DM168

DIPLOMATIC DISASTER

SA’s egg dance on war in Europe a lesson in how not to win friends and influence people

From left: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Filip Singer - Pool / Getty Images) | Ukraine's ambassador to South Africa, Liubov Abravitova. (Photo: Supplied) | South Africa's Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor. (Photo: Eduardo Munoz - Pool / Getty Images)

Pretoria’s contortions in trying to maintain some sort of neutrality on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are losing it friends both at home and abroad.

The South African government is creating a growing public relations disaster, domestically and internationally, with its diplomatic egg dance about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Pretoria’s tortured efforts to maintain some sort of neutrality in regard to Russia’s increasingly destructive assault on Ukrainian civilians is rapidly losing it friends, both at home and abroad.

This week Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town called on the South African government to condemn “loudly and clearly those who bomb health centres and places of refuge” in Ukraine.

And in New York, South Africa is also taking huge flak, from Ukraine itself and from Western and other nations, for proposing a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly calling for humanitarian aid to be delivered to Ukraine – without mentioning Russia at all as the cause of the humanitarian crisis.

One former Western diplomat in South Africa said he was stunned by South Africa’s apparent indulgence of what he called the “medieval barbarity” of Russia’s invasion and its intensifying bombardment of civilians in many Ukrainian cities.

Makgoba said at an exhibition dedicated to the work of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu that he was distressed by South Africa’s “silence on the horrific bombing of health facilities and civilians in Ukraine”.

“Where is our ubuntu, our humanity?” he asked. “We Africans complain of the appalling indifference of many Europeans to the suffering of Africans when there is conflict on our continent. Are we seeking to mimic the Europeans in their lack of compassion, their lack of outrage at the suffering which women and children are subjected to? Do we want to reduce ourselves to their level?”

Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba. (Photo: Gallo Images / Nardus Engelbrecht)

Those sentiments reflect what mainly Western diplomats are also saying about South Africa’s diplomacy and its failure so far to condemn the suffering Moscow has inflicted on Ukraine, especially its civilians, who are being killed in their thousands.

Diplomatic sources said Ukraine itself was particularly incensed that South Africa had sponsored a resolution on providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine – in opposition to a resolution that Ukraine itself had introduced and that was co-sponsored by several countries including France and Mexico.

The Ukraine text included condemnation of Russia as the cause of the humanitarian crisis. South Africa put forward an alternative resolution that removed any reference to Russia.

South African diplomats said this was necessary in order to get Russia’s support for the resolution, as without its support the humanitarian aid would not be delivered.

But the Ukraine-Mexico-France resolution was approved by an overwhelming majority of 140 votes in favour and only five against. The South African resolution was defeated on a technicality, as the General Assembly voted 67-50 to not even consider it.

Western diplomats said Ukraine took the initiative to prevent the vote on South Africa’s resolution as it was outraged that Pretoria had failed to consult with Ukraine on its resolution and also to provide any support to Ukraine at all. This included the apparent reluctance of International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor to meet Ukraine’s ambassador in Pretoria, Liubov Abravitova, or to arrange a call between President Cyril Ramaphosa and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – to match Ramaphosa’s call to Russian President Vladimir Putin two weeks ago.

In fact, Abravitova told DM168 that Pandor’s department had asked for a teleconference between Ramaphosa and Zelensky this week. It is not clear why that has not gone ahead yet.

Ukraine and other, particularly Western, nations also felt that SA was acting as a “stalking horse” for Russia, by presenting a resolution that was favourable to Moscow.

South African officials strenuously denied that their text was close to Russia’s. They pointed out, for example, that their text contained clauses calling for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – within internationally recognised borders – to be respected. That in effect meant that SA implicitly rejected Russia’s claim to the Crimea and to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

But Russia embarrassed South Africa when its ambassador stood up in the UN General Assembly and called on all states to support the South African resolution.

South Africa and Western countries also clashed in Pretoria over their attempts to find a compromise resolution.

Both sides accused each other of being unwilling to compromise.

This was most evident when South Africa proposed to include a clause in its resolution recalling the March 2 General Assembly resolution, which was overwhelmingly supported,  that had strongly condemned Russia for its “aggression” against Ukraine and demanded it withdraw its forces.

Pretoria felt that would have implicitly acknowledged Russia’s responsibility for the humanitarian disaster in Ukraine without jeopardising the humanitarian resolution by explicitly pointing to Russia.

South African diplomats said that Western ambassadors in Pretoria had been willing to consider this compromise but that their ambassadors in New York had rejected it. A Western ambassador, however, insisted that South Africa had submitted its resolution before this compromise could be discussed. He expressed concern that the General Assembly decision not even to vote on South Africa’s resolution would be spun as “the West not even being prepared to listen to the Global South”.

South African diplomats confirmed that that was indeed how it is being interpreted.

A Western ambassador acknowledged that there was a certain logic in Pretoria’s argument that removing all reference to Russia from the resolution might induce Russia to support it – and so ensure humanitarian aid was delivered.

“On the other hand, pretending there is no aggressor reduces the pressure on Russia to implement anything. What we need is not for Russia to allow humanitarian corridors but for Russia to stop shelling Ukrainian cities and to withdraw their troops.”

Western governments are largely seeing South Africa’s ambivalent posture on the Ukraine crisis as reflecting Ramaphosa’s need to mollify the ANC hardliners – who are pro-Russia and anti-West – in a year when he faces re-election as ANC leader.

