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Zelensky says SA can’t remain neutral in Russia’s w...

South Africa


Volodymyr Zelensky: South Africa cannot remain neutral, has to condemn Russia’s aggression

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to journalists virtually across the African continent on 4 August 2022. (Photo: Supplied)

The Ukrainian president says SA remaining neutral in Russia’s war against his country is like maintaining neutrality ‘between life and death’. He cautioned that one day when SA might be facing similar challenges, the world could likewise choose to be neutral towards it.

“I don’t believe there can be a neutral position to war,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said in his first public comments on South Africa’s stance on the war. He was speaking on Thursday, presumably from Kyiv, in his first online briefing to African journalists. 

The briefing seemed to be part of a growing contest between Ukraine and Russia to influence Africa. Last week, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov visited Uganda, the Republic of Congo and Ethiopia, and while in Addis Ababa, he also briefed diplomats from several other African countries, including South Africa. 

Zelensky acknowledged that it was most important for Ukraine to win the information war — “the war of truth” — to expose the “lies” Russia was spreading about the war. 

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to journalists virtually across the African continent on 4 August 2022. (Photo: Supplied)

He was asked for his views on South Africa’s position on the war, which Pretoria itself characterises as “non-aligned”. Zelensky said he could not understand South Africa’s position.

“Maybe my sharp… attitude is because I’m feeling this war… I’m part of this war. Maybe you can’t feel that at a distance, but I believe that neutrality is the wrong attitude.

“There cannot be any neutrality between life and death, between life and famine. In the case of Russia and Ukraine, there can be no neutrality.”

Zelensky suggested that a country like South Africa might lack the money, weapons or political influence to have much of an impact on the outcome of the war.

“But diplomatically, you have to condemn the deaths… you have to condemn the autocracy, the racism, the Nazism and Russism — you have to condemn the aggression.

“You can’t remain neutral,” he said, suggesting that South Africa was diminishing its global standing by doing so. 

“Whenever you’re neutral to the war, from a large country you turn into a small country. Nobody can see you. And the world can’t see you. 

“So when you have challenges and problems, you have to keep in mind that the whole world could be neutral to those challenges.”

Zelensky said this was not about “give me that and I will give you something in return… like I give you grain and you give me something in return. 

“For example, if tomorrow the South African Republic would be lacking wheat from us, should we say that, well, the South African Republic was neutral to us, so let’s remain neutral in terms of our wheat supplies? 

“No. In that case, we would be inhuman. Our society are humans and that’s why I believe the neutral position is not something we can carry on.”

Zelensky was also asked whether Ukraine could not emulate South Africa’s successful transition in the 1990s through peaceful negotiations between hitherto warring race groups. 

Zelensky insisted that, before the war, he had tried to persuade European and other leaders to help him hold direct talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin to avoid the aggression he saw coming. 

But no one supported his pleas. Then, on 24 February, Russia — already occupying Crimea and Donbas — invaded Ukraine and killed and tortured his people.

“What should I do after them doing so? Should I make another phone call to Russia?” he asked. 

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

Zelensky said Russia was telling the world it was ready for dialogue, but in reality it was offering only ultimatums. 

“It’s either you do this, this and this, or we will kill you… What kind of dialogue is that? This is not a dialogue or a conversation, but terrorism.

“And they have to understand that if they behave as terrorists, we have to protect ourselves. And we are protecting ourselves. We are in our own country, on our territory.

“Now, if someone, a criminal, would get into your house, your apartment and kill your child, what would you have to say to this person? Would you be killing that person? Or would you be saying to that person, ‘just stop, please, explain, why have you killed the child?’ No. You will be responding because you have no time because this person is about to kill you and the rest of the relatives and friends.  

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky holds a virtual press briefing with journalists across the African continent on 4 August 2022. (Photo: Supplied)

“They’re not offering any dialogue. They’re offering us to lay down our weapons, to accept their peace, to forget that we have our own country, that we have our own flag, we have our own history… to erase ourselves.”

Zelensky added that Ukraine needed the whole world to back his country “because if Putin is victorious, it will start World War 3. Only this 70-year-old person [Putin] can stop the bloodshed.”

Zelensky was asked why Africans should care about Ukraine’s suffering when so many conflicts were raging in Africa, which the world was largely ignoring. 

His reply suggested that Africa should condemn what Russia was doing to Ukraine because it was similar to the continent’s own historical experience. 

