The South African government’s policy on Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine comes in the context of its record on human rights internationally, which is a sorry tale. In the pursuit of its own agenda internationally over the past 15 years, the ANC has conflated party-political interests with the national interest and demonstrated an alarming lack of geopolitical understanding.  

A resident walks among debris next to a destroyed house in Sloviansk on 4 July 2022, the day after a Russian rocket attack. Photo: Genya Savilov/AFP

The government’s policy on Ukraine is inconsistent with the country’s stated foreign policies in respect of human rights, and it does not represent the national interest either immediately or in the long term. This paper calls for a principled reversal of the ruling party’s position on Ukraine, which it says does not reflect the national interest but rather the ruling party’s sentiments and interests. Further, this paper calls for a critical public discussion of the government’s record on foreign policy with the aim of establishing a revised approach to foreign policy that requires it to take account of the country’s own principles and of the national interest. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 

On 24 February this year Russia attacked Ukraine, launching missiles at military targets and invading the country with a considerable military force. Russia described the invasion as a “special military operation” to “demilitarise and denazifiy” the country. In subsequent days the invasion escalated into an all-out attack on Ukrainian cities and civilians fell victim to Russian military attacks. Credible reports indicate that Russian forces may have committed war crimes, including the summary execution of citizens of an independent foreign state. According to Amnesty International Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constitutes a crime of aggression under international law. The European Union and the ICC are investigating Russian war crimes in Ukraine, and it is certain that Russia has destroyed cities, displaced millions of Ukrainians and violated the sovereignty principle enshrined in the UN Charter. 

SA’s voting

On 2 March the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution deploring Russia’s aggression (141 votes for, five against, 35 abstentions). On 24 March the General Assembly demanded citizen protection in Ukraine and accused Russia of creating a “dire human rights situation” (140 votes in favour, five against and 38 abstentions). On 7 April the General Assembly adopted a resolution for Russia to be suspended from the UN Human Rights Council. A record of these votes can be found here. 

In all three instances, South Africa abstained from supporting UN resolutions condemning or censuring Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Technically, an abstention in a UN vote is regarded as a display of neutrality, which may be warranted in cases where violations are not obvious or flagrant. However, international lawyers say there is little doubt that Russia’s actions in Ukraine constitute an ongoing war crime. South Africa’s initial response was compromised when the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) issued a statement calling for Russia to withdraw (a position consistent with international law), a stance that was changed in a subsequent statement, the main point of which was a demand that developing countries have greater influence on global governance.  

The South African position was to call for mediation and dialogue in the “conflict” in abstract terms. In debate about the second resolution, the South African government embarrassed itself and the country by proposing the withdrawal of the first UN resolution and proposing wording for a new resolution that described the invasion as a humanitarian crisis while not even mentioning Russia. The proposed resolution was rejected as “uncalled for” and not even tabled (see here).  

National and international reaction 

The South African government maintained that it was hewing to a principled “non-alignment”. However, critical response within the country included the official opposition’s view that the invasion violated the UN Charter and Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba’s call for a “loud condemnation” of attacks on health centres and places of refuge in Ukraine. Diplomats indicated that South Africa was creating the impression that it was acting in Russia’s interests. The government then played an offensive game of diplomatic rank-pulling in its refusal to meet Ukraine’s ambassador, though President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

The UN’s three resolutions on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were based on a fundamental principle of its Charter recognising the full sovereignty of all countries and requiring all members to respect this principle.  

The African position 

South Africa’s position on Ukraine took place in the context of African division on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Just short of half of all African countries abstained from or did not vote on the UN resolutions. One commentator argues that this was due to their various perceived strategic interests, including dependence on Russia for wheat imports and military support against insurgencies (which includes the use of private military contractors). Another analyst argues that African countries’ abstentions were influenced by a widespread perception of Western hypocrisy given interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.  

Commentators suggested that Pretoria’s response to the Russian invasion was based on the false claim that Russia and Ukraine carried equal responsibility for the conflict. President Ramaphosa as well as DIRCO’s Clayson Monyela also effectively blamed the war on Ukraine, which has sought Nato membership, and on Nato. The view that Russia would perceive Nato’s eastward expansion as a threat is shared by influential analysts in the West, among them Jerry Mearsheimer, University of Chicago professor of international relations.  

Yet this view ignores the fact that all the eastern European countries that have joined Nato –the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, Albania and Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia – exercised their sovereign right to do so after the fall of the Soviet Union, which had occupied almost all of them. Moreover, the argument does not justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is not a Nato member.  

SA’s foreign relations record 

South Africa’s main objective in foreign relations, both before and after democracy in 1994, has been to ensure “global recognition as Africa’s leading state”. Expectations were that South Africa would play a constructive role as a regional hegemon in Africa but in the earlier years of its young democracy South Africa took an unusually wise course in this case, preferring to cooperate with Nigeria through the New Partnership for Africa’s development. This approach was abandoned by the Zuma administration. and the country has since lost ground on the continent. 

Incidents of xenophobic violence in the country since 2008 have cost the lives of at least 60 people and left thousands homeless. The recurrent spates of attacks on Africans in South Africa required the intervention of the African Union’s Peace and Security Council in 2015 and expressions of concern from governments around the continent, including that of Nigeria. Human Rights Watch concluded that the government had failed to curb the xenophobic attacks and acted in “discriminatory and abusive ways against non-nationals”. The government’s ongoing failures regarding xenophobia against African nationals have done the country’s status on the continent little good. Nor did its bullying approach to taking the AU chair in 2012.  

Other foreign policy mis-steps in Africa included deployment of SANDF soldiers to the Central African Republic in 2013, thirteen of whom died, allegedly to protect private interests, Zuma’s signing of the 2014 Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit protocol – which attempted to undermine the power of the SADC tribunal (the North Gauteng High Court ruled this unconstitutional and set it aside) – the Zuma administration’s failure to arrest Sudanese president and accused war criminal Omar al Bashir in 2015, a subsequent attempt to withdraw from the ICC (the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled the government’s attempt to do this unlawful) and an attempt to apply retrospective immunity to Grace Mugabe after she was accused of assaulting a South African citizen while visiting the country in a supposed official capacity.  

South Africa’s UN record 

South Africa’s voting record at the UN reveals an equally concerning pattern. The country prevented discussion of Zimbabwe’s political violence in 2005; challenged a 2007 UN draft resolution condemning rape and ethnic cleansing as war tactics; refused to support UN Security Council measures to protect civilians in armed conflicts in 2011; abstained from condemning human rights abuses in North Korea in 2014, in Burundi in 2016, and Belarus in 2017; abstained from supporting a UN Human Rights Council resolution protecting the rights of peaceful protestors in 2016; voted against a resolution on human rights and extremism in 2015, along with Russia and Venezuela; voted against a 2016 resolution to protect civil society actors against authoritarian governments; supported a 2017 Russian-sponsored resolution aimed at preventing countries from imposing sanctions on each other on the grounds that this would cause harm to citizens of sanctioned countries; abstained from supporting a 2016 resolution protecting people against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender; and abstained from a 2017 resolution on ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.  

Demonstrations of a principled stance on human rights have been rare. South Africa reversed its stance on Myanmar in 2018 and 2019. In 2021 the country also supported a General Assembly resolution on the responsibility to protect citizens against and prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. And in 2021 it also supported a resolution aimed at curbing the use of mercenaries in conflicts, which committed the country to recognising “the principles of sovereign equality, political independence, the territorial integrity of states, the self-determination of peoples, the non-use of force or threat of use of force in international relations and non-interference in affairs within the domestic jurisdiction of states”. Some researchers have also argued that South Africa’s policy on Israel has remained relatively even-handed in asserting the need for a two-states solution, though others have argued that its stance effectively ignores Palestinian attacks on Israel. At any rate, this specific stance contradicts the government’s general stance on Ukraine as a “humanitarian” issue.  

In most cases, the government has expressed “a plausible-sounding rationale for a position” based on its central commitment to the primacy of sovereignty “but … ended up taking a stance that has been criticised for undermining human rights”. In many cases, the supposed adoption of neutrality has had the net effect of supporting autocratic regimes. 

Misreading history 

South Africa’s stance on Ukraine has caused serious political and moral concern internationally. Most recently, the Finnish foreign minister pointed out that his country – like many others in Europe – did not adopt a neutral or “non-aligned” stance as regards the injustices of apartheid. Other Western countries that supported the anti-apartheid movement will no doubt take the same view, though less obviously. Given the ANC’s reliance on international support for its political campaign for influence over a country thousands of miles away from these countries. In addition, it is more than puzzling that the government has failed to support many European countries in their view that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine amounts to an existential threat to their continent. 

Some explanation for the government’s contradictory stance can be found in its misreading of history. One of the background reasons for South Africa’s implicit support of Russia’s aggression is said to be the ruling party’s “misguided nostalgia” for the Soviet Union, which aided its struggle to end apartheid. Yet the anti-imperialist ANC’s acceptance of Soviet Union support depended on a blindness to the fact that the Soviet Union was itself also an imperialist power. Indeed, the Ukraine has been the subject of imperialist occupation for hundreds of years, including occupation by Stalin under the rubric of “internal colonisation”. The Soviet Union was itself guilty of massive genocide and widespread human rights abuses over many decades, including a campaign of mass starvation that killed four million Ukrainians.  

