José Francisco Lynce Zagallo Pavia is Associate Professor at Lusíada Universities of Lisbon and Porto, Visiting Professor at Sciences Po Grenoble (2022)
South Africa is considered to be the beacon of Africa. After years of a white minority rule, under the apartheid regime, the peaceful transition to a full democracy, under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, was almost a miracle that transformed the country into a “rainbow nation”. But, next year (2024) will mark the 30th anniversary of ANC as ruling party and the disappointment with the former liberation movement is growing.
Corruption scandals, embezzlement, patronage and an incapacity to deal with the rising unemployment, economic crisis and crescent violence, along with arguable international postures, like the idea of –maybe– hosting Russian President Putin, for the next BRICS summit in August, in spite of the fact that there is an arrest warrant for him, issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC), institution of which South Africa is a full member.
In this context, South African government is considering to grant immunity to President Putin, during his visit, as they have done in a similar situation to the – then – President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, in 2015, also with an arrest warrant from the ICC. This situation brought a lot of criticism to the South African authorities, although some voices claim that from a legal point of view there are differences that should be highlighted.
South Africa: Is the rainbow nation fading?
April 2024 will mark the 30th anniversary of the historic elections that brought Nelson Mandela and the ANC (African National Congress) to power. Fulfilled the two terms constitutionally provided for, Nelson Mandela withdrew from active politics, being replaced by Thabo Mbeki. In 2007 he was awarded the Leadership prize by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which rewards African heads of state who voluntarily withdraw from power in compliance with previously established constitutional norms.
Unfortunately, so far this prize has only been awarded seven times. Since then, electoral acts in South Africa have been carried out in accordance with the stipulated legal and constitutional principles, the rule of law is respected, but the ANC and its candidates continue to perpetuate themselves in power without having until now an alternation in the governance of the country.
This situation is described in Political Science as the “Mexicanization” of the system, the name coming from the fact that the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) governed Mexico for a period of seven decades. This situation is not exclusive to South Africa, given that two of its neighbors, Angola and Mozambique, will also celebrate five decades of independence in 2025, with the same parties in power, respectively the MPLA and Frelimo. In practice, this situation leads to an enormous inequality of opportunities in electoral processes, which is embodied in the existence of a de jure multi-party democracy, but in a situation of a de factum dominant party.
Many young activists in these three countries, unhappy with endemic corruption, the persistent economic crisis, lack of opportunities and, especially in South Africa and Mozambique, growing insecurity, armed violence and criminality, ask when will these countries will break free from their liberators; in allusion to the fact that the liberation movements of yesteryear have become the most pressing symbol of atavism and maintenance of the status quo.
In South Africa, the situation is particularly felt given the potential of the country (until recently the richest in Africa), its infrastructure, its development and its largely educated population, which contrasts with most of the other countries in Africa. In this frankly negative context, it is natural to wonder whether the formerly known as the “rainbow nation” is not failing in the expectations created, particularly in the generations that have already been born under its new flag, which represents precisely – with its mosaic of colors – diversity under harmony and hope for a better future.
Strict neutrality and beacon of the Global South
The Russian invasion of Ukraine triggered a set of international reactions that were probably not those expected by Vladimir Putin. He brought NATO and the European Union together in a way that no one expected, even provoking Finland’s accession to the Atlantic Alliance and Sweden’s future membership. The transatlantic axis strengthened around sanctions on Russia and unconditional support for Ukraine. However, many countries in the so-called Global South resisted taking sides and proclaimed a strict neutrality in the face of the conflict in Europe. One of them was South Africa.
This foreign policy pursued by Pretoria is not necessarily new. South African diplomacy has tried to follow an alternative path, which often does not coincide with that of Western countries. Take a look at the initiatives at the WTO (International Trade Organization), with persistent criticism of the patent system of the major Western pharmaceutical laboratories, the privileged links to PRChina, with Johannesburg being the stage for one of the FOCAC summits in 2015, the creation of the IBSA in 2003, integration into the BRICS in 2010, criticism of NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011 and the creation of Africom in 2007. These are just a few examples, in recent years, of the divergent paths of Pretoria’s diplomacy vis-à-vis the so-called West. Of course, we can find many other cases in which there is a very significant convergence between the “rainbow nation” and Washington and Brussels. However, Western countries often seem to forget that the concept of sovereignty applies to all countries, implying that they have the right to make their own choices, even if they are not ours.
South African diplomacy decided to remain neutral in this conflict, causing significant disruption in Western chancelleries. That South Africa that was a moral reference, a beacon in the so-called Global South. On the date that marked one year of the invasion of Ukraine, February 24, 2023, South Africa held naval exercises with PRChina and Russia, the invading State.
Then there was the hypothesis that Pretoria had supplied arms and ammunition to Russia, in flagrant violation of European and North American sanctions, which, it should be said, are not legally binding on all States. This claim turned out to be unproven. The last episode concerns the possibility of President Putin visiting South Africa, for the BRICS summit, scheduled for next August; all this while an international arrest warrant issued by the ICC, of which South Africa is a part, against the Russian leader, is in force.
Legal conundrum with a political solution (as always!)
The eventual visit of President Putin to South Africa, on the occasion of the BRICS summit, in August 2023, may raise a significant set of legal and political issues, which will have to be resolved. The background is the fact that the ICC issued an international arrest warrant against President Putin for alleged crimes committed in the course of the invasion of Ukraine; specifically, the forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. It should be remembered that Russia is not a member of the ICC, as Ukraine, although the latter has accepted the jurisdiction of the ICC for crimes committed in its territory. South Africa is a full member of the ICC and will – apparently – be obliged to execute the arrest warrant, even against an acting head of State, as is the case.
However, there was already a similar case before. In 2015 the then President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, visited South Africa for an African Union summit. He also had an international arrest warrant, issued by the ICC, for alleged crimes against humanity committed in Darfur. South African diplomacy decided to ignore this ICC mandate and did not detain the Sudanese leader, prompting a chorus of international criticism. Courts in South Africa later ruled that the government’s decision was illegal.
In the current context, there are at least three alternatives: the South African government arrests President Putin and hands him over to international justice in The Hague. It doesn’t seem workable. The second alternative would be for the South African government to proceed as in the previous case and ignore the mandate. Very complex in legal terms and extremely difficult in political terms. It would ultimately lead to South Africa’s withdrawal from the Rome Statute, a decision that would eventually be followed by other African States. The third alternative would be for President Putin to participate via telematics. This alternative would avoid huge legal and political problems for South Africa, avoid embarrassment for the Russian Federation and save face for all the stakeholders.