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WAR IN EUROPE

‘We fight for our independence’ – Ukrainian MP calls on South Africa to condemn Russian invasion

‘We fight for our independence’ – Ukrainian MP calls on South Africa to condemn Russian invasion
Zhan Beleniuk, Ukrainian MP and Olympic champion, told Maverick Citizen he would like to see South Africa support Ukraine on a diplomatic front. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

Now is the time to develop the relationship between Ukraine and African countries, says Zhan Beleniuk, a Ukrainian MP and Olympic gold medallist. He called on South Africa to join the international coalition condemning Russia.

‘If Russia stops [the] war, war is stopped. If Ukraine stops protecting their land, Ukraine will stop existing. That’s why we need a huge coalition, in diplomatic form, to condemn Russia and stop this war because… it’s a huge problem – with food security, with violence – influencing all of the world, not only Ukraine.”

These were the words of Zhan Beleniuk, a Ukrainian MP and Olympic wrestling gold medallist, when he visited the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation in Cape Town on Thursday. Sporting a T-shirt bearing the words “I’m Afro-Ukrainian”, he called on South Africa to change its neutral position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Born to a Ukrainian mother and Rwandan father, Beleniuk is the first Ukrainian MP of African descent and the country’s sole winner of a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“[Zhan] represents not only the Ukrainian fight for freedom but also defending all the fair rules in sport and in everyday life. We hope that Zhan’s visit to South Africa will allow [people] to hear from Ukrainians and pull for solidarity,” said Dzvinka Kachur, honorary president of the Ukrainian Association of South Africa.

Zhan Beleniuk Dzvinka Kachur

Zhan Beleniuk (left), Ukrainian MP and Olympic champion, and Dzvinka Kachur (right), honorary president of the Ukrainian Association of South Africa, at the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation on 20 October 2022. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

Beleniuk’s areas of responsibility in government include sports and youth, as well as humanitarian policies. Over the past few months he has worked to support those who have become refugees because of the Russian invasion.

“A lot of sportsmen died in this war – more than 120 – and a lot of infrastructure [has] been destroyed by this war,” he said. “All of this is new… challenges for us.”

Ukraine is facing rolling blackouts due to damage to the country’s power infrastructure caused by Russian missile attacks. Since 10 October, about 30% of Ukrainian power stations have been destroyed, according to a Bloomberg report.

“This was bombing across the country – they were specifically targeting power stations,” said Kachur. “Living in the 21st century, we should work towards more development in the world, rather than destroying civilian infrastructure.”

With the country on the brink of winter, when temperatures can drop to -20°C, the loss of power infrastructure is a serious issue. Ukrainians are “hostages” in this difficult situation, said Beleniuk.

“The country depends on electricity,” said Kachur. “[There’s] multistorey buildings, so it’s first of all heating, because people can be frozen to death.


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“It has a massive effect because often water supply depends on electricity, [and] communication. You’re cut [off from] any information, so you don’t know what is happening, and the times of the bombing.”

Before arriving in South Africa on 15 October, Beleniuk was in Rwanda, where he addressed the 145th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union

“Support [for] our country on a diplomatic front is the main goal for us now,” Beleniuk told Maverick Citizen. “We know that our relationship [with African countries] was not very close… but now’s the time to develop this relationship. And now it’s the time when all countries must understand, we fight for our independence.”

South Africa in particular should stand in support of Ukraine, he said, as the struggle for liberation from the apartheid system means that many residents know what it is to face oppression.

South Africa has abstained from every United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. This includes a vote on 12 October on whether to condemn Russia’s illegal referendums in the regions of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia, and its attempted annexation of these areas. 

Read in Daily Maverick: “SA abstains on a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia… again

Phumi Nhlapo Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation Ukraine

The Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation has been speaking out against the invasion of Ukraine by Russia since the start of the conflict in February 2022. ‘We are guided by what the Arch would do in a situation like this,” said Phumi Nhlapo, COO of the foundation. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

“We did not expect that our government stance would be neutrality [when Russia invaded Ukraine],” said Phumi Nhlapo, COO of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation. “It’s been very disappointing because we know that the Arch would have spoken categorically against the war.”

Beleniuk’s appearance at the foundation comes after several months of collaboration between the organisation and the Ukrainian Association of South Africa to raise awareness about what is happening in Ukraine.

“We are guided by what the Arch would do in a situation like this. He always said that you must not be neutral in situations where one is being an aggressor against another,” said Nhlapo.

“At the end of the day, it’s the [South African] people that need to speak up for themselves and say something is wrong, and not just rely on the government’s position. Politicians are guided by different priorities, but we have the freedom to say what we believe is right and what we believe is wrong.” DM/MC

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  • Sam Spade says:

    The government’s loyalty to Russia is not only anachronistic and wholly misguided, as well as morally reprehensible, it is inexpedient in the extreme. Here’s hoping the Arch haunts the hell out of our lily-livered leaders.

    • Malcolm McManus says:

      There must be an export market for ANC members, The Russians love them. Definitely an opportunity to make a buck or two, but it wouldn’t be the profit that drives me.

  • Robyn Clay Clay says:

    I understand that there is a very large Russian-owned super yacht making its way to Cape Town right now. They have apparently been in hiding until now so I can only assume that they are heading to our shores because they believe they will have safe-haven here in South Africa. Hardly sounds like a “neutral” stance from our government if that is indeed the case.

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