DA brands Ramaphosa ‘confidence trickster’ as presidential envoys visit G7 to explain SA’s Russia policy
President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that four ministers would visit G7 nations to explain the planned African peace mission over Russia’s 15-month invasion of Ukraine — and ‘various diplomatic matters’ — in what otherwise was a flat State of the Nation 2.0.
With South Africa’s proclaimed non-aligned stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine questioned both domestically and internationally, President Cyril Ramaphosa on Wednesday moved to deflect “concerted efforts to draw South Africa into the broader geopolitical contest around the Russia-Ukraine conflict”.
Instead, he said, a non-aligned South Africa would continue to push for peace, dialogue and negotiations.
“South Africa is pleased to participate in a mission by six African countries to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict,” said the President.
“We will soon be travelling to Kyiv as well as travelling to Moscow in Russia to engage with the heads of state of those two countries to sue for peace.”
Ramaphosa named his presidential envoys “to explain our peace mission and to deal with various diplomatic matters” at the Group of Seven nations that include some of South Africa’s biggest trade and investment partners.
International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor, Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana, Trade, Industry and Competition Minister Ebrahim Patel and Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni will set off at an as yet undetermined time to the US, UK, Germany, France, Japan, Italy and Canada.
The ministers’ seniority signals the seriousness accorded to dealing with the international scepticism of South Africa’s non-aligned stance that has had a negative impact on the economy, including a plummeting rand.
Internationally, questions have been raised about South Africa’s proclaimed non-alignment, given Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s warm reception in Pretoria in January, joint military manoeuvres with Russia and China in February, and a series of visits to Moscow including by the army chief and Ntshavheni.
Bruising diplomatic spat
Into this also plays the mysterious cargo loaded on to the sanctioned Russian vessel, Lady R, that docked in Simon’s Town in December 2022, now subject — as Ramaphosa repeated on Wednesday — to an inquiry by an independent panel headed by retired Judge Phineas Mojapelo in the wake of a bruising diplomatic spat between South Africa and the US.
This G7 envoy initiative comes in the wake of a similar trip by presidential security adviser Sydney Mufamadi and Deputy International Relations Minister Alvin Botes to Washington, to allay concerns, and to ensure South Africa’s continued participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) that allows preferential and duty-free access to US markets.
“Where concerns are raised about our commitment to our non-aligned position, we have addressed them directly and openly,” said Ramaphosa on Wednesday.
Read more on Daily Maverick: After the Bell: SA’s Russia economic problem is not theoretical; it’s right here, right now
John Steenhuisen, the leader of the DA, which has launched a court application to compel South Africa to arrest Russian President Vladimir Putin on the International Criminal Court warrant should he arrive here for the BRICS summit in August, would have none of it.
Quoting Ramaphosa’s 2019 inauguration speech back at him, Steenhuisen said the New Dawn had evaporated amid a series of broken promises, from rolling blackouts to poverty, hunger and illiteracy.
“After four years of deceit, it is now time for some hard truth. The truth is that life in South Africa today is far worse for everyone than it was even during the lowest point of the Zuma years.
“The truth, Mr President, is that you fooled the people of South Africa into believing that you could lead our country to better days,” said Steenhuisen. “But you are no leader. What you are, is a confidence trickster.”
Segue to a good bit of electioneering — a feature from both sides of the House.
“To the 14 million registered voters who have stopped voting, I say: It’s in your hands to save your country, so switch your vote to the only credible alternative with a clear path to power.”
The top priorities
If Wednesday’s presidential Budget vote debate speech seemed familiar, it was because Ramaphosa several times said, “as we said in the State of the Nation”. As in February, ending the rolling blackouts was cited as a top priority, alongside the challenges of unemployment, poverty, the rising cost of living, crime and corruption.
“There are no easy solutions to any of these challenges,” said the President on 9 February.
“The tasks that each of my Cabinet colleagues will focus on, taken together, will respond to those issues that concern South Africans the most,” said Ramaphosa on Wednesday.
“He lately barely seems interested in his job, and the meandering hour [and] 15 minutes proves that,” Steenhuisen quipped.
Ramaphosa was not helped by Deputy President Paul Mashatile’s almost monotonic listing of government achievements, such as 85% of households being connected to electricity, and pledges of service delivery action.
But ANC Chief Whip Pemmy Majodina had the energy and set the tone.
“The ANC enters this debate filled with confidence that we are making progress, and we are supported by a Presidency that displays visible leadership, vision and a deep sense of pragmatism in dealing with the challenges we face,” she said.
What stood out was Ramaphosa’s focus on the National Health Insurance (NHI), which he previously touted as central to social cohesion and the government’s efforts to redress inequality. Draft legislation was approved by Parliament’s health committee regardless of opposition and professional organisations’ concerns and threats of litigation.
Implementing the NHI “effectively tackles inequality in healthcare in a sustainable manner” and was “a momentous step towards achieving universal health coverage and creating a society built on justice, fairness, and social solidarity”.
The NHI didn’t feature in February’s State of the Nation Address, but the draft law is now scheduled for discussion and adoption in the National Assembly on 13 June.
This brings closer to finalisation a policy measure also supported by the governing ANC’s alliance partners, the labour federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party. It’s set to be an important step in the campaigning for the 2024 elections, as is dealing with the rolling blackouts that leave South Africans without electricity for as much as 12 hours a day.
“We also have the vision and energy — and we will have the electricity — to see ourselves in this House again next year to present the first Presidency Budget vote of the seventh administration,” said the minister in the Presidency.
Earlier, Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa used his turn at the podium to outline megawatt-to-grid targets over the next 90 days. This includes stepping up the energy availability factor by three percentage points, or 1,500MW, getting 80MW from Mozambique for now and 100MW from City Power in Johannesburg, alongside reducing demand.
“A good crisis should never go to waste,” Ramokgopa said.
But EFF Chief Whip Floyd Shivambu took issue with the minister.
“There is not a single cent allocated for the generation of electricity… and you are committing to the megawatts coming. There is no grid capacity. Stop misleading South Africa,” he said.
Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Groenewald called on Ramaphosa to do the same for water as is being done for electricity with the National Energy Plan and more.
“Do what you did with Eskom also with water. I grew up without electricity, but people die if they don’t have water or they only have contaminated water.”
And while several ANC speakers highlighted the centrality of the Presidency — with its four ministers, four deputy ministers and a Deputy President — to governance, IFP President Emeritus Mangosuthu Buthelezi stated: “The burgeoning Presidency has not translated into solutions.”
Ramaphosa will respond to the debate on Thursday afternoon. DM