Response to grounding of African Peace Mission plane reveals very selective outrage
Why are commentators bending over backwards to justify the actions of Warsaw in holding South African journalists and officials hostage?
If you’ve been following the saga of the South African plane carrying journalists and security officials that was grounded in Poland for 26 hours, you’ll know by now that the emerging consensus is as follows.
- Poland detained the plane out of their noble sense of moral outrage regarding South Africa’s cosiness with Russia; or
- Poland detained the plane because South African bureaucrats were too stupid, too naïve or too disorganised to make sure the necessary paperwork was in order, particularly given the weaponry being carried by bodyguards; or
- Some combination of both.
As a journalist who has previously travelled internationally with the Presidency, I can confirm the sense of absolute logistical chaos that swirls around these missions, seemingly regardless of context. Journalists are routinely kept in the dark until the last minute about when exactly these trips are happening. The scramble for visas at the eleventh hour is always nightmarish.
(A Dirco official once complained to me, in fact, that the outraged reporting over the Gupta family’s attempts to jump South African visa queues was slightly rich given how often South African journalists do the same with other countries when an international trip looms.)
In other words, nobody should have any trouble whatsoever believing that South Africa may have messed up the required documents. This is particularly the case given the almost unprecedented complexity of the mission: to bring supporting security staff for a visit involving six heads of state, plus journalists, to an active war zone. A sense of the headaches involved was provided by the news that nobody was willing to insure the relevant aircraft.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Why was Ramaphosa’s security detail grounded in Poland – pro-Russia perceptions, or underprepared securocrats?
So sure, we probably screwed up the paperwork. And sure, Warsaw is probably angered by Pretoria’s stance on the Ukraine conflict – though we know that Warsaw is also pissed off, tellingly, by South Africa’s refusal to date to deport to Poland the hate-filled Polish-origin murderer of Struggle hero Chris Hani.
Which brings us to the missing element of the analysis on the grounded plane fiasco: Polish racism.
This was something raised by chief Ramaphosa bodyguard Wally Rhoode, but which many people seem astonishingly quick to dismiss, as if white Europeans should only ever be imputed pure motives for their actions.
The Freedom Front Plus, in fact, has already demanded that Rhoode appear before Parliament “to explain the fiasco in Poland involving President Cyril Ramaphosa’s security detail”. Rhoode’s accusations of racism against Poland, the party charged, are “rash statements” for which the bodyguard “must be called to account”.
News24’s Pieter du Toit, one of the journalists on board the marooned plane, wrote on Monday: “Did the Poles discriminate against the airplane and its passengers because they’re from Africa? Unlikely.”
Yet, if the simplest explanation is often the correct one, there are few things more straightforward in this picture than Polish prejudice. Stories are already emerging – stories which are not mine to tell – of the treatment doled out to the black women on that plane, in particular, by Polish officials. They should surprise nobody.
Almost half of all hate crimes committed in Poland are against people from sub-Saharan Africa. After the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022, Polish nationalists dressed in black “attacked and abused groups of African, south Asian and Middle Eastern people” who had fled across the border from Ukraine seeking safety.
The government in Warsaw is controlled by the far-right Law and Justice party, which came to power on an explicitly anti-refugee platform and has overseen a swing even further to the right in Polish society. In recent years the government has abolished anti-racism bodies and raided anti-racism NGOs. It is anti-abortion, ranks lowest for the protection of LGBTQI rights of any government in Europe, and has systematically sought to undermine democracy and the rule of law in its crackdown on judicial and media freedom.
It is on record that Law and Justice party officials have supported far-right protests in Poland where participants carried banners proclaiming, to give one example, “Europe will be white or uninhabited”. Little wonder that the guys at the top seem to love Janusz Waluś so much.
One of the only things that has enabled this repulsive regime to rehabilitate its image in the eyes of much of the West is its support for neighbouring Ukraine since the outbreak of war with Russia.
But the idea that South Africa should swallow lessons on morality and human rights from Poland is frankly ludicrous – as is the idea that the Polish approach to a plane full of black Africans and weapons would be miraculously devoid of racism.
Weapons and bodyguards
Let’s talk about the weapons and bodyguards, which have predictably become another area of attack on South Africa: the idea that Ramaphosa for no apparent reason (save hubris?) chose to bring more than 10 times the number of security personnel to the African Peace Mission than did the other African presidents attending. It appears that the reason for this, which again goes curiously unmentioned, is that South Africa reportedly agreed to supply additional security support staff as backup for all the heads of state on the mission.
Can you imagine the security detail that would be in place if six G7 heads of state were on one combined mission to an active war zone?
Fortunately we don’t have to imagine, because this stuff is on record. When just one such head of state – the US’s Joe Biden – visited Kyiv in February 2023, it was a trip of such logistical complexity that US news outlets breathlessly recounted the months of planning that were required across “the White House chief of staff’s office, the National Security Council, the White House military office, the Pentagon, US Secret Service and the intelligence community”.
The train Biden took from Poland to Ukraine was occupied, other than by the US president’s small personal contingent, entirely by “heavy security”. US military jets circled the Polish border; Kyiv residents were subjected to lockdowns in the city centre.
Read more in Daily Maverick: The Biden White House operated under cloak-and-dagger secrecy to plan his Ukraine trip
Did anyone suggest that such measures were unnecessary? Of course not. Similarly, if it was a planeload of American journalists who had been treated in this way by Warsaw, you can bet that there would be a serious international incident on the table by now.
An additionally perplexing dimension of the African Peace Mission narrative has been how quickly – and on the basis of zero evidence – commentators have declared it a terrible failure.
“Russia reports fierce fighting as African Peace Mission leaves empty-handed”, ran the headline of a fairly typical Reuters report, begging the question of what exactly the departing African presidents should have been clutching in their hands – a written promise from Zelensky and Putin to stop fighting?
The African Peace Mission, the report stated, had “failed to spark enthusiasm from either Moscow or Kyiv”.
Why this is presented as evidence of the mission’s failure is, again, beyond comprehension. As journalists know, when you are pissing everybody off, it is a pretty good sign that you are close to achieving true neutrality. In fact, it is hard to imagine a more ringing endorsement of the mission’s premise than the fact that neither Moscow nor Kyiv was enthusiastic about it.
It is, of course, impossible to assess the impact of the African Peace Mission 72 hours after it ended. To suggest otherwise is imbecilic: a level of reasoning I would expect from my three-year-old son. (“Is the war over now, mama?”)
What is most concerning, however, are the levels of intellectual dishonesty this conflict is increasingly foisting upon us – in the name of a manufactured liberal consensus. DM