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The 11th emergency special session of the 193-member UN General Assembly votes on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, at the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, on March 2.CARLO ALLEGRI/Reuters

Shortly before becoming South Africa’s first democratic president in 1994, Nelson Mandela unveiled the pillars of a new foreign policy that would promote democracy, justice and international law. “Human rights will be the light that guides our foreign affairs,” he declared.

Since then, South Africa has often tried to uphold these principles. It supports the rights of Palestinians and occupied people in Western Sahara. It opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Yet in a United Nations vote this week, to the surprise of many observers, South Africa was one of 26 African countries that were unwilling to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It was a sign of Moscow’s continuing political influence in many parts of the developing world – even after its brutal military campaign in Ukraine.

While 141 countries at the UN General Assembly voted to denounce the invasion, there was more hesitancy and caution from Africa than from anywhere else in the world. About half of African countries joined the vote against Russia’s aggression, but 17 abstained, eight declined to participate in the vote, and one (Eritrea) voted with Russia.

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Many of these countries, such as South Africa, have an avowed loyalty to the UN Charter, human rights and national sovereignty. But many African countries also have close links to Russia and China. Their economic and military interests have often trumped their human-rights rhetoric, allowing them to ignore abuses by their Moscow and Beijing allies.

Ethiopia, for example, has been heavily dependent on Russia for weapon supplies and diplomatic support, including at the UN Security Council, where Russia has wielded its veto power to prevent the council from taking action on Ethiopia’s war in the Tigray region. In gratitude, some Ethiopians have waved Russian flags during street demonstrations – and Ethiopia declined to vote against Russia in the UN General Assembly this week.

Last year, Ethiopia complained bitterly about “neocolonialism” and “intervention” when Western countries pressed it to halt its Tigray war. But in a statement on the Ukraine crisis this week, the Ethiopian government declined to criticize Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. The statement made no mention of Russia at all, merely asking “all parties” to “exercise restraint.”

Some of the African countries that abstained in the UN General Assembly vote, such as Mali and Central African Republic, are dependent on Russian military contractors to fend off rebels and provide security for their governments. Others, such as Uganda and Sudan, are major importers of weapons from Russia.

Lieutenant-General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the son of Uganda’s President and the commander of its land forces, tweeted this week that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “absolutely right” and supported by the “majority of mankind.”

South Africa, to the casual observer, may have been the most unexpected of the countries that abstained, since it often professes a loyalty to human rights. Within a day of the Russian invasion, South Africa’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement urging Mr. Putin to immediately withdraw his troops from Ukraine. But then it quickly reversed its position, abandoning its call for a Russian withdrawal and instead making a vague request for “dialogue” and “a spirit of compromise.”

The European Union ambassador to South Africa, Riina Kionka, said she was baffled by South Africa’s decision to abstain. “We’re puzzled because South Africa sees itself and is seen by the world as a country championing human rights, international law and the rule of law,” she said on Twitter.

South Africa’s close relationship with Moscow can be traced back to the apartheid era, when the Soviet Union supported Mr. Mandela’s anti-apartheid movement, the African National Congress, now the country’s governing party. But since the Soviet Union included Ukraine then, this doesn’t fully explain why the ANC would be unwilling to condemn the invasion of one former Soviet republic by another.

A bigger factor is Mr. Putin’s intense effort to court the ANC and to seek business deals with the ANC government. He had a warm relationship with former president Jacob Zuma, who has repeatedly travelled to Moscow for what was officially described as medical treatment and rest, and the Kremlin came close to securing a massive nuclear energy deal with the Zuma government, which would have provided billions of dollars in revenue for Russia’s nuclear energy company.

During the Zuma presidency, Mr. Putin helped South Africa to become a member of BRICS, a bloc of emerging economies that includes Russia, China, India and Brazil. It was a privilege that South Africa appreciated, since its economy is much smaller than the other BRICS members.

Many members of the ANC’s Zuma faction have defended Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The ANC itself has issued a statement on Ukraine that repeated some of Mr. Putin’s propaganda points about the reasons for his military offensive.

Much of this has echoed South Africa’s staunch support for the Chinese government, even when human rights are at stake. In perhaps the most controversial example, the ANC government has repeatedly banned the Dalai Lama from visiting South Africa, knowing that Beijing would be furious if the Tibetan spiritual leader was allowed to visit.

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