Russia-Ukraine: The West puts pressure on South Africa’s non-alignment stance

By Romain Chanson, in Johannesburg
Posted on Wednesday, 9 March 2022 17:20, updated on Saturday, 12 March 2022 00:38

South Africa Ukraine Invasion
Members of the Ukrainian Association of South Africa gather to protest outside the Russian Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Since South Africa refused to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Western states have been active, more or less publicly, on pressuring the South African government to speak up against the war.

It all started with a tweet posted by Riina Kionka, European Union (EU) ambassador to South Africa. “Still scratching our heads over here,” she wrote, matching her remark with a visibly perplexed facial emoticon. A few hours earlier, at the United Nations General Assembly, South Africa had abstained from voting on a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

This is not a surprise, however, coming from Pretoria. South Africa adheres to the principle of non-alignment inherited from the Cold War. When the great powers confront each other – the blocs, as they said at the time – Pretoria prefers to remain in the background.

Today, the Russian invasion makes this neutrality difficult to accept in the eyes of the West. “We’re puzzled because RSA sees itself and is seen by the world as a country championing human rights, international law and the rule of law,” wrote Kionka in her tweet. Clayson Monyela, spokesperson for South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation, responded with a scathing reply: “Do you wanna engage here Amb? I assume you saw the Vote Explanation?”

Tweet battle

Stung to the core, the spokesperson continued: “Thoughts? #whataboutism Let’s not forget the People of Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Somalia etc. The EU shud “condemn” aggressors in these cases as well. Consistency in our Diplomatic endeavors is critical”

A tweet that has provoked over 270 responses to date, among them is one from Tobias Elling Rehfeld, the Danish ambassador, callin

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. -Desmond Tutu

The Danish diplomat also expressed himself in an open letter published by News24. He describes himself as a child of the Cold War, raised in fear of a nuclear apocalypse. “Today the fear is back. […] historical relations does not absolve a nation from being condemned for current acts of aggression,” he wrote in reference to the ties between the African National Congress (ANC) and Russia since the apartheid era.

It was also on News24 that European ambassadors posted in South Africa had, at the very beginning of the conflict, published an open letter to denounce the violation, by the Russians, of the principles of the UN. Collectively and individually, the chancelleries are leading the battle of opinion. “We feel that there is perhaps a contradiction between the government’s position and what is happening in South African society,” observes a diplomatic source.

Small demonstrations have been organised in Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria. In an online poll, 66% of voters (over 10,000 people on March 8) said South Africa should not remain neutral and should be “on the right side of history.”

Todd P. Haskell made no mistake in invoking the words of Desmond Tutu, a figure in the struggle against apartheid who died last December and is South Africa’s “moral compass. In front of the press, the American chargé d’affaires quoted the former archbishop of Cape Town: ” If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” The Tutu Foundation has also issued a statement calling on the South African government to join Ghana and Kenya in condemning Russian aggression.

If Pretoria is so courted, it is because South Africa “occupies a special moral position in the world,” says Todd P. Haskell. Its fight for freedom has been a source of inspiration for the whole world.

Trudeau’s phone call

Off the record, a diplomat explains, the Americans regret the persistence of the concept of non-alignment, which they consider “obsolete” and “dated from the Cold War” especially since 30 years have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, they say they maintain a constant dialogue with their South African counterparts on this issue.

Further north, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called President Cyril Ramaphosa directly. According to a statement, the two leaders discussed “efforts to end this unnecessary conflict.”

The call was expected by Kionka. In the press, she said she tried to reach Naledi Pandor, the minister of international relations, and President Ramaphosa, but with no success.

What Russia is doing in Ukraine is slaughtering innocent children, women and men for its own gain. It’s definitely not “fighting Nazism”. Shame on anyone who’s falling for this. (Sadly, we’re kinda experts on Nazism.) -German Embassy in South Africa.

Behind the scenes, the Europeans have increased their efforts, including meetings with the South African Department of International Relations. “Many officials are active, in South Africa and in African countries. A general effort is being made to make Europe’s voice heard because we know very well that Russia is itself very active on the entire African continent and that its ‘narrative’ has a certain echo in South Africa,” confided one European diplomatic source.

This tweet, published by the Russian embassy in South Africa, shows: “Dear subscribers, we have received a great number of letters of solidarity from South Africans, both individuals and organizations. We appreciate your support and glad you decided to stand with us today, when Russia, like 80 years ago, is fighting Nazism in Ukraine.”

But that type of provocation was too much for the German embassy in South Africa, which did not fail to react. “…What Russia is doing in Ukraine is slaughtering innocent children, women and men for its own gain. It’s definitely not “fighting Nazism”. Shame on anyone who’s falling for this. (Sadly, we’re kinda experts on Nazism.)

Westerners are not alone in their mobilisation, assures Liubov Abravitova, the Ukrainian ambassador to South Africa, who warns against a bipolar representation of the world.

The proof? 141 countries have approved the UN resolution condemning the Russian invasion.

In southern Africa, Abravitova says she has received support from Zambia and Botswana, the only countries, along with Lesotho and Malawi, to have condemned Moscow’s military offensive. “The real issue is not to mobilise embassies, but to get global solidarity. When I see that the whole world supports us, when we have stopped Russia, then I will be happy.”

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