The internal ANC domestic politics of the Ukraine crisis should emerge more as the ANC’s NEC is due to discuss it at its meeting from 25 to 27 March. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Spar, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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All Comments 17

  • Disgusting and disgraceful! Typical eternal hypocrisy of our pathetic anc government. We say our foreign policy is based on human rights. Anything but!! We close ranks with pariahs, murderers and human rights abusers like Cuba, Russia, China, Venezuela, Iran etc. From day 1, whilst Mbeki was falsely trumpeting the African Renaissance, we shielded Mugabe and his murderous regime, even rubber stamping the election as free and fair.

  • SA wants the business and investments of the west while being ‘neutral’ about Russia. It’s not going to work. If the ANC cared about Africa it should have said we won’t comment on the war but corridors for food must be guaranteed. Then the world might have listened and been able to do something. Instead they played stupid Kremlin word games and nobody in life had time for that.

  • The ANC is not a single homogenous well run organisation. It does not have a united face to show the world. It is a chaotic hodge-podge of conflicting groups who have nothing in common. It is a hive without a Queen Bee.

    This leads to deep levels of incoherence which frequently morphs into the realm of immaturity. Immaturity in the sense of being destructive. When they find themselves among adults trying to deal with real world problems they fail.

    It would help if they just remain silent. Right now the world is on the side of Ukraine given the suffering of the ordinary people in that country. The destruction beggars belief. Anyone who shows callous indifference to that suffering and destruction is going to be treated like the pariahs that they are. Rightly so!

    Russia is going to suffer huge long term damage for their brutality. Those who sided with Putin are going to share the pain. Rightly so! That misguided resolution is going to cost all South Africans dearly. The ANC can add it to the growing list of things for which they must be held accountable.

    The ANC has managed to place themselves and the country under the harsh rays of the global spotlight in the worst possible way at the worst possible time. For no good reason.

    Mr President, please tell your people to keep their mouths shut.

  • An humiliation for the ANC led government and rightly so! I watched the BBC on this just after the vote had been taken and it would appear that very short shrift had been given to the South African resolution. The ANC seems to forget that Ukraine had been an integral part of the Russia that had espoused its fight against apartheid- and not recognizing that Russia is so obviously the aggressor in this case against the now sovereign Ukraine, is a mistake of morality which will not be forgotten by quite a number of democratic nations

  • Not even worth wasting time anymore commenting on this misgovernment. Like taking the political utterances of a toddler seriously.

  • “In fact, Abravitova told DM168 that Pandor’s department had asked for a teleconference between Ramaphosa and Zelensky this week. It is not clear why that has not gone ahead yet.”. Obviously Zalensky has neither the time or inclination to waste time on a Russian stooge.

  • It is difficult to understand the ANC (but not the majority of South African people) stance on the Russian attempted invasion of Ukraine. Does the party feel indebted to Russia, which during apartheid years included Ukraine, for its support during those dark days? If yes, then they are misunderstanding true friendship. A real friend will tell you when you are wrong whereas a sycophant will not. So, if not through supposed friendship, what is the real reason? One has to wonder if there is some nefarious arrangement from the past that makes South Africa beholden to Russia.

  • It makes me feel sick to my stomach that anybody outside South Africa’s borders, north, south, east and west may think that all South Africans stand in solidarity with the stance of the ANC on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nobody in their right mind can dance around the fact that the war is an act of aggression and criminality on the part of Russia. Why does the ANC pussyfoot around Russia?

  • What about the egg dance, or should that be sword dance, the the USA, the UK and EU do to shield Saudi Arabia and Israel from sanctions? And they sell them arms! I don’t support bombing Ukraine, neither do I support bombing Yemen or Iraq. South Africa should not be blackmailed into taking sides. It won’t make any difference except to fig leaf western hypocrisy.

  • Not covering ourselves in glory – and that’s putting it mildly! SA’s so-called ‘hard-liners’ in the ANC are still living with the delusion that Mr Putin is the hard-line communist they know and love from the liberation era. He’s not – he’s a Russian imperialist who idolizes Tsarist Russian. DIRCO had it right with our initial response to the crisis and the President did not exercise his mind when he “walked back” that response.

  • I’m concerned that there seems to be no room for independent thought or alternative tactics in this war. It’s widely acknowledged that VP is a strongman and that will not stop until a suitable face saving “victory” is won and yet there seems to be no room for that. Bullies don’t just go away because they are sent to the principals office-oh I wish they were- and thus despite it not being fair, should we not explore any and all options for peace?

    I commend “Pretoria” for trying something else. For having the courage to get involved and put something on the table. I don’t blame folks for backing Ukraine however, one could question if anyone really knows how to end this and if taking ones cue from folks under extreme pressure could limit strategic foresight. Yes, they are quite literally fighting for their lives but let’s not discount those with different experiences. We preach the value of diverse thinking and yet we shun and admonish those that try.

    There are many wars, both on the ground and in society, that are currently being fought. When we as South Africa identified a new Sars-CoV2 variant the world cut us off. When publications say things like, “places like India, Australia and Africa” we have to be grateful that “we” (all 54 of us) were mentioned. The world isn’t fair but I think it is equally dangerous to fight a bully by becoming one.

    We may not get it right as a country or people but how does one find ones place and voice from the margins in silence?

  • In the ‘old’ days when SA lived under the brutal apartheid yoke, I was embarrassed as a kid on trips overseas, to be asked,’ so where are you from?’. Invariably it opened the door to a stream of abuse. Given our SA government’s current stance regarding Russia and Ukraine, we can expect the same today.

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