Home Opinion and Features Russia-Ukraine conflict: SA’s mixed messaging a cause for concern

Russia-Ukraine conflict: SA’s mixed messaging a cause for concern


OPINION: South Africa is pressed between a rock and a hard place. One option is to stick to its foreign policy. Another option is to abandon it and lose an identity. Whatever decision the country takes, there should be no mixed messaging, writes Professor Bheki Mngomezulu.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. File picture: AP Photo/Sergei Chirikov

By Professor Bheki Mngomezulu

FROM a general perspective, foreign policy can be defined as the strategy used by any government anywhere in the world when dealing with other governments elsewhere. It refers to general objectives that guide the activities and relationships of one state in its interactions with other states. In other words, foreign policy serves as a blueprint on how the government of a particular country will treat other governments when engaging them for political, economic, cultural and strategic reasons.

Once adopted, the country’s foreign policy has to be followed and implemented by all office-bearers. This includes the sitting president and his or her entire Cabinet as well as all the citizens of that country. Ordinarily, the issue of the misinterpretation of such a foreign policy should not arise if it was properly communicated to everyone.

As South Africa prepared for the new political dispensation which was ushered by the first democratic election in 1994, several changes had to be made. Under apartheid, South Africa was labelled ‘the pariah state’ and an outcast by the international community.

Under the democratic order, the country had to be re-introduced to the global community. Therefore, South Africa’s foreign policy had to be reconfigured. The document titled South Africa’s future foreign policy by Nelson Mandela (1993) gave pointers on what South Africa’s foreign policy would look like post-1994.

Indeed, in 1995, Alfred Nzo, South Africa’s first minister of foreign affairs (now known as Dirco) addressed the heads of mission conference in Pretoria on this issue. He identified six underlying principles which would serve as guidelines in the conduct of South Africa’s foreign relations.

The third and fourth guidelines were these: ‘a commitment to justice and international law in the conduct of relations between nations’; and ‘a commitment to international peace and to internationally agreed-upon mechanisms for the resolution of conflicts.’ This document set the tone of the country’s envisaged foreign policy.

Addressing the foreign affairs portfolio committee in Parliament on 14 March 1995, Minister Nzo concluded that “South Africa must consistently endeavour to pursue a coherent foreign policy, which includes economic, security and political components.” Such utterances made it clear that South Africa’s post-apartheid era would follow a clear foreign policy which would be different from the one followed by the apartheid regime.

Over time, South Africa’s foreign policy has been amended and re-focused but its basic principles remain the same as they were contemplated between 1993 and 1995. For example, Dirco now takes a cue from the National Development Plan (NDP) as its overarching vision which guides the country’s foreign policy and international relations programme.

Among the characteristic features of South Africa’s foreign policy are the following: embracing democracy and democratic practices, embracing the rule of law, respect for human rights, respect for the political sovereignty of other countries, diplomacy and peaceful resolution of conflicts. Ideally, everyone who is in Parliament is supposed to know this foreign policy direction.

So, if this is the case, how did it happen that the statement released by Dirco under Minister Naledi Pandor on the Russia/Ukraine crisis was frowned upon by the presidency? Did the minister and the president understand the country’s foreign policy differently? If it is true that the president (or the presidency) did not see Dirco’s statement before it was released, is there no protocol in place? These are some of the questions that arise when one tries to make sense of the conflicting messages between the two offices.

Ordinarily, this would not have been such a big issue if it was happening for the first time. The reality is that just last year during the July riots, the ministers of state security, the police, defence and the presidency spoke in different tongues. This left many perplexed because it was not supposed to happen. Just about seven months later, we find ourselves on the same spot. This is a cause for concern.

I am certain that neither Pandor nor Ramaphosa are oblivious to the country’s foreign policy agenda. They are both seasoned politicians. However, there are serious challenges.

Both Russia and Ukraine assisted South Africa’s liberation struggle. Both countries are South Africa’s trade partners. South Africa was the first African country to recognise the independence of the Russian Federation when the USSR was dissolved. Russia and South Africa are members of BRICS, which in September 2021 agreed that all disputes between and amongst countries would be resolved peacefully.

Ukraine did not provoke Russia, except for wanting to join Nato. Now, is the war justifiable?

South Africa is pressed between the rock and hard place. One option is to stick to its foreign policy. Another option is to abandon it and lose an identity. Whatever decision the country takes, there should be no mixed messaging!

* Bheki Mngomezulu is Professor of Political Science and Deputy Dean of Research at the University of the Western Cape.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the DFA.

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