South Africa


With friends like these — Ramaphosa likely to face intense scrutiny after chaotic ‘peace mission’

With friends like these — Ramaphosa likely to face intense scrutiny after chaotic ‘peace mission’
A handout photo made available by South Africa's Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) of African Heads of State and Government, including South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa (L), holding a consultation while en route from Poland to Kyiv by train, 15 June 2023 (issued 16 June 2023), as part of their African Peace Mission aimed at mediating the end of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. (Photo: EPA-EFE / GCSI)

The whole unsavoury incident will amplify debates about Ramaphosa’s strategic judgement, and questions will be asked about whether the President and those around him have by now realised just how little influence they have in Europe.

The African peace mission, in which President Cyril Ramaphosa played a leading role, may, in the end, deepen the internal divisions in South Africa over our apparent close relationship with Russia. While this debate has always been about the future direction of our society, and whether we support Russia or Ukraine (and thus the West), it is now likely to include questions about the SA government’s basic competence.  

The large number of protection officers, and what the Polish government claims to be a large number of weapons on the support flight to Warsaw, could well lead to bigger questions being asked in the next few weeks. The whole unsavoury incident will amplify debates about Ramaphosa’s strategic judgement, and questions will be asked about whether the President and those around him have by now realised just how little influence they have in Europe. 

It is in the elemental toolbox of many politicians around the world to seek to appear next to world leaders on the central stage because it often enhances their prestige back home. But the reverse is true should that brief sojourn in the global spotlight turn into a humiliation — it invariably leads to domestic humiliation too.

Inevitably, Ramaphosa’s opponents are going to use this quixotic mission against him. His government’s competence is already in question after an accusation that they could not even fill out simple paperwork. Others will ask whether his administration understood beforehand that Poland was unlikely to welcome a country seen as supporting Russia, particularly a plane carrying so many weapons, and people allegedly trained to use them.

While some opposition parties are likely to focus on the cost of this failed excursion that went only to Poland and no further, those who oppose our government’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict will ask much deeper questions.

Friendly fire backdrop

Ramaphosa is now likely to have to respond to accusations that this shameful series of events shows that he has absolutely no influence on the global stage. Various people are also likely to ask why, if, as Dirco Minister Naledi Pandor put it, Russia is a “friend” to South Africa, did it launch missiles on Kyiv knowing Ramaphosa was there?

Pandor herself may well want to ponder the question. Does she still believe Russia is a friend, even after providing a friendly fire backdrop to Rampahosa’s few hours in Kyiv?

This argument is likely to be intense. This is almost certainly the first time in the history of South Africa as a nation-state that its leader has been in a city against which missiles have been launched by a “friendly” nation which knew they were there.

The criticism will be appropriately crisp: if your friend launches missiles at you, can you name any enemies who have done the same?

Those who support the West may also wonder, perhaps optimistically, if this incident will have the benefit of changing minds within the government and the ANC. After the last few days’ experiences, even Ramaphosa himself may wonder if, in fact, his government is following the right course.

Certainly, it is clear that Putin is not going to change his course after this visit.

Already, there are signs that Putin is losing support in the ANC. It was the secretary-general, Fikile Mbalula, (who recently spent several days in China), who first said that Putin must “not feel belittled” if he doesn’t come to the BRICS heads of state summit in August.

Now, that Putin has rejected a mission spearheaded by the leader of the ANC, and lobbed missiles at a city knowing he was there, those in the party who support Russia may also want to rethink their stance.

At the same time, Ramaphosa and his allies are likely to argue that, as many neutral commentators in this conflict (should such people still exist) have said, it is always the right time to talk about peace. That Ramaphosa and other African leaders were heroic in going to a country at war to do whatever they could.

As the Sunday Times editor, S’thembiso Msomi, put it on Sunday, “It is said that it took 158 meetings, spanning two years, before parties to the Korean War could reach an armistice.”

Those who take a hard line on supporting Russia are likely to argue that Poland’s actions at the weekend were on behalf of the West. They could argue that the US and other countries want to bleed Russia dry in Ukraine (as hinted last year by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin), and thus Poland (a strong ally of Ukraine and a member of Nato) was simply obeying orders by grounding the SAA flight.