“Russia is fighting a colonial war against Ukraine… it’s all about racism, it’s all about Nazism… and there’s a new word called Russism.”

Russism was the belief that there was only one race and that Ukraine, despite having its own language and culture, simply did not exist. 

“It’s the same tragedy of a large territory invading other territories, torturing, deporting children and others. So we have much alignment in terms of what took place on the African continent.”

Zelensky, however, agreed that injustices were still taking place in Africa and that these were not receiving the attention they deserved. When Ukraine called for greater security guarantees for itself, it intended that its own situation should be regarded as a “tragic example” of a wider problem, including in Africa, he said. 

He added that he had intended to visit Africa before the war started, but now was unable to because of the fighting. However, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, would visit Africa during the northern autumn. Zelensky said he hoped to visit the continent after the war, adding that he had also appointed a special envoy for Africa. 

Zelensky said he wanted Ukraine to be the guarantor for food security, in a reference to the recent deal that Ukraine concluded with Russia — brokered by the UN and Turkey — for Moscow to lift its blockade on Ukraine’s Black Sea ports to allow over 22 million tons of Ukrainian grain to be shipped to world markets. The shortage of grain has caused a global food security crisis which is being felt particularly acutely in Africa. 

But he also said Ukraine intended to step up its investments to Africa after the war. He noted that in spite of Russia’s considerable political interest in the continent, it had very little to offer Africa beyond that. Less than 1% of Russia’s investments were into African countries, he said.

He offered to share with Africa Ukraine’s considerable digital power, particularly when it comes to providing public services such as paying taxes and receiving state pensions, on mobile phones. 

Zelensky was also asked if he was concerned that Russian ships were using Cape Town harbour as a base to prospect the Southern Ocean for oil and gas, in potential contravention of the 1998  international mining ban.

He did not reply directly, but suggested that the reason Ukraine had wanted Africa to support the global sanctions against Russia was to prevent Moscow from subverting those sanctions — especially by selling oil — which was allowing Russia to continue financing its war effort. DM 


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All Comments 15

  • Regrettably it is clear that the fact that Russia supported the ANC in its military efforts to overthrow the apartheid government still counts for more than human rights or morality ever will. The ruling party still clings to ideals of the communist state and the moves afoot for the nationalization of industry and land is just the start of the slide. Like the rest of Africa the begging bowl comes out when we need money and food and hungry but when we need arms and “engineers” we look towards our communist brothers. What is clear though is that there is division within the ranks of the ruling party because if I remember correctly Naledi Pandor came right out and condemned Russia’s invasion until she was informed to retract that condemnation.

  • In my humble opinion, what is happening in Ukraine is absolutely inhumanely tragic. I still do not agree we need to take sides. The world is a mess. America has been invading and causing the deaths of hundreds of millions of people over the decades by getting involved in their politics. Nobody says anything. They are still looking for weapons of mass destruction in a country that they destroyed. Who has caused the most harm to the civilians in Iraq. The previous dictator or the Americans themselves. The Americans are directly involved in this Ukraniane conflict. Both the Americans and the Russians as well as NATO are to blame here. Certainly not the civilians. I strongly suspect most civilians would choose to go back to their quiet normal lives. Taking sides in a war where Ukraine is a porn in a bigger and far more complex picture is definitely not the answer. For once I support a decision of the South African government. War only serves the interests of a few powerful people and their personal egos. We also should not take sides in the stupidity that foolish American woman Pelosi caused for Taiwan and potentially pulled a trigger that could cause the destruction of the whole planet. A stupid move that served only her legacy in the dying stages of her career.

    • I am sorry, there was and is a lot of opposition to the actions of the USA, like in many European countries during the Iraq war. You are falling for the Russian propaganda if you are saying that the US or NATO are to blame as well. It is not! Russia invaded and start a war against an independent Country with a democratically elect government. It is up to each country to choose, and being neutral is just another way in my opinion of saying „we support Russia and it’s warcrimes. And that you are counting death against each other says a lot about your attitude to fellow humans, every death due to war or dictatorship is one too much.

      • Watch out for that American Propaganda. You are clearly falling for it. It is not the business of America to tell other countries how they should be run. How many invasions has America done to independent countries.

