South Africa and Russia: There are no morals.

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South Africa and Russia: There are no morals.

By Russell Pollitt SJ

While many South Africans struggle and are buckled by load-shedding every day, and, understandably, survival is the mode we find ourselves in, we should not fail to join the dots when it comes to a plethora of ethical issues.

This week’s visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to South Africa – and the South African hosting of military exercises between Russia, China and South Africa – speak volumes about South Africa’s actual position on its ethics, constitutional values and human rights.

According to South Africa’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Naledi Pandor, these military exercises – due to start on 24 February, the very day when Russia began a “special military operation” in Ukraine a year ago – are a “natural course of relations” between “friends”.

South Africa claims that it is “impartial” on the invasion of Ukraine. The country abstained from voting at the U.N. resolution on the war. South Africa has become one of Russia’s most important allies on the continent.

Pandor was reported to have said that South Africa initially called on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. However, she said this week that this is “no longer its position”. In other words, South Africa tacitly supports the Russian war on Ukraine.

She also said: “As South Africa, we consistently articulate that we will always stand ready to support the peaceful resolution of conflicts on the (African) continent and throughout the globe”. In other words, South Africa will not take a stand when a country violates international law and invades another, killing innocent people and destroying infrastructure. You cannot talk out from both sides of your mouth. You cannot support a peaceful resolution if you are supporting the aggressor.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government publicly said it would be willing to mediate the conflict as a “neutral party”. South Africa, let’s be honest, is far from neutral.

The African National Congress (ANC) liberation struggle myth has shaped the South African position on Russia. In the pre-democratic era, ANC liberation fighters were trained and supported by the former Soviet Union. The Soviet Union no longer exists. The Russia of today is a different reality. South Africa should not and cannot support a historical entity that, in fact, no longer exists.

The bottom line is that, despite what we pretend, South Africa is less committed to dignity and human rights. Our constitution, hailed worldwide, is often just beautiful words on paper. Our constitution is not our starting point. It has, at best, served as a tremendous international public relations  document.

We need to join the dots. Whether it is Life Esidimeni, Marikana, police brutality, the terrible state of public hospitals, the inability to provide essential services like water and power for citizens, crippling economic policies and inequalities, the rampant crime in the country or our position on Russian aggression, our government has lost any sense of the spirit of our constitution.

There is no moral compass. If we are unable to uphold ethical standards and human rights at home, why would we when it comes to the unnecessary killing, maiming and destruction of a state like Ukraine? 

South Africa faces many problems. The thread between them? The loss of an ethical or moral sense. The ANC-led government is ethically and morally bankrupt. Civil society movements try hard to articulate an ethical vision against the odds. The faith community, by and large, has yet to make much impact. Can we, and how do we recover and restore some moral sense? I wonder.

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