Sergei Lavrov (left), the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, attends a meeting for bilateral talks with his South African counterpart, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor (right), in Pretoria on 23 January 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook).
The choice of language by the South African government to refer to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is particularly revealing when one considers the way it has described other forms of territorial aggression.
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The International Criminal Court’s (ICC’s) recent arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to prompt South Africa to reassess its position towards Russia.
The ICC alleges that Putin and the commissioner for children’s rights in his office, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, are guilty of the war crime of transporting children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation. Although South Africa is a signatory of the Rome Statute, which established the ICC, and therefore is legally obligated to enforce the arrest warrant when in a position to do so, this is not likely to happen.
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South Africa previously refused to comply with the ICC’s request to arrest former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir when he visited the country in 2015. Although President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, has expressed the South African government’s support for international statutes, he did not want to “speculate” on whether Putin would be invited to a BRICS summit hosted by South Africa later this year.
The Speaker of the National Assembly, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who, along with other MPs, is currently in Russia to be addressed by Putin, announced that the South African Parliament had offered to co-host peace talks between the Russian and Ukrainian parliaments.
Given its history of non-compliance with the ICC, and its official position of neutrality in relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, South Africa is unlikely to take a firmer stand due to the ICC’s announcement. The ties between the ANC and Moscow run deep, based on the long history of the then USSR’s support for the anti-apartheid liberation movements.
The ICC announcement might, however, bring even stronger pressure to bear on the South African government, both from the international community and domestic political stakeholders and activists. Already, its decision to host exercises between the South African, Chinese and Russian navies has been widely criticised.
But despite its proclaimed position of neutrality, South Africa’s diplomatic language is ambivalent and contradictory at best. The contradictions in South Africa’s foreign policy discourse may serve to amplify Russian talking points, at a time when Russian disinformation campaigns have targeted South Africa alongside other African countries.
Euphemistic language, terminology bias and obfuscation are key elements of any disinformation campaign, usually implemented via social media platforms. And although South Africa’s language of international diplomacy might not fit the narrow definition of disinformation when it does not have the explicit intention to mislead and falsify information, its ambiguities and contradictions may provide fertile ground for foreign disinformation campaigns to take hold in.
In this regard, South Africa’s “statement in explanation of their vote on Ukraine in the UN General Assembly Emergency Special Session, 2 March 2022” (the statement) bears some analysis.
Approved by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) and issued by South Africa’s permanent representative to the United Nations, ambassador Mathu Joyini, the statement is significant for two reasons.
First, it illustrates how terminology bias has been embraced by the SA government in relation to the invasion of Ukraine. Second, the statement betrays a stark contradiction in South African foreign policy when comparing the SA government’s respective positions on Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory and another, long-standing invasion, that of Israel’s 56-year occupation of Palestinian territory, both of which started with a military invasion in violation of international law.
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Despite unequivocal and objective proof that Russian and separatist troops invaded Ukrainian territory on 24 February 2022, the statement deliberately avoids using two words in particular: “invasion” and “occupation”. Instead, the invasion is described as “the conflict in Ukraine” and “an armed conflict”. We are also told that “one of the root causes of the conflict is related to the security concerns of the parties” and South Africa calls for “the cessation of hostilities”.
The phrase “security concerns of the parties” is an obvious Russian talking point and refers only to Russia’s “security concerns” about Nato. By using the word “parties”, the South African government implies that both sides have equally legitimate “security concerns”. This is misleading, as it is likely to lead audiences to adopt a view that the conflict has its origin on both sides.
When a country has been invaded and bombed by a powerful foreign military force, the situation has now gone beyond “security concerns” to a fight for national survival. The use of the term “hostilities” is yet another glaring euphemism in the statement, fully downplaying the reality that the Russian invasion is now a full-scale war — with pummelling artillery bombardment destroying entire cities, and significant civilian casualties on the Ukrainian side.
The choice of language by the South African government to refer to the Russian invasion of Ukraine is particularly revealing when one considers the way it has described other forms of territorial aggression. One such instance is the subject of the Israeli occupation.
‘A culture of euphemism’
Similarities can be drawn between this doublespeak by the South African government and that of the pro-Israel lobby in the US. Journalist and commentator Peter Beinart, known for shifting from Zionist to an ardent critic of the Israeli state, aptly described the pro-Israel lobby in the US as guilty of “linguistic fraud and a culture of euphemism” in defending the Israeli occupation. The South African government is similarly guilty in defending Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In sharp contrast to the South African government’s language around the invasion of Ukraine, it has been candid and clear in its condemnation of Israel. It did not need to engage in a linguistic smokescreen and has “always maintained a consistent position on the Israel-Palestine question”.
Ironically, sympathisers with Russia in the South African Parliament have used the discourse of “imperialism” when referring to what they refer to as Nato’s “expansionist agenda”— this position has been put forward by representatives from both the Economic Freedom Fighters and the African National Congress during a parliamentary debate on the impact of the war on South Africa’s economy. The strong historical resonance of words such as “imperialism” or “colonialism” in South African politics should therefore be noted as an opportunity to be exploited by disinformation peddlers.
The fact that Putin overtly portrays Russia’s actions in an imperial light has been well documented. Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University, wrote: “When Vladimir Putin denies the reality of the Ukrainian state, he is speaking the familiar language of empire. For five hundred years, European conquerors called the societies that they encountered ‘tribes’, treating them as incapable of governing themselves. As we see in the ruins of Ukrainian cities, and in the Russian practice of mass killing, rape, and deportation, the claim that a nation does not exist is the rhetorical preparation for destroying it.”
South Africa, of all countries, with the governing party’s history of solidarity with anti-colonial political struggles, should be able to correctly identify an imperial invasion and occupation of a sovereign territory when it sees one. DM
Michael Markovitz is the head of the Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs) Media Leadership Think Tank, University of Pretoria. Herman Wasserman is a professor of journalism at Stellenbosch University.