        • Which part is falling for the American propaganda ? Russia is invading a sovereign country, claiming that Ukraine has no rights to exist. That is imperialistic behaviour by Russia to a T. And again you are implying that two wrongs make one right which is more than cynical when we talk about human lives. Also now you are saying it is ok for Russia to tell other countries how they should be run ? I call that applying double standards

    • I love your part about ‘ a porn (sic) in a bigger and far more complex picture’. Yes it is a massive c**kup. Was that Accidental, Deliberate or Freudian?

    • Cop-out! Every war, invasion, revolution is different. Each must be tested separately. Ukraine was invaded by a world superpower. Why? Because of the whim of a megalomaniac! And you fail to see why we must all take the side of Ukraine!!

  • “There cannot be any neutrality between life and death” that says it all. SA should have taken a stance as the standard bearer for human rights in the World. Instead we’ve just sold out to the highest bidder, over and over again.

  • I agree wholeheartedly with what Zelensky has said and support Ukraine 100% in this illegal, genocidal, brutal and unprovoked Putin war. Learn your history Malcolm instead of trying to be politically correct! Ukraine was guaranteed nation status and international agreements were signed to this effect, including Russia, when they gave up their nuclear weapons. NATO is ONLY a defensive organisation, not an offensive and expansionist one like Russia under the vile Putin, who has grand but false and grossly misplaced pride about empire. The fact that all the ex-communist countries, that were under Soviet repression, ruled by state terror, violence, fear, murder and only kept in check by the barrel of the gun, want their freedoms as independent nations is only natural, expected and legitimate. Who in their right mind would want to live under Soviet or current Russian conditions or for the matter, same as Cuba, Venezuela etc.? The US was rightly condemned for its war against Iraq and rightly so. SA was in the forefront, loudly condemning it i.e. it took sides and condemned it as illegal aggression against another country. However, today we keep quiet and blindly support the most oppressive human rights abusers and murderous regimes in the world whilst meekly issuing mealy-mouthed platitudes about both sides coming to the negotiating table. Who invaded whom? Who is wilfully murdering innocent civilians on a massive scale and causing wholesale destruction? No neutrality!!

    • I think President Ramaphosa is duty bound to provide rational answers to the various questions raised by President Zelensky. For example:

      “Now, if someone, a criminal, would get into your house, your apartment and kill your child, what would you have to say to this person? Would you be killing that person? Or would you be saying to that person, ‘just stop, please, explain, why have you killed the child?’ No. You will be responding because you have no time because this person is about to kill you and the rest of the relatives and friends. ”

      If President Ramaphosa and the SA government wish to play “peace broker” in this conflict , then it’s about time they began actively creating opportunities for dialogue. For example between the Russian and Ukrainian ambassadors in our country. And they should both note that being “non-aligned” does not exempt them as human beings from taking a firm moral stand against obvious atrocities being perpetrated against the people of Ukraine. We were “non-aligned” over Zimbabwe (under President Mbeki) and allowed President Mugabe and Zanu PF to pulverize democratic opposition. It seems we are on exactly the same track over Ukraine with the difference that Russia – having already destroyed domestic opposition – is trying to do the same in a neighbouring state!

      There are many excellent Zapiro cartoons lampooning the SA government over Zim and most of them would be equally applicable in respect of Ukraine.

  • The simple answer is “Do the right thing”. Agreed that the invasion of Iraq was not the right thing, and in the same way the Russian invasion was also not the right thing.
    As for holding out that the war should be negotiated out of its current state, that is wishful thinking. Negotiations did take place, formally and correctly, before the invasion by Russia. Multiple parties were involved. All of this while Russia was mustering troops on the borders – without any provocation from Ukraine. Russia insisted on ignoring any negotiations and proceeded to invade Ukraine.
    This is the case of a world superpower unilaterally deciding to invade another sovereign country with the purpose of annexing their territory and people – against their will. What can be right about that?
    Do the right thing for the Ukrainian people and stand by them.

  • Russia invaded their neighbour, killing innocent men woman and children and our governing cowards called the ANC are too corrupt and bed with dictatorships like Russia and China to be able to say anything.

  • This too links up with the ANC’s problem with morality – understanding right and wrong.
    They will rather stand by and watch the monster at work than to support and fight for human rights and moral values. Just as they did with so-called silent diplomacy in the case of Zimbabwe and Mogabe.
    But then, the ANC does not really understand democracy either or caring for the poor or women and children. They will much rather allow us to be colonised again by the Chinese and the Russians and make a quick buck than to defend higher moral values.

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