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What it felt like to be grounded in Poland on Ramaphosa’s African peace mission

What it felt like to be grounded in Poland on Ramaphosa’s African peace mission
From left: The O3 hotel in Warsaw, where journalist stayed after being let off the plane. | Presidential Protection Services members and journalists disembark with journalists. |Chopin Airport. (Photos: Queenin Masuabi)

What was supposed to be a career highlight turned into a nightmare after being stuck on an aircraft for just over 24 hours at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport.

It was on 31 May when the Presidency extended a media invitation to cover the African peace mission which would begin in Kyiv, Ukraine, and end in St Petersburg, Russia. It would be the first time I was covering a story of this magnitude in a conflict zone.

The Presidency began making travel arrangements for the 11 journalists flying with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s security personnel, who were to join him in Kyiv and St Petersburg.

Media houses would then pay other costs, including lodging and food, totalling over R30,000. The media had limited time to apply for visas and the Presidency assisted with fast-tracking the process, which could have taken weeks without its intervention.

This trip was the first in which journalists would travel with the President’s security detail and would be a litmus test to see if it would be a viable option in future.

Alarm bells

When it was time to travel, cracks began emerging in the planning of the mission. The initial departure date was Sunday, 3 June, but was later moved to Monday, 12 June. Then journalists were told that the departure would only be the next day. Several postponements later, departure was scheduled for Wednesday evening.

However, on Wednesday morning, while waiting to depart from the Waterkloof Air Force Base, an article in Business Day sounded alarm bells about the mission.

grounded in poland

Journalists leave the Waterkloof Air Force Base to cover the African peace mission in Ukraine and Russia. (Photo: Queenin Masuabi)

The story outlined the reasons for our delayed departure. It mentioned that there were cost and insurance exclusions for aircraft charter companies as Ukraine and Russia were considered high-risk countries.

Journalists remained determined to cover the mission. A South African Airways A340-313 passenger jet came to the rescue.

On our way to Poland, we hit the first snag when we had to await approval to fly through Italian airspace. Captain Mpho Mamashela circled above the Mediterranean Sea until the required permit was secured.

We finally landed in Warsaw, Poland, on Thursday with the understanding that a second chartered plane would take us to Rzeszow in Poland.

The chartered flight was nowhere to be found. Some journalists wondered if the government had been scammed.

We waited in the plane on the tarmac for a few hours after being told that SAA was trying to get a permit to fly us to Rzeszow and then on to Russia. When it finally received permission, the issue of the weapons came into play. In the hold were at least 12 containers of weapons and other security equipment.

In the meantime, Ramaphosa landed at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport. We thought we would be given an opportunity to hold an impromptu briefing with the President. However, we simply looked at the Inkwazi presidential jet from a distance in the stuffy SAA plane. Doors were eventually opened to allow fresh air in.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Mission impossible? SAA plane remains grounded following initial premature Polish clearance for take-off

That evening, frustrated Presidential Protection Services head Major-General Wally Rhoode called the media to the plane’s stairs to let us in on what was happening.

It was 10 hours since landing. Polish officials had said the security contingent did not have permits to disembark with the weapons or to move them beyond the airport. Instead, they wanted to confiscate the weapons.

Rhoode accused Polish officials of racism and of “jeopardising” the safety of the President by not allowing them to offload their equipment and weapons.

With some information to file, journalists finally felt useful after not being able to submit stories all day. However, the reality of being stuck on the plane began to sink in.

It became even worse after hearing one of the security officers say, “This is a hostage situation, but in a nice way.”

Fetch Your Life’

A member of the presidential security unit, who had already been on the ground, tried to assist journalists that evening but she was strip-searched by Polish officials despite being in possession of a diplomatic passport. 

When she arrived at the cargo section of Chopin Airport, where we had been waiting, she appeared visibly shaken, but ready to make sure that all women journalists could disembark and be taken to a hotel. Officials still did not allow this.

This meant that around 120 security personnel and 11 journalists had to spend the night in the aircraft.

Plane seats became makeshift beds and the tiny cabin bathrooms were the only place for passengers to freshen up.

The plane’s captain allowed music to be played while we waited, and the sounds of Mgwarimbe’s Sister Betina, Msaki’s Fetch Your Life and Kurt Darren’s Loslappie wafted through the fuselage.

