AFRICAN PEACE MISSION
Why was Ramaphosa’s security detail grounded in Poland – pro-Russia perceptions, or underprepared securocrats?
Was South Africa’s security contingent grounded in Poland because the country is perceived to be pro-Russian? Or was it simply because underprepared securocrats brought too many people and weapons for the occasion?
Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema had a total of 24 officials – of whom about a dozen were security officers – travelling with him on the African peace mission to Ukraine and Russia on Friday and Saturday.
Comorian President Azali Assoumani was accompanied by two security officers and four other officials, other sources said.
Senegalese President Macky Sall probably had about the same number of security guards as Hichilema.
As a result of having such small security contingents, these and the other three state officials participating in the peace mission were able to travel with their guards to Kyiv to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday and to St Petersburg to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday.
President Ramaphosa, meanwhile – with a huge security detail numbering about 120, plus about 12 containers of weaponry (reportedly including heavy arms fit for combat, not just personal protection) – couldn’t take them either to Kyiv or St Petersburg, because the small South African army caused such alarm along the way.
Particularly to the Poles. The Polish government grounded the South African Airways charter aircraft at Warsaw airport, refusing to allow the guards or the weapons off the plane.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Mission impossible? SAA plane remains grounded following initial premature Polish clearance for take-off
Eventually, about 26 hours later, the security personnel – plus about a dozen journalists on the plane, who had become “collateral damage” as one of them put it – were allowed to disembark and were taken to a hotel in the city, without their luggage.
Ramaphosa’s head of security, General Wally Rhoode fulminated about the Poles trying to sabotage the peace mission and being racist. He said it was because the Poles demanded originals instead of copies of the necessary clearance certificates.
‘Failure to comply’
But the Polish foreign ministry told a very different story, saying that the plane and security team had been detained because of “a failure to comply with standard entry procedures required by the Polish side”.
“Dangerous goods were on board the plane, which South African representatives did not have permission to bring in. In addition, there were persons on board the aircraft of whose presence the Polish side had not been notified beforehand.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Zelensky rejects any proposal for a ‘frozen conflict’
At that point, it looked as though the security team’s aircraft, having missed Ramaphosa’s trip to Ukraine, would at least get to cover the Russian leg, when Ramaphosa and the rest of the African mission were to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg.
But that didn’t happen either, for reasons that are not quite clear. It was conjectured that SA couldn’t get overflight permissions.
Hungary was mentioned in some reports, which made no geographical sense at all, since it is way off the route between Warsaw and St Petersburg. It has also been reported that it was Estonia that refused overflight. That makes more sense geographically, as it does lie on the direct line between Warsaw and St Petersburg. But SA could then have detoured around Estonia by flying over Belarus – Russia’s closest ally – into Russian airspace.
Gung-ho, but underprepared?
But the real reason seems to have been that the large consignment of security personnel and weapons on board convinced everyone concerned that this SA aircraft should be sent back to South Africa as soon as possible.
Ramaphosa, Sall and Assoumani were the only three presidents on the mission, while the four other African governments involved were represented by their officials. Of these, the most senior was Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, who had quite a substantial security detail – though nothing like Ramaphosa’s, diplomats said.
Uganda and the Republic of Congo were represented by lower-ranking officials, and their security details were small, the sources said.
So, was the grounding of President Ramaphosa’s security team a Nato plot to frustrate South Africa’s participation in the peace mission, as Rhoode seemed to be hinting and some South African officials also seemed to think? Was this because South Africa is increasingly seen by Nato countries as pro-Russia?
Or was it rather quite simply that President Ramaphosa’s gung-ho yet underprepared securocrats loaded up way too many people and weapons for the occasion – were they expecting to fight the Ukrainian army? – and so inevitably caused alarm and provoked resistance? DM