It is also suggested that South Africa’s position is based on a realpolitik assessment of its economic ties with Russia, yet these are minuscule compared to its economic ties with the EU. Its position is also said to be based on its membership of BRICS, and therefore particularly its relationship with China (which has also refused to condemn Russia’s aggression). However, aside from heightening the country’s international political profile in some respects, membership of BRICS has almost entirely failed to benefit South Africa.  

The geopolitical situation

Another part of the explanation for the government’s contrarian stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can be found in its fundamental misreading of the global geopolitical situation. In a recent document, the ruling party states that its foreign policy stance going forward is based on the view that the world has changed, but it radically misreads these changes by its assumption that the change involved “shifts in hard and soft or mental power from West to East”.  

China’s rise as an economic power is not in question, but it is likely to result in a multipolar world, not a shift in power from East to West. Among the major problems in orienting strategy towards China is that the country’s economic success is based on huge debt now estimated at triple the size of the economy, the result of “the greatest debt run-up in history” (Zeihan, Disunited Nations, p.40). The US, meanwhile, is also massively in debt, but at 108% debt-to-GDP ratio. 

This misreading is likely a consequence of Pretoria’s continued emphasis on relations with BRICS. South Africa’s participation in BRICS is aimed at gaining political traction internationally, but the government’s foreign policy has virtually sidelined its hard power capacity by under-emphasising the economy. Its GDP is a small fraction of China’s. And its economy is now the second-largest on the continent, after Nigeria’s, and looks set to slide further down the scale as the government continues to ignore the importance of hard economic power. Indeed, the ruling party’s economic mismanagement has extended to policies that have effectively driven Eskom, its monopoly power generation utility, to the brink of failure, seriously hampering productivity and national life more generally. 

But perhaps the single most important factor in the government’s misreading of the geopolitical context in which it operates is its failure to recognise its own massively diminished credibility globally. To formulate an effective strategy, the historian John Lewis Gaddis points out, actors must understand the knowns, probabilities, and unknowns of their environment. Crucially, the knowns generally include the actor’s capabilities. Not in South Africa’s case, however. 

If anything is clear, it is that South Africa has lost its standing internationally and in its region. Domestically, too, the government has lost its standing. This is due, among other things, to former president Thabo Mbeki’s Aids denialism, which according to research saw 330,000 people die prematurely between 2000 and 2005; the debacle of the Marikana massacre in 2013, during which 34 striking miners were shot dead by police; and above all the State Capture scandal, which has seen a former president and senior government figures implicated in massive malfeasance during the past 10 years at least; and an attempted insurrection in July 2021 that has been attributed to a faction within the ruling party. The government’s domestic policies and economic management are so poor that a word has been coined to describe its style: ineptocracy, meaning a government whose leaders are least capable of leading.   

Given all this, it is astonishing that South Africa’s government still assumes a stance of international moral authority and appears to believe that it ought to be accepted as a good-faith actor on the international stage. In particular, its inconsistent, arbitrary, and opportunistic foreign policy interventions in the international arena under Jacob Zuma, and more latterly in relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have disqualified it from such consideration.  

Queries and caveats

Is this assessment unfair? To test these arguments and assertions I ran earlier drafts of this piece past several colleagues with different focuses and interests.  

Some suggested substantive amendments or additions, many of which have been incorporated. One colleague shot down an earlier take that included the argument that the Constitution might be interpreted as obliging the government of the day to consider and embody its principles and values in foreign policy decisions. This is not the case, though according to Nicole Fritz, for example, while “the executive has wide discretion in the foreign policy arena, it does not have absolute discretion and it can be held accountable by other actors for its compliance with its constitutional responsibilities”. Colleague Helen Action is currently exploring this constitutional approach to foreign policy in more detail. 

One set of criticisms, based on greater sympathy with the government’s position, concerned my overview of the government’s voting record at the UN. For example, it was argued that the 2005 challenge on Zimbabwe was directed at the UN Security Council on the grounds that its role is to decide on peace operations in crises around the world. South Africa objected that no such operation was necessary in Zimbabwe and that the issue should be referred to the UN Human Rights Council. Yet this misses the point: the UN Security Council has a range of measures at its disposal, and in any case, South Africa’s stance in that case was intended to prevent UN involvement in its own “quiet diplomacy” approach to Zimbabwe, then ongoing, even though it was discredited even at the time. Besides this, the government’s position in this case may have been aimed at preventing UN involvement in the subregion as a precedent. Its procedural objection, then, was motivated by political, not protocol considerations. 

