WAR IN EUROPE: INTERVIEW
Ukraine’s ambassador urges SA to acknowledge the suffering of her people
‘I do believe the South African president would never be in favour of any violation of human rights and any war in any part of the world.’
When – or perhaps if – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky does speak to President Ramaphosa, he will urge him to accuse Russia for what it is doing to his country.
“He would ask Ramaphosa to use his influence to stop Putin,” says Ukraine’s feisty ambassador to South Africa, Liubov Abravitova.
A possible call between the two presidents is still in the works though it has become controversial. South African officials have accused Abravitova of scuppering the call which they requested because she doesn’t like the positions that South Africa has been taking in the United Nations General Assembly, where it has abstained from three resolutions that have been widely supported condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and its continuing pulverising of Ukrainian cities.
‘Neutrality does not mean indifference’
Abravitova told Daily Maverick that she understands South Africa’s wish to remain neutral. But “neutrality doesn’t mean indifference”, she adds, suggesting that as a country that respects human rights and international law, South Africa should not avoid speaking out against the suffering which Russia is inflicting on her people.
It’s a message Pretoria has not been receiving very well.
Abravitova, who clocked up two years as ambassador last week, has been engaged in a mostly private but occasionally public tussle with the South African government, not only over its diplomatic positions but also over the proposed phone call between Ramaphosa and Zelensky.
Apart from accusing her of stalling their request for the call, South African officials have accused her of being undiplomatic – implicitly also presumptuous – for seeking a meeting between herself and Ramaphosa and with International Relations minister Naledi Pandor, to arrange the phone call. Pretoria requested the call on 17 March, some 21 days into the invasion and a full week after Ramaphosa had called Putin to get his side of the story. This clearly irritated Ukraine.
Right at the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, Pandor called for Moscow to withdraw its troops from Ukraine and respect its neighbour’s territorial integrity.
There are strong suggestions President Ramaphosa rebuked Pandor for thereby offending South Africa’s ally Russia. Whether or not that is true, ever since 24 February the ANC government has withdrawn into a consistently neutral, “non-aligned” position on the war – calling on both sides to negotiate peace as though both Russia and Ukraine were equally culpable for the war, and never condemning Moscow’s human rights abuses.
And South Africa has meanwhile abstained from three resolutions in the UN General Assembly which condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and suspended it from the UN Human Rights Council.
When Pretoria then proposed a resolution which called for humanitarian aid to be delivered to Ukraine – without even mentioning that Russia was responsible for the humanitarian crisis, that was too much for Ukraine and its allies.
Pretoria collaborating with Russia in UN, say Ukraine and allies
They accused Pretoria of collaborating with Russia in the UN.
Abravitova told Daily Maverick that she respected South Africa’s position as she respected the position of every country. But she also appealed to Pretoria to do something, even something small, to show that it sympathised with the suffering of the Ukrainian people. This could include humanitarian assistance. But Pretoria should also acknowledge Ukraine’s suffering.
Nevertheless, Abravitova also said that the planning for the call between Ramaphosa and Zelensky was proceeding and that she and South Africa’s ambassador to Ukraine, Andre Groenewald were working hard on it.
Last week, Abravitova tweeted that she had still not been granted the meetings with South African officials she had been requesting for 45 days since the start of the invasion.
But on Monday 11 April she did get a meeting with the new director general of international relations and cooperation, Zane Dangor.
Abravitova told Daily Maverick this should not be seen as a substitute for the meetings she had requested with Pandor and other ministers. Nonetheless it had been a good meeting which she thought would give impetus to her requests for other meetings.
She praised Dangor as “a really professional diplomat” who understood the importance of the Ukraine issue and would give a lot of attention to it.
Abravitova first wants meeting with Ramaphosa and Pandor
The meeting also gave impetus to the proposed call between Zelensky and Ramaphosa, she indicated. She noted that she had been trying to meet Ramaphosa and Pandor since immediately after Russia’s invasion began, to arrange this call. But Pandor had not been available. And South African officials have criticised her as an ambassador for being undiplomatic in trying to go above her position to meet South Africa’s president.
