviet Union abandoned the ANC as it began its rapprochement with the US. What will happen when Moscow repairs its relationship with Washington, perhaps under a new leadership? At that point we would have annoyed both of them. We would have cut off our nose to spite our face.

Our future as a country will not be determined by corrupt, short-term trade deals meant to enrich just a few. In the long run national survival depends on public values that define your identity as a nation, beyond the smoke and mirrors our leaders use to camouflage their real intentions. Our country shall be judged by the company it keeps, and we have been keeping the company of some dodgy characters on the world stage lately.

Three decades after we won our freedom, our leaders are still clinging to outdated politics, what the writer Mothobi Mutloatse once referred to as “liberation struggle handcuffs”.

The only way to free ourselves is for a new generation who never experienced apartheid and were never part of the struggle to take over the leadership of the country. Their thinking will not be as muddled as that of the old-timers running the country right now, always looking backward to a time that never was, and barely lifting their heads as they blindly inch forward.

As a coda, it may be useful to remember that it is short-term thinking that led the government to ignore warnings about the impending electricity shortages that have now become load-shedding. We will be back here in a decade or two talking about how bet on the wrong horse and sabotaged our relationship with the US. Mark my words.

The only way to free ourselves is for a new generation to take over the leadership of the country

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