But this story could well move in another direction.

One of the strange features in the debate about whether our government’s stance is truly “non-aligned” or supportive of Russia is that it could hinge on whether weapons were indeed loaded on to the Russian ship Lady R in Simon’s Town last year.

At the moment, a three-person panel is investigating this, but the Presidency says the terms of reference, the evidence and the findings will remain secret.

This means that the report is unlikely to have any value whatsoever. Ramaphosa appointed the panel to respond to public claims by the US. But now, if no one knows what findings the panel comes to, it will have no bearing on our relationship with the US. And it will have no impact at all on our domestic debate. Should nothing change substantively, it will be a pointless exercise.

Sniper rifles

One of the consistent features of the reporting on the South African plane that was stranded in Poland is that it was carrying a large number of weapons. As the Sunday Times reported, “Highly placed South African government insiders said the arms included long-range sniper rifles and weapons normally used in serious conflict.”

At this stage, it is difficult to know what these weapons were for. While snipers are a common feature of presidential security in South Africa (they can often be seen around events like the State of the Nation Address, for example) it seems unlikely that either Ukrainian or Russian officials would grant permission for South African snipers to operate on their soil.

It is also difficult to believe that these weapons would be necessary (in the event, it turns out that much more important for the safety of Ramaphosa was a bomb shelter in a nearby hotel).

This may well lead to more questions being asked about the South African National Defence Force and what is really happening inside it.  

It is obvious that the debate around Russia and Ukraine in our society is about to enter a new phase with Ramaphosa likely to face criticism of even greater intensity.

But the key question may be in fact whether the events in Poland, Ukraine and Russia over this weekend lead Ramaphosa to change his view. And whether that means our government may be about to change its stance on this conflict. DM





Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Helen Lachenicht says:

    “the evidence and the findings will remain secret.” Here is the answer: There were arms on the Lady R! The question is how do we prevent millions of SA people from paying the price for the captured and corrupt ANC.

  • Ritchie Morris says:

    An Interesting article. One also needs to ask how legal it is to transport weapons, ammunition and what ever else (maybe grenades with detonators) on a civilian chartered plan, carrying civilians too ie journalists and other support. Think suspicion around what the Helderberg was carrying when it disappeared off Mauritius years ago. Electronic detonators and mobile phones are not great friends.

    • virginia crawford says:

      If only this one had disappeared too.

      • Stef Viljoen Viljoen says:

        This was uncalled for. I understand if you have negative feelings about the politicians but understand that these security guys(and journalists in this case) are not the problem. They are some of the best trained security people we have, they work for a pittance and they often stand in harms way. The fact that they protect people that we maybe think do not deserve their protection does not make them the problem.

  • Phil Baker says:

    Maybe just having CR experience a functioning and efficient train service between two capital cities will be an inspirational moment enough from this visit…..

    • Karl Sittlinger says:

      The more politicians exempt themselves from the very decision they enforce on the population, the more knowingly out of touch they are. It is easy to gamble away others people’s future when you don’t have any consequences coming your way. This trip will cost us alot of political credit in the world, and with it alot of real opportunity and much needed support. But CR and his 40 thieves are all rich enough that none of this will ever matter to them, while they gamble away the very future of everyone else in this country with near fatalistic idiocy and I am starting to suspect actual glee.

    • Barry Messenger says:

      Indeed yes, fancy that?!

    • Dennis Bailey says:


  • virginia crawford says:

    A quixotic mission? A great insult to Cervantes’ Don Quixote!

  • Steve Davidson says:

    “Those who take a hard line on supporting Russia are likely to argue that Poland’s actions at the weekend were on behalf of the West.”

    Maybe those same idiots should do a bit of research and see what the Russians first, and then the Soviets, did to Poland from 1939 onwards – and what they’re trying to do to Ukraine now.

  • Christo Reeders says:

    Two diplomatic notes the president should despatch this morning. First, a “WTF, friend?” to Putin. Second, a thank you note to the US for supplying the air defence missiles that prevented his smouldering corpse from lying in a ditch somewhere in Kyiev. Someone ought also to remind him of the adage “if you lie with dogs”…..

