Putin coming to SA, or Putin not coming to SA? That is not necessarily the question
There is a risk that the debate is moving from one about rationality and global justice to an argument about identity politics, with absurd threats and whataboutism thrown in.
Over the past few weeks, one of the dominant themes in our politics hovered over Vladimir Putin’s possible attendance at the BRICS summit here in August, and our membership of the International Criminal Court (ICC) following its indictment of the Russian president for war crimes involving the deportation of children. Emotions are beginning to run higher and could lead to further polarisation in our already politically balkanised country.
This rising temperature may explain President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC’s misquoting of their own ICC policy, and Western Cape Premier Alan Winde making an absurd claim that his Law Enforcement Advancement Plan (Leap) officers will arrest Putin if he arrives in that province.
To start with, the membership of the ICC has always been inherently political. It allows a country to make a statement about global justice, and to criticise those, like the US, who have famously, and hypocritically, not joined the body they themselves helped set up.
It is also about rationality. It is entirely rational to ensure that someone is held accountable for wrongdoing, no matter who or where they are.
And yet, there is so much posturing, often driven by emotion that is often an extended hand of nationalism, or worse.
Julius Malema, for example, has said his followers will protect Putin, and, “We will take him back to the airport when he is done. We are not going to be told by this hypocrisy of the ICC.”
This statement, while correctly critical of some of the ICC’s actions, is also driven by a convenient emotion, with a healthy dose of nationalism within it, a feeling that South Africans should not be told what to do by anyone else, ever.
The same is surely true of the US and its decision to not join the ICC, which is a practical iteration of its policy of American exceptionalism.
We are not alone
The then president Jacob Zuma’s invitation to the now deposed Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir was by default political and nationalistic. Zuma was showing other African Union leaders that he was in charge in South Africa, despite what other institutions in the country may have thought (it may also have been the moment when then Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng and others realised Zuma was a threat to the judiciary).
We are not alone in dealing with the tension between Russia and the ICC.
Several recent reports have suggested that the Democratic Republic of Congo, a member of the ICC, has bought, or is buying, Russian military equipment to combat the M23 rebel group.
These examples help to understand some of the public comments made in our country ahead of the BRICS summit and following the ICC’s issuing of an arrest warrant for Putin.
For example, Winde must know that it will be impossible for his Leap officers to ever detain Putin (they are, technically, “peace officers” and have a mandate within the City of Cape Town to make arrests in a limited number of circumstances).
It’s not just that Putin would have his own protection, and that the SAPS would also be involved. It’s simply that, as many have pointed out, nowhere in the world has any serving head of state been arrested while in another country. (Though Lebanon’s PM Saad Hariri’s 2017 visit to Saudi Arabia took a really weird turn for a while. — Ed)
Arresting Putin could trigger a war with a country that possesses 7,000 nuclear warheads which can mop up every square metre of the Earth’s surface. Winde is, obviously and deliberately, making an empty threat.
Those who support Russia as South Africa’s “friend” resort to name-calling of their own. The West and Nato are described as “colonial”. Malema has referred to Nato as “terrorists”. Given our history, this is an insult designed to sting. Identity politics abound.
Unfortunately, by now almost everyone involved in this debate has given up trying to convince the other side of their argument’s validity. This may affect even those who have important insights into the conflict.
In an important piece published in Daily Maverick on Tuesday, The Brenthurst Foundation’s Greg Mills and Ray Hartley give a penetrating view of how things would look “if Russia won” in Ukraine:
As Mills and Hartley put it:
“The encouragement this could provide to others seeking to add to their territory through conquest is one thing, but the impact on the post-1945 global security architecture is another altogether.
If Pretoria is currently concerned, even angered, by the current impacts of the war on Western aid flows to Africa, then this scenario would likely be far more devastating. It would be one of containment and massive Western rearmament.”
This is a vital insight which demonstrates clearly how serious this conflict is, and how much more dangerous it would be for everyone if Russia (and others) were to believe Moscow had won the war it started.
The article also, perhaps unfortunately, refers to the “children of the ANC” who cannot “think outside of the bars of their ideological playpen”.
It’s become emotional
This may be a reflection of how emotional this debate has now become. There is a risk that it is moving from a debate about rationality and global justice to an argument about identity politics, with absurd threats and whataboutism thrown in.
Within all of this, it is easy to forget what is likely to happen and what is not likely to happen.
No matter what is said about Putin’s possible visit by the ANC, our government, the Ukrainian government, the ICC or the Russian government, it is important to understand whether he will actually come here without being distracted by the noise.
For the moment, the official position is probably the one stated by the Russian ambassador to South Africa, Ilya Rogachev, that there is no indication he will not come, and that “Well, he accepted the invitation from President Cyril Ramaphosa.”
Meanwhile, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola this week on SAfm reiterated an earlier comment by International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor, that if Putin does come here, SA would have a legal obligation to arrest him.
The only way around this is to try to change the law before August so that our domestic law ratifying the ICC treaty would have an opt-out clause to prevent the arrests of heads of state if it is against our national interest (as is the case with several other countries, including the UK and the Netherlands).
It is unlikely that Putin will come to South Africa. While there would be an undeniable diplomatic victory for him to appear in person with other BRICS leaders, the risks are simply too great.
There was speculation that he would attend the G20 summit in Indonesia last year, but in the end, he did not appear there.
Since invading Ukraine, Putin has been to a summit in Tajikistan (where Russia keeps a military base), Belarus, China and Mariupol in Ukraine, but not much further afield. All of these trips were to neighbouring countries. From a military point of view, it is very dangerous for him to leave Russia and fly to the other side of the world.
And Putin is known to take his personal security very seriously. This is a man whose bodyguards reportedly collect his faeces when he is on a foreign trip to prevent anyone from examining them to understand his health. And for a long time, he appeared to prefer to sit some distance away from other people at a very long table.
While emotions may be overtaking rationality in our arguments about this issue here, it is very likely to be a non-event. We are arguing about something that most probably will not happen.
Still, this demonstrates how difficult it is to manage the tensions between global justice and rationality, and emotion and nationalism; and how easy it is to build divisions in our society. DM