A version of this article appeared in The Daily Maverick on 2 March 2022

During our liberation struggle we asked countries in the world to stand on principle against the repressive apartheid regime. Many of us remember bitterly those countries which ignored injustice by their erstwhile ally. Yet today, our democratic government struggles to stand up for core democratic and international relations principles – as Kenya and Ghana have done – because of its questionable alliance with the Russian Federation. We are aligned with Putin’s Russia based on former liberation movement nostalgia, not any coherent analysis rooted in the present and future.

As most South Africans have focused on our domestic challenges in recent years, important features of our foreign policy have escaped notice. High among these is our close alignment with Russia, seemingly as an unintended consequence of our membership in BRICS, which is normally positioned as benign cooperation between leading emerging economies. Distracted by our domestic challenges, our government’s drift closer to Russia over the last decade has gone largely unnoticed by most South Africans.

Until now.

In completing the invasion of Ukraine which Russia began in 2014, President Putin has launched a war of choice and threatens to destabilise Europe. Deeper questions need to be asked. How is it that one of our closest allies is in such flagrant violation of international law and norms? The whole point of international alliances is that you stand together on key international relations issues. Are our national interests served by close alliance with Russia? How did we get here?

Let’s start with the last question.

Our close alliance with Russia is due to the idiosyncrasies of the ANC, not a sophisticated analysis of our national interest. While the ANC has always had a fondness for Russia due to the former Soviet Union’s support of the liberation movement during the struggle against apartheid, our current position as a junior partner to Russia (and China) on the world stage is one of the many unfortunate outcomes of the Zuma era. It was President Zuma who drew us into Russia’s orbit, by joining BRICS in 2011, and subsequently seeking greater Russian investment (most exemplified by the infamous aborted nuclear power deal) and establishing close Kremlin to Union Building ties, as illustrated by Russia becoming the treatment center and convalescence refuge of choice for President Zuma and today, Deputy President Mabuza.

Our national interest can be discerned by asking a series of questions. Which countries share our core values and worldview? What are our political and economic objectives in international affairs? What countries do we have cultural ties and affinities with? And finally, what is our grand strategy in international affairs, and what does this dictate with respect to the nature of our alliances?

We are a liberal democracy with deep commitment to human rights, due to our painful history of colonialism, apartheid and state repression. It would seem natural that we would choose as our closest allies, other democratic countries with deep stated and importantly, practical commitment to human rights. South Africans should question why our government would want to closely align us with autocratic, repressive states whose values we don’t share.

Our worldview is profoundly shaped by the legacy of Western colonialism in Africa. As such we are most skeptical, to say the least, of Western powers who dominated and looted Africa, and forged the international political and economic system in their favor. Hence our complicated relationship with America and Western Europe, and myopia in regard to bad behavior by non-Western actors.

We value economic and developmental partnership with the West, while beneath the surface, our leaders see us as locked in ideological contest with them. The ANC’s Nasrec conference report talks of global ideological contestation between “reactionary forces on the one hand; and progressive forces on the other.” (It would be interesting for the ruling party to explain this week which countries are which.) As the ANC went on to note the “hypocrisy” of developed countries and NATO in destabilising the Middle East and North America, we have been far less critical of the role Russia has played in Libya and Syria.

Some Africanists defend Russia, as they will anyone they see as being in opposition to the West. We would do well to remember the words of eminent African-American historian Dr. John Henrik Clarke: “Some stories don’t have any good guys.” We should be against imperialism, irrespective of which power is practicing it. Whatever Russia’s feelings about sovereign European countries decisions to join NATO, one of the core principles of the international system is that countries cannot wake up and decide to invade, occupy and annex each other’s territories for their strategic purposes. As a middle power in international affairs, we should be guided by our long-stated commitment to a rules-based international order based on peace and dialogue, not locked into Cold War-era alignments.

Politically, our primary interest is a peaceful, prosperous, integrated Africa in charge of its own affairs, and influential on the global stage. Accordingly, we have long wanted African permanent representation on the United Nation Security Council. I am not aware of Russia supporting this position.

Economically, we should be seeking to develop through sustained growth in the export of increasingly complex goods and services. 11 years after joining BRICS, only China and India are among our top 10 export destinations. Russia doesn’t make the top 30. Germany (R117bn of SA exports in 2019), the UK (R96bn) and the USA (R92bn) – the reactionary forces? – bought 17x, 14x and 14x the R7bn of sales we do with Russia.

Culturally of course, we are closest to our African sister countries, even as our hostility to African immigrants undermines our claims of Pan-Africanism. There is an opportunity for us to grow stronger political and economic connections with the African diaspora around the Black Atlantic in the Americas, the Caribbean and Europe.

What I have tried to illustrate here, is that we have little in common with Russia politically and economically. Culturally there are other areas of the world we have stronger affinities with.

We lack a grand strategy. It is ironic that for all the ANC’s rhetoric against Western capitalist forces, BRICS is arguably not even the brainchild of any of its members, but that of ‘if Western capitalism was a person’: then Goldman Sachs economist and now British Lord, Jim O’Neill.

My claim is not that we should leave BRICS. Rather, it is that we should treat it as a forum for economic cooperation, as India and Brazil largely do, not as a geopolitical club to which we are beholden.

A sound strategy for South Africa is to be geopolitically non-aligned, especially in a new era of great power competition between the US, Russia and China. We should certainly not be junior partners of West or East. We must zealously guard our own, and Africa’s independence. This is the strategy regional powers such as Brazil, India and Indonesia have long pursued, shrewdly allowing themselves to be wooed by all suitors while becoming permanently attached to none. In so doing these countries have preserved their strategic autonomy and avoided becoming entangled in fights which are not their own. In international relations there are no permanent friends or enemies, only interests. As we’ve learned at great cost this past decade, the interests of the ANC are not necessarily the interests of South Africa. With all our domestic challenges, our incoherent foreign policy has escaped notice. It is time we citizens take a more careful interest in our international affairs and pressure our government to pursue a foreign policy which reflects our interests and values.