Trying to lighten the mood, captain Mamashela said: “We could be breaking a record. I think that someone should make a note of it and put it in the Guinness Book of World Records. The situation of the aircraft is not a problem… everything that was supposed to be done has been done. The whole issue is about the mission and it is beyond me.

“My mission is to get the aircraft here safely and, as long as you are onboard, we will give you SAA hospitality.”

Mamashela and his crew did an outstanding job of making sure that all on board were provided with food and drinks, though supplies were running out. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Standoff at Warsaw airport after officials try to confiscate weapons from Ramaphosa’s Presidential Protection Unit

I  struggled to get up in the morning on Friday and I was feeling down. An SAA cabin crew member, Ignatious Mahudya, came to speak to me but I downplayed how scared I was of the prospect of being held up at the airport for much longer.

Meanwhile, Ramaphosa and his team continued with the mission on Friday, minus a significant number of his security personnel.

The Presidency issued no statement to inform editors, family and friends of what had transpired, and there was no sign of concern for the plight of those on the grounded flight. This apparent lack of interest continued for the duration of the trip.

Black in Poland

At some point, journalists were informed that they would be disembarking, but as we were waiting on the stairs, the buses meant to fetch us drove away. This resulted in a verbal altercation between South African and Polish officials.

The South African officials had grown tired of “playing nice” and had decided that we should not allow the plane to become our bedroom for a second night.

Rhoode and his team told us to disembark and wait on the tarmac. This forced the Polish officials to call the buses back. On leaving the plane, we were prohibited from taking any hand luggage, which meant having to buy toiletries and a change of clothing.

We were stuck in Poland for two nights following the peace mission online, much like our colleagues back in SA. The government had been trying to at least get us to Russia, but was unable to secure clearance to travel through Hungarian airspace.

During my time in Poland, I had never felt so black in my entire life.

grounded in poland

The cars of Polish officials parked at the Chopin Airport tarmac where journalists and Presidential Protection Services members were left stranded. (Photo: Queenin Masuabi)

Everywhere I went, I was met by curious stares from white Polish citizens. However, the few black people I saw on the streets all smiled or greeted me, as if they knew how I felt.

It then dawned on me why Rhoode felt like he had experienced racism from a Polish official, and why the black female presidential unit member was stripped and searched.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Response to grounding of African Peace Mission plane reveals very selective outrage

It became even more clear when I was swabbed for drugs at the airport before departing from Poland and heading back to South Africa. The journalists in front of me, and the security personnel who went to customs just after me, were not swabbed. The men behind me even asked if I was okay, after seeing what had happened.

My enforced stay in Poland made me appreciate South Africa, despite all its flaws.

There were behaviours I witnessed which would never be allowed in South Africa. For instance, a restaurant allows patrons to buy drinks before closing, then tells them they have to finish up and leave within 10 minutes. 

Waiters would switch off the lights and tell us that they were about to close, while we were still eating.

Collateral damage

South Africa’s diplomatic ties need to be thoroughly assessed because it felt like there was more at play than just racism, missing permits or poor planning by South Africa.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Ask us anything about… the African Peace Mission to Ukraine and Russia

It might be that journalists were collateral damage in a diplomatic row which has arisen because of South Africa’s “non-aligned” stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. While Pretoria maintains it is neutral in the conflict, it is perceived by the West as being pro-Russia, which has compromised South Africa’s position with the US. The US and Poland are longtime allies with strong bilateral ties and the Polish government has been a supporter of a continued American military and economic presence in Europe.

There were a number of factors at play, but it felt as if the Poles were attempting to prevent another Lady R situation in the belief that SA was trying to deliver weapons to Russia. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Louis Eksteen says:

    Dear Queenin

    Thanks for sharing this – I believe your conclusion that you and the other people on the plane ended up as pawns in a political game stupidly started by the ANC is correct. And I also believe that the “Security Equipment” would have remained in Moscow, and perhaps some of the snipers as well, if it ever got there. A few of our Specialist Forces, equipped with high-end sniper rifles, can make a difference during a battle…

  • Epsilon Indi says:

    This is a classic case of crying wolf. Cadres in South Africa are all too fond of playing the race card every time something does not go their way. More often than not, the race card is not warranted, which is why many people discount it. Immediately this plane incident occurred, one of the ANC cadres in the contingