When Hugo Chavez visited South Africa in 2008, there was speculation that President Thabo Mbeki was talking to him about buying oil from Venezuela. Although Venezuelan crude was not suitable for South Africa's refineries, at least there might have been some economic logic to a deal between the two countries.
Now, more than ten years later, we get no oil from Venezuela and ties with its ruined economy are negligible. Yet our government still admires the regime in Caracas – so much so that we voted last month at the United Nations (UN) Security Council against a proposal to discuss the current crisis in Venezuela. While the US, most of Latin America, and some of Europe have accepted Juan Guaido as interim president of Venezuela, South Africa clings to the view that Nicolas Maduro is that country's legitimate president.
Earlier in the year, Cyril Ramaphosa congratulated Mr Maduro on his inauguration for a second term as president – even though most other countries said his election in May last year was rigged. By recognising Mr Guaido, president of the National Assembly, as interim president, the US administration is trying to swing the balance in his favour in what has so far been a peaceful revolution against the increasingly violent behaviour of the government Mr Maduro took over on the death of Mr Chavez in 2013.
The widespread instant recognition of Mr Guaido, along with economic sanctions imposed by Donald Trump and the Bank of England to weaken Mr Maduro, may work to the advantage of Mr Guaido. But as the US well knows, supporting regime changes in such situations is tricky. For South Africa to have adopted a wait-and-see approach before extending recognition to Mr Guaido might have been justified. But in backing Mr Maduro against Mr Guaido we have once again ganged up with Russia and other tyrannical regimes against the liberal democracies.
There is plenty of precedent for this behaviour. In April last year Nikki Haley, American ambassador to the UN, pointed out that South Africa routinely aligned itself with Zimbabwe, Burundi, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Cuba, and Bolivia in voting against the US, which was supported by countries that included Canada, Australia, the UK, and France. Later last year, Greg Mills and Jeffrey Herbst reported for the Brenthurst Foundation that since 1994 South Africa had voted with the US in the UN General Assembly 26% of the time and with China 89% of the time.
On the UN Human Rights Council we have repeatedly abstained from resolutions condemning human rights violations in North Korea and elsewhere, while supporting condemnations of Israel. In a 2015 policy document the African National Congress (ANC) dismissed the victims of the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989 as counter-revolutionaries parading as human rights activists. The ANC also accused the US of destabilising not only Venezuela, but also Russia and China.
On one level this is all rather juvenile beard-the-lion behaviour on the part of a country that supposedly punches above its weight on the global stage. The US, which makes its own foreign policy blunders, can no doubt live with South Africa's antics, which will do more harm to us then to the US.
However, the most significant aspect of our foreign policy is not that we may antagonise the US. It is that we consistently align ourselves with governments whose behaviour is profoundly at odds with the values enshrined in our own Constitution – democratic government, human rights, the separation of powers, independent judges, freedom of speech, property rights, and the rule of law.
The US of course has itself supported regimes – such as Saudi Arabia, and in earlier years the dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, and Greece – whose values conflicted with its own. But it could at least argue the case in terms of the Cold War, oil supply, arms sales, or other aspects of realpolitik. We have no such excuse. Our support for left-wing tyrannical regimes arises rather from the ideology of the national democratic revolution to which the ANC and its communist and trade union allies remain committed. This means that their commitment to our Constitution cannot be taken for granted.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.