South Africa, Active Non-Alignment and the War in Ukraine

July 03, 2022

About the author:

Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, National Director, South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), Johannesburg

Steven Gruzd, Head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Program; Head of the Russia-Africa Project at SAIIA


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 will probably be remembered as the moment when the post-Cold War order ended and the dissonance over the future form of the international order between the Global North and the Global South became more apparent. For the West, the invasion called for a straightforward response to a clear violation of international law. For many countries in the Global South, however, this was a clash between the West and Russia, which had been brewing for many years and which had now come to a head. And how was Russia’s behavior different from that of the U.S. in Iraq or Afghanistan or Libya?   




Ukraine was the theater of a war fought between the West and Russia – the former with economic sanctions, the latter through conventional military means in Ukraine, but also through economic blackmail in food and energy access. Remembering the Cold War divisions, many countries in the developing world preferred to remain neutral in this conflict, and the notion of non-alignment came back to the fore.


Since the advent of democracy in 1994, South Africa has emphasized its independent foreign policy, its commitment to a reformed type of multilateralism, and its identity as a member of the Global South. Its espoused neutrality over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine surprised many Western countries, who believed that South Africa’s liberal democracy and commitment to a rules-based multilateral order meant that it would condemn the Russian invasion unequivocally and side with the West. South Africa’s stance was also a severe blow to the argument that the war in Ukraine had brought to the fore the cleavage between democracy and authoritarianism as the main division in world affairs. 


Instead, at a time when in Latin America the notion of Active Non-Alignment has gained traction, the invasion has rekindled the concept of non-alignment, which after the end of the Cold War had lost much of its momentum and raison d’etre.1 South Africa has a long tradition of embracing non-alignment. The African National Congress’ commitment to non-alignment was part of its history. It was present at the Bandung Conference in 1955, where it was granted observer status. In May 1994, weeks after the first democratic election, South Africa joined the Non-Aligned Movement, and in September 1998, the country hosted the Non-Aligned Summit in Durban, with Nelson Mandela occupying center stage, and the attendance of leaders such as Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, Robert Mugabe, and Muhammad Abu Gaddafi.


In the months-long build-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the South African government was largely silent on the matter. There are certain causes that are very close to South Africa’s heart, such as the Western Sahara issue or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where its position is always clear and unambiguous. On other matters, Pretoria has preferred to emphasize peaceful settlement, use of multilateral rather than unilateral solutions, or in some instances to remain silent. 


Overall, the country has cultivated diplomatic and economic relations with both the North and the South while affirming its Southern and African identity. 


With the hostilities in their fourth month and no sign of abating soon, South Africa’s posture towards this conflict has evolved, but its purported neutrality and “strategic non-alignment” have not always been clear and some of its actions have created perceptions that it is in the Russian camp. The South African government’s first major statement on the looming conflict was issued by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) on February 23, the day before Russia attacked its neighbor. South Africa expressed concern about the situation at the border, and “urge[d] all parties to devote increased efforts to diplomacy and to find a solution that will help de-escalate tensions and avert armed conflict.” It called on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to play a key role in the search for a peaceful solution and lead inclusive peace talks. 


Early the next morning, Russian forces crossed the border in a blitzkrieg attack. A second DIRCO statement on February 24 expressed South Africa’s “dismay” and that it “regretted” the deterioration of the situation and the failure of diplomacy. It also plainly pointed the finger at Moscow: “South Africa calls on Russia to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine in line with the United Nations Charter…South Africa emphasizes respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.” It again called on “all parties” to seek solutions to end the hostilities and uphold international law. 


That evening, senior government figures attended a reception hosted by the Russian Embassy in Pretoria to celebrate three decades of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Clinking champagne glasses did not make for good press, and opposition parties slammed this insensitivity.


The “naming and shaming” of Russia on February 24 was to prove an anomaly in South Africa’s official statements on the Ukraine conflict. President Cyril Ramaphosa was reportedly furious with Dr. Naledi Pandor, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, for singling out Russia by name. In his subsequent statements, the President refused to condemn Russia, and later went on to blame the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for provoking this conflict due to its relentless eastward expansion. 


At the UN General Assembly (UNGA) special emergency session on March 1, South Africa abstained on a resolution condemning Russia. Africa was split down the middle, with 27 states voting for the resolution, one voting against (Eritrea) and the rest either abstaining or absent from the vote. All the Southern African states run by former liberation movements abstained. South Africa’s explanation of its vote in UNGA highlighted the absence of a real attempt to bring the two sides to dialogue. It argued that this resolution would drive a deeper wedge between the parties.2 Furthermore, South Africa believed that the UN should be used as a “platform to build bridges” and de-escalate tensions, something that the resolution failed to do.   


In an opinion piece, DIRCO’s Head of Public Diplomacy Clayson Monyela in The Daily Maverick on March 11 wrote: “Had NATO given Russia the security assurances they required and been promised since the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the region would not likely find itself in the situation it is currently in.” He added, “In keeping with our independent foreign policy, we have adopted a non-aligned position and sought to discourage a war in which the chief protagonists are essentially the big powers, with the people of Ukraine being on the receiving end of post-Cold War disagreements on what would constitute a safer Europe and Russia.”


