Argument

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South Africa’s Self-Defeating Silence on Ukraine 

ANC leaders are letting Soviet nostalgia outweigh morality.

By , a political analyst and author based in Johannesburg, and , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
South-Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa (R) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) attend the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia, on Oct. 24, 2019.
South-Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa (R) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) attend the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia, on Oct. 24, 2019.
South-Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa (R) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) attend the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia, on Oct. 24, 2019. SERGEI CHIRIKOV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

On March 21, 1960, thousands of Black South Africans gathered in Sharpeville, near Johannesburg, to protest the white minority government’s restrictive pass laws. As the crowd grew, the police fired indiscriminately at the unarmed protesters, killing 69 people and injuring 180. 

The international response was quick. The U.S. State Department condemned the violence in an unusually blunt statement, and the British Parliament introduced legislation denouncing apartheid—though both resisted imposing economic sanctions. By April 1, the United Nations Security Council had adopted a resolution deploring the massacre and calling on South Africa to abandon apartheid. A few weeks later, the U.N. General Assembly declared South Africa in flagrant violation of its charter.

On March 3, 2022, a Russian airstrike using unguided bombs killed 47 civilians in the Ukrainian town of Chernihiv as they appeared to wait in line to buy bread. Amnesty International called the strike “a merciless, indiscriminate attack on people as they went about their daily business” and urged the International Criminal Court to investigate it as a potential war crime. 

On March 21, 1960, thousands of Black South Africans gathered in Sharpeville, near Johannesburg, to protest the white minority government’s restrictive pass laws. As the crowd grew, the police fired indiscriminately at the unarmed protesters, killing 69 people and injuring 180. 

The international response was quick. The U.S. State Department condemned the violence in an unusually blunt statement, and the British Parliament introduced legislation denouncing apartheid—though both resisted imposing economic sanctions. By April 1, the United Nations Security Council had adopted a resolution deploring the massacre and calling on South Africa to abandon apartheid. A few weeks later, the U.N. General Assembly declared South Africa in flagrant violation of its charter.

On March 3, 2022, a Russian airstrike using unguided bombs killed 47 civilians in the Ukrainian town of Chernihiv as they appeared to wait in line to buy bread. Amnesty International called the strike “a merciless, indiscriminate attack on people as they went about their daily business” and urged the International Criminal Court to investigate it as a potential war crime. 

After several more days of Russian shelling and bombing of civilian areas throughout Ukraine—including a maternity hospital—the best South African President Cyril Ramaphosa could muster in response to clear evidence of human rights abuses was a series of tweets on March 10 deferentially thanking “His Excellency President Vladimir Putin” for taking his call and noting South Africa’s “balanced approach” calling for “mediation and negotiation between the parties.” 

It was a far cry from the international solidarity and condemnation of apartheid brutality that Black South Africans received in the wake of Sharpeville. 

South Africa today appears to be driven by a fetish for nonalignment and negotiation—even in the face of naked aggression—and nostalgia for the Cold War when Moscow offered stalwart support for the liberation movement, rather than a clear-eyed assessment of contemporary Russia and a consistent commitment to its self-proclaimed moral foreign policy. Instead, its leaders are parroting Russian security arguments identical to those once used by the apartheid regime to justify its violence against neighboring countries. 


South Africa’s decision to abstain in the March 2 U.N. General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s invasion was the most dramatic sign of Pretoria’s refusal to take a principled stand. It justified the abstention—on a resolution that 141 nations backed while just five sided with Russia and 35 abstained (including 16 other African countries)—by arguing that the wording of the resolution prevented the possibility of effective dialogue.

South African diplomats argued the text did “not create an environment conducive for diplomacy, dialogue, and mediation” and “could drive a deeper wedge between the parties rather than contributing to a resolution of the conflict.” 

But this position is untenable. It is premised on the false belief that Russia and Ukraine carry equal responsibility for the invasion. Russia invaded Ukraine, unprovoked. By doing so, it violated Ukraine’s right to national sovereignty that is guaranteed under international law. The South African position simply creates unwarranted moral equivalence between Russia’s unlawful aggression and Ukraine’s justified defensive posture.

Contemporary Russia is the world’s leading sponsor of far-right parties and stands for everything the ANC was created to oppose.