Another argument was that the government did not arrest al Bashir because international law granted immunity to sitting heads of state, which conflicted with its obligation under the Rome Statute to do so. Robert Mugabe, for example, was allowed to attend UN meetings in New York despite the international opprobrium against him. Yet this too misses the point: though Mugabe was an “ideal candidate” for prosecution under international law, he was never charged as such. Moreover, in the al Bashir case, a South African court judged that the provision of immunity was “superseded by UNSC Resolution 1593 (2005), which effectively allowed sitting heads of states to be held responsible for crimes in their capacity under the Rome Statute and that al Bashir should therefore have been arrested.  

With respect to my colleague, then, these procedural issues aren’t relevant. The same is true as regards all the other puzzling foreign policy stances noted above, none of which would have passed muster in South African law if they had involved South African citizens in any way. All of them were about urgent and evident human rights issues, but the government’s approach in each case was to use technical-procedural issues to mask an often-opaque political intent. 

Foreign policy and the national interest

It is widely recognised that foreign policy involves a complex mix of economic, political, security, regional and domestic issues. Analysts argue that there are two senses of the concept of a country’s national interest: its long-term goals and the specific policies of the government of the day. Little or no understanding of the difference between these two senses is evident in the government’s foreign policy.  

There are clear indications that the government’s continuing support of Russia in its invasion of Ukraine is based on sentiment regarding that imperial power’s support for the struggle against apartheid. This is, however, irrelevant to the country’s present national interest. It also appears that another element in the government’s effective support for Russia’s attack on Ukraine is due to private interests relating to Russian investments in the country in which senior ANC party figures and the party itself are implicated. This sort of influence on public policy would be unconstitutional if it could be proven beyond reasonable doubt.  

More generally, as its abstention from supporting the UN’s condemnation of Russia’s war on Ukraine demonstrates, South Africa has used the formal appearance of non-alignment to position itself purposefully alongside countries such as Russia and China. The government’s ideological alignment with these former and current imperialist powers is questionable, while its faulty geostrategic and ideological reasoning represent a clear danger to the country’s real independence. These positions have the potential to greatly harm the country’s real long-term interests, and they need to be discussed and aired. 

Finally, the government’s position on Ukraine contradicts stated policy regarding the defence of human rights. It is now common cause that Russian forces have committed serious human rights violations, including war crimes, in the pursuit of their invasion. The government’s support for Russia in these circumstances is, then, in direct contrast to its positive obligation to “respect, protect, promote and fulfil the Bill of Rights” at home.  

This does not impose a constitutional obligation on any South African government to attempt to support and promote its own domestically entrenched rights in foreign policy, but the absence of positive requirements and constraints on a government’s foreign policies in respect of the country’s own principles and values in foreign policy – as demonstrated by the government’s record of unprincipled decision-making – is clearly a matter of serious concern.  


South Africa has experienced two short windows of effective foreign policy over the past 100 years. The first was its positioning in the world following its participation in the war to end Nazism. As a consequence, the country was at the forefront of the formation of the UN. However, that advantage was soon dispelled by its denial of the rights of black South Africans and the adoption of apartheid. The country’s second window of influence occurred after the advent of democracy in 1994, when it played a significant part in international affairs for some years. That advantage was, however, soon dispelled by the ruling party’s increasing parochialism. 

South African foreign policy over the past two decades has been characterised by a poor understanding of geopolitics, a failure to position the country’s hard and soft powers, repeated failures to live up to the country’s stated positions on human rights and a privileging of narrow party-political and even elite individual interests in the determination of foreign policy.  

Under the ANC, South Africa has failed in its main aim, leadership in Africa. It has also failed to observe its legally binding commitments to international law. These missteps have harmed the country’s reputation, undermining its credibility in adopting political positions in the international arena. They will also undoubtedly influence how the country is perceived in the future multipolar world. In particular, the government’s claim to a non-aligned position as regards Ukraine is, in fact, to support one element in that multipolar world, and it is not “neutral”. The South African government ought to review and revoke its unprincipled and ill-considered support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  

More generally, the debacle around its unfortunate position on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine shows that there is an urgent need for a national discussion on the elements of authentic foreign policy. Such a discussion should lead to a fundamental revision of the country’s approach to addressing its interests in the international context based on governance principles that limit a government’s capacity to formulate foreign policy without reference to the country’s constitution and long-term interests, and which require that its foreign policies be supported by a reasonable degree of transparency and accountability.  


Editor: African Governance Papers | Website

Richard Jurgens is a former editor of GGA’s flagship publication, Africa in Fact, and has been appointed as editor of GGA’s peer-reviewed academic journal, The Africa Governance Papers. He spent 10 years in exile with the ANC in Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, as well as the Netherlands. He has worked in mainstream media, alternative media, the corporate world and for NGOs internationally and in South Africa. A published author with a memoir, a novel and several books of poetry to his name, he has a BA (Hons) in philosophy and is currently completing a Research Master’s degree in public policy studies at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Governance.