The preamble of 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 damaged by the unwillingness of African governments to forge a unified position on the Russia-Ukraine war.
They could not agree on the merits of two non-binding resolutions. Half of the AU’s members abstained from the vote demanding that Russia abide by this principle, in the first resolution. And on the second resolution three weeks later demanding an end to the humanitarian crisis, the show of African disunity was the same.
Most recently, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. By my count, of the 24 “No” votes, nine were African. South Africa was among the 23 African abstentions, with another 11 not voting, 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 on the AU’s Agenda 2063 for Africa’s growth and development?
The issue at stake is not trivial. The core principle of respect for territorial integrity and sovereign equality has been at the heart of postcolonial African international relations since the founding of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963. As soon as the war began, the AU chair Macky Sall and chairperson of the AU Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat called on Russia to
respect the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of Ukraine. .
What has been particularly surprising in all three votes is that South Africa, normally a champion of greater African unity and human rights, has chosen either to actively pursue a pro-Russian stance, or to stand on the sidelines.
In my view this will imperil the country’s claim to be a leading human rights advocate, and a leader of an emerging and more potent African voice in world affairs.
The South African factor
This article does not address the pros and cons of maintaining friendly relations with Russia.
It poses a different question: Could African states that abstained on the two UN resolutions have voted with the majority, thus preserving a semblance of African unity, without jeopardising the interests they stated to justify abstaining?
And what about defending core AU values, such as human rights?
I draw primarily from the rationale for abstentions offered by South Africa for three reasons: Firstly, it is among Africa’s most prominent and influential countries. Secondly, since the end of apartheid, it has been an outspoken proponent of African unity and the catalyst for several practical initiatives to advance collective self-reliance. Lastly, I live amid South Africa’s public debates about these issues.
Read more: Russia-Ukraine war: decoding how African countries voted at the UN
I assume that had South Africa chosen to make defending the principle of territorial integrity and sovereign equality a priority, and lobbied other African governments to support it, there would have been a much better show of African solidarity in voting for the resolution.
Consider three prominent and broad reasons that South Africans offer to justify abstaining: The war is foremost a proxy struggle between Russia and the US; For South Africa to play a mediating role it should 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 US argument. In a recent University of the Witwatersrand webinar a senior government official described the war as a proxy one, between Russia and the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). He said it was not in South Africa’s interest, which is primarily the cause of peace, to choose sides. He went on to accuse the US of similar aggression in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In response, Gilbert Khadiagala, a Professor of International Relations and Director of the African Centre for the Study of the United States, noted that “two wrongs don’t make a right”. He also recalled that South Africa immediately criticised the US invasion and its specious justification. That criticism did not seriously affect South Africa-United States cooperation when in the best interests of both. And, if even-handedness is a valid concern, then voting and pressing for African unity in support of respect for core UN/AU principles should not affect South Africa-Russia relations, or perceptions of Pretoria’s SA non-alignment.
Now to the role of mediator. There were expectations in some quarters that there might be a useful role for South Africa in actively supporting a peaceful end to the current war. This was because of the country’s relatively peaceful transition to full democracy in the early 1990s, a process in which President Cyril Ramaphosa’s played a critical role. And his contribution to a negotiated end to the war in Northern Ireland between 2000-05.
But to be acceptable as mediator in any conflict, one has to be acceptable to both sides. This is not the case. The only current host acceptable to both sides is Turkey. The country has maintained good relations with Moscow, despite being a NATO member and reportedly selling Ukraine dozens of deadly drones since 2019. It also voted for both UN resolutions.
Read more: Russia’s war with Ukraine: Five reasons why many African countries choose to be ‘neutral’
In addition, South Africa, presumably, is far away from the conflict. Nor does it have sufficient influence to act alone. Prospects for leveraging its membership of the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) bloc have dimmed.
Had South Africa led an effort to forge a united African position on the UN resolutions, I believe, this would have had no bearing on its prospects for helping mediate an end to the war.
Lastly, the trade imperative. It is true that there is significant agricultural trade between countries on the continent and Russia and Ukraine. Major importing countries are Egypt, which accounted for nearly half, followed by Sudan, Nigeria, Tanzania, Algeria, Kenya and South Africa.
Read more: How Russia-Ukraine conflict could influence Africa's food supplies
Sanctions against Russia will also affect arms sales. Africa needs military hardware, especially in the Sahel region, and pays for private military assistance from Russians employed by the Wagner Group, regardless of politics.
In my view, however, none of this justifies South Africa’s chosen path.
Imperatives for collective action
Looking ahead, the failure to forge common cause in mostly symbolic UN votes on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will fade amid Africa’s real hardships resulting from that war. Already, spikes in the costs of food are having dire consequences on many poor African families.
Issues vital to human security for Africa are certain to accelerate as with the imperatives for African unity.