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South Africa’s non-alignment and its Putin predicament

African non-alignment is a reformation of multilateralism as it was once known

The world and the BRICS nations are currently keeping their eyes on South Africa’s moves as the calendar inches closer to one of the country’s most pivotal political summits of the year. South Africa will host the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, and China at the 15th BRICS Summit from 22 to 24 August 2023. However, despite BRICS’ growing collective economic and political power on the global stage, the biggest question around the summit does not seem to be what BRICS seeks to do next (as discussions of the development of a new currency run rife), but rather whether or not South Africa will invite and host Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. Hence, in the current context of superpower confrontations, it is crucial for South Africa to reaffirm why its long-standing tradition of non-alignment is the only response that preserves Africa’s interests and facilitates a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

South Africa under pressure

The question of Africa’s non-aligned stance has always been contentious since the establishment of the non-aligned movement in the 1960s. However, despite outside objections, non-alignment has been a largely stringent African philosophy. This is what BBC HardTalk interviewer Stephen Sackur discovered when he recently sat down with several South African political leaders to talk about the Putin question amongst other topics regarding the socio-political situation in the country. Speaking on the question of the International Criminal Court’s warrant for Putin’s arrest, Julius Malema, the president of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) replied: “It must start with Tony Blair; it must start with George Bush; it must go to Barack Obama; then it can go to Putin.”

Fikike Mbalula, the secretary general of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), followed the same line of argumentation when he asked Stephen Sackur : “How many crimes have your country committed in Iraq? How many crimes have everyone else who is so vocal today committed in Iraq and Afghanistan? Have you arrested them?… There’s a lot of noise about Putin instead of working for peace between Ukraine and Russia and you failed to resolve the war.” He also admitted that while the ANC would want President Putin to come as part and parcel of BRICS, they know that they are constrained by the ICC.”

Hitherto, the Putin question has been one of global ponderance since the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict. And South Africa’s non-alignment stance has been heavily criticized in the West on the basis that it was not a principled position. But is it?

Sovereignty and responsible internationalism

When the Ukraine conflict broke out, South Africa was one of the 17 African nations to abstain from a General Assembly vote to condemn Russia’s invasion, opting to maintain non-alignment and encourage seeking peace through negotiations. Today, South Africa is reminded that it is a signatory to the Rome Statute and that it should respect its own ICC Implementation Act as it considers its plans going forward in the BRICS Summit. Right now, the decision is yet to be made. There is talk that the South African cabinet has chosen to discuss a potential co-chair of the summit with China – which is not a signatory to the Rome Statute. At any rate, the next logical question might be whether we can consider non-alignment in this manifestation as a practice of responsible internationalism.

From a Pan-African perspective, the practice of multilateralism by powerful members of the international community has been particularly violent on Africans. Proxy wars, pseudo-power clashes on the continent, and institutional constraints to African economic sovereignty have always left Africa in the middle of global power struggles. Objectively, African non-alignment is a reformation of multilateralism as it was once known. It rejects Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of the Civilisations-esque functioning of global politics. It does not seek its agents to be caught up in the thrall of power battles in the name of principled behaviour on a non-principled international stage. It also acknowledges the truth of the Global South Condition: that many nations still find themselves as appendages to great power conflicts, notwithstanding our penchant for peace and our calls for a rule-based and ethical system.

Despite, and maybe because of, the strong history of non-alignment in Africa, what is more important is the recognition that Africa’s greatest power in this era is the power to choose. The long campaigns and clashes for independence have necessitated sovereignty of thought and action, alas be they ultimately worth nothing. It may come across as amoral; however, it is time we consider the amorality of compelled choice – for that is the true sign of non-freedom.

This does not mean we would throw away our responsibility on the global stage, but rather that we stand diametrically opposed to a world characterized by military blocs and proliferated arms. Africa’s voting pattern at the UN shows this at the very least. Non-alignment has a laborious task ahead, as it must evolve from its Cold War fault lines and begin to actively encourage negotiation, collective action, and discussions. In the case of Ukraine, the African Leaders’ Peace Mission organised by South Africa, Egypt, and Zambia set to depart for Ukraine on a fact-finding visit in June may mark a new era in a rejuvenated non-aligned movement led by African voices.


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