  • William Kelly says:

    “Ready! Fire! Aim!”
    “Did we get him?”
    “No, comrade President.”
    “Sh@t! Now I have to meet him and listen to his rubbish peace entreaties.”
    “Sorry Comrade President. We will do better. Maybe we can run him over with a tank?”
    “Silence you fool! Think! Do we have any long range stealth missiles we can bomb Pretoria with? And blame the Americans?”
    “Good idea Comrade President!”
    “Of course it’s a good idea!”

  • Steve Davidson says:

    I’m wondering if Cyril – who is a highly intelligent man according to many sources, including Roelf Meyer, for one – isn’t playing his usual long game and showing up the moronic pro-Russkie mamparras in the ANC for the total idiots they are? If he hopefully is, he’s doing it with bells on at the moment! I really hope we can ‘give that man a Bells’ at some stage in the future.

    • Grimalkin Joyce says:

      I wish I thought CR and co were that clever.

    • Geoff Woodruff says:

      I think you give him too much credit.

      • Steve Davidson says:

        All I can say is that I know people who knew people who knew people who were involved in the 1985 NUM negotiations with the mining industry who said that Cyril totally crucified the latter and wiped the floor with them. Frankly, if he can’t sort out the mess this country is in thanks to the stupidity of both past and present leaders, white and black, we will definitely be in the dwang. But then, what would I know, compared to experts like your good self?

  • Ian Gwilt says:

    It shows the contempt in which the Russkies hold us.
    “President Cyril is in town, bomb the F@@@@@s that clown of a spokesperson will deny hearing any bombs”
    “And hold back this months payment to the cheeky Bas@@@@s until they confirm our Itinerary in August to the winelands and the Kruger park”

  • Hermann Funk says:

    If there would be a Nobel price for incompetence, Ramaphosa would be the perpetual winner.

  • Wayne Holt says:

    Thanks Stephen, notably you didn’t mention the Wally’s behavior… this too was an absolute disgrace..

  • bushtrack says:

    Perhaps the 12 containers of armament & sniper rifles were airlifted because the usual incompetence of government logistics caused them to be late for delivery to Lady R?

  • Alley Cat says:

    “those in the party who support Russia may also want to rethink their stance.” This presupposes that the clowns in the ANC actually THINK?? I doubt it!

    • rmrobinson says:

      I was also struck by the unlikely prospect of hope of change. The ANC does not change. It has no interest in the best interests of the country. If De Ruyter’s book does not get it to change course drastically, nothing will.

  • Pall Catt says:

    What an embarrassing time to be South African.

  • Richard Hime says:

    The ANC is rapidly coming to terms with the fact that the enduring influence, often referred to as the “Mandela Magic”, seems to have diminished. This is contributing to a shift in perception where South Africa is no longer viewed as the uncontested leader of Africa.

    The ANC’s credibility is gone , with allegations of dishonesty and diminished relevance on the world stage. This is indeed a disheartening turn of events.

  • Grimalkin Joyce says:

    Total embarrassment. A shambolic and useless waste of time. Listen up, chaps NOBODY CARES WHAT YOU SAY, DO or THINK. Sadly, we seem to be stuck with you for the foreseeable future. Yes, of course there were arms on the Lady R. Uncle Cyril would do anything to curry favour with Mr P.

  • Blingtofling HD says:

    Great article. Comments say it all. A fool leading fools will eventually be caught by their own foolishness.

  • Louis Potgieter says:

    The patently over the top IR expedition again illustrates that govt thinks money grows on trees.

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    Perhaps the weapons loaded on that Boeing were destined for off-loading in Russia never to be loaded again?

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    A waste of Ukraines time and SA taxpayers money. Just a jol for the politically connected and further evidence to the world of what a failure South Africa and its government is. I don’t think even Trump would have needed 120 others to join him on a “ peace mission!” He should have just stayed home and sorted out the mess here!

  • André Pelser says:

    Freddy Mecury’s (Queen) song “The Great Pretender” is an appropriate comment on the ANC president. The one he is pretending to still be around is Nelson Mandela , who is probably turning in his grave!

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    ” our government may be about to change its stance on this conflict.” – I doubt it, they have said their piece and will stick to it, no matter whether they know it is true or false.

  • Walter Spatula says:

    For Putin, Ramaphosa is just another useful idiot.

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