Putin’s (possible) visit to SA is a point of multiple (potential) fractures
Ahead of the incoming train smash, it is important to examine the costs and benefits of South Africa hosting or not hosting the Russian president at the BRICS summit in August.
With the government expected to soon decide whether to host Russian President Vladimir Putin on South African soil, there are indications that some in the ANC would prefer to avoid a huge confrontation on the issue. This may help it decide on a face-saving exercise that would avoid SA having to host Putin and the inevitable fallout that would follow.
Also, it may not be in Russia’s longer-term interests to push our government into a corner, which means that Putin may not force the issue either. Ahead of the incoming train smash, it is important to examine the costs and benefits of hosting or not hosting Putin.
This weekend, the Sunday Times quoted ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula as saying that Putin “should not feel belittled” if his invitation to the BRICS summit of heads of state is withdrawn. A committee chaired by Deputy President Paul Mashatile is due to report back this week on its recommendations about how to resolve the complex issue.
It appears, though, that the final decision will be made by the Cabinet, and ultimately President Cyril Ramaphosa.
He will be well aware of the inherent conflict here. It is obvious that South Africa does not have the military power to arrest Putin. And it would probably not be in our longer-term interest to try.
But, as it is impossible to change our laws that domesticate the Rome Statute before the summit, Ramaphosa as host to Putin would break the law based on the very Constitution he famously negotiated.
There is of course a huge cost to disinviting Putin.
It is embarrassing for a leader to issue an invitation to another leader and then withdraw it. As any child knows, you cannot invite someone to a birthday party and then disinvite them without seriously damaging the relationship.
Worse, South Africa could be accused by some of not being up to the job of hosting a BRICS summit. The fact that we have the smallest economy of the BRICS nations may only emphasise this sentiment.
Then there are ideological issues and questions about “where we really stand”.
Some in BRICS clearly feel the organisation’s reason to exist is to serve as a counterweight to the West. For some in the government and the ANC, South Africa failing to host Putin would be acquiescing to the West and helping the US in its quest against Russia.
One way or the other, South Africa’s reputation among the BRICS nations (or at least their leaders) and the rest of the world would be damaged.
There are limits to how far this argument can go, though.
Brazil is one of the founding members of the International Criminal Court. And while the way Brazil domesticated the Rome Statute into its law is different to the situation here, it is likely that some in Brazil will have sympathy for the position our government finds itself in — even though Brazilian President Lula da Silva has been sharply critical of Nato’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The possible embarrassment of disinviting Putin should also be weighed against the possible embarrassment of hosting him.
First, there would be a series of urgent court applications by opposition parties and activists demanding Putin’s arrest. The law on this matter is settled, so the hearings would be very short and would put Ramaphosa’s government under serious pressure.
Additionally, our society has produced some of the best activists of our times, and for many, Putin’s visit would be a golden opportunity to bring global attention to their cause.
The form this could take is impossible to predict.
At the height of his political power, the then president Jacob Zuma was embarrassed on the biggest possible national stage. While he was receiving the local election results at the IEC centre in 2016, four young women undertook an action that was breathtaking in its simplicity. They stood in front of him holding up pieces of paper referring to Kwezi, the woman he had been accused of raping.
And there was nothing he could do about it; there was simply no legal action available to him.
Something like this could happen again, only on a much bigger stage, with cameras from the entire world trained on Putin and Ramaphosa. The security at this event will have to be absolutely watertight.
A country divided
For Ramaphosa and the ANC, there is also the prospect that hosting Putin will divide our society even further.
There can be no doubt of the huge divisions in our country on this issue. Some in the ANC and the EFF would be energised in their support of Putin and would put pressure on Ramaphosa to move further away from the West.
Others would claim the ANC had damaged SA’s relations with the West, causing further harm to our economy. They would also claim, with some evidence, that the Russian government has bought the ANC.
And all of this in the year before a crucial general election.
Ramaphosa may feel that it is not in the interests of the ANC to bring this issue to a boil now.
In the meantime, it may not be that difficult to convince Putin to stay at home. If it is true that the US does not want to push South Africa too far because it does not wish to break its relationship with us entirely, the same could be true of Russia.
Even if the worst claims are true, and Russia has literally invested in the ANC, it may not be in its interests to cause so much risk to its long-term strategic investment for a short-term gain.
Through this lens, while it would be a big diplomatic victory for Putin to come here, it may make Russia’s investment in South Africa worth less in the longer run.
And while Putin and those around him say in public that he is determined to come, he may be looking for a way out — if only because he may not wish to leave Russia during his “special military action”.
There are also benefits to Ramaphosa disinviting Putin.
He would be able to claim that South Africa is playing its role as a global citizen committed to the rule of law. He could argue that this shows that despite all of our internal challenges, South Africa stands for something.
It is likely that this would be welcomed by many in the West, and some important economic doors may well reopen for SA. In particular, the US trade agreement Agoa may still stand.
There are many other factors that will come into play in the final decision. But all of this underscores how our society is often a microcosm of much of the world. It includes large numbers of people who hold differing views of what the future direction of the world should be.
In short, there are many who follow the West and many who oppose it, which is why there are such strong views on Putin’s possible presence in South Africa. And why it is such a difficult decision for the government — and ultimately Ramaphosa — to make. DM