But Abravitova insisted; “I don’t think my request to meet the president as the ambassador of a country which is under attack, which affects directly the world economy, can be perceived as undiplomatic.”
She said she wanted to meet Ramaphosa – and still wanted to meet him or Pandor – to properly brief Zelensky on what Ramaphosa intended to raise in the phone call, so as to create useful talking points for her president.
“If you look at the embassies of Ukraine around the world you will see a lot of engagements of the ambassadors with the presidents,” she said.
She suggested that it was necessary to discover more about South Africa’s intentions for the call between the two presidents, because of the note which Pretoria had sent her embassy on 17 March requesting the phone call.
‘Maybe South Africa doesn’t know there’s a war happening in that part of the world’
“They asked for the call ‘to discuss issues of bilateral interest’. What do you think my ministry can think when receiving such a request? I think they think that I don’t do my work properly … maybe South Africa doesn’t know there’s a war happening in that part of the world.”
She said the call would have to substantially and directly address the fact that Ukraine was under attack by Russia. And there had to be achievements in the conversation, likely to last just 10 to 15 minutes.
“For us the main achievement would be a ceasefire, to get Russia out of Ukraine and … to condemn Russia,” Abravitova said. She also strongly believed that just having a conversation between Ramaphosa and Zelensky “would be a very strong signal to Putin”.
“So I believe this conversation has to happen and that’s why I am working on it.” However she explained the delay by adding that in the circumstances in which he found himself, Zelensky had priorities in terms of approaching different heads of states.
“We are talking about the survival of Ukraine as a state and of Ukrainians as a nation. So the priorities are… the need to get assistance, military assistance primarily and humanitarian assistance such as medical equipment, including ambulances.”
Nevertheless, a conversation with Ramaphosa would be important for Ukraine because of South Africa’s membership of the G20 and of BRICS (the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa forum)
She thought that if the call did happen, Zelensky would call on Ramaphosa to accuse Russia for what it was doing. “There’s no other way round this. It’s what he says to everyone. He will say it to the US, to the Europeans, to India and China, he will say it to Brazil and South Africa.
“Because there are not two readings and cannot be two readings about the invasion. He would ask for the support to Ukraine of South Africa as the leader of the African continent. He would ask Ramaphosa to use his influence to stop Putin.”
Abravitova said she did believe that Ramaphosa was really abstaining from United Nations resolutions condemning Russia because he wanted to keep open a channel of possible dialogue with Putin.
“And I do believe the South African president would never be in favour of any violation of human rights and any war in any part of the world. Knowing his experience and his knowledge and abilities and the history of South Africa which speaks out.
“I think he strongly believes that there can still be a diplomatic solution and being part of BRICS he has to save this opportunity to speak to both [Russia and Ukraine].”
She disclosed that well before the invasion began, she and Groenewald had been considering the possibilities of calling in South Africa as a mediator to resolve the conflict – which had begun as early as 2014 with Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
South Africa’s pragmatic, neutral approach would have been “very welcome” then – and even much later, early this year, after the Russian military arrived on Ukraine’s frontiers, a South African mediation effort would have been timely.
Yet now it might be too late, she suggested. For one thing it might not be popular in South Africa, she said, noting how many South Africans were standing with Russia.
“Maybe it’s a kind of self-defence for some people just not to be involved in someone else’s problems,” she conjectured.
She also suggested that the positions which South Africa had taken since the invasion began might have soured Ukraine’s view of Pretoria as a neutral mediator.
However she did not rule out the possibility of South Africa playing some sort of useful role after the war had ended – in a victory for Ukraine.
Abravitova to meet Motsoaledi over home affairs issues
Abravitova disclosed that as a result of Dangor’s intervention, she would meet Home Affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi next week to discuss problems which some Ukrainians were experiencing in entering South Africa with their children.
Because Ukraine’s passport production facilities had been damaged in the war, her government was allowing parents to enter their children’s details on their own passports. But South African immigration officials did not accept this emergency measure and had been sending them back home.
Abravitova said she was still awaiting a requested meeting with transport minister Fikile Mbalula to ask for South Africa’s help in conveying humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. And she was also still hoping for meetings with other ministers including defence minister Thandi Modise. DM