Despite her charming name, the ship known as the Lady R could leave U.S.-South African relations unmoored.
The diplomatic meltdown between the two allies follows allegations by U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety that South Africa sent weapons to Russia aboard the cargo vessel, which had left the South African naval base of Simon’s Town last December, headed back toward Russia.
Unfortunately, instead of providing any leadership, President Cyril Ramaphosa did what his citizens are now used to getting from him domestically, whenever he is faced with a crisis: outsourcing the problem to “an independent inquiry” to be headed by a retired judge. Ramaphosa has become infamous for avoiding tough decisions, despite his executive powers and constitutional duties as the country’s president.
At best, instituting a judicial commission of inquiry shows that the state is clueless about what was on Lady R, and at worst, shows that it is buying time to deal with potentially irreparable damage to the country’s image if, in fact, South Africa was helping Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime kill innocent Ukrainians. U.S. sanctions against Russia could lead the United States to punish violators of those sanctions, including allies—a move that could devastate the South African economy.
South Africa’s economy—currently growing at less than 1 percent, facing unemployment levels above 30 percent and inflation around 7 percent—could not absorb the consequences of potential economic sanctions from the United States, including the curtailment of preferential access to certain U.S. markets under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which faces a congressional debate over renewal in 2025.
South Africa could lose up to 60 billion rand ($3 billion) per year in exports, and sectors such as the automobile industry would instantly see major further job losses that would have dire social and political consequences domestically. The stakes are very high for South Africa, making the spineless leadership from Ramaphosa even more costly for the country.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, South Africa has proudly brandished its nonaligned status, abstaining from U.N. votes condemning Russia while insisting on its neutrality even as it stages naval exercises with Russia and China, sends top defense officials to Moscow, and welcomes mysterious Russian ships and aircraft at its ports and airports.
Pretoria’s poorly articulated public statements about South Africa’s posture of nonalignment, given these geopolitical and economic stakes, makes the government’s actions even more inexplicable and incoherent. Nonalignment does make sense sometimes, but not in this case.
There are, of course, moments when a state can—and should—resist aligning itself with parties to a dispute. For example, where the facts are genuinely murky or where the belligerents appear to all be implicated in serious wrongdoing, the most pragmatic outcome for the world might be to have a capable, genuinely neutral party act as a peace broker. Sometimes, the reasons for neutrality might even be based on self-interest and realpolitik as well as principle. An excellent case is France’s stance on Iraq in 2003.
Despite being a key member of the Western alliance, France did not support its close allies’ military invasion of Iraq in 2003. It supported a call for further inspections to determine whether or not the country actually had weapons of mass destruction. At the time, the French government also faced overwhelming negative public sentiment toward the invasion of Iraq, being the European country with the largest Muslim population and knowing it had serious economic interests in the country’s oil fields.
Although France’s objections were couched in moral terms in a memorable speech by then-Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, this was also a case of nonalignment based on rational self-interest.
Today, nothing in South Africa’s vagueness about its Russia-Ukraine policy helps the world understand what motivates it, apart from a hostility to U.S. imperialism and a historical affinity for Moscow—one that conveniently forgets that many African National Congress (ANC) leaders trained in the Soviet Union were actually trained on Ukrainian soil. But being displeased with the United States’ place in the world does not logically entail supporting an illegal war started by Russia. A truly nonaligned country can critique both the United States and Russia.
Pretoria has said that it only supports the “peaceful resolution” of conflict around the world. It has recently volunteered, with a group of five other African countries, to visit both Moscow and Kyiv on what Ramaphosa has described as a “peace mission.” When quizzed about the expected outcomes and on the details of how this would be achieved, he was unable to explain what would count as success, and vague on the details of the trip. He also continues to ignore the well-known fact that Russia violated international law by invading Ukraine, and so it is the undisputed aggressor.
South Africa has consistently failed to explain, in any substantive way, what exactly its doctrine of nonalignment is. One can only infer from the refusal of diplomats to vote in support of United Nations resolutions condemning Russia for invading Ukraine without just cause that South Africa’s de facto idea of nonalignment is to choose silence without ever properly arguing for this position, even when the available facts enable it to adopt a clear, evidence-based stance. This sloppy usage of the word “nonaligned” does the idea of neutrality or nonalignment a massive disservice.
But South Africa’s fantastical idea of playing agnostic referee or peace envoy does not apply to a situation in which one side invaded the other side unprovoked, and in flagrant violation of international law. It has also marked the country out as scandalously indifferent to the fate of an entire nation when that nation is being oppressed by a regional hegemon with superior military might.
By focusing slavishly on its underexplained doctrine of nonalignment, perhaps further motivated by ideological or historical affinity with Moscow, South Africa has chosen the wrong set of facts to bolster a case for neutrality. What the country ought to have done instead is draw on the anti-apartheid movement’s history and let the memory of its struggle for justice inform the government’s understanding of how to respond to acts of state aggression in the modern world.
Indeed, the Ramaphosa government’s incoherence is made worse when one considers how the liberation movement benefited from the world’s moral clarity on the question of condemning apartheid—a history the country’s leaders seem to have forgotten when confronted with Russia’s aggression against the people of Ukraine.
The international community was not always consistent in its condemnation of the apartheid regime in South Africa. This includes the United States and the United Kingdom, where different governments at different times had different views about how to engage or not engage Pretoria. But the anti-apartheid movement globally was morally unambiguous in insisting that no one should legitimize the apartheid government in South Africa.
Liberation movements, especially the one led by the African National Congress, benefited from the moral clarity demanded by anti-apartheid activists and organizations around the globe. Apartheid was rightly declared a crime against humanity, and no one could be neutral in their attitude toward apartheid unless they were moral cowards.
It is unimaginable that Ramaphosa or any ANC leader in the 1980s would condone a country saying it would “not take sides” in the internal oppression of Black people in South Africa on the part of a brutal, white-minority regime. Neutrality was not a live option when it came to apartheid. States had to take a stand, and the morally correct position was to condemn it unambiguously.
Put simply, nonalignment on the part of outsiders or bystanders is not justifiable if one party to a conflict is the clear aggressor, behaves unlawfully, has no moral basis for the use of force, or has massively disproportionate amounts of force that it can use to obliterate or oppress the other side—as Russia is attempting in Ukraine and the white minority regime sought to do in South Africa.
In 1994, democratic South Africa announced its arrival on the world stage with Nelson Mandela’s famous declaration that “never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” That commitment found expression in a fairly expansive and liberal constitution that codified not only civil and political rights, but also socioeconomic rights and rights to a safe environment.
Yet, nothing in Ramaphosa’s indifference to the suffering of Ukrainians due to Russia’s illegal war suggests a serious and demonstrable commitment to Mandela’s famous words. It would seem, sadly, that contemporary South Africa is committed to human rights jurisprudentially but not in foreign policy.
South Africa’s position on Russia is a projection of vagueness, incoherence, and sloppiness onto the world stage. Ultimately, Ramaphosa’s ruling ANC is behaving as a moral coward, despite being a historic beneficiary of moral clarity in the fight against apartheid.
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