Two weeks ago, a Russian frigate docked in South Africa’s Simon’s Town naval base near Cape Town. Admiral Nikolai Evmenov, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian navy and his crew were not there for a swim with the penguins nearby but to lead a joint naval exercise off Durban and Richard’s Bay. The exercise involves the South African Defense Force (SADF) and the naval forces of the People’s Liberation Army of China. Evmenov’s ship carries the Zircon hypersonic cruise missile, Putin’s pride and joy.
The Mayor of Cape Town, Major Geordin Hill-Lewis, a member of the Democratic Alliance, expressed sentiments common to Western Governments and many observers: “All freedom-loving people around the world should rightly be outraged at the South African government's indefensible position and the moral position in this conflict. So, while the Russian ship is here and has been allowed here by the national state, it is certainly not welcome in the Mother City." Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, at first condemned the Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine but then back-tracked under pressure from her President, Cyril Ramaphosa.
South Africa’s policy towards Russia is not exceptional. Over 40% of African States have been abstaining from UN votes against Russian aggression in Ukraine. But South Africa, as a member of BRICS a loose association of Brazil, Russia, India and China, is the most significant.
Is there any more to say? Yes, even though there is always the risk that explanation will be interpreted as condoning. Why does President Cyril Ramaphosa - head of the Student Christian Movement at school, celebrated leader of the South African National Union of Mineworkers, legally trained, the adroit negotiator who facilitated the deal with President F.W. De Klerk that brought Mandela to power, and a successful businessman - keep this sort of company?
We need to go back to the 1960s and early 1970s to the days of the ANC’s then lackluster struggle against the apartheid regime when the Soviet Bloc were almost the ANC’s only supporters. The South African Communist Party and its leaders were an integral and influential part of the ANC and seem to have had relatively high immunity to infiltration by BOSS (Bureau of State Security). The Soviet Union provided funds. From 1987-1988, Cuba and East Germany fought the apartheid army to a standstill and forced their retreat within Angola. The contrast with the policies of the Western powers could not have been more different.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meeting with the Press during the 1987 Vancouver Commonwealth Conference, refusing to support sanctions advocated by the anti-apartheid movement, described the ANC threat to ‘target’ British companies in South Africa as showing ‘what a typical terrorist organisation it is’. When, in May 1990, her Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, sought £1 million to fund UNHCR repatriation of South African refugees, she categorically refused saying she would never give money to any organisation that practised violence. Forthright and undiplomatic but not out of step with the hostility of British FCO policy towards the ANC.
US governments were no less hostile. Reagan adamantly opposed sanctions for years until Congress forced his hand in 1986. That July the New York Times reported credible suspicions that US satellite intelligence was being shared with the apartheid regime. This may have been behind the large-scale slaughter of Namibian nationalist guerrillas, SWAPO entering South African-occupied Namibia from Angola.
British policy aimed to split off a supposedly ‘nationalist’ section of the ANC from the communists. When that failed, virtuously pushing for Mandela’s release in the late 1980s, Britain stood by whilst members of the European Economic Community (EEC) dabbled with the idea of supporting the - violent - Zulu Nationalist movement Inkatha to divide the black vote in the 1994 elections. All of the southern African liberation movements were viewed by Western governments through the prism of the Cold War. Only the Nordics responded with a supportive position seeing the future danger of the ANC beholden solely to the communist world.
The most notable was Sweden which began funding the external movement of the ANC from 1977, and from 1982 under the leader of the Social Democrats, Olof Palme, increasingly funded what they called the ‘home-front component’, the ANC’s internal movement. It may have cost the Swedish Prime Minister his life. In 1986 at the height of the repression in South Africa, Palme was assassinated by an unknown assailant in the street outside a Stockholm cinema. Funding was managed clandestinely from the Swedish Legation in Pretoria under the resourceful direction on Birgitta Karlstrom Dorph, the Legation’s head, using the Churches and civil society organisations such as the trades unions as intermediaries. Is it too much to imagine that Sweden’s non-alignment in the Cold War and support for the ANC, versus Western governments’ opposition, impressed Ramaphosa?
Shortly after the inauguration of the new government in 1994, South Africa joined the non-aligned movement and, from Mandela through the Presidency of Thabo Mbeki, made peaceful resolution of conflicts a foreign policy goal. South Africa’s government has a sovereign right to adopt neutrality especially when the dominant narrative is that the world faces a re-run of the Cold War - at a much higher temperature. But joint exercises with Russia during Putin’s imperialist war does not look much like neutrality. The ruling ANC would argue that they conduct naval exercises with other countries such as France. But they should not be oblivious to the timing of such exercises nor heedless of the abhorrence in which most UN member States hold Putin’s Russia.
True, neutral States have never consistently managed punctilious even-handed treatment of the two sides in a conflict. Nor is neutrality necessarily for all seasons as Finland and Sweden, now seeking membership of NATO, have shown.
But hundreds didn’t die and thousands suffer in the anti-apartheid struggle to give succour and propaganda opportunities to brutal autocracies. Their sacrifice was to bring about a non-racial democratic South Africa.
From Friday 27 January a Yemeni family tuning in to the BBC World Service Arabic broadcasts would be disappointed. To save £28 million towards a shortfall caused by inflation and freezing of the license fee, BBC radio’s ten language services are being shut down and several hundred staff made redundant. It’s digital or TV now for those who can afford it.
Yemen is a destitute, hungry, war-torn country. Few will have the money to buy a mobile phone to catch the only independent news on-line. This unseen discrimination against the poorest in the world may seem a minor, distant matter. But it is small part of a bigger picture. And we should be concerned.
