South Africa's Waning Global Democratic Credentials

South Africa has allied itself with Russia during Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, calling into question its commitment to democracy and human rights.

Vladimir Putin attending the 14th BRICS summit (via videoconference) with leaders of India, Brazil, China and South Africa

Russian president Vladimir Putin attends the 14th BRICS summit via videoconference with leaders of India, Brazil, China, and South Africa. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)


As the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) summit approaches, South Africa’s position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict calls its commitment to democracy and human rights into question. From August 22 to 24, representatives of the BRICS countries will gather in South Africa for the bloc’s summit. Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be in attendance. Putin is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children. South Africa, an ICC signatory, invited Putin to the summit, explored legal loopholes that would grant him immunity from arrest, and threatened to withdraw from the court. After concerted domestic and international pressure Pretoria and Moscow agreed that Putin would attend the summit remotely.

Known today as a beacon of democracy and freedom, South Africa—rated Free in our Freedom in the World 2023 report—emerged from the dark shadows of apartheid to establish itself as a model for democratic transition and reconciliation. In recent years, this image has been tarnished by the government’s inability to address serious domestic challenges, including widening inequalities, high levels of crime, rising unemployment, rampant state corruption, and growing public demands for accountable and transparent governance.

On the international stage, questions have been raised about South Africa’s shifting foreign policy. The government has rightly championed multilateralism and has advocated for a rules-based international order, as well as the restructuring of international institutions like the United Nations Security Council to ensure equitable participation and influence by states from the global south. However, South Africa’s approach to Russia since the beginning of the war in Ukraine has cast doubt on its purportedly “nonaligned” stance on the conflict and its regard for democracy and human rights. South Africa has abstained or been absent from voting on five key resolutions at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) that called for the end of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. South Africa’s decisions to invite Putin to the BRICS summit and host naval drills with Russia and China this February also belie its neutral stance.

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party’s history and shared ideology with the former Soviet Union is a key reason for its support of the Russian government. The Soviet Union supported the ANC movement during the apartheid era while the United States and United Kingdom opposed it, which has also contributed to the South African government’s reluctance to criticize Russian actions in Ukraine. However, these historical ties must be questioned in the face of war crimes and clear violations of a state’s territorial integrity.

As the Freedom in the World 2023 report highlights, there is strong evidence that Russian forces are committing war crimes against Ukrainian civilians, including extrajudicial executions, kidnappings, and instances of torture and sexual violence. Millions of Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes. The Kremlin’s war of aggression in Ukraine goes against international law and thUnited Nations Charter, which were carefully developed to limit imperialist aggression and entrench fundamental human rights within states and between states. Moscow’s actions are also at odds with the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, which seeks to “examine and take action in situations where the national independence and sovereignty of a Member State is threatened by acts of aggression.”

South Africa's backing of Russia raises questions about its commitment to fostering stability and prosperity in its region. The government’s reticence to condemn Russian actions enables regional destabilization and geopolitical tension. The Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organization, has reportedly committed atrocities and contributed to instability in the Central African Republic, Mali, and Sudan. Moscow’s recent withdrawal from a brokered grain deal seriously impacts food security in parts of Africa.

The South African government’s support of Moscow also strains its relations with allies on the African continent, as well as with the European Union and the United States. It risks isolating itself diplomatically and economically, with far-reaching consequences for its trade, investment, and foreign policy objectives. In Africa, Pretoria’s position on Ukraine does not mirror that of several other members of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), a regional economic bloc in which South Africa is an influential member. While the SADC called on its members to take a nonaligned stance on conflicts outside of Africa in January, the following month several member states including Zambia, Lesotho, and Malawi voted in favour of a UNGA resolution calling for an end to the Russia-Ukraine war and the Russian regime’s immediate withdrawal from Ukrainian territory. South Africa and five other SADC members abstained. Just 17 heads of African states attended the Russia-Africa Summit in July, less than half of the 43 heads of state that attended the 2019 conference.

South Africa has overcome significant hurdles to establish a thriving democracy. However, it risks being on the wrong side of history if it fails to stand true to its core values and engage in partnerships that uphold and promote democratic principles, both at home and on the global stage. South African leaders should reassess their stance towards Russia—a nonaligned position on the war should not preclude condemning Moscow’s aggression and war crimes.