South Africa

WAR IN EUROPE

Ramaphosa and Zelensky finally talk on Wednesday night about Russian aggression

Illustrative image// Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ and President Cyril Ramaphosa.Photo: Katlholo Maifadi/DIRCO

Seven weeks after talking to Vladimir Putin about the war, Ramaphosa discusses it with the Ukrainian president. 

The long-anticipated and highly controversial phone call between President Cyril Ramaphosa and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky finally took place late on Wednesday night. Zelensky announced the call – which lasted about 20 minutes – in a tweet that gave little away about the tone of the meeting, or whether he had asked Ramaphosa to try to use his influence with Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the war. 

Ukraine’s ambassador to South Africa, Liubov Abravitova, said that although South Africa had requested the call, Zelensky made the call to Ramaphosa “because of our circumstances”. In other words, it seems he had to find a moment between conducting the defence of his country.  

The call took place almost two months into the war – and seven weeks after Ramaphosa called Putin to get his side of the conflict. South Africa requested the call with Zelensky only a week later – which clearly irritated Ukraine.

The Ukrainian president tweeted overnight:

“Had a phone conversation with @CyrilRamaphosa. Told about our resistance to Russian aggression. Discussed the threat of a global food crisis, deepening relations with the Republic of South Africa and cooperation within international organizations.”

Ramaphosa confirmed the call later on Thursday.

 

He tweeted; “ I had a telephone conversation with President @ZelenskyyUa of Ukraine to discuss the conflict in Ukraine and its tragic human cost, as well its global ramifications. We agree on the need for a negotiated end to the conflict which has impacted Ukraine’s place in global supply chains, including its position as a major exporter of food to our continent. President Zelenskyy anticipates closer relations with Africa in future.”

Abravitova had told Daily Maverick in an interview last week that Zelensky would urge Ramaphosa to condemn Putin for his aggression against Ukraine, which entered a new phase this week with a major Russian offensive, of about 75,000 troops, against the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

“I think he would call on President Ramaphosa to accuse Russia for what is happening,” Abravitova said then. “There is not another 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 South Africa and Brazil.

“Because there are not two readings and cannot be two readings about the invasion. He would ask the support of Ukraine with South Africa being the leader of the African continent. He would ask Ramaphosa to use his influence to stop Putin,” Abravitova said last week. 

But it was not clear immediately whether Zelensky had in fact made all those demands. 

Abravitova told Daily Maverick she was still waiting for a readout of the conversation. 

Controversy

The call between the two presidents had become highly controversial as Abravitova requested meetings with Ramaphosa and with International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor so she could establish what exactly Ramaphosa wanted to talk about to Zelensky.

Her requests irked the South African government, which accused her of being undiplomatic – and by implication presumptuous – in going beyond her status as ambassador by seeking a meeting with the President and foreign minister.

But she told Daily Maverick last week that in effect she believed the dire predicament of her country transcended the finer points of protocol and that it was important to ensure the call between the presidents was substantive and achieved a real purpose.

“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 then. She noted that all around the world Ukraine’s ambassadors had been meeting heads of state because of the crisis in her country.

She also noted that the Department of International Relations and Cooperation had requested the call between Ramaphosa and Zelensky “to discuss issues of bilateral interest”. Abravitova suggested that she could not put such a bland request in the middle of a crisis. “Maybe South Africa doesn’t know there’s a war happening in that part of the world,” she remarked drily.

But judging by Zelenksy’s tweet, the two presidents did discuss bilateral – country to country – relations as well as the impact of the war on food prices and hunger. Ukraine is one of the world’s largest producers of wheat and sunflower oil, so the war has cut supplies of these products drastically and pushed up prices. The impact has been felt particularly hard in Africa and Ramaphosa may have raised this in his call with Zelensky. 

The call should help to repair relations between the two countries which have become strained by South Africa’s diplomatic positions on the war. It has abstained three times from resolutions in the United Nations General Assembly condemning Russia’s aggression.

Pretoria insists it has abstained not because it condones Russia’s aggression, but because it believes that a balanced approach is necessary to try to find a diplomatic resolution to the war.

It has also hinted that it is maintaining a neutral stance in case it can play a role in mediating peace. On the day Ramaphosa tweeted about his conversation with Putin, Pretoria also revealed that the President had been asked to mediate, but without saying who had asked. DM

This is a developing story and will be updated. 

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All Comments 6

  • At what point does the President come to understand that his position on this atrocity is untenable. Surely he cannot continue to sit on the fence pretending that we can mediate! The Russian invasion of Ukraine is just plain wrong and the atrocities that are playing out in plain sight since that invasion should be called out for what they are. Please, Mr President, for once, surprise us all – as your Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor did – and do the right thing.

  • Maybe the Ukrainians would do better to phone Gift of the Givers as Zapiro suggests in his KZN cartoon today.. In the face of ANC indifference to their suffering. Shameful!

    • Agreed, we truly bow our heads in shame that our country did not immediately condemn the hideous invasion of Ukraine by Russia. The war tactics that they employ, including raping women, devastating hospitals and even bombing buildings in Kiev where the Secretary General of the UN is visiting President Zelensky, and morer in the 21st century, defy belief.

  • Ramaphosa’s observation that there was a “conflict” in Ukraine is indicative of his spineless and gutless inability to call it what it is – an ‘invasion’ of a recognised international country with defined boundaries. This moral turpitude is the reason why the organisation he is the leader of, has declined to its ghastly shadow, defined by corruption. Observing the scorched earth tactics of his pal and waiting seven weeks to even speak to the victim/s of this mindless aggression, is further evidence of his turpitude. But then why would he behave differently when he is incapable of bringing any order to his own house !

  • Ag shame man, the guy’s fighting a war with the Russians and still takes the time to call a doffie president of some random African country who doesn’t even know how to manage his own party let alone run his own country. Wonder what SA would be like if we had a President like Zelenskyy instead of a “president” like, uh, well, like we’ve got? Just wondering?

  • Dirco seem to think that the best form of defence is attack. this country has been embarrassed by Dirco’s and the President’s fence sitting stand and should focus on the main issue which is to condemn Putin for his unnecessary and aggressive attack on Ukraine. taking it out on the Ukrainian ambassador is rather childish but indicates the lack of skills in Dirco and sadly our President.

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