For the last few years, the UK has been behaving as if it didn’t have enough money to pursue a coherent Foreign, Commonwealth and Development policy (FCDO). Yet we were one of the 19 founder signatories of the OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) in 1960. It numbers 38 democracies today. Its mandate is to promote ‘a collaboration in policy standards to promote sustainable growth”. It describes development assistance as directed at “economic development and welfare of developing countries”. Do we really share these goals? There is growing evidence we don’t.
In 2021 the aid budget was ‘temporarily’ (weasel words – it is likely to stay that way until the end of the decade) reduced from the UN target of 0.7% of GNP (Gross National Product) to 0.5%. This amounted to a cut of 21% from £14.5 billion to c.£11.4 billion of which c.£7.14 billion (62.6%) was in the form of direct bilateral aid to individual countries, some of it via the World Food Programme, for example feeding the starving in Yemen. The overall budget for Yemen was halved in 2021 from £221 million to £114 million. Yet need continued to grow.
Cuts in spending for Lebanon are another egregious example. In July 2021, a year after a huge explosion in a port warehouse caused extensive devastation in Beirut, and on top of Lebanon’s economic collapse, the incoming British ambassador, Ian Collard, inherited an aid budget of £140 million cut from £260 million for the period 2019-2020. According to the newspaper L’Orient Today a further 2021-2022 cut was scheduled to reduce the budget to c. £32 million. Lebanon hosts 2.2 million Syrian refugees and over 200, 000 Palestinians. Its total population is 5.6 million, 40% of whom now require humanitarian assistance. It doesn’t take much imagination to predict the impact of across-the-board cuts of this magnitude on British embassies’ capacity to promote ‘economic development and welfare’. You might have thought that Lebanon, a failed State, tucked perilously between Israel and Syria, would fall within the Foreign and Development Office priority category, alongside Syria and Afghanistan. Not so.
In June 2020 Boris Johnson described the aid budget as a “giant cashpoint in the sky” and amalgamated our development ministry with the Foreign Office. But who is making the withdrawals and for what purpose? The Home Office for one. A more accurate description is the budget for plugging holes - of which there are many such as the rising cost of housing and feeding refugees in this country.
We have an aid ceiling in the UK. So payment of hotels, for food and other burgeoning refugee expenses cannot be covered by adding to the overall budget which is fixed. An interesting set of submissions to a December 2022 Parliamentary Select Committee on International Aid on the funding of asylum seekers and economic migrants arriving in UK, (on-line thanks to the Washington and London based Global Center for Development), provides detailed evidence. 12% of the UK aid budget is being used to meet some of the current Treasury shortfall. And the sum could double. Just as the effects of climate change are being felt, this means drastic cuts in life-saving humanitarian aid let alone development aid. £700 million went to East Africa to mitigate the consequences of the 2016-2018 droughts. £156 million was budgeted for last year’s continuing and no less severe drought.
Over 150,000 thousand applicants for asylum in Britain are waiting for a decision on their status, tens of thousands have been waiting for over three years. In Germany, using a UNHCR triage system, the wait is on average 6-7 months. We are dealing with far fewer Ukrainian refugees than Germany which has issued six times the number of UK visas, or neighbouring Poland which has accepted 1.26 million. Yet, here in the UK the arrival of 45,750 people in small boats in 2022 is treated as a national crisis while the inefficiency and waste of the Home Office is covered by money taken from the world’s hungry.
The Home Office under Priti Patel and Suella Braverman appears incapable of managing, timely processing and integrating any arrivals. Part of the problem is the plethora of un-coordinated special programmes for select categories of refugees from Ukraine, Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Syria. Home Office staff don’t even have an adequate data-base and rely on spreadsheets. But at the root is a dysfunctional Home Office led since July 2018, the date of Priti Patel’s appointment, by Ministers simply not up to the job. They have played to the Conservative back benches while expenditure and backlog soared, rhetoric rather than action. Pre-Covid, 2018, the government was spending £370 million on refugee costs in the UK. Today it is projected to be c. £2.7 billion. And this will come out of the aid budget.
The OECD does acknowledge that members may want to fund refugees from their aid budgets for the first year after their arrival [my italics]. But none of the G7 countries are funding most of what are called ‘in-donor costs’ from aid in the way Britain does. This expedient is not illegal, simply unethical. It is condemned by a wide range of British NGOs concerned with human rights, the plight of refugees and international development aid.
Dipping into the aid budget began in a small way in 2009 under Gordon Brown and expanded under David Cameron. It reached unacceptable proportions under Johnson, Truss and Sunak. Priti Patel’s more than £120 million Migration and Economic Development Partnership, a deportation scheme in collaboration with an authoritarian African State, Rwanda, further championed by Suella Braverman, is the embodiment of the way our former vision of development assistance, and that of the OECD, has been deliberately degraded.
So no surprise. ‘Global Britain’ is an empty slogan put about in 2016 to provide Brexit with the illusion of grand purpose. “The whole idea of having a coherent, consistent portfolio of development action has disappeared”, in the words of Geography Professor Michael Collyer of Sussex University. By 2030 it is reckoned conflict and fragile States will be home to 85% of the world’s poor. We neglect them at our peril.
Britain does not need empty slogans. We need to nurture clear foreign and development policy objectives, to pursue them and to hold out for an ethical dimension within a coherent FCDO strategy. We should not be making the poor of the world pay for the failures of incompetent Ministers.
See TheArticle 14/02/2023