The day commemorating a year of war in Ukraine, February 24, passed almost silently in South Africa. Only a small demonstration was organized in front of the Russian embassy in Pretoria, at the call of the local association of Ukrainians. About fifty people had deployed a large blue and yellow fabric between the trees of the small street and spread out on the sidewalk clothes and children’s toys stained with blood, to denounce the violence of the conflict.
For these critics of Vladimir Putin’s policies, Mandela’s nation, given its history of struggle against apartheid, should logically support oppressed peoples and condemn Russia. “We, the people of Soweto, we have had a very difficult past, and we have seen how some people want to dominate other nations”, rages Freeman, who came with a handful of other South Africans to strengthen the ranks of the small gathering. “It is therefore high time that we react and come here to support the Ukrainian cause. »
But this opinion is far from being shared by all public opinion, and even less by the ruling ANC, which at the same time was organizing maritime military exercises in the east of the country, conducted jointly with China. and Russia.
New world order
South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor defended these long-planned maneuvers by recalling that “all countries organize military exercises with their friends” and that South Africa has claimed since the beginning of the conflict a position of neutrality and non-alignment, dealing with all his allies. Moreover, Pretoria has always abstained during the votes on various resolutions before the UN, and since the beginning of the year has been receiving visits from American, European and Russian representatives in the person of Sergei Lavrov, Vladimir Putin’s Foreign Minister.
In addition to historical ties with Moscow, which date back to the time when the USSR supported fighters against apartheid, and which may explain any lack of condemnation, this solidarity with the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – is explained above all by a question of ideology, according to Jo-Ansie van Wyk, professor of international politics at the University of South Africa (Unisa).
“Pretoria wants to maintain its economic relations with the North, but would also like to establish a new world order, and Russia and China are good partners for this, deciphers the researcher. When these contradictions are pointed out, South Africa always responds that as a non-aligned it aspires to a form of ‘progressive internationalism’, which is to look to like-minded states. ideological point of view. A strategy reaffirmed again last month, during the visit of the Algerian Foreign Minister, Ramtane Lamamra, enthusiastic about the idea of reviving the non-alignment movement alongside Pretoria.
A behavior that obviously does not delight South Africa’s Western partners, for whom this position is no longer neutral. In the United States, Republicans are trying, before Congress, to push President Joe Biden to reconsider relations between the two countries. And during his visit in January, the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, also expressed his irritation.
Within the Rainbow Nation, a few voices are concerned about this dynamic, such as the opposition Democratic Alliance party or the CEO of the FirstRand bank concerned about the “extremely negative consequences for the country” that could arise from a severance of ties with the nations of the North.
This balancing act should be tested again later in the year, as South Africa, at the head of the rotating BRICS presidency, plans to host the group’s annual summit next August.