Never underestimate the electoral hay ultranationalist leaders harvest by attacking “the West” when their at-risk regimes are imperilled.
I recall November 1977 when I was a first-year student at Wits University, observing hardline nationalist prime minister John Vorster deliver a furious speech at the Film Trust Arena in Johannesburg on the eve of the white general election.
Vorster held enormous power undercut by huge weaknesses. The latter was on display in the internal revolt the year before in Soweto. Soon enough a corruption scandal in the department of information would topple him. And externally he was enmeshed in an (undeclared) war in Angola and under pressure to quit South West Africa (Namibia). But that night he decided an attack on the West, pressing for changes in the apartheid regime, and terminating the mandate in Namibia (in defiance of international law), was the recipe for electoral success.
He told the vast cheering ranks of the faithful and a tiny group of dissenting Witsies: “Small as we are, situated where we are, we will never surrender. This election will show the unity of white South Africans in their opposition to foreign interference …” And the voters rewarded him with 70% of their ballots on election day.
This was of course a spectacular example of cognitive dissonance: on one hand, the apartheid government said to be acting in defence of the principles of “Western civilisation” — on the other, the attack line was against the West and in support of policies utterly repugnant to civilisation itself.
The use of the “West as enemy” trope, and as a battering ram against even their mildest opponents, was, however, far from spent for the NP.
In April 1979, 18 months after their electoral sweep, National Party foreign minister RF “Pik” Botha launched in parliament a vicious attack on Progressive Federal Party leader Colin Eglin, who had made a phone call to the US ambassador to the United Nations, Don McHenry, who was charged by the Western powers in the UN with heading a “Western contact group” to resolve SA’s continued occupation of Namibia.
Botha, a bombast of note, accused Eglin of “misusing confidential information” and of “traffic with the enemy … [feeding] them information and engaging in the politics of the enemies of South Africa”.
This attack, and Eglin’s bungled response to it, ended his leadership, though he did later write neither McHenry nor the US government “to my knowledge were far from being enemies of South Africa”.
Ironically, and in time, Namibian independence was achieved, helped in large measure by “the enemies of South Africa” such as the successor administration in the US, and it would be Eglin’s, and not Vorster’s, vision of South Africa which found reflection in the South African constitution finalised six years after SA relinquished its hold on Namibia. Also achieved with much assistance — and pressure — from the “enemies of South Africa”.
Last Sunday in Türkiye, another strongman rode the tides of anti-Western nationalism, branding his opponent unpatriotic and worse, and almost won 50% of the vote. Recep Erdogan has been in power for 20 years. He has shuttered democracy, crashed both his country’s economy and its currency and allowed corruption in building infrastructure to aggravate the death toll of more than 50,000 in twin earthquakes this year. Opinion polls suggested that his opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, would win, but now in the runoff in two weeks’ time he is very likely to lose again to Erdogan.
While broadly free (in the sense that voting occurred largely without hindrance and the ballots were properly counted) the election was far from fair, with Erdogan using state largesse to fuel giveaways to citizens and he stacked the deck in the public broadcaster, the electoral commission and the judiciary with faithful supporters and pulverised key opponents by using the judicial system to detain or marginalise them.
Still, strongman politics has its appeal and can produce a victory in the face of daunting headwinds as events there proved.
But the difference is vast between Erdogan’s gambit and our own hapless entanglement in anti-West posturing and pro-Russian dalliance.
Erdogan bestrides a country, not at the southern tip of Africa but at the literal crossroads of the world, between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. His neighbours aren’t Zimbabwe and Botswana but Iran, Syria and Iraq. It is the land bridge at a crucial geostrategic locale — for example, no ship from either Russia or Ukraine can enter the Mediterranean without passing its straits. And its army, uneasily in the Nato alliance, is the second largest, with proven military prowess as its campaign in Syria proved. Its faltering economy is still more than twice that of South Africa.
Erdogan matters, despite his distaste for democracy at home and disdain for the West, that he can broker real deals between Ukraine and Russia (such as on grain exports) and holds a veto on allowing new member states to join Nato.
On Tuesday, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced some African-led peace initiative, advising it has been accepted “in principle” by both Russia and Ukraine. We must live in hope.
However, on evidence to date, Erdogan has demonstrated hard power with a capital “H”. By contrast, South Africa today reprises John Vorster’s anti-Western foreign policy from a position of strategic irrelevance and increases its marginalisation from the centre of global affairs and importance which its soft power on display in 1994 had once disguised. Today we are at best a middling country simply on the UN roll call, never on hand to vote our principles ahead of our political prejudices.
Back when Vorster was in fury mode against the West, SA had a huge problem in overcoming the arms embargo against the apartheid state. One of the hidden suppliers in overcoming this obstacle was Israel. But Israel did not want to ostensibly violate the UN- mandated embargo on arms sales to SA. Thus, South Africa maintained a large embassy in Asuncion, Paraguay, as cover for the presence of the department of military intelligence. There, I was advised many years later, long after the embassy had closed in Asuncion, the end-user certificates were switched and the country of origin for the armaments were disguised.
As our flat-footed diplomacy about the voyage and cargo of the infamous Lady R embargoed ship and its December stayover in Simon’s Town intensifies, perhaps it wasn’t only anti-Western rhetoric that was lifted from the apartheid era. Maybe the end-user certificates on the Lady R cargo consignment were for a third-party country allied to the Kremlin, such as Belarus? Who knows? Our president apparently doesn’t, and we can all but speculate pending some or other judge being trundled out of retirement to “investigate”.
Meantime, by all accounts, Russia’s ragged forces are losing the war in Ukraine on the eve of a spring counterattack by Kyiv now fortified with new arms, equipment and training from the West. So with hi-tech satellites shadowing SA’s every move, it’s one thing to abandon principle, offend your major trading partners and defy international sanctions —just as in days of yore. But to do so on behalf of a likely loser converts culpability into stupidity.