South Africa


Putin coming to SA, or Putin not coming to SA? That is not necessarily the question

Putin coming to SA, or Putin not coming to SA? That is not necessarily the question
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / ALEXEI DANICHEV / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL) | Premier Alan Winde.(Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach) | The EFF’s Julius Malema. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake) | South African and ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: EPA-EFE / KIM LUDBROOK)

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:

Why Mo Shaik’s rattle and roll just doesn’t rock

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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Mark K says:

    I think your comment about Premier Winde and the LEAP officers not being able to make an arrest is mistaken. Absolutely ANY South African could do it if they had the guts:

    Under South African law, a citizen may make a citizen’s arrest if they have reasonable grounds to believe that a person has committed a serious offense, or is in the act of committing a serious offense. A warrant of arrest issued by a competent authority, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), could be considered as strong evidence that the person in question is wanted for a serious offense, and could thus provide reasonable grounds for a citizen’s arrest.

    SAPS would then need to take custody and begin extradition. Failure to do this has consequences – Under section 10 of the ICC Act, South African authorities are required to cooperate with the ICC in the investigation and prosecution of crimes under the jurisdiction of the ICC. This includes the obligation to arrest and surrender individuals who are the subject of an ICC warrant. If the SAPS were to refuse to comply with an ICC warrant, it could be held in contempt of court and face legal sanctions.

    • Richard Bryant says:

      One specific crime which South Africans are entitled to undertake a citizens arrest is for child kidnapping. Sometimes in all the smoke, the horror of the crime is lost. Just consider the enormity of a decision by a head of state to take children from a neighbouring country and place them in institutions before adopting to strange parents. What if that were your child? And that is what putin is being charged for. He’s a monster in the likeness of stalin, Ceausescu, milosevic. The world would be a way better place without them.

      • Mark K says:

        Quite so. Your post brims with empathy and makes clear that this is n0t simply political – the ICC warrant is based on very real, utterly horrific crimes.

        Further to my own post:

        If a police officer knows that a person has an ICC warrant against them and refuses to arrest them, and then prevents a citizen’s arrest from happening, it could potentially be considered as defeating the ends of justice. This is because the police officer has knowledge that the person is wanted for a serious offense and is hindering their arrest, which may result in the person escaping justice.

        The sentence for defeating the ends of justice in South Africa can vary depending on the specific circumstances of the case and the discretion of the court. Section 9 of the Criminal Procedure Act, 1977 provides for a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment for defeating or obstructing the course of justice.

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      This statement – “Western Cape Premier Alan Winde making an absurd claim that his Leap officers will arrest Putin if he arrives in that province.” is itself absurd. Winde knows exactly what he can do and what he cannot do. Legally, HE CAN ARREST Putin. Practically he knows that it will be a bit more difficult to drag Putin to jail. Winde made an extremely important policy statement, gave the anc the jitters! He also set the Western Cape apart from the other eight provinces.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Thanks for the insightful perspective.

  • Joe Soap says:

    I hope Julius understands what 10% is and makes an appropriate amount of noise, don’t want him behaving like he has 90% of the vote.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    The Kremlin has also said “Putin will attend the Brics meeting, even if remotely” which is a pretty big hint where this is going.

  • Jennifer D says:

    Perhaps Putin might carefully consider not coming to the Western Cape given the possibility of being arrested by the Leap officers and not to mention the less than warm welcome he would receive. Best he stays where he is right now.

  • brooks spector says:

    it should also be noted that, besides the US, Russia (and China) are not signatories to the Rome Statute.

    • Mark K says:

      I took the writer’s mention of this ANC whataboutery as a silly distraction. South Africa is a signatory and that is all that matters. We entered into a legally binding treaty and domesticated the law. It is our duty, regardless of whether there are non-signatories or not.

      It’s a bit like a married person committing adultery and pointing to an unmarried person having an affair as reason why they should be allowed to do the same.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    I guess the event itself is of less importance than the ideas and thought processes behind it, and what the fools at the helm will or won’t do.

  • Easy Does It says:

    The stance which other BICS leaders take would play a significant role in the decision the anc takes. It is not their decision alone and it is probably that push back which is the stumbling block for the anc.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    If he comes, Malema will be there to lick his feet clean,Mantashe can’t cause he is already licking Karpowerships owners feet

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    IMO this discussion is not useful, if not pourparler, as Putin is NOT going to turn up in SA, for all the reasons quoted by the writer.

  • Musick Mama says:

    I don’t think that Putin will come to BRICS. Apparently he is paranoid about his safety, fears assassination and regularly uses body doubles. I read on BBC that he travels secretly by train to his various homes. It’s too risky for him.
    He’s probably loving the chaos and confusion it’s causing … anything to upend democratic countries.

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