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South Africa’s Rhetoric of Non-alignment in Focus

Dr Abhishek Mishra is an Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • July 31, 2023

    Following months of speculations, a decision has finally been made—Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t attend the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) Summit which is taking place in Johannesburg from 22 to 24 August 2023. The development comes as a relief for South African officials as it helps Pretoria dodge an awkward diplomatic and legal dilemma. Being a signatory to the Rome Statute which governs the International Criminal Court (ICC), South African officials would have been obliged to arrest Putin upon arrival. In March 2023, ICC issued a warrant for Putin’s arrest over alleged war crimes committed in Ukraine.1 Two other members of BRICS—India and China—are not signatories to the Rome Statute. Brazil is a member but since it wasn’t hosting the meeting, it did not have to deal with this situation.

    The moment speculations about Putin’s possible attendance began, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa employed every possible means to diffuse the situation and navigate his way out of the tight diplomatic spot. First, his administration proposed Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lead the Russian delegation instead of Putin. This request was denied by Moscow. Secondly, rumors began to fuel speculations that the BRICS summit could become a virtual summit or may even get shifted to China.2 Such rumors were categorically denied by Ramaphosa as his administration insisted on hosting a physical summit. Moreover, President Ramaphosa is trying to consolidate his own domestic standing and garner support from various flanks of his ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), with the South African general elections scheduled to take place in 2024.

    US Ambassador’s Allegation

    The troubled period for South African administration began on 11 May when the United States Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety held a press conference in which he accused South African officials of allegedly loading weapons onto a sanctioned Russian ship in December 2022.3 This triggered a long drawn diplomatic spat between Washington and Pretoria. It was claimed that the Russian cargo ship known as The Lady R docked at Simon’s Town naval base near Cape Town last December with its tracking device switched off. This prompted questions whether the ship was loaded with arms before returning to Russia.

    Even before this development, tensions between US and South Africa were already palpable. On the anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2023, South African military participated in a ten-day exercise – Exercise Mosi, along with Russia and China. This provoked criticism both at home and abroad.4 With Ambassador Brigety’s accusation, South Africa’s officially proclaimed “non-aligned” position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine came under scrutiny. Following the press conference, the immediate fallout was felt in the financial markets with the South African Rand plummeting to a record low of 19.51 to the dollar.5

    The other implication was the possibility of South Africa being suspended from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which is due to expire in 2023. Under AGOA, South Africa currently enjoys preferential duty-free market access to the US, South Africa’s third-largest trading partner. If South Africa’s preferential status indeed gets suspended, then industries like wine, citrus and motor would be gravely affected, leading to job losses and reduced export revenues.6

    In response, the South African government categorically denied US accusations and defended its decision to participate in military exercise with Russia and China citing its right to pursue its own international policy since it is a sovereign nation. South Africa’s Minister of Defence Thandi Modise claimed that the Lady R docked to deliver a shipment of ammunition for the South African National Defence Force’s Special Forces Regiment, equipment that had been ordered prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.7 Owing to the seriousness of the allegations and its potential impact on South Africa’s international image, Ramaphosa established a three-person panel to investigate the incident.8 However, the timeline for completing the investigation and providing a final report remains undetermined for the time being.

    South Africa’s Rhetoric of Non-Alignment

    The paradox of being formally neutral on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, yet parallelly deepening military relationship with Russia is continuing to strain US–South Africa relations. Right from the start, South Africa has insisted that it supports the “peaceful resolution” of the conflict.9 Pretoria along with a group of five African countries volunteered to visit both Moscow and Kyiv and constitute a “peace mission”. The delegation put forward a 10-point plan that stressed on unimpeded grain exports through the Black Sea. Yet in practical terms, Africa’s peace mission failed to yield meaningful results.10 The delegation faced several logistical and security challenges.

    Problems with the US have been further complicated with South Africa continuing to abstain on voting at the UN General Assembly resolutions calling for an end to the war and Russia’s withdrawal from Ukrainian territory. India has followed a similar path whereas China has voted against such resolutions. Although there are no cultural or linguistic ties between South Africa and Russia, the former’s support for the latter could be attributed to the roots of the ANC. Being Africa’s oldest liberation movement fighting against white minority rule in South Africa, the ANC relied heavily on support from the erstwhile Soviet Union. The armed wing of the ANC—known as Umkhonto we Sizwe—received arms, ammunitions, and military training from the Soviets in 1960s. With such historical affinities, it is understandable why South Africa would be standing on the fence on the Russia–Ukraine conflict. However, the question of whether South Africa has been able to substantiate its doctrine of non-alignment or usage of the term non-aligned is debatable.11

    Additionally, the West had raised the stakes for South Africa to pursue a course of action tantamount to economic sabotage. Apart from potential suspension from AGOA, Putin’s arrival and South Africa’s failure to arrest him would have subjected Pretoria to penalties such as exclusion from various Western payments platform and protocols. On 9 June 2023, US Congressional leaders also issued a bipartisan letter urging President Joe Biden to question South Africa’s eligibility for continued inclusion in the AGOA and to consider moving the venue of 2023 AGOA Forum from South Africa to another country.12

    Apart from these challenges, the principal line of argument coming from South African officials relates to its own role in negotiation and mediation on peace and security issues. Currently, there are not many states that have access to both President Putin and President Volodymyr Zelensky and can engage with the two parties simultaneously. This sentiment has been echoed by South Africa’s Minister for International Relations and Cooperation Dr Grace Naledi Pandor. However, by being a signatory to the Rome Statute, South Africa has inadvertently put itself in a difficult position when it comes to hosting leaders in the future. Unless the Rome Statute of 2002 is amended, the question of any future state visit by the President of Russia to South Africa will remain in question. With South Africa slated to host the G20 Summit in 2025, similar kind of diplomatic pressure may continue to be applied unless the statue is amended.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.