Reimagining non-alignment

In the context of climate apartheid, a new scramble for resources, and debt crises, the Global South must find another way to be human.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announcing the outcomes of the XV BRICS Summit during a media briefing in Sandton. Image credit GCIS via Flickr CC BY-ND 4.0 Deed.

I find myself reflecting again and again on the work of Eusebius McKaiser, one of South Africa’s most visible political analysts and public intellectuals. I knew him only a little, but for a long time. It was enough for his passing this year to feel devastating. He was so young, and after all the loss we endured during the height of the pandemic, it felt as though he was one of those who had survived, who was with us to stay.

I, like so many others, wanted to carry on disagreeing with him. He and I disagreed most strongly over his defense of NATO’s 2011 invasion of Libya in the name of protecting individual liberties. But he never stopped arguing with me. And in arguing with him, I was forced to become much clearer in my thinking. It is in being compelled to think more carefully, it is in being held by his commitment to the conversational nature of intellectual inquiry, that I and many Southern Africans have felt his loss most keenly, most inconsolably.

It is for this reason that I wanted to respond to an essay that McKaiser published just before he passed, “South Africa’s nonsensical nonalignment.” Hiding my disagreement with him feels disrespectful of the kind of life he lived and was committed to. And in honoring him, in disagreeing with him, the problematic of non-alignment becomes clearer.

McKaiser argued that South Africa’s non-aligned stance on Ukraine betrays its history. For him, South Africa’s non-aligned stance is neither principled nor pragmatic. It is not principled, because it does not support NATO’s efforts to arm Ukraine against Russia’s invasion. And it is not pragmatic, because the country’s economy is too weak to withstand the fallout from US displeasure.

For McKaiser then, South Africa’s non-aligned stance reflects a situation in which the country has “chosen the wrong set of facts to bolster a case for neutrality. What the country ought to have done instead is draw on the anti-apartheid movement’s history and let the memory of its struggle for justice inform the government’s understanding of how to respond to acts of state aggression in the modern world.”

In contrast to South Africa, McKaiser pointed to the example of France’s voting record on Iraq, noting that:

Despite being a key member of the Western alliance, France did not support its close allies’ military invasion of Iraq in 2003 … Although France’s objections were couched in moral terms in a memorable speech by then-Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, this was also a case of non-alignment based on rational self-interest.

This is a curious rewriting of the historical meaning of non-alignment. It is not only at odds with the publicly available facts of the Non-Aligned Movement but also forecloses more searching and historically nuanced critiques of South Africa’s non-aligned stance.

Established in 1961 in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia, the Non-Aligned Movement was part of a longer process of third-world internationalism and anti-imperialist solidarity. Its intellectual underpinnings include the Bandung Conference in 1955 in Indonesia, when newly independent countries and liberation movements from Africa and Asia met in the hopes of elaborating a “new humanism.” Neither the first world of the imperialist West nor the second world of the Soviet East, postcolonial countries would seek to chart a third path through the world—that of non-alignment.

Thus, non-alignment was emphatically not neutrality. It was actively aligned with the politics of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. Drawing on the Ten Bandung Principles of 1955, key criteria for membership of the Non-Aligned Movement included that the country “should consistently support movements for national independence,” that it should “recognize the equality of all races and the equality of all nations,” and that it should be committed to “settlement of all international disputes by peaceful means.”

Unlike France then, the Non-Aligned Movement not only objected to the US’ invasion of Iraq, but actively advocated for the world to protect Iraq from a hostile superpower and for a democratization of the United Nations, particularly the UN Security Council, along more egalitarian lines, so that it no longer provides veto power to a small group of unelected nuclear states. Lacking all of these elements, France’s position on Iraq cannot accurately be described as “non-alignment.”

Moreover, the meaning of non-alignment does not only reflect the content of foreign policy arguments, but is also inherently tied up in the history of collective action amongst countries that are economically underdeveloped and therefore relatively less powerful in the international arena. Non-alignment is not simply a political position, but also an institutionalized collective identity based on a history of collective action. It is this history, this political archive, which also colors the meaning of actions today.

In this regard, France is neither a postcolonial country nor a Balkan state like Yugoslavia seeking to chart a third path between the Soviet Union and the West. And it has never sought to join these countries in their collective efforts to democratize international relations and economic exchange.

On the contrary, France has sometimes sought to undermine these collective efforts and has not repudiated key economic and military features of its colonial history. It has continued to exert control over the CFA as the currency of Francophone West and Central Africa, requiring Francophone countries to deposit 50% of their foreign exchange reserves in France while allowing France to play a decisive role in the monetary policy of these 14 countries. The presence of French army bases engaged in combat across the Sahel, and its role in externalizing and militarizing the European border deep into the Sahel as a way of curbing migration, demonstrate its ongoing and asymmetrical military presence in the region to the extent that public discourses in these countries tend to view France as undermining their sovereignty. This is precisely why the term “Françafrique” exists.

