Dear Ndileka Mandela, there is zero moral ambiguity in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Dear Ndileka Mandela, there is zero moral ambiguity in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
A poster with the likeness of Russian President Vladimir Putin on the wall of a facility that distributes items donated by businesses and individuals to Ukrainian soldiers, 9 June 2022 in Sloviansk, Ukraine. (Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images)

There is no case for the moral ambiguity that Ndileka Mandela attempts to introduce into the debate. Just as apartheid ended because it was morally and ethically unacceptable to most South Africans, black and white, the war in Ukraine is a struggle between what is good and bad, right and wrong.

Writing in Newsweek on 31 May, Ndileka Mandela argues that since her grandfather Nelson Mandela used moral leadership to end apartheid, this argument should apply in the case of solving the conflict in Ukraine. 

We have no argument with that. Moral authority is key to understanding the Ukrainian war and bringing it to a rapid close. This is not the only necessary component, of course, since building peace in South Africa involved a united international community pushing both parties, her grandfather’s African National Congress (ANC) and the then governing National Party, to the negotiating table employing different carrots and sticks. 

It also fundamentally required both parties to realise that there was more to be gained by ending conflict than from continuing with it. And it demanded a clear methodology, with leadership skilled in the tactical negotiating art. As the then State President FW de Klerk recalled shortly before his death in November last year, Nelson Mandela was especially adroit in strengthening his adversary to be able to assist in delivering a deal. 

Moral authority alone was thus far from enough to deliver South Africa’s democratic transition in 1994. 

Mandela also veers on to extraordinary ground in creating an ethical equivalence between Russia and Ukraine. She writes that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s moral authority is in danger of being undermined on account of the treatment of African students at the Ukrainian border and that these actions have, somehow, endangered peace. 

The Shakespearean tragedy of Cyril Ramaphosa

There is no case for the moral ambiguity that she attempts to introduce into the debate. Just as apartheid ended because it was morally and ethically unacceptable to most South Africans, black and white, the war in Ukraine is a struggle between what is good and bad, right and wrong. It is a result of Russia’s invasion in its brazen overturning of international law and attempt to capture and occupy Ukraine for its own purposes. 

There is consent among democratic nations that Russia instigated, organised and conducted the invasion on spurious grounds. Even South Africa said so before the political commissars reminded the Department of International Relations that the ruling party’s largest funder was a Russian oligarch.

The problem for a peace process is not the isolated treatment of African students in Ukraine, however unacceptable that was in the midst of the chaos of evacuations. It is, moreover, forgotten in this argument that there were more than 9,000 African university students studying in Ukraine before the war, an illustration of solidarity, not racism. 

This is, at best, grasping at straws, at worst, an attempt to trivialise a war by exaggerating the hardships experienced by students – who were, by the way, part of a large wave of refugees of all races and many nationalities struggling to get out of Ukraine.

This must not obscure the fundamental issue, which is that Russia broke international law. 

And yet there is little pressure from Africa and others, including, notably, India and China, in urging Russia to the negotiating table. There has been no willingness on the part of Russia’s leadership to leave Ukrainian territory. Although Zelensky has regularly called for talks, Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently believes that there is more to be gained by continuing to fight than suing for peace. 

The invasion of 2022 teaches, if nothing else, that Putin viewed the outcome of the 2014 appropriation of Crimea and parts of the Donbas as a temporary appeasement. Rational analysis suggests he won’t stop now in his attempt to remake Russia’s empire; indeed, if anything, history teaches that this view is wishful thinking. 

There is currently no peace process because Putin’s Russia has no appetite for peace. 

Even though Mandela approaches the need to build common ground from an academic perspective, this is not an abstract issue for Africans, not least because of the continent’s experience of colonisation by a foreign power.

Mandela posits that the Ukraine war, just like apartheid, could be resolved by moral suasion and moral authority. Just like apartheid, the Russian invasion of Ukraine goes beyond morality. Both represent an abominable contravention of international law, human rights, sovereignty and the rule of law. Both also require much more than moral rectitude.

To moralise Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is thus to mitigate and minimise Russia’s culpability.

