On February 24, in an act of naked aggression, Russia invaded Ukraine. Its ridiculous claims of “demilitarisation” and “de-Nazification” excuses that nobody believed.

Yet when it came to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on March 2, which is convoked when the Security Council cannot come to a decision (this is only the 11th such session), about one-fifth of countries abstaining were from Africa. Why?

First, it should be noted that of the 54 African nations, half voted in favour of the resolution. So, it’s not a case of African nations all going the same way.

Of the General Assembly’s 193 members, 141 voted in favour of the resolution, easily passing the two-thirds mark needed to pass the resolution which calls on Russia to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.”

Of those who voted for the resolution, 28 were from Africa.

Only five countries voted against the resolution. These come as no surprise: Russia itself, Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea.

But 35 countries abstained, of which 17 were African. That’s almost half. Again, why? One reason must be that Ukraine is in Europe, far away and hardly relevant. Another is the increasing Russian presence in Africa, which is vying with China to influence African nations amidst a lack of interest from the West. For most Western nations (apart from France) Africa is not a priority. 

Links with Cold War Communism

However, there is a deeper reason. This is linked to the African nations’ struggles for independence after the Second World War. Given that the European powers were also the colonial powers, they naturally became the enemy. Also, with the Cold War unfolding, the United States, which in theory at least was anti-colonial, came to be seen as backing France, Belgium, Great Britain, Portugal and Spain and their colonial empires.

US President John F. Kennedy was very interested in Africa and in his 1960 election campaign mentioned the continent 479 times. Sadly, following Kennedy’s assassination the US concentrated its efforts more against the Soviet Union than for African independence, seeing Communists everywhere.

Following the death of Stalin and a slight thaw under Khrushchev in the 1950s, the Soviets began backing recently independent countries and revolutionary movements on the continent. In the 1950s and 1960s, as more Asian, Caribbean and African countries won their independence, Khrushchev threw a great deal of energy into his revolutionary project.

This was the time the USSR opened its institutes of African Studies and the famous Patrice Lumumba University. Thousands of students from Africa studied there, although their impressions of real life in the “Soviet Workers’ Paradise” was often a disappointment.   

The Cold War was characterised by this mix of pragmatism and Marxist fervour, with a distinct emphasis on the former. The Soviets used the Africans to further their goals, while the Africans see-sawed between the West and the USSR and its allies to gain from both.

There were some true believers. A BBC report cites the following nations as having close relations with the USSR throughout the Cold War: Egypt, Guinea Bissau (Lusophone) and Guinea Conakry (Francophone), Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Benin, Angola, and Mozambique. Zimbabwe could be added to the list. Almost all of these countries abstained in the UN vote.

South Africa’s close ties with Russia

And of course, there is South Africa. The country matters because of its industrial power, its economy, and perhaps the strongest civil society in Africa. It has a very strong free press, independent judiciary and a strengthening parliamentary opposition. Also, many nations joined in its anti-apartheid struggle.

South Africa in the early 1990s got a shine of morality when apartheid was finally replaced by a democratically elected government and Nelson Mandela became a hero for human rights campaigners everywhere.

It is deeply disappointing, therefore, that South Africa has moved away from a human-rights-based foreign policy to a cynical Realpolitik.

This has caused no small dispute in recent weeks. A parliamentary debate has been called by the Official Opposition Democratic Party (DA). The DA-controlled Western Cape Province has put in place an unprecedented ban on Russian officials and diplomats in the province.

Many South African exiles were trained or educated in the then Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic, which also supported an anti-apartheid stance as a member of the UN Security Council. For the ANC to thank Ukrainians by abstaining is betrayal indeed.

On the day of the invasion, South Africa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, called on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine’s territory. However, she was quickly slapped down by President Cyril Ramaphosa and her next communique was more along the ANC party line of supporting negotiation. Then came the shameful UN vote.

Worse, President Ramaphosa has repeatedly refused to condemn Russia’s aggression. After phoning Putin on March 10, he said: “President Putin appreciated our balanced approach. We believe this position enables both parties to subject the conflict to mediation and negotiation”. Last week he blamed NATO for the war and declared that he would resist calls to condemn Russia. Precisely how the Ukrainians are supposed to mediate and negotiate with a country that seeks their subjugation is a tricky question.

The legacy of Nelson Mandela

In a seminal essay in a 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs, Nelson Mandela outlined the pillars on which the New South Africa (how outdated that sounds today) would base its foreign policy. It’s worth quoting him. “Issues of human rights are central to international relations,” he said, and the post-apartheid government must endorse the “promotion of democracy worldwide” and “justice and respect for international law”.

His successors have gone in a different direction. Not only in the UN General Assembly, but in the governance of South Africa itself, their involvement on the rest of the continent, their support of regimes like Cuba, Venezuela and Russia, and their deplorable record in the UN. South Africa prevented a vote on human rights in Zimbabwe in the UN Human Rights Council in 2005 and later on it voted against censuring Sudan on human rights violations in Darfur in the GA in 2007. In 2014 the country abstained from a resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights record.

Perhaps the worst incident occurred in 2015, when the ANC government refused to arrest Sudanese dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Al-Bashir, who was taking part in an African Union summit in Johannesburg, had an open International Criminal Court warrant for his arrest, which the South African High Court ordered the government to execute.

How low can South Africa sink? Once it was a beacon of hope for a non-racial society, a country lauded for moving out of apartheid by means of negotiation and discussion and into a democratic election in 1994 and a democratic constitution two years later. Once it was the “rainbow nation”. Now it is a corrupt, almost bankrupt state dependent on Cuban, Russian, Chinese and other undemocratic allies for its survival.

As Cicero said: “O tempora! O mores” — “What times, what practices!” Or perhaps the words of the anti-apartheid author Alan Paton are called for: Cry, the Beloved Country!

Christopher Szabo is a freelance journalist in Pretoria specialising in international affairs and military matters. He recently earned an M.A. in Military History from the University of Birmingham.