Media commentary and public sentiment in South Africa have been sharply divided, with a fair amount of sympathy and support for Russia, stemming from Soviet-era solidarity, BRICS ties, financial support of the African National Congress (ANC) and accusations of hypocrisy about when force is justified, as seen from Western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, among others. 




The South African government seemed to tie itself in knots not to blame Russia. This was seen most starkly in a draft resolution it put forward in the UNGA on humanitarian corridors in Ukraine on March 24, which failed to even mention Russia and was widely rejected as being pro-Russian, severely denting South Africa’s image as a neutral broker. Western powers clearly saw this as Pretoria being in Moscow’s camp even though South Africa emphasized that dealing with the humanitarian crisis should be the priority, rather than stoking political divisions.3


South Africa also abstained on a subsequent resolution in April to expel Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council. In that resolution, however, the number of African countries that abstained from voting was 23; only 10 voted in favor of Russia’s suspension, nine against and eight were not present. However, the media statement issued by Minister Naledi Pandor on April 8, 2022 following the adoption of the resolution suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council, illustrated a shift in South Africa’s narrative on how it understood the situation in Ukraine.4 The statement emphasized that the South African government was not indifferent to what was happening in Ukraine and was “deeply concerned about the continuing conflict, the loss of lives and the deteriorating humanitarian situation.” It supported “dialogue, mediation and diplomacy [as] the only path to end the current conflict.” This required the immediate cessation of hostilities to enable “a comprehensive response to the humanitarian crisis.” It mentioned specifically that “the Russian Federation used force without sanction by the UN Security Council in Ukraine.”5


The Minister described this event as a “tectonic” shift in global affairs resulting in a shift away from the UNSC, the premier organ of the UN on international peace and security issues, to the use of United Nations General Assembly votes. “Global power relations are being realigned in response to the war” and the resultant volatility in the global economy has “a direct impact on South Africa and the developing world.”6


In this respect, South Africa, along with other members of the Global South, resist “becoming embroiled in the politics of confrontation and aggression that has been advocated by the powerful countries,” are seeking to “assert their independent, non-aligned views” and wish to promote “peaceful resolution of the conflict through dialogue and negotiation” in keeping with the approach of the Non-Aligned Movement that recognizes the right of maintaining independent foreign policies.7 However, “our non-aligned position does not mean that we condone Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, which has violated international law [...] South Africa has always opposed violations of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states, in keeping with the UN Charter.”8


More recently, speaking in Parliament during her budget vote in May 2022, Dr. Pandor said that South Africa would “give greater attention to member states of the Non-Aligned Movement and work with them to ensure that we all actively contribute to shaping the reform deliberations with the United Nations system, as well as giving new content to the United Nations Security Council.”9


The war in Ukraine is clearly a moment of reflection among developing countries about how they will position themselves in a more geopolitically polarized world, where their economic and developmental interests are impacted negatively by great power rivalries. They have recognized the moment and their desire for strategic non-alignment in the case of South Africa has manifested itself in a number of ways, not all of them necessarily “non-aligned”:


· South Africa has not imposed sanctions against Russia, although it is compelled to comply with them.

· Its narrative at the UN has been to focus on ways of bringing the parties to negotiating table and creating de-escalation paths, although in doing so, it has been seen to be more aligned with Russia’s position and thus not non-aligned. 

· It has been averse to the use by the great powers of the UN as a platform for political point scoring and has used the crisis to re-assert the need for UN reform as the UN and the Security Council in particular have been disappointing in their handling of the crisis.

· South Africa has also recognized the necessity of greater economic self-sufficiency for Africa, especially in food security, as an outcome of the Ukraine crisis, but also as a result of the supply chain disruptions brought on by the pandemic.


However, South Africa has also recognized the importance of calling out Russia’s violation of the UN Charter, while not unconditionally accepting the Western narrative. The reality is that the reform of the UN may not be enough to overcome polarization or the realpolitik calculations of great powers. Strategic non-alignment should also not be based on “what-aboutism,” in other words, the U.S. has done the same in Iraq or Libya, but it should call out double standards and treat those who violate international law in the same way.   


Rebuilding non-alignment in a polarized world, in a way that does not compromise the national interests of the Global South, will be one of the major undertakings and challenges of the next few years. For countries like South Africa, the most important priorities are to ensure a fairer multilateral system in which it can achieve its developmental objectives. Falling prey to geopolitical rivalries is not in its interests. Building coalitions of countries in order to drive certain processes and stand up to great powers will be critical if a new form of strategic non-alignment that renders economic and developmental benefits is to be realized.



1. Carlos Fortín, Jorge Heine, and Carlos Ominami ( eds.). El No Alineamiento Activo y América Latina: una doctrina para el nuevo siglo (Santiago, Chile: Catalonia, 2021).

2. “South Africa’s Statement in Explanation of Vote on Ukraine in the UN General Assembly Emergency Special Session,” DIRCO, March 2, 2022,

3. UN,  “General Assembly Adopts Text Recognizing Scale of Humanitarian Woes Arising from Russian Federation’s Ukraine Offensive as Unseen in Many Decades,” United Nations, March 24, 2022,

4. “Statement by the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Dr Naledi Pandor, during the Media Briefing on the Russia / Ukraine Conflict,” DIRCO, April 8, 2022,

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. “Speech by the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Dr Naledi Pandor, on the Occasion of the Budget Vote,” DIRCO, May 12, 2022,


Please note: The above contents only represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of Taihe Institute.


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