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Ramaphosa embarks on attempted ‘course correction’ of SA’s Russia stance

Ramaphosa embarks on attempted ‘course correction’ of SA’s Russia stance
From left: President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Luba Lesolle) | Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Vladimir Smirnov / Sputnik / Kremlin Pool

President Cyril Ramaphosa is despatching special envoys to the G7 countries and rethinking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to SA to counter the impression that the country is pro-Moscow.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has embarked on a “course correction”, despatching special envoys to the G7 countries to try to counter the damaging impression that South Africa has become pro-Russian.

A growing opinion in the government and the ANC — which Ramaphosa himself apparently shares — that Russian President Vladimir Putin should not come to South Africa in August to attend the BRICS summit appears to be part of the same rethink.

A report from the SA Reserve Bank last week that secondary US sanctions could have a “catastrophic” impact on the SA economy, by cutting SA out of the US financial system and triggering a financial crisis, appears to have jolted the government into pre-emptive action to try to persuade the US and other G7 countries that Pretoria does in fact remain non-aligned.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Non-alignment’ is not a real ANC policy, just a useful tool

Late in May, Ramaphosa appointed International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor as his special envoy to the G7 specifically to explain the six-president African peace initiative to Russia and Ukraine that he is part of.

The presidents are expected to visit Ukraine and Russia next week. Pandor met her French counterpart and spoke by phone to the German and Italian foreign ministers on 26 May and to British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly the following week. Pretoria is still trying to organise meetings or calls with the US, Canada and Japan.

Mission scope expands

But then last week, Ramaphosa expanded both the size and the scope of the mission to the G7, announcing in Parliament that because of concerns “raised about our commitment to our non-aligned position”, he was also sending Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana, Trade, Industry and Commerce Minister Ebrahim Patel and Minister in the Presidency responsible for State Security Khumbudzo Ntshavheni “as my envoys to the G7 countries, to explain our peace mission and to deal with various diplomatic matters”.

The impression South Africa has created in Western capitals, particularly Washington, DC, that it has abandoned its professed “non-aligned” stance on Russia’s war against Ukraine and is moving steadily closer to Moscow is the source of SA’s deteriorating relations with the G7.

Pretoria has contributed to this perception by holding a joint naval exercise with Russia and China which coincided with the anniversary of Russia’s 24 February 2022 invasion of Ukraine; by sending several high-level government or ANC delegations to Moscow and by allowing the US-sanctioned cargo ship Lady R to secretly dock in the Simon’s Town Naval Base last December.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The landing of a sanctioned Russian plane at Waterkloof undermines Mufamadi’s US mission

According to Defence Minister Thandi Modise, the Lady R offloaded Russian ammunition for SA’s Special Forces. But last month the US ambassador to SA, Reuben Brigety, dropped a diplomatic bombshell by claiming he had hard evidence that weapons and ammunition bound for Russia were also loaded on to the Lady R.

This claim remains unproven, but the accumulation of these episodes has persuaded Western governments that Pretoria is joining the Russian camp.

A little confused

Western diplomats are nonetheless a little confused by Ramaphosa’s G7 special envoys initiative. Initially, Pandor was the only envoy and her mission was just to explain the African peace mission which Ramaphosa was originally expected to embark on this week, with the presidents of Senegal, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, Egypt and Uganda.

The visit of the six presidents to Kyiv to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky and to Moscow to meet Putin was postponed probably to mid-June, apparently because of the African presidents’ clashing schedules. 

Diplomatic sources told Daily Maverick that, as a special envoy of Ramaphosa, Pandor first sought meetings with the G7 heads of state, but none could see her, so she was “defaulted” to her counterparts.

She met French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna in Paris on 26 May and spoke telephonically to German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, and to Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani as neither could meet her in person.

Daily Maverick understands a phone call between Pandor with Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly is being arranged. It is not clear if calls with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi have also been finalised.

G7 embassies in Pretoria have apparently not yet been asked to arrange meetings or phone calls with Ramaphosa’s other three special envoys.

Defence delegation

An announcement by the SA Department of Defence on Sunday that it was sending a 20-member delegation to Washington this week to participate in the 19th SA-US defence committee meeting is also being viewed by some observers as part of Pretoria’s “course correction”.

Sources said the SA defence department did not usually make a fuss about this routine meeting and that the announcement appeared to have been designed to send a message that South Africa also enjoys close defence cooperation with the US and not just Russia.

The statement said the meeting with the US would continue and consolidate the “Strategic Defence Relationship and partnership between the two countries”.

It said the SA delegation would be headed by the acting secretary for defence, Thobekile Gamede.

The moves in the ANC and the government to withdraw Putin’s invitation to visit SA for the BRICS summit are apparently also a part of the course correction. Senior government official sources have told Daily Maverick that Pretoria was exploring the possibility of asking China to host the summit instead or to hold it entirely online.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa now looking to China to host BRICS summit, say officials

At the weekend, the Sunday Times quoted ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula as saying SA would not undermine its membership of the International Criminal Court (ICC) by welcoming Putin to the country and not complying with the ICC warrant to arrest him. The ICC issued the arrest warrant in March, charging Putin with complicity in the abduction and deportation to Russia of Ukrainian children during the war.

Mbalula suggested that the BRICS Summit would still be held in Johannesburg, but that Putin would be asked to participate remotely. Other government sources have said the thinking is that Pretoria will ask China to host the summit — or it will be held entirely online. They said inviting the other three leaders to participate in person while only Putin remained online would be insulting to him.

Western diplomats sceptical

The interministerial committee which Ramaphosa appointed last month to discuss how to resolve the Putin dilemma was expected to meet on Monday and to make recommendations for the Cabinet to finalise.

Some Western diplomats are sceptical about Ramaphosa’s diplomatic charm offensive changing perceptions about SA’s Russia stance.

One said that the G7 countries did not need envoys to explain SA’s nonaligned stance, but needed Pretoria to act in line with this professed  stance.

Another saw Ramaphosa’s despatch of the special envoys as largely a “course correction” after the Lady R incident, the naval exercise and the possibility Putin might attend the BRICS Summit in person. But this diplomat wondered what substance the special enjoys would put into this course correction.

In her conversations with G7 foreign ministers so far, Pandor has evidently been told very clearly that the six African presidents’ peace initiative is a non-starter if it does not respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, no peace plan will be accepted unless it is based on Moscow returning to Ukraine the approximately 18% of its territory which Russian troops now occupy.

Italy’s Tajani, for example, told Pandor that Italy appreciated South Africa’s commitment to negotiations “towards a just, comprehensive, lasting peace in Ukraine that will comply with the UN Charter and Kyiv’s sovereign prerogatives”.

“It is crucial to foster favourable conditions for Kyiv and to put pressure on Moscow. Only in this way can a path to peace be set in motion and the primacy of international law be re-established.

“We believe that South Africa, and Africa in general, can contribute to our efforts by articulating the need for an immediate cessation of hostilities to Moscow,” Tajani noted.

An official from another country whose foreign minister Pandor talked to likewise said that Pandor had been told that any peace plan would have to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and the UN Charter.

The charter states in Article 2 (4) that all UN members “shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Walter Spatula says:

    The Ramaphosa circus lurching from one self-inflicted crisis to the next.

    • Anne Swart says:

      I’d be interested in a summary of facts to persuade ANC cadres that a “collective” decision making process fails. The NEC is now comprises of top 7 plus 80 plus plus, and each one jostling for the spotlight. I wonder what percentage of the collective are capable of critical thinking (Nomvula “pick up the rand”; Mr Fokol Mbalula, Thandi (I don’t know what happens on our naval base” Modise, et al” And the NEC are the rulers of our country because they cannot differentiate between party and state.

      From city governance, to provincial governance, to the Republic’s governance – the person voted to the top should consider advice and then make a decision and execute their decision. That they either make progress or fail is their responsibility alone and their scorecard is reflected in the next ballot.

      The foundations and pillars are in place. All we need is credible governance. Unfortunately, I do not see any credibility in the ruling party nor any opposition.

      Such high hopes were heaped on Mr Ramaphosa. It is very sad that he is in a permanent state of shock. Always scrambling to cope with poor collective decision-making, and lacking in energy and integrity to take bold decisions for his country and party. The ANC are so used to obfuscating their electorate using smoke and mirrors that their arrogance allows them to use the same tactics on the international stage. ANC cadres, how’s that working out for you?

      • Glyn Morgan says:

        Quote – “nor any opposition.” Anne, you put your foot in it there. All the rest of your article is spot on. Have you heard of the Western Cape? DA ruled, and ruled well. There is your credible opposition. The rest? Nah!

  • Peter Doble says:

    Western governments certainly have the measure of a vascillating ANC whose political and economic objectives are non-aligned. While the SA government would truly love to have its cake and eat it, the likely outcome is that fine words butter no parsnips.

  • Alley Cat says:

    A bit late, but better late than never. And the circus continues!

  • Mike Meyer says:

    Sending Ebie Patel anywhere except to buy cooked chicken is really not a good idea

  • Trudi Schwartz says:

    I am sure there was plenty hustling and jostling to be part of the Department of Defense delegation of 20 to the US. What s jol as i doubt there are enough people in the said department to have any meaningful exchange with the Americans

  • Wayne Holt says:

    Ramaphosa so out of his depth… is he really the one credited with negotiating the ANC settlement with the Nationalists?? Simply doesn’t look like it… a chicken running around without its head on

  • Hiram C Potts says:

    Pure genius! It’s taken the ZAR crashing to an all-time low, the threat of AGOA being repealed, sanctions looming on the horizon, all just the tip of the iceberg, to finally wake Cyril the somnambulist up. Money talks.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Ramaphosa only realises that the door is open AFTER the horse has bolted.

  • Rama Chandra says:

    So… Russia gets military assistance and cover for its intended subjugation of another sovereign nation. Meanwhile the West gets symbols of friendship and engagement? It seems unlikely that the West will fall for that.

  • Enid Pretorius says:

    My word eventually, don’t bite the hand (s) that feed your country!

  • David Farrell says:

    If you are neutral you do not dance with other parties, and why off load ammunition for the special forces in Cape Town when the special forces are based in Durban and Langebaan(close to Saldana)?

  • Libby De Villiers says:

    Cyril still smoking his socks!

  • Geoff Woodruff says:

    This is too little too late as far as I’m concerned. Our government has upset our most important trading partner and now wants to try and justify its immoral actions. I think that they’ll have a very hard time convincing the Western countries that they’re anything more than a bunch of two faced liars. Maybe Brigety should enlighten them some more about what he knows of the Lady R incident as well just to keep them on their toes. Pandor should stay at home because she seems to have lost the plot completely and if suffering from terrible foot in mouth disease. Our only hope is for Enoch Godongwana to do most of the talking because he seems to understand the gravity of the problem for South Africa and doesn’t come across like grovelling, sycophantic, wannabe communist.

  • Sharen Mawdsley says:

    What are we thinking and where is traditional diplomacy? Our government is playing with fire and our citizens will get burned. SA cannot afford to incur any type of sanctions in our struggling economy right now.

  • Sam Shu says:

    Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

  • Rob Glenister says:

    I held my breath for 90 seconds, as long as I could. Nothing happened. The same is likely to occur with RamaDoLitte’s latest efforts and to have Mbalula adding his utterances to the mixture certainly won’t help much either.

    Oh, and could it be that there are some more lies wrapped up in the mix as well? Surely not.

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    “20-member delegation to Washington”
    It is the quality that counts, not the quantity.
    Mr. President, you cannot have a foot in two shoes and in any case, you are late, as always, and already judged by all SA’s most important business partners. Turncoats are generally not very popular.

  • Kelly Holland says:

    The problem is that the ANC are too used to getting away with just about anything at home and there are never any consequences for their actions (or inaction). Fortunately, the rest of the world haven’t been beaten into submission by their gaslighting and are able to see them for what they are. About time! They will all be hoisted by their own petards!

  • Patterson Alan John says:

    The ANC muppets have spent so much time being tutored by the serial liar – Putin – that they are now trying to emulate him. Trouble is, the ANC does not have total control of the media and the ability to pour propaganda onto the citizens 24/7, as well as pass laws to detain people and deny freedom of speech or association . . . . yet. Comrade Cadres, you are using the wrong tactics in the wrong space.
    As you swagger down the road, don’t think all is going well, because you are due a monstrous and unexpected bite on backside.

  • Peter Merrington says:

    South Africa is a member of the Commonwealth. It may not mean much in this day and age (after all India, also in BRICS, is also a member of that club. But it does mean something. The UK hosts the Commonwealth. Ramaphosa was given an honorary membership of the Order of the Bath by Chas III in November last year. It means something, more or less. And the UK has pledged full support to the Ukraine in its struggle with Russia. Surely these things mean something, other than to bewildered people in the ANC? Order of the Bath, not the Shower-Head. Perhaps he is getting the point at last.

  • David Forbes says:

    Dear Peter, please remember to keep to the facts, and to not be so one-sided in your Western-biased narrative. If SA is having the 19th meeting with the US armed forces, then clearly SA’s relationship with the US is probably just the same as our relationship with China and Russia: business as usual. Even the USA trades with Russia still, in certain key commodities. The hysteria you whip up against Russia, and the demonising of Putin is worthy of a Goebbels. I hold no love for Putin himself, he’s an oligarch with ill-gotten gains. However, he is not quite the devil incarnate, and he is protecting the Russian Federation from increasing NATO and US aggression since the Cold War ended. If Russia/China did the same kind of things to the US that America is doing via their proxies in/near Ukraine, the world would have been destroyed long ago. Russia is deliberate, patient, and always willing to talk. It is the West that is so arrogant that they refuse to. Peace will come, but you are not helping the cause, you are inflaming emotions and acting like a demagogue with your writing. Remember, in the end, no matter what the words are, business continues as normal. Look below the surface, rather than exciting the crowds as if we were in a Roman arena.

    • Ivan van Heerden says:

      Tell me how many sovereign countries has NATO occupied vs Moscow and the Warsaw Pact? Simple truth of the matter is that no European country, especially ones subjected to the horrors of communist rule, want the Russians anywhere near them hence the push to join NATO. No one is going to invade Russia however can the same be said about the Russians? I’ll give you a hint, Starts with a U ends in Kraine.

    • Peter Merrington says:

      Hmm. My take is indeed from the Western thing that shaped quite a bit of the post-war world – the Atlantic Charter. It is arguably what underpins the UN. In the Atlantic Charter, settled between Churchill and Rooseveldt in 1941 (before Pearl Harbor), the concepts of sovereign independence and non-aggression were upheld. Sorry if it is ‘Western’ and narrowly UK and USA. But it was those two men who did it. We live in one world and suspicion about the ‘West’ feels rather dated in this day and age. Time lines can be understood as long, or as short. The longer time line of the full extent of the twentieth century argues clearly that the UK was (and is) significant to the very identity and existence of the unitary SA state (I refer to Milner and his ‘Kindergarten’ and their project). Other commitments or alliances come and go. And few people would grant that Putin had any right to invade the Ukraine.

  • Ivan van Heerden says:

    This is truly a government of clowns with Comrade Bozophosa being chief clown followed cloesly by Clownrade Bozombalula.

    So you noticed our currency is in freefall and that AGOA is about to go up in smoke did you there Comrades???????

    Fairly shortly, if it hasn’t happened already the West is going to view Mzansi as yet another failed African state with corrupt clowns at the helm and investment and trade will wither. The Comrades of course don’t care as long as their Russian and Chinese masters keep them in amabenzi and Johnny Walker Blue hand sanitiser.


  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    Just because we’re sending a delegation of 20 on a trip to Washington does not mean we have a close working relationship with the West…it just means that 20 people are getting a freebie at tax payers expense to the US at a time when our exchange rate is at its worst – a further slap in the face for tax payers!!!
    Nor does it mean we actually have 20 people who are competent enough to represent South Africa to try and rescue what’s left of our tattered reputation. Full names of these 20 representatives would be appreciated by this particular taxpayer who suspects it probably just a handful of real delegates supported by family members, mistresses and or secretaries!

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