Wednesday, June 12, 2024

South Africa: What Did German Foreign Minister Achieve in South Africa?

Russia’s war in Ukraine dominated talks during German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock’s trip to Pretoria this week. After months of tension, Germany and South Africa displayed a new willingness to fight polarization.

A kiss on the right cheek, and a kiss on the left, broad smiles, and off they hurried together. The warmhearted greeting surprised some observers when Annalena Baerbock met her counterpart Naledi Pandor in Pretoria on Tuesday.

It was the German Foreign Minister’s first visit to South Africa since taking office— and it came after months of more or less apparent tension between the two countries because the government in South Africa — at least in the eyes of the so-called West — still has not positioned itself clearly enough on Russia’s war in Ukraine.

‘We don’t contribute to this polarization’

The agenda had been cut short last minute. Following Wagner Group mercenaries’ short-lived mutiny over the weekend, Baerbock decided to delay her flight to South Africa by a day and attend an EU foreign affairs ministers on the issue before taking off.

Although it was short, Baerbock’s one-day trip to Pretoria was nonetheless important, said Melanie Müller, an Africa expert with the German SWP think tank.

Müller said that the biggest risk from a geopolitical perspective would be if countries were to stop talking to each other — a kind of “international disengagement” — because of a “polarized environment.”

It’s “almost a Cold War situation,” said Müller, with Russia and China on the one side, and the US and Europe on the other, and the countries in between “feeling they are forced to take sides”.

Western government representatives’ trips like Baerbock’s therefore send the signal, said Müller: South Africa can have its own position on Russia and work with China, “and we’re also there, we don’t disengage and we don’t contribute to this polarization.”

Annalena Baerbock tried to back this message up in Pretoria by carefully avoiding what her South African counterpart called “patronizing bullying” by the West in a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and instead stressed a willingness to listen to different viewpoints.

In the joint press conference with Naledi Pandor, Baerbock conceded that Germany has “made horrible mistakes, not only during World War II, but also when your country was fighting for freedom and the end of apartheid, we didn’t take a side.”

Baerbock’s statement was an acknowledgment that South Africa’s current ties with Russia are strong partly because of the Soviet Union’s support for the African National Congress (ANC), the party that rules South Africa today.

Russia’s war was the dominant topic

The two women spent some four hours together at the South Africa’s Department of International Relations & Cooperation (DIRCO).

Annalena Baerbock was then hosted by South African president Cyril Ramaphosa – for 75 minutes instead of the initially-scheduled 30.

While closer collaboration in the field of energy and the fight against the climate crisis were amongst the topics on the table, the different positions on Russia’s war remained dominant in all of Tuesday’s talks.

Both sides laid out in detail how they had reached their own conclusions, such as Germany deciding to make a U-turn regarding the decision to deliver weapons to Ukraine: Given “our German responsibility and our history”, Baerbock said, “we have to decide on which side we are standing.”

Germany had chosen the side of the “civilians of Ukraine, making clear that the weapons delivery is only for the right of self-defense to avoid further massacres like Bucha, and to avoid further crimes against humanity.”

The goal, Baerbock said, was that the people in eastern Ukraine can live in their own country in peace again.

South Africa’s Naledi Pandor, meanwhile, repeated her indignation with some countries’ attitude towards her country which had been “pilloried for abstaining.” There was no room for engagement in constructing the resolutions, said Pandor.

“When we attempted to make proposals that would have a reformulation, that would allow us to support the resolutions, we were told: take it or leave it. And our best was to abstain.”

Baerbock praised South Africa’s mediation efforts

Annalena Baerbock welcomed the fact that South Africa has been taking on a larger role as potential mediator — on the African continent, in conflicts such as Ethiopia and Sudan, but also in Ukraine.

She praised the delegation of African leaders who last month traveled to Kyiv and St. Petersburg to discuss a potential peace plan for the conflict with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Baerbock was “so thankful”, she said, that “a country like South Africa which has a reputation in the world for human rights, which is unique, plays this role.”

These efforts to mediate — including work on a 10-point peace plan put forward by the group — will continue, said Foreign Minister Pandor, adding that it was important to have at least a few countries left who can still talk to both Zelenskyy and Putin.

The African delegation, she said, had told both parties that “any negotiations process must respect the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, which are part of the United Nations Charter” — something that Baerbock praised in her remarks.

A slight repositioning in sight?

Political analyst Melanie Müller sees the Ukraine mission as a “slight repositioning of certain African states, among them South Africa” because it shows “that they don’t want this war and that African countries suffer, too- because of higher prices, shortages of food supply.”