Morality, of course, is never the key driver of states’ foreign-policy decisions, and South Africa is no exception. Yet the government of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party spent decades appealing to the world’s moral conscience during its  struggle against apartheid, and Pretoria’s diplomats have spent much of the post-1994 era fashioning an image of South Africa as a moral beacon  and a defender of human rights at home and abroad. While hard-nosed realpolitik is to be expected in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, South Africa has set a higher bar for itself—and failing to live up to the image it has created risks jeopardizing its international standing, especially when the legal and moral issues are so starkly clear. 

This fence-sitting over Ukraine is not the first time post-apartheid South Africa has strayed from its own self-proclaimed values. The moral authority South Africa developed by modeling a relatively peaceful transition to a constitutional democracy has been slowly squandered by its failure to stand up for human rights elsewhere.   

Pretoria’s indulgence of Robert Mugabe’s brutal dictatorship and electoral manipulation in neighboring Zimbabwe was followed by its refusal to arrest then-Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on South African soil in 2015 (thereby violating both international and  domestic law) and its inconsistent voting on gay rights at the U.N. Human Rights Council, despite South Africa’s famously progressive constitutional protections for queer people. While South African diplomats may still believe the country acts as a moral exemplar on the world stage, as Nelson Mandela famously envisioned, that assumption has long been questionable, and the government’s current approach to Ukraine could lay it to rest for good. 


Economic links to Russia are a factor, but they are relatively small and do not explain South Africa’s position. Under former President Jacob Zuma’s rule, Pretoria built closer ties to Moscow, joining the BRICS group and trying to attract more Russian investment in South Africa—including a doomed nuclear power project. But traditional partners such as Germany and the United Kingdom are far more significant trading partners. Indeed, as South African analyst Mandla Isaacs has noted, only China and India among the BRICS make South Africa’s top 10 list of export markets; Russia isn’t even in the top 30. Thus, the economic consequences of criticizing Putin would be negligible.

What is driving South Africa’s behavior is not realpolitik but misguided nostalgia. The ANC is stuck in the 1980s and clings to a rose-tinted view of the old Soviet Union that aided it during the anti-apartheid struggle and trained many of its leaders, including Zuma. 

The warm feelings many South Africans—and other Africans—have for the Soviet era are understandable given the economic, military, and diplomatic assistance Moscow provided to liberation movements across the continent at a time when the United States and Europe opposed them and even provided aid to their oppressors. But these loyalties and perceived historical debts have blinded South Africa’s leaders to the reality of what contemporary Russia has become.

Pretoria has failed to recognize that Putin’s Russia is not the anti-imperialist patron of liberation movements that it once adored; it is an overtly imperialist state trying to reconstitute its old empire and has become the leading global patron of far-right white nationalist parties. While the Soviet Union of course had its own imperial tendencies, contemporary Russia has actively courted xenophobic parties in Italy and Austria, helped finance far-right candidate Marine Le Pen’s campaign in France, and most famously interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election through social media efforts that favored Republican candidate Donald Trump, according to the U.S. Justice Department. In short, contemporary Russia stands for everything the ANC was created to oppose.

Old loyalties and perceived historical debts have blinded South Africa’s leaders to the reality of what today’s Russia has become.

Zuma has gone so far as to claim “Ukraine is being used basically as a front, so that Russia can be brought to its knees”—precisely the same argument the apartheid regime used to justify violent incursions into neighboring countries that sheltered Zuma and his ANC comrades during the liberation struggle. “The free world wants to feed South Africa to the Red Crocodile, to appease its hunger,” the apartheid leader P.W. Botha famously said. If South Africa didn’t strike beyond its borders, the apartheid government liked to argue, a revolutionary vanguard in neighboring states threatened to gain a foothold in South Africa and bring what would be the death knell of apartheid—a one-person, one-vote democracy. 

Zuma’s references to a “security risk to Russia” and Ramaphosa’s assertion that “the war could have been avoided if NATO had heeded the warnings from amongst its own leaders” about eastward expansion effectively excuse Russia’s armed aggression on security grounds—putting the ANC in the awkward position of endorsing the military logic used against it by the white supremacist regime that it fought for decades to dislodge.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the apartheid government’s military strategy was premised on what Botha called “total onslaught”—the perception that communist-backed forces were encroaching on the mineral-rich last outpost of white civilization on the African continent and had to be stopped. 

By excusing Russia’s invasion, the ANC is endorsing the military logic used against it by the white supremacist regime that it fought for decades to dislodge.

