JOHANNESBURG — Naledi Pandor, a six-time cabinet member who has served numerous presidents, has a storied career in South Africa’s public service. But in piloting her country’s confusing foreign policy over Russia’s full-throttle invasion of Ukraine, Pandor may be hurting her legacy and her country’s global standing.
As a member of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, from 2004 to 2019, Pandor has served variously as an education, science and technology and home affairs minister. She became foreign affairs minister in 2019, under President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Pandor’s plate has been full especially in the last year as South Africa’s top diplomat. She’s juggling the global sensitivities surrounding President Vladimir Putin of Russia’s possible visit to South Africa in August for the BRICS summit with Brazil, Russia, India and China. She also hosted a European Union delegation led by the European Commission’s vice president, Josep Borrell, in January; welcomed United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken in August and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in January; sent a delegation to Washington in May to explain South Africa’s changing positions on Russia; and has been trying to straighten out her country’s stance on whether it will withdraw from the International Criminal Court, or ICC.
Paul Mashatile, South Africa’s deputy president, told the media recently that some of his ministers will soon announce “technicalities” — possible loopholes in the ICC founding treaty — to clear the way for Putin to come physically to South Africa for the BRICS conference. It’s a prestigious gathering that could raise the country’s profile globally, though possibly now for the wrong reasons. Putin is facing an arrest warrant by the court for allegedly kidnapping Ukrainian children. Pandor’s office did not respond to a request for an interview with PassBlue.
Meanwhile, Ramaphosa announced this week that South Africa was leading a delegation to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, to discuss possible talks to end the war. The African Peace Initiative delegation is scheduled to arrive in Ukraine in mid-June, and include the presidents of Comoros, Egypt, Senegal, Uganda and Zambia as well as the African Union. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky has agreed to meet the African delegation, according to Ramaphosa. The delegation said it also planned to visit Moscow, confirmed on June 8 by Russia’s foreign ministry.
Complicating matters, South Africa is battling more diplomatic headaches after the US ambassador to South Africa accused the country of shipping weapons to Russia, a charge South Africa vehemently denies.
In January, after meeting Lavrov, Pandor told reporters that it would have been “simplistic and infantile” to have demanded Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine in early 2022, “given the massive transfer of arms that have occurred, given the level of conflict there is, and all the developments that have occurred in almost a year, a month from now.”
Pandor, 69, got her start in politics as a legislator in South Africa’s parliament in 1994, at the dawn of democracy in the country, under Nelson Mandela. She remained in parliament through the Thabo Mbeki government, Jacob Zuma’s administration and now Ramaphosa’s. At one point, she was talked about as a possible deputy to Ramaphosa.
Born in colonial South Africa, the daughter of an anti-apartheid activist, Joe Matthews, and an academic, Regina Thelma, Pandor studied in South Africa, Swaziland, Botswana and London; she became a teacher in the 1980s in Botswana. In 1989, she returned to South Africa and headed state education districts in Western Cape Province as well as other education trusts and university councils. At the same time, in the late 1980s through 2000s, Pandor earned a master’s degree in linguistics at Stellenbosch University and a Ph.D. in education at the University of Pretoria.
Despite her extensive education background and public service, some analysts are questioning Pandor’s ability to manage the global face of South Africa’s diplomacy as Russia invades Ukraine. Yet her seesawing may reflect her president’s indecisiveness more than her own.
“Pandor is, in my opinion, completely out of her depth in foreign policy, especially to do with the current Ukrainian upheaval,” said Stephen Chan, an expert on South Africa’s diplomacy who is a professor at the University of London School of African and Oriental Studies. “She seems to have no knowledge of East European political dynamics, or international law, and is not reading her briefs with any depth or discernment.”
When Russia fully assaulted Ukraine, on Feb. 24, 2022, Pandor condemned Russia and demanded that it withdraw its troops. In the UN General Assembly soon after, however, South Africa abstained on the first of numerous resolutions in 2022 condemning Russia’s military actions in Ukraine. She changed stances reportedly after incurring Ramaphosa’s wrath. Russia has been a financial and diplomatic supporter of the ANC since the times of apartheid.
At a political party level, antagonizing Russia could hurt the financially strapped ANC. It accepted, for example, a donation of $826,000 (about 15 million rand, the national currency) from United Manganese of Kalahari, a mining company linked to a Russian magnate, Viktor Vekselberg, who is sanctioned by the US. Moreover, Russia’s legendary military support of the anti-apartheid movement could still be influencing the ANC’s positions on Putin’s war. Some ANC leaders fled to Russia during the guerrilla warfare against apartheid, yet South African politicians now remind the public that Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and provided sanctuary to South African dissidents at the time.
Since being rebuked by Ramaphosa for South Africa’s March 2022 abstention in the General Assembly, Pandor has adopted a hawkish image, outdoing her ANC colleagues to rail at the West for “bullying” South Africa to openly condemn Putin. At the same time, Pandor has insisted that Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected. “From some of our partners in Europe and elsewhere, there has been a sense of patronizing bullying — ‘You choose this or else,'” she said when meeting Blinken last August in Pretoria.
Chan, the expert on South African diplomacy, said the country looked foolish in its flip-flopping on Russia’s military aggression.”Right now, South African foreign policy towards Russia and Ukraine just looks silly, confused, and, above all, embarrassing,” Chan told PassBlue. “A major African country is floundering about in full international view not knowing what to do.”
In her defense, Pandor told South Africa’s parliament in early May that the world has become too fractured and complex for conventional diplomacy. “There is armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and there are insufficient voices calling for peace or working to create a stable peaceful environment.”
Frans Cronje, a former chief executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations, a think tank, disagrees with the criticism about Pandor. “Naledi Pandor comes out of a learned family and has considerable experience in foreign affairs matters, dating back decades, so I don’t think the retractions and contradictions come from a lack of experience,” Cronje told PassBlue.
As to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the position of the South African government has been “fairly clear” since Pandor’s early reversal, Cronje added. South Africa contends that Russia was not the primary aggressor and its actions around Ukraine were largely defensive, rooted in apparent NATO aggression. This view is supported across the ANC.
The track record is evident in South Africa’s voting pattern as a past elected member of the UN Security Council, Cronje noted. “This record, dating back years, suggests that South African foreign policy has long been at odds with the interests of leading Western economies,” he said.
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Nyasha Bhobo is based in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she is a freelance journalist covering tech, immigration, climate emergencies, women’s rights and other topics in the region. Her work has been published by The Africa Report, Newsweek, The New Arab, Reuters, CNBC TV Africa and Canada Globe and Mail. She has a B.S. degree from Chinhoyi University of Technology in Zimbabwe.