Is South Africa too biased to mediate in the Russia-Ukraine conflict?

On the 2nd March 2022, South Africa abstained from the United Nations General Assembly vote on the resolution condemning the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Since then, the country has faced some criticism for failing to support the Ukraine. In particular, the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), has been rather strategic in its language. Through avoiding the use of words such as “war” and “invasion” in favour of using terms such as “Russia-Ukraine matter” and “developments in Ukraine”, South African leadership has come across as having a much more pro-Russian stance than the rest of the international community. Even the likes of notoriously neutral Switzerland, have taken a stance against Russia. Is South Africa then too biased to mediate?  

South Africa’s Soviet history

It cannot be denied that the ruling party’s past is intertwined with that of Soviet Russia. This goes back to 1927, when the first ANC leader visited the Soviet Union. The ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) both being communist, national liberation organisations, they viewed the USSR as highly progressive and just. At this time, many African nations had this image of the USSR, and saw them as allies in their liberation efforts. These communist connections are still felt to this day. The ANC remains in a tripartite governing alliance with the SACP and COSATU, and therefore still maintains socialist leanings. More so, South Africa and Russia are now economic partners through the formation of BRICS.   

Taking another look into the past, in 1960, the ANC received aid from the Soviets when fighting to liberate the country from NP rule. This donation totalled more than that coming from the now-African Union, and predated Scandinavian donations. More than that, the Soviets were consistently the only contributors to the ANCs fighting wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe, namely through weapons and military aid. In the 1980s, this military aid included guerrilla warfare training. And so, it is undeniable that South Africa’s liberation movement owes a debt of gratitude to the USSR.

However, are we not forgetting who under Soviet rule helped liberate South Africans?

It is important to remember that the Soviet Russia that aided the ANC looked quite different geographically and politically from Putin’s present-day Russia. It included now-independent nations, such as the Ukraine. 

Belarus and the Ukraine both had their own representation at the UN, despite being Soviet republics. The latter actually publicly declared support of the ANC in a 1962 UN General Assembly, where the Ukraine SSRrecommended diplomatic, economic and military sanctions against the NP government. In 1985, the Ukraine SSR again endorsed comprehensive sanctions against the Apartheid government. Additionally, while many ANC and SACP leaders studied in Moscow, those outside the leadership went to the Ukraine. From the 1960s, more than 30% of African students looking to the Soviets for specialised political training, went to Ukrainian institutions.

The ‘African Peacemaker’

While we have spent some time looking at South Africa’s potential bias in favour of Russia, we have not yet considered its credibility as a mediator. In principle, South Africa maintains a position of non-alignment. The justification is that it- it being mediation and dialogue- is the best way to transition to democracy, much like how South Africa did at the end of Apartheid in 1994. And so, overtly taking sides, puts this process at risk. This has therefore been used to explain South Africa’s dodging of emotive language initially described in this piece. 

As a result of this strategy, South Africa does have a history of mediation. For example, the nation played a facilitator-mediator role in the Burundi conflict from 1999. Again, South Africa got involved in the mediation process in Cote d’Ivoire between 2004 and 2006. From 1998, South Africa, as a part of SADC, was involved in mediation attempts in the DRC.  More recently, in 2017, South Africa played a role in mediating the Lake Malawi conflict between Malawi and Tanzania. It has also played a protracted mediation role in South Sudan. In 2020, Ethiopia called on South Africa’s mediation skills to resolve the Renaissance Dam dispute between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. As a result, South Africa has the reputation of being Africa’s peacemaker

Additionally, we have not yet addressed South Africa’s ties to the West. Many consider South Africa to be rather Western, with other African nations feeling a sense of alienation from South Africa. More than that, the EU has been South Africa’s largest development partner. And so, we cannot ignore the fact that South Africa also has a vested interest in the Ukrainian, and by proxy Western, side to the conflict. This therefore places South Africa in a unique position where it will most likely avoid a zero-sum outcome.

Who else has been selected to mediate?

Alongside South Africa, Turkey and Israel have been selected to mediate the Russia-Ukraine war. The former, a NATO member, buys both US and Russian weaponry. However, in the past, Turkey has been a major supporter of Russia. President Erdogan has also remained silent on whether the country will continue to buy from Russia throughout the conflict. However, Putin has expressed his disapproval of Turkey’s stance on the conflict, and so President Erdogan has already set a precedent of opposing Russia. Ultimately, it is in Turkey’s best interest to toe-the-line between the West and Russia throughout the mediation process in an attempt at avoiding alienation from either party.

Interestingly, Israel seems to have gotten involved due to the lack of engagement from anyone else in the international community. The Prime Minister has been reported saying that his involvement was motivated by the fact that no other nation could feasibly speak to both sides. This was motivated by the nation having a history of aligning itself with the West, but also having a long-standing relationship with Russia. Prime minister Naftali Bennet has also been acting as a communication middleman between Zelensky and Putin, but has avoided proposing any plans for mediation and peace. It therefore appears that these three mediators all in fact have dual vested interests, although perhaps to varying degrees. 

Where will this mediation take us?

In my previous piece, I mentioned the failed Minsk I and II agreements. These were largely led by the West. Now we see quite the contrast with the conflict being mediated by nations that have a vested interest in both Russia and the West. This presents a new strategy, and therefore a glimmer of hope that we did not have before. 

In order to resolve this conflict peacefully, we need mediators that do not want the conflict to unravel. A peaceful resolution to this conflict requires us to stay clear of victor’s justice. To achieve this, we need to see mediators with solutions free of a zero-sum mindset. And so, we need the help of these nations looking to appease both Russia and Ukraine, and therefore the West by proxy.