ANALYSIS | Keith Gottschalk: History can explain South Africa’s refusal to condemn Russian invasion of Ukraine

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A fragment of a destroyed Russian tank is seen on the side of the road on the outskirts of Kharkiv on February 26, 2022, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo by SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images

The liberation movements of Angola, South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique regard Russia as the heir and guardian of the history and traditions of the Soviet Union, but there is a certain irony therein, writes Keith Gottschalk.


South Africa abstained in a vote at the UN General Assembly on the resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and demanding their withdrawal.

The South African government has explained that it has good relations with Russia and Ukraine; therefore, he abstained in the United Nations General Assembly vote condemning the Russian invasion.

President Cyril Ramaphosa later said South Africa had abstained

because the resolution did not put forward the call for meaningful engagement.

At home, the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, wasted no time in taunting the ruling African National Congress (ANC) that its abstention was due to the fact that a Russian oligarch, Victor Vekselberg, had donated of 7.5 million rand to the ANC.

But one cannot assume that a billionaire’s personal views are pro-Putin just because he is Russian. Moreover, after the Kremlin imprisoned and sequestered billionaire Mikhael Khodorkovsky in 2005, no “oligarch” will ever again voice opposition views in public.

In fact, the nickname “oligarch” is misleading because it implies a holder of great power in the inner circle. The reality is that Russian billionaires own their wealth solely by the grace of the Kremlin. Like Henry VII of England, the Kremlin seized the property of its detractors.

Moreover, reality has many dimensions. And in this case, the story is relevant. To sum up, the ANC remembers who were its allies during the Cold War, and who denounced it as “terrorists”. This drowned out other considerations. This includes that South Africa, as a small country, depends on the principles of the United Nations Charter opposing war and invasion to seize territory, and multilateralism to protect it from destruction. invasion by a great power.

Historical ties that unite

The ANC and the former Soviet Union have a long history together. The first visit by an ANC leader to the Soviet Union was that of Josiah Tshangana Gumede, one of the founding members of the ANC, in 1927. His visit was a spin-off from his participation in Belgium in the League against the ‘imperialism.

After the apartheid regime was outlawed in 1960, the ANC received help from the Soviet Union for its exile mission in the fight to liberate South Africa from white minority rule. This aid exceeded that of the Pan-African Organization of African Unity – now the African Union – or anyone else.

It was not until the end of the 1970s that Scandinavian donations became superior to Soviet funding. But Scandinavian aid remained limited to peaceful aid. Only the Soviet Union provided arms and other military aid to the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.

In 1988, sensing that victory over apartheid was near, Moscow supplemented guerrilla training with conventional warfare training, including naval and air force training.

Historical ties such as these were evident in the division among African states during the United Nations General Assembly vote condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Swapo-governed Namibia, MPLA-governed Angola and Frelimo-governed Mozambique joined South Africa in abstention.

Swapo, MPLA and Frelimo also received Soviet foreign aid during the 20th century Cold War, when they too were liberation movements waging guerrilla wars.

In contrast, Botswana and Zambia voted to condemn the Russian invasion. Significantly, their ruling parties came to power peacefully and had no Russian alliances. This vote of the UN resolution condemning the Russian invasion and demanding its withdrawal, was also the position of the 28 members of the African Union. Seventeen abstained.

Clearly, the liberation movements of Angola, South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique regard Russia as the heir and guardian of the history and traditions of the Soviet Union.

irony of history

There’s irony in that, as so often in history. While Russian President Vladimir Putin began his career in the Soviet KGB, the political police, today he deserves the Western saying that there is no more anti-Communist than an ex-Communist. In 2017, Putin’s government, backed by his United Russia party, held absolutely no celebrations of the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

On the contrary, today’s Kremlin is ensuring that today’s Communist Party of the Russian Federation faces two decades of rigged elections, tricking it into winning the vote in Vladivostok and other cities.

Why then do the ANC, Swapo, MPLA, Frelimo and the Communist Party of South Africa – the ANC’s ruling alliance partner – continue to maintain such ties of deference to the anti-Communist government of Putin ?

One reason could be that Russia and these Southern African governments have shared resentment of the international domination of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), especially that of the United States and former colonial powers. – the United Kingdom and France. And this, regardless of the radical change in party politics within the Kremlin.

The relationship between South Africa and the United States, in particular, has a complex history. Not least because US governments have designated ANC leaders fighting the apartheid regime as terrorists. There is also the memory of the unsavory role of the CIA in Africa.

Most anti-Ukrainian commentary on the Internet in South Africa and letters to the editor reflect commentators’ stance against previous US government foreign policy on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. They do not reflect the facts unfolding on the ground.

For the governments of South Africa, Namibia, Angola and Mozambique, historic alliances and Cold War foes of the last century seem destined to tip the scales when it comes to their vote at the UN, at the African Union and other forums. This is despite the fact that, as small countries with severely limited defense capabilities, they depend on the support of multilateralism and the United Nations system against any great power invasion.The conversation

Keith Gottschalk, political scientist, University of the Western Cape

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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