South African defense spending tripled in the early 1970s as the apartheid regime watched Portugal’s colonies fall in Mozambique and Angola—a country that Pretoria invaded in 1975, leading to the arrival of tens of thousands of Cuban troops and a protracted war. In response to this perceived total onslaught, South African military leaders developed what they called “total strategy”—using the power of Pretoria’s military machine and regional economic dominance to intimidate neighboring states and target the ANC in any nation that dared to host it. The goal, as one scholar wrote in 1985, was to force neighbors “to accept de facto South African regional domination and … accommodate themselves to the apartheid system”—a foreign policy remarkably similar to Putin’s current approach to the post-Soviet space.

South Africa repeatedly invaded its neighbors in order to keep the perceived communist threat at bay. The apartheid regime assassinated ANC members and nearby civilians, armed anti-liberation movement proxies, and made military incursions into Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. While military leaders spoke of the “rooi gevaar” (red threat), what they really feared was the “swart gevaar” (black threat). 

The apartheid regime used the argument of communist encroachment to gain diplomatic support and arms from the United States, from Europe, and later—when the West began to have second thoughts—from Israel, which became a crucial source during the 1980s. Although there was a nearby armed enemy in the form of Cuban troops in Angola (much as Putin points to NATO member states and U.S. weaponry in Eastern Europe today), the real fear was not so much communist invasion—after all, South Africa had developed basic nuclear weapons by the early 1980s—but the specter of postcolonial winds blowing south and bringing democratic rule to Pretoria. 

Similarly, Putin today is seeking to preserve his undemocratic regime amid a sea of emerging democracies. His approach of terrorizing Ukraine to prevent the encroachment of liberal ideas at home is anathema to everything that the ANC stands for and the ideals on which a democratic South Africa was founded. 


South Africa’s government likes to claim it is building bridges between the global north and south and respecting multilateral forums—even offering itself as a mediator despite Turkey and Israel being more likely and more logical candidates.

The idea of effective negotiation should not be dismissed and South Africa’s successful avoidance of outright civil war through political dialogue is a genuine point of pride for the country. Indeed, Ramaphosa himself, as a trade union leader and later as one of the chief negotiators of the South African Constitution, thinks of negotiation as his superpower—recalling in Parliament this week the role South Africa played in Northern Ireland’s peace talks.

But the current Russian position on Ukraine does not allow for the sort of negotiation Ramaphosa envisions; Putin has embarked on an unprovoked war against a sovereign state that undercuts the most basic preconditions for negotiation—a willingness to seek peace and some respect between interlocutors. Putin’s ongoing bombing of civilians and seizure of Ukrainian territory make it impossible for Ramaphosa’s 1990s negotiation template to be exported to Ukraine. 

A commitment to negotiated peace does not necessitate silence in the face of human rights violations.

As admirable as his commitment to negotiated peace may be in theory, it does not necessitate silence in the face of human rights violations. A country can play a serious and effective role as a negotiator—as French President Emmanuel Macron has shown through his ongoing discussions with Putin—while still condemning acts of war that are not justified. 

While more principled African peers such as Ghana and Kenya adopt a stance that respects international legal norms, South Africa is simply muzzling itself in the face of Russia’s blatant violation of the U.N. Charter on the basis of tsarist-era imperial claims to another nation’s sovereign territory that Putin has elucidated in his own writings and speeches. (And for South Africa’s nostalgic Bolsheviks, it is worth noting that Putin’s historical claim is not grounded in Soviet thought; in fact, it is premised on an explicit repudiation of Vladimir Lenin.) 

Ramaphosa’s silence will also undermine the president’s brand at home. His election to the positions of both ANC presidency and South African presidency was meant to be a decisive break from the moral delinquency and epic corruption of the Zuma era and a moral renewal of the governing ANC.

Yet, the two men’s responses to Putin—Zuma backing Putin and Ramaphosa pretending there is no clear aggressor in Ukraine—demonstrate awkward continuities in the ANC’s relationship with Russia. Ramaphosa’s indifference to Russia’s violation of international law makes it hard to sustain the view that his ANC is a corrective to Zuma’s.

It turns out there is only one ANC—and it has behaved with moral cowardice on the world stage in the face of Putin’s illegal war. 

Eusebius McKaiser is an analyst for TimesLIVE and host of the podcast "In the Ring With Eusebius McKaiser." He is based in Johannesburg. Twitter: @Eusebius

Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @sasha_p_s

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