The Preamble to the Founding Act of the African Union (AU) calls for “collective action in Africa and in our relations with the rest of the world”.
The credibility of this pan-African commitment has been undermined by the the reluctance of African governments to forge a unified position on the Russian-Ukrainian war.
They could not agree on the merits of two non-binding resolutions. Half of the AU members abstained in the vote demanding that Russia respect this principle, in first resolution. And on the second resolution three weeks later demanding an end to the humanitarian crisis, the spectacle of African disunity was the same.
More recently, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to suspend Russia of the UN Human Rights Council. By my count, of the 24 “No” votes, nine were African. South Africa was among the 23 African abstentions, and 11 others did not vote, despite human rights being a key objective of the AU and South Africa.
Given this pattern, how will African countries ever agree to act collectively to achieve the ambitious goals of the AU agenda? Diary 2063 for Africa’s growth and development?
The issue is not trivial. The fundamental principle of respect for territorial integrity and sovereign equality has been at the heart of postcolonial African international relations since the founding of the Organization of African Unity. in 1963. From the start of the war, AU Chairman Macky Sall and AU Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat called on Russia to
What was particularly surprising in all three votes was that South Africa, normally a champion of greater African unity and human rights, chose either to participate actively take a pro-Russian stanceor stay away.
In my view, this will jeopardize the country’s claim to be a leading human rights defender and a leader of an emerging and more powerful African voice in global affairs.
The South African Factor
This article does not discuss the pros and cons of maintaining friendly relations with Russia.
It asks a different question: could the African states that abstained on the two UN resolutions have voted with the majority, thus preserving a semblance of African unity, without jeopardizing the interests they invoked? to justify their abstention?
And what about upholding the core values of the AU, such as human rights?
I draw mainly on the justification for abstentions offered by South Africa for three reasons: first, it is one of the most important and influential countries in Africa. Secondly, since the end of apartheid, it has been a staunch supporter of African unity and the catalyst for several practical initiatives aimed at advancing collective self-reliance. Finally, I live in the midst of South African public debates on these issues.
Read more: Russian-Ukrainian war: deciphering the vote of African countries at the UN
I suppose that if South Africa had chosen to make the defense of the principle of territorial integrity and sovereign equality a priority, and had pressured other African governments to support it, it there would have been a much better show of African solidarity by voting for the resolution.
Consider three important and general reasons that South Africans offer for their abstention: the war is primarily a proxy struggle between Russia and the United States; For South Africa to play a mediating role, it must not take sides; and, The need for continued Russian trade and security assistance.
Unpacking South Africa’s reasoning
Consider the proxy war between Russia and the American argument. In a recent University of the Witwatersrand Webinar a senior government official described the war as a proxy war between Russia and the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He said it was not in the interest of South Africa, which is above all the cause of peace, to choose sides. He went on to accuse the United States of a similar assault in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In response, Gilbert Khadiagala, professor of international relations and director of the African Center for American Studies, noted that “two wrongs do not make a right”. He also recalled that South Africa had immediately criticized the American invasion and his specious justification. This criticism did not seriously affect cooperation between South Africa and the United States when it was in the interest of both. And, if impartiality is a valid concern, then voting and pushing for African unity in favor of respecting the fundamental principles of the UN/AU should not affect relations between South Africa and Russia, nor the perception of Pretoria’s SA non-alignment.
Let us now turn to the role of mediator. Some expected that South Africa could play a useful role in actively supporting a peaceful end to the current war. This is due to the country’s relatively peaceful transition to full democracy in the early 1990s, a process in which President Cyril Ramaphosa played a key role. And his contribution to a negotiated end to the war in Northern Ireland between 2000-05.
But to be acceptable as a mediator in any conflict, you have to be acceptable to both parties. This is not the case. The only current host acceptable to both sides is Turkey. The country has good relations with Moscow, despite being a member of NATO and has reportedly sold Ukraine dozens of deadly drones since 2019. It has also voted for the two UN resolutions.
Read more: Russia’s war with Ukraine: five reasons why many African countries choose to be ‘neutral’
Moreover, South Africa, presumably, is far from the conflict. She also does not have enough influence to act alone. The prospects of benefiting from membership in the Block Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) have faded.
If South Africa had led an effort to forge a united African position on the UN resolutions, I believe it would have had no bearing on its prospects for helping to mediate an end to the war.
Finally, the business imperative. It is true that there are significant agricultural exchanges between the countries of the continent and Russia and Ukraine. The main importing countries are Egypt, which accounted for nearly half, followed by Sudan, Nigeria, Tanzania, Algeria, Kenya and South Africa.
Read more: How the Russian-Ukrainian conflict could influence Africa’s food supplies
Sanctions against Russia will also affect arms sales. Africa needs military equipment, especially in the Sahel region, and pays private soldiers the help of Russians employed by the Wagner groupwhatever the policy.
In my view, however, none of this justifies the path chosen by South Africa.
The imperatives of collective action
Going forward, the failure to forge common cause in mostly token UN votes on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will fade amidst Africa’s real hardships resulting from this war. Already, food price spikes are having disastrous consequences on many poor African families.
Issues vital to Africa’s human security are bound to accelerate, as will the imperatives of African unity.