Neutrality is unlikely to do South Africa any favours

Estimated read time 5 min read

By Howard Feldman

We are not Switzerland. Johannesburg is not Zurich, and the Drakensburg mountains are not the Alps, even if there is a “Little Switzerland” somewhere in the range. We do have chocolates. We don’t have trains, and whereas we might have watches, we are never on time. And that starts with president Ramaphosa, who has no problem keeping the “family” waiting when he chooses to call for a family meeting. 

Switzerland might be known for its political neutrality. South Africa is not. Which is why it was important, ahead of the BRICS summit that is taking place in Sandton, Johannesburg, this week that any confusion in terms of the country’s foreign policy was cleared up. 

Ramaphosa addressed the nation on the upcoming summit and the country’s foreign policy on Sunday night. In doing so, he said the world had become increasingly complex and fractured, warning that multilateralism was being replaced by the actions of different power blocs. “We have resisted pressure to align ourselves with any one of the global powers or with influential blocs of nations.” He said this as though it was true, forgetting that most in the country still remember the many months of “flip flopping” on its stance on Russia’s attack of Ukraine along with the military operations and manoeuvres that took place on the anniversary of the invasion. 

He seemed to forget that at least two delegations had to be dispatched to the United States to try and save the country from being booted out of the AGOA treaty and he clearly didn’t remember that the South African Rand plummeted when news of the Lady R broke. And that the value of the currency has not improved. 

Neutrality in some cases is admirable. Whereas in some cases it might provide tremendous positive opportunity, in that it allows the “neutral” party to become a broker of peace, it is not always the best option. If we look at 20th Century history, it is hard to imagine that remaining neutral when Hitler was murdering millions across Europe, would be considered admirable. Much like many did not simply stand by when fighting apartheid in South Africa. 

The reality is that so called neutrality is a myth. South Africa might have been embarrassingly silent or “neutral” when it came to standing up for the people of Zimbabwe, it might have used the approach to say nothing when the people of Cuba are deprived of their human rights and dignity, and on the contrary, even propped up the regime by assisting where it was able to. 

To remain silent when the women of Iran are subject to abuse and violence, when protestors are hanged because they have chosen to speak out, when gay people in Iran are hanged and when the country marches towards nuclear destruction, is to be complicit. There is nothing that is admirable or “Swiss” about it. 

The persecution of the Uighur Muslims in China and gay people in Uganda can also not be ignored and leaves a bitter taste that no amount of chocolate can cover up. 

That South Africa has chosen not to apply the same policy to towards the Israel and Palestinian issue, says little about their policy and hypocrisy, but indicates that it’s all about who their friends are and not that they adhere to any “lofty” philosophy. 

The positive in all this is that by demonstrating the need to try and set the record straight, Ramaphosa has acknowledged that he cannot afford to alienate the so-called West. In doing so, he has admitted the importance of these relationships and that he notes the damage that would follow if he chose the wrong side.  His words might have been nebulous and without any real substance, but the act of speaking just ahead of the BRICS summit speaks volumes. 

Edmund Burke, one of the foremost political speakers of 18th century England, said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” We hear this quoted so often that it may be that we are deaf to the actual meaning of the words. (Often quoted as simply “evil prospers when good men do nothing). That we are deaf to it, and that it has become a cliché doesn’t make it less true and should be something that South Africa considers when boasting of its own position. 

Where neutrality might have worked for Switzerland, it is unlikely to do South Africa any favours: especially if it’s not applied in practice, and if it is perceived as a strategy to avoiding criticizing their friends. 

The week ahead is an important one. South Africa’s international policy will be under scrutiny, and utterings of diplomats will be noted. This week is one that could either cost the country dearly or it could assist to rebuild a reputation that is in tatters. This is the week to be as punctual as the Swiss, as discreet as their bankers and perhaps eat chocolate any time there is a chance of saying something ridiculous.

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