To describe a country such as France as “non-aligned” is to make a mockery of the historical meaning of non-alignment, and France’s attempts to maintain key elements of its former colonial relations with African countries. Moreover, this historically uninformed understanding of non-alignment narrows the scope to ask genuine questions or to elaborate pointed and nuanced critique. The stakes are high, and demand of us that we try to develop more searching critiques.

One place to start is by reflecting on Afghan President Najibullah’s address to the Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1989. In it he called for a political solution to the war in Afghanistan, begging the US and Pakistan to stop bombing the country and supporting proxy armed actors, and for them to allow for democratic elections. This was a plea that both Pakistan and the US would ignore, continuing to arm the Mujahideen well after Soviet troops had left the country, and only ending support for war until the Mujahideen took over the country in 1992. During this time, the US spent $51 million developing and distributing textbooks in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, in which children learned to glorify violence, aspire to the killing of Russians, and normalize a brutal interpretation of Islam.

What is one to make of Pakistan’s active support for the US’ imperial aggression in Afghanistan and militarization of refugee children’s education, while maintaining membership in the Non-Aligned Movement? Pakistan had violated at least three criteria for membership by siding with a global superpower to support an imperialist intervention in Afghanistan that undermined this country’s sovereignty and human rights.

But Pakistan was not the only country to violate the principles of non-alignment. Within Africa, for instance, Malawi was a public ally of the South African apartheid regime, while Senegal and Ivory Coast supported apartheid-backed forces in Angola’s proxy war. The devastating hot wars of the Cold War shook the certitudes of what might have appeared from the outside to be principled third-world internationalism.

In this respect, South Africa’s own moral and political tensions in the post-1994 era render its non-aligned stance somewhat peculiar and ambivalent today. Together with Nigeria, for example, South Africa was the only other African country to support NATO’s invasion of Libya in 2011. The subsequent collapse of the Libyan state would destabilize the Maghreb and Sahel, while initiating a new scramble for oil and rendering the country vulnerable to devastating floods. In contrast, every other country in the African Union opposed NATO’s invasion of Libya.

Critiquing South Africa for its lack of consistency, while asking why and how it has come to support imperialist interventions by different actors in different parts of the world, is key to a sober examination of the country’s professed non-aligned stance.

Indeed, as I write, South Africa actively counters its rhetoric in its actions. While it emphasizes the necessity of negotiated political solutions to violent conflicts as part of what Wangari Maathai called sustainable peace, it chooses to send soldiers to Cabo Delgado to quell the insurrection in Mozambique and secure gas exploitation. The long history of violent underdevelopment in northern and central Mozambique linked to the use of forced labor in a plantation economy, the more recent history of apartheid proxy wars, and the deepening deprivations of a people struggling with economic and climate collapse—including starvation, lack of access to education, healthcare, and a dignified life—are not addressed by sending more soldiers to kill people. If South Africa decries a military solution to the conflict in Ukraine, how can it with consistency deploy a military response to the politics of despair in Mozambique? How can it claim to be anything but a sub-imperial power in the region? In place of food, nurses, social workers, and engineers, South Africa has sent guns and death.

Indeed, this has too often been the response of the South African state to the most vulnerable and dispossessed people who live within its borders. It has sent the army to kill children and men in the ghettoes of Cape Town; it has sent the police to kill striking workers on the platinum mines of Marikana; and it authorizes intermittent pogroms against working-class African and Asian migrants.

In this respect, William Shoki argues, “Non-alignment at the level of state diplomacy that is not subject to bottom-up pressure from popular forces is bound to project only the interests of the domestic bourgeoisie … an anti-imperialism for the ruling class.” Here, Shoki is in effect making a critique of popular organizing in the country. The fragmented and contradictory character of social organizing in South Africa means that the state cannot develop a coherent and emancipatory politics, whether in the international arena or at home. In Shoki’s assessment, a radically democratic polity, orientated around working-class internationalism, is required for meaningful non-alignment.

In some ways, then, we have circled back to Eusebius McKaiser’s argument that South Africa’s non-alignment is not a principled one. But instead of a commitment to an imperial liberal order of the kind that Timothy Garton Ash defends, there is a commitment to economic democracy and working-class internationalism.

And yet, what Shoki perhaps forgets, is that the state has helped to return the public imagination to the ideas of Bandung and third-worldism. Its internal contradictions condemn it to hypocrisy. But it has pushed us to begin thinking again in concrete terms of another humanism. Pace McKaiser, there is nothing nonsensical in this; the survival of the peoples of the South depends upon it. In the context of climate apartheid, the new scramble for resources, and the multiple debt crises destabilizing the South, the South must find another way to be human, or ultimately perish. It does not have the luxury of rejecting non-alignment. Nor does it have the luxury of uncritical and sentimental acceptance. The task is to work in the conceptual space opened up by this political juncture, and use it to trouble and deepen the intellectual and political work of emancipation.

In this respect, as in many others, Eusebius McKaiser worked to sharpen public deliberation. He is missed most deeply.

Further Reading

Multipolarity vs universality

On the one year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, neither the West or Russia can clearly explain how exactly the rest of humanity, especially Africans, wins from their respective preferred outcomes.