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South Africa’s division on Ukraine reflects a divided state

By Dirk A. Kotzé 

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV.

South Africa has long been a country divided, with the World Bank reporting it as the most unequal society in the world. It should come as no surprise then that this division does not only stretch on a socio-economic level but also a political level. 

One does not have to look far to see the political differences between different racial groups. Out of all nine provinces in South Africa, the Western Cape is the only one where black South Africans are not a majority. It is also the only province not run by the ruling party- the ANC. Instead, the majority of the Western Cape is a group classified as “colored” people, a term that would be offensive in other countries but has no negative connotations in South Africa. (“Colored” is a South African classification for people of mixed ancestry with Malaysian, European, indigenous Khoi-San and other African ancestry.) Instead, the distinct cultural group embraces the label with pride.  

Being a population that overwhelmingly speaks Afrikaans as a mother tongue, their political voting choice is more in line with the white minority of the country, the majority of whom also speak Afrikaans. As a result, the Western Cape has been the only province run by the official opposition party the DA, in a country that has been ruled by the ANC since the fall of apartheid.  

Now comes our main topic: the division in their stance on Ukraine. South Africa has jumped into world news headlines in the past couple of months for all the wrong reasons. As a country that claimed to be neutral in the Ukrainian conflict, the government’s actions seem to point to the contrary. From the ambassador of the United States betting “his life” that South Africa was selling arms to Russia to the ANC issuing diplomatic immunity for the BRICS summit being hosted in South Africa despite their obligations to the International Criminal Court, South Africa has been on a controversial path. Yet this is contrasted by the confusing news that South Africa was threatening to arrest Putin. 

While it might seem to outsiders that the country is skipping jump rope on the issue, or simply virtue signaling to the West while being pro-Putin, it is more nuanced than that – it is a symptom of the country’s political division along racial lines.   

What most people probably did not read in the news was that the threat to arrest Putin came from the premier of the Western Cape, the leader of the only province controlled by the previously mentioned official opposition: the DA. Thus, this is not a symptom of some inner confusion within the ANC, but simply due to the DA which has always been firmly anti-Putin.   

In South Africa, race is still a strong determining factor for which party many vote for, with the DA’s core voter base being the white and “colored” population groups, with a smaller black middle-class voter base. Despite them being the largest opposition group, and the growing discontent against the ANC by the majority due to blatant corruption, many still can’t force themselves to vote for the DA due to its stigma as a white party. 

Similar to the DA’s anti-Putin stance and the ANC’s pro-Putin stance, there seems to be a Putin-division along racial lines, too.  

One does not have to look further than social media to see this on display. With South Africa’s population being about 80% black, and the other 20% comprising minority groups, one can find a very different picture depending on the social media one visits. On social media sites where whites are the majority, such as the “South Africa” category on the social media platform Reddit, one would get the idea that South Africa is vehemently anti-Putin and that the government is acting against the interests or beliefs of the majority. But this is not the truth and simply is a reflection of the site’s South African demographic.   

If one looks on YouTube, it would not be hard to find an international news video (covering the Russia-South African issue) where South Africans disparage their government and their senseless backing of Russia even though the majority of South Africa’s trading partners come from the West. They would state that the majority of South Africans are anti-Putin, unlike the government. But then one only has to look to the comments to see another user stating that South Africans support Putin and that Westerners should go back to Europe. If one looks on twitter, the picture is much more realistic, with the majority of voices shouting phrases in favor of Russia. 

So then comes the question: What is the root behind this strong support for Russia among black South Africans and the reason for this disunity along racial lines?   

The answer goes back to colonialism and grudges against the past. For the majority of disenfranchised poor black South Africans, Russia is seen as an ally that was the first to help them against apartheid via the Soviet Union. Allegations by pro-Ukrainian South Africans that Ukraine was also part of the Soviet Union have little effect and are somewhat disingenuous since Russia was always the dominating root behind the union. Therefore, the West are seen as former colonists, with America and the UK being some of the last countries to call for the end of apartheid. Further worsening the situation is that China- along with Russia, South Africa, India, and Brazil forms part of the BRICS- has a more active investment approach in Africa that African countries welcome with open arms, despite the West’s calls that the investments are debt traps. Due to the West’s apparent apathy and contempt for the African continent, these calls fall on deaf ears and are seen as biased. The West’s general ignorance towards Africa, and the view that many Americans still refer to Africa as a country and not a continent with 54 countries, further plays into this indifference to the West’s opinion. 

Media coverage about wars and issues in Africa is either sparse or receives little interest, whereas the war in Ukraine is widely condemned and has been the main attention of the media due to it being on the West’s doorstep. “Why should Africa care about a European war?” is the thought that goes through many an African’s head, reflecting the disinterest or carelessness that the world has had for many years over Africa and African conflicts. Due to all these factors, NATO is seen as the aggressor, funding the eternal American war machine, bullying and forcing countries that do not comply with its stance, expanding closer to Russia despite previous promises not to.   

It was after all very fortuitous for the American war industry that right after they withdrew from Afghanistan, another convenient weapons supply opportunity jumped up in Ukraine. After all, the war factories can’t just suddenly stand still. America’s history of conflict in the middle east, including invading Iraq on false claims of weapons of mass destruction, causing instability that gave rise to terrorist groups, and a long string of coups that installed dictatorships, does not pose America’s already bad reputation in Africa any favors. 

For this reason, many of the majority population look to its BRICS allies and the rise of a multipolar world order to bring peace. 

Minorities and the middle class worry about the economic impact of supporting a country that it has little trade links with. They also worry about a corrupt party (the ANC) supporting another corrupt country (Russia). They share many other viewpoints with the West, such as Putin being a warmonger and Russia being the invader. After all, if sanctions were to hit South Africa, the reality would be that many businesses affected are not even pro-Putin. This includes the Western Cape’s wine industry, whose exports would be negatively affected, despite the province’s support for Ukraine. Thus, the minorities will be caught in a storm that they had little say in. 

It is somehow ironic then, in its attempts to support a side that the majority of South Africans see as anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist, they are supporting a state that had its founding roots in a history of imperialism, with the federation of Russia existing due to the Russian empire that conquered many ethnic groups against their will. 

It is a story full of irony and nuance, and simply blindly calling the opposing sides idiots without understanding the root cause of their stance will bear no fruitful result.

Perhaps it’s time for the West to update their policy and invest more time in growing their diplomatic image with the rest of the developing world; foreign aid that lands in the pockets of corrupt wealthy elite governments will have little effect. Maybe it is time for a more hands-on approach through investment like China. If they don’t, China and Russia will slowly take the continent. 

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Dirk A. Kotzé

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