Watching the horrors of war emerge in Ukraine over the last month has left many South Africans deeply unsettled by their government’s refusal to condemn Russia’s military invasion of a democratic nation like their own.
Since Russia launched its attack on February 24th, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration has maintained a neutral position on the escalating crisis in eastern Europe, even though most of the world has condemned it.
In total, 141 countries voted in favour of the resolution, 34 abstained and five voted against it.
The African National Congress-led government has subsequently been accused of fence-sitting on the matter to keep its longtime ally, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, onside.
However, the ruling party insists this is far from the truth. It maintains that taking sides in the Russia-Ukraine crisis only undermines efforts to secure a peaceful resolution to an increasingly deadly conflict.
Ramaphosa has explained that South Africa wants to see an end to the war, but it refused to support the resolution because it did not “foreground the call for meaningful engagement”.
He added his country’s collective experience from the fight to end apartheid showed that when it comes to major conflicts a lasting peace is only achievable through negotiation.
It has subsequently transpired that Ramaphosa has twice held direct talks with Putin “to gain an understanding of the situation” from the Russian perspective, and to offer himself as a mediator in the crisis.
But although South Africa’s president maintains his position is rooted in the need to be impartial, other ruling party bigwigs with close ties to Putin are openly supporting Russia and its leader.
For instance, former South African president Jacob Zuma went as far as to describe the Russian dictator as a “man of peace” in a recent statement he released on the invasion of Ukraine.
The ANC has a long history with the former Soviet Union, which provided military equipment, funding and training to its anti-apartheid activist and soldiers during the decades they fought to end apartheid in South Africa.
As a result, many of its critics suspect this longstanding bond is the real reason the former liberation movement is unwilling to criticise Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Addressing parliament on March 15th, the leader of the Democratic Alliance John Steenhuisen bemoaned that South Africa now found itself on the wrong side of history because the ANC was confused about the past.
“It wasn’t Russia that supported the anti-apartheid fight,” the main opposition leader said, “it was the Soviet Union, and that solidarity included Ukraine, the country now being attacked.”
University of the Western Cape political scientist and ANC member Keith Gottschalk noted recently that many of the 16 African nations that abstained from the March 2nd vote at the UN had received help from Moscow to gain their independence.
In an article he wrote for the academic journal The Conversation, he said another reason that might explain South Africa’s UN stance was that the ANC and Russia had a shared resentment of Nato’s global dominance.
“The relationship between South Africa and the US, especially, has a complex history,” he said, “Not least because US governments designated ANC leaders fighting the apartheid regime as terrorists. There is also memory of the CIA’s unsavoury role in Africa”.
Making an economic argument that explains South Africa’s stance is also difficult, as Russia is not even among its top 10 trading partners, which included China, the US, Germany and UK and African nations in 2020, according to official statistics.
Whatever the reason for the government’s reluctance to criticise Russia, its stance has sparked widespread debate locally about its merits, and who South Africa really sides with in the world order.
But for some people, arguing about the matter is not enough.
Addressing the Cape Town Press Club on March 11th, Ukraine’s ambassador to South Africa, Liubov Abravitova, revealed that hundreds of locals had contacted her directly to ask how they can join the foreign legion that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has established to help fight Russia.
“Of course, first of all, I say, ‘You can help by volunteering with humanitarian work, you can help with finance.’ But they say, ‘We want to fight,’” she reportedly said.