Hou djou rokkies bymekaar
More gaan ons Boland toe
My voete loop na Wellington maar ek gaan Worcester toe."
-From a traditional Afrikaans folk song
THE ANC's policy on Russia and the war in Ukraine is definitely irrational, and if it doesn't sufficiently appease the US and the West about this there will be economic consequences that could seriously undermine the party's chances of winning next year's election.
The average voter is not going to treat the ANC kindly just because it is on Russia's side. The whole West/Russia/Ukraine issue matters very little to ordinary people; they just want a better life and hope for the future.
The ANC can't win anything, it can only lose. South Africa's trade with Russia is minuscule compared to that with the West. Unless… well, unless a hell of a lot of roubles come into the country and find their way to Luthuli House, and there is (so far) no evidence of that.
Is ideology a primary consideration?
If it is, it is even more irrational. South Africa is not a communist or socialist state, and Russia hasn't been one for a long time either. We are a constitutional democracy that operates under the rule of law, while Russia is an autocracy without freedom of speech or the supremacy of law.
What is true, however, is that the ANC pretends to still be a Marxist movement. The national democratic revolution, the dream of a fully socialist state with extensive nationalisation, is still official ANC policy and is frequently referred to.
Then there are all the struggle/Cold War accoutrements: calling each other “comrade", endlessly talking about “the revolution" that is not yet over, about the rule of the workers, “seizing the commanding heights of the economy" and “the masses of the people".
But ANC economic policy since 1994 has firmly been on the side of the free market, as close to pure capitalism as any other country. Instead of nationalising anything, there is quietly increasing privatisation and increasing numbers of public-private partnerships. Billions have already been spent to create a new class of black nouveau riche.
Plus: are there more enthusiastic capitalists than the fat cats in the ANC's leadership structures and their hangers-on?
Of course, the ANC officially denies that its government's policy is capitalist. Do they shout “Viva Putin!" to hide that shame?
Is struggle nostalgia the explanation?
It's more than 30 years later but ANC heavyweights still speak with dewy eyes about their struggle days. It is understandable, especially for the older generation (such as defence minister Thandi Modise) whose lives were shaped by the armed struggle against apartheid.
Every time Ukraine is mentioned, the ANC says Russia was the “only" country that came to the rescue of the ANC in exile and supported its struggle against apartheid.
It probably means the Soviet Union because other states in that bloc equally supported the ANC, especially Ukraine. But Vladimir Putin is now the symbol of the old Soviet Union, the strongman who wants to place Moscow at the heart of a third superpower.
The “we owe Russia" sentiment is strongest among the older Umkhonto we Sizwe cadres, but it is actually a veiled attempt to revive the myth that MK achieved a military victory.
The voices of non-military ANC leaders who know the significant role played by the anti-apartheid movement in the Netherlands, Britain and Scandinavia are silent.
Likewise, the voices of the old United Democratic Front guard, who know well that the UDF, without the support of Russia, played the most significant role, in the last decade of apartheid, in forcing the National Party to the negotiating table.
What is the role of the SACP?
Since the 1960s, the South African Communist Party has been the “vanguard" of the ANC's thinking and strategies on revolution and liberation. Loyalty to Moscow was overwhelming and fundamentalist. Even honourable old communists couldn't bring themselves to condemn the Soviet Union's takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
The same goes for Russia's military interventions in Chechnya in the late 1990s, Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014 and Syria in 2015. Not a peep from the SACP (or the ANC).
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Since 1994, the SACP has been part of the government, the third leg of the alliance with the ANC and the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions. The man who was the SACP leader until last year, Blade Nzimande, has been a member of the cabinet for more than a decade. Ministers Gwede Mantashe and Thulas Nxesi are SACP central committee members, and deputy finance minister David Masondo is the deputy secretary-general.
The SACP is a small organisation today but still plays the role of ideological police in the ANC. The Cold War orthodoxy is still strong, with a white-hot hatred for America and Nato countries.
The last thing any ANC figure wants is to be branded as a counter-revolutionary by the SACP.
The language of the ANC's official policy document on foreign affairs adopted at the 2022 congress is pure SACP.
Regarding the conflict in Ukraine, the ANC declares: “This can no longer be described simply as a Russia-Ukraine war — it is primarily a conflict between the US and US-led Nato and Russia in pursuit of the objectives of the so-called Wolfowitz doctrine.
“According to this doctrine, the US should not allow any country in the world to have the possibility, in the post-Cold War period, to challenge US interests, especially its hegemony. In this regard, US geopolitical strategy has identified Russia and China as the two powers that must be contained, according to the Wolfowitz doctrine which underpins US foreign policy. [The Wolfowitz doctrine was published in 1992 and has been considerably watered down since George W Bush's presidency.]
“This is why the US provoked the war with Russia over Ukraine, hoping to put Russia in its place. The peace and ‘free market economy' dividends promised at the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s have been shattered. Western imperialist dominance over Eastern Europe is being advanced not through free trade and open competition for markets, but through US-led expansionist military strategies."
This is from the party which declares that Russia's invasion of Ukraine is the fault of the US and Nato, insists that it is “non-aligned" and wants to join five other African states in persuading Ukraine to stop fighting.
Does the above view reflect the conviction of the ANC leadership, or is it mostly SACP rhetoric?
Is it about renouncing the US and the West?
Few democrats can, with a straight face, justify US foreign policy over the past few decades, especially its role in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan. The ANC also remembers that the US and Britain had ties with the apartheid regime and viewed the ANC as terrorists.
But one gets the impression that the US has become a sort of bogeyman for hotheads in the Global South. To be progressive or left-leaning means you must hate America with a passion.
Often, you have to listen to the EFF to find out what is happening in the ANC inner circle. Julius Malema recently declared Putin “the greatest hero in the world" and said that if South Africa can, we should supply weapons to Russia. Malema says his “ground forces" will protect Putin if he attends the Brics summit here in August.
So how much of the anti-US rhetoric is simply to showcase your revolutionary credentials?
Is it about money?
We don't know, although the columnist Peter Bruce has proclaimed it as fact — he says Moscow pays the ANC's salaries.
It is quite cumbersome to get the Reserve Bank to allow large amounts of foreign currency into the country. These transactions are closely monitored. But, as many crafty individuals could tell you, it is not impossible. And we know what happened at Phala Phala.
What we do know is that former president Jacob Zuma and former deputy president David Mabuza have regularly made private visits to Russia in recent years, using the excuse of receiving treatment for poisoning — even though there are several South African hospitals that are much better at than any Russian hospital.
We suspect that a bundle of roubles changed hands when Zuma signed the contract for Russian company Rosatom to build a large nuclear power plant, a project that was fortunately thwarted. However, there is no evidence of this.
We also know that the Russian oligarch who owns mines in South Africa, Viktor Vekselberg, donated several million rand to the ANC. But it doesn't sound like the kind of money that could buy the party, because the ANC doesn't come cheap.
Is it ignorance?
It certainly plays a role. I have been amazed in recent months by what some of my ANC acquaintances — otherwise sophisticated, thoughtful people — think about Russia and Ukraine.
They tell me that President Volodymyr Zelensky is a corrupt puppet and a neo-Nazi, and that Ukraine is a dictatorship, despite verifiable evidence pointing in the opposite direction. And they believe that the US and Nato have threatened and harassed Russia to such an extent that war is the only way to defend Moscow's sovereignty.
In my experience, it is like reasoning with Donald Trump supporters when I confront these people with the facts — and I don't mean US and Nato “facts" but those put forward by a wide range of trustworthy journalists on the ground in Ukraine, researchers and geopolitical experts.
Drinking the Moscow Kool-Aid
My conclusion is that it may be a combination of all the above. For many, it is probably an over-romanticisation of the past and/or a display of faux struggle credentials in our populist political theatre.
But I suspect there may be something else at play. The ANC feels powerless and paralysed as the country crumbles around it, and it can do nothing to halt the decline. It has little control and little credibility. It knows it, and it feels ashamed and powerless.
By showing a middle finger to the mighty West, it gives itself the false sense that it still matters.
♦ VWB ♦
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