The costs of flirting with the Dark Side

Anlu Keeve says country’s values won’t be advanced by aligning with unfree countries like Iran, Russia, Turkey or Venezuela

In seeking to reignite the fervour of its revolutionary past, the ANC and the government it leads is playing a high-stakes game.

South Africa consistently affirms its non-aligned stance in international affairs, most recently at the 19th summit of the non-aligned movement on 19 January 2024 (1). Yet, the government’s decision to pursue a case of genocide against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) casts a long, dark shadow over its stated foreign policy position. This move embodies hidden motivations and contradictions that risk producing profound complications for the country’s economic situation.

While ostensibly a bold stride in promoting international justice, South Africa’s action aligned it with countries like Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela, whose own records on human rights and democracy are highly questionable. This, in turn, exposes South Africa to the risk of increasing isolation from economic behemoths like the United States (US) and European Union (EU).

The US and United Kingdom (UK), for instance, are tied at 17th out of 165 countries on the Human Freedom Index (HFI) published by the Fraser Institute. Israel enjoys a rank of 59th. The strong rule of law, extensive economic freedoms, and protective measures for individual liberties that characterise these countries are the fundamentals of an environment conducive to human flourishing. These attributes contribute substantially to their high per capita incomes, with jurisdictions in the top quartile of freedom enjoying an average per capita income of $47 421, and overall higher quality of life with an average life expectancy of 80 years at birth. This is substantiated by the 0.919, 0.921, and 0.929 Human Development Index (HDI) scores that Israel, the UK and the US respectively earned.

On the flip side, countries like Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela rank significantly lower on the HFI – 161st, 121st, 128th and 160th, respectively. And the restricted freedoms in these countries are reflected in their low human development scores of 0.774 (Iran), 0.882 (Russia), 0.838 (Turkey), and 0.691 (Venezuela). Life in these countries is tough because of authoritarian governance structures, limited economic freedoms, and constraints on personal liberty, all of which present a challenging environment for human rights and business operations.

The stark contrast in per capita income, with the least-free quartile averaging $14 157 (against $47 421 in the most-free quartile), underscores the economic implications of retricting freedom.

South Africa’s warmth towards unfree nations that are isolated and underperforming economically does little to inspire confidence in its chances of developing a robust economic strategy. This is a perilous path for a country already battling economic stagnation and its consequences, such as unemployment, poverty, and poor service delivery.

There is, moreover, an inherent contradiction in South Africa taking the case to the ICJ. While trying to suggest that it faithfully follows the international rules-based order, the government’s selective adherence to international court rulings shows that this commitment is honoured more in the breach than the observance. The failure to arrest the then-president of Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir, during his visit to South Africa in 2015, is a case in point. The government wishes to leverage international legal systems only when it suits it.

What the government seems to be overlooking is that a country’s economic fortunes are inextricably linked to its relations with the world. This principle has underpinned substantial economic advancements globally, notably the rise of the Asian Tigers out of poverty.

In contrast, the economic implications of the gambit South Africa has taken are profound. The country risks not just diplomatic isolation but also economic repercussions. Reduced foreign investment, higher trade barriers, and strained diplomatic relations threaten to exacerbate the already dire economic situation.

If the intention behind the government’s ICJ move was to cast the ANC in a more favourable light in the eyes of the electorate, the party seems to have overlooked a critical aspect – the economic repercussions of alienating the US and its allies.

The government’s aspiration to gain the moral high ground, particularly in light of the upcoming elections, is at odds with its international alliances. Aligning with countries like Iran, which has been designated as a state sponsor of terrorism (to the tune of an estimated $700 million annually), contradicts the democratic values that South Africa has championed since the end of apartheid.

The country’s much-acclaimed Constitution begins by describing the founding values of South Africa as “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms”. These values will not be advanced by aligning with unfree countries like Iran, Russia, Turkey or Venezuela. Such dalliances cast a shadow over the government’s commitment to the democratic ideals it professes to uphold.

Anlu Keeve is a researcher at the Institute of Race Relations

1. https://dirco.gov.za/country-statement-by-president-cyril-ramaphosa-during-19th-summit-of-the-non-aligned-movement-kampala-republic-of-uganda-19-january-2024/