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South Africa’s Foreign Policy, Run by Naledi Pandor, Is Confounding the World


The foreign minister of South Africa, Naledi Pandor, a longtime politician, has seesawed on her country’s position regarding Russia’s illegal invasion in Ukraine. Now South Africa is trying to find ways to welcome President Vladimir Putin to a BRICS summit in August, even though he faces an international arrest warrant for alleged war crimes. Here, Pandor welcomes Sergey Lavrov, her Russian counterpart, Jan. 23, 2023, in Pretoria for bilateral talks. DIRCO/SOUTH AFRICA

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.”

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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.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on South Africa's foreign policy?

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.

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South Africa’s Foreign Policy, Run by Naledi Pandor, Is Confounding the World
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Desmond Mlatha
3 months ago

There is nothing confusing or confused about South Africa’s foreign policy stance. The South African government has never declared itself a “neutral state”. It has always been very clear on the democratization of the world and international multilateral institutions. This view is informed by the believe that the current world order led by the US and its European allies serve to marginalize developing countries and explains their state of underdeveloped. By extension, South Africa has always opposed the idea of the US as the self appointed policemen or “leaders” of the world. As far as South Africa is concerned, the US aim of achieving and maintaining a US led unipolar world order is irreconcilable with the UN aims of multilateralism and the respect of the sovereign rights of all nations to chose their own paths of development and political systems. For South Africa, the Ukrainian conflict did not start on February 2022, it started when the US facilitated a colour revolution in that country that led to the overthrow of a legitimately elected government. It did not end there, when the predominantly Russian speak East of Ukraine refused to accept or recognize the western backed coup, they were subjected to a eight year bombing campaing with the tacit support and approval of the West for such a bombing campaign. Even when peace was possible through the Minsk agreements, the same West sabotaged those agreements by sonically encouraging Kiev not to implementing them while they bought time to arm and train the Ukrainian army in preparation for the final solution to the Eastern Ukraine question. Even now, it is the West that is stoking the fires and demanding that there be no peace talks in the face of the Russian military intervention to decapitate Nazism and stop the slaughter of Russian speaking Ukrainians in the East of that country. South Africa refuses single out one party to the conflict for condemnation or isolation precisely because it understands the complicity of the confluence of events that led to the conflict. Its so called neutrality must be understood within this context i.e. Kiev, the US, NATO and tge EU are not blameless or innocent bystanders in this conflict, their hands too are dripping with the blood of innocent Ukrainian – if there is any condemnation to be had it must be across the board and be consistent.

Terje Andersen
Terje Andersen
3 months ago

Dear All, for more than 27 years Nelson Mandela was a prisoner of a system wrongly doing life for life in South Africa and when the white leadership agreed that a solutions after so many years of sanctions and a troubled country…a new approach to the future of SA was given a change by electing Nelson Mandela as the President of South Africa…and as we all knows not only SA but the whole world for whatever reasons embraced the god given opportunity to not only give new hopes for SA…but also to the hole world as we did love Nelson Mandela and his wisdom and character of a human beings bigger than life…Today we need an American President who’s willing to embrace the challenges of rebuilding not only USA but the WESTERN Countries and agreed to that the rest of the world is worth investing in as equal partner on all levels of life and business and that is we respect and support each others diversity …yes we all have much to offer and service our country and populations as equal partners to rebuild us all to grater hight than only us self …So I with all the future troubles we are doing already all of us and sadly 8 Billion of the world populations dont understand or are able to say or do anything …yes we need an American President who has the stigma and capacity to view the world in a light of a common solutions for the future for all and that we can work and develop together as we are of same people with same solutions to ensure we embrace a future for all…and stop all world wars and conflicts and use the climate problems and its solutions to work in same lines for earths and its populations survivals…The UN’S role must be reestablished as the foundations with respecting the Charters of Rules and Regulations whereby all world countries is equal partnership to ensure the success of the UN…In God we trust all of us to embrace the hope Nelson Mandela gave us when we needed it…please come forward the new hope and safe us from destructions based on a misunderstanding nobody wanted to solve…people need hope so lets hope the New America can help us all achieve it for good….

Jane Hill
Jane Hill
3 months ago

What a badly written article based on shoddy analysis. If this person purports to be an expert on South African politics, he should think of getting another job. Clearly, he has no understanding of ANC politics. South Africa’s Foreign Policy is as clear as day. Minister Pandor is highly educated and has innate ability to traverse the most complex international arenas.

Dr Bilali Camara
Dr Bilali Camara
3 months ago

South Africa is aligned with its friend Russia and will not engage in misinterpretation of its position, it will not arrest Russian president for any reasons as the ICC has not arrested W. Bush, Blair, Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, Bill Clinton, Sarkozy, Obama, Biden, Hilary Clinton, David Cameron for crimes against people of Irak, Libya, Mali, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Burkina-Faso, Niger and Haiti.

John Woo
John Woo
3 months ago

So in South Africa two wrongs make a right? Good to know, I will not visit there now. But Russian thugs and gangsters are probably more of the type you would want anyhow. Ukraine will not forget those who stood with the Hitler of our times.

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