Russia’s invasion raises many other problems for Africa. If Russia were to get away with this invasion, free from condemnation and able to hang on to the territory it has seized, what does this mean for democracy in Africa, the principle of sovereignty, the sanctity of borders, and human rights and basic freedoms? Does this mean that, in the future, might is right in changing boundaries and political regimes? 

And there are the increasing real costs for Africans, given the increase in the price of food and fertiliser that has resulted from the closure of Ukrainian ports.

Given Africa’s colonial history, claims of territory on ethnic and linguistic grounds could result in an endless continent-wide conflagration. There is also the issue of empire: Africans should be wary of the signals they are sending out to those elsewhere on the acceptance of intra-European colonialism. 

Putting pressure on a democratically elected president to accept Russian occupation as a precondition for peace demonstrates moral ambivalence. While this view might tempt authoritarians, this cannot be in the interests of African people.  

The Mandela surname does not confer moral authority on an article any more than Putin’s claim of empire confers moral authority on his act of violent colonialism. DM

Tendai Biti is a human rights lawyer, MP for the Citizens’ Coalition for Change and a former finance minister in Zimbabwe. Zitto Kabwe is the leader of the Alliance for Change and Transparency in Tanzania. Greg Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation. Bobi Wine is the leader of Uganda’s opposition National Unity Platform.



Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Moral authority? Is there any morality anywhere near anything at all to do with the Phala Phukwit ANC?

  • Logesh Pillay says:

    At long last, reason on this issue from this continent. There has been so much criticism of the US since this invasion began, one may think they invaded rather than Russia. It’s curious how left wing types can only identify imperialism when the US does it; they positively welcome it when Russia and China are responsible

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    Well let’s hope Ms Mandela has read this and had a re-think.

  • jairo.arrow says:

    Putin is the aggressor and must pull out of Ukraine. He has broken international law not just now but also in 2014 when he annexed Crimea. He is in search of Lebensraum and we know what that leads to.

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    Don’t understand why anyone even bothered to respond to the infantile writings of this morally confused Mandela.

  • Sheda Habib says:

    Your moral authority assumes, throughout, that NATO is moral and Putin is not.
    I would like to read your impressions (hallucinations) on why China is moral and Putin is not. In fact I will make it easy for you, pick NATO or the USA instead of China.

  • bobmarsden says:

    A faithful exposition of the US/NATO moral orthodoxy about Ukraine.

    However, a more comprehensive judgment of the situation requires you to make your position clear about the shelling of Russian-speaking civilians in the Donbass since 2014, killing thousands, by the Nazi Azov Brigade and associated military forces, which were subsequently incorporated into the Ukrainian military establishment.

    You could simply ignore it, or deny it happened, or fail to recognise the self-identified Nazis as real, or dismiss the Wikipedia entry on 2014 Donbass War as fake news, or assert that the Azovs were only targeting the military forces of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

    But if you accept that these lethal attacks did take place, then you must outline what the Russians should have done about the killings of their fellow Russian speakers as an alternative to the Special Military Operation.

    You must also offer your opinions about the refusal of the US/NATO/Ukraine to implement the Minsk II agreement of 2015 sponsored by France and Germany, between Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk leaders, and Russia, which contained the provision, among others, for “local elections in accordance with the Ukrainian legislation and the Law of Ukraine “On temporary Order of Local Self-Governance in Particular Districts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, …”

    Should you believe your own rhetoric then you won’t be able to address these matters.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    Ukraine 🇺🇦
    Dollars in a couch
    No teachers training collages!
    “Phala Phukwit ANC” says it all!

  • Craig B says:

    The Mandela grand kids must think again ……, we can just be grateful they not like the Zuma kids and make a case in an appropriate way.

  • Graham Hayes says:

    “Even South Africa said so before the political commissars reminded the Department of International Relations that the ruling party’s largest funder was a Russian oligarch”.
    Am I the only one that’s focused on this sentence. This is the first I’ve heard of this? When was this revealed? Who is this oligarch? What legal implications does it carry for political parties receiving foreign donations. If this is correct then it explains many decisions taken by the ANC. I’d appreciate the authors sharing this information with us.

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