South Africa’s Diplomatic Tightrope in the Ukraine-Russia Conflict

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Despite the global outcry against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Pretoria maintains a neutral stance, emphasizing dialogue as the path forward.

This decision was further underscored when South Africa announced its military exercises next month, named ‘Mosi’ – meaning “Smoke” in Tswana – with Russia and China. A move that has drawn criticism from the US.

These exercises, set to occur off the South African coast between February 17 and 27, coincide with the first anniversary of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

The White House expressed its reservations, with press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stating the US’s concerns about countries exercising with Russia amidst the ongoing conflict.

Following a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor in Pretoria, South Africa defended its decision. According to Pandor, military exercises are standard international practices, and countries shouldn’t feel compelled to choose specific partners.

Decoding South Africa’s Neutral Position in the War

Though the conflict began nearly a year ago with Russia’s military entrance into Ukraine, South Africa has been cautious in its diplomatic responses. Their abstention from two significant UN votes regarding Russia’s actions in Ukraine indicates their careful approach.

Foreign Minister Pandor has stated that South Africa sees diplomacy, dialogue, and adherence to the UN Charter’s principles as the only way forward. Despite this, President Cyril Ramaphosa has pointed to NATO’s actions as a potential catalyst for the conflict.

Historical Links: The South Africa-Russia Connection

The ties between Pretoria and Moscow trace back to the days of apartheid in South Africa. Many ANC leaders, during their struggle against apartheid, had connections to Moscow – some even receiving their education or military training in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union’s support for the liberation movement starkly contrasted Western nations like the US, who branded the ANC and even Nelson Mandela as “terrorists.”

Furthermore, South Africa’s alignment with the Non-Aligned Movement, which avoids taking sides with any major superpowers, further elucidates their stance on global conflicts.

Broader Diplomatic and Economic Relationships

Beyond historical ties, both countries are members of the BRICS consortium, aimed at fostering stronger trade and security relations. Trade between the two nations is also significant, with figures from 2020 showcasing the robust economic partnership.

Domestic Response to South Africa’s Position

While the government adopts a neutral stance, not everyone at home agrees. Renowned entities like the foundation of late Archbishop Desmond Tutu labeled the naval exercises as “disgraceful.”

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has called for a more definitive position supporting Kyiv. Their leader, John Steenhuisen, emphasized the potential economic repercussions of the war and visited Ukraine for a fact-finding mission.

In conclusion, South Africa’s position in the Russia-Ukraine war is informed by a blend of historical ties, diplomatic philosophies, and contemporary economic relationships. While it treads a careful line in global politics, the domestic landscape showcases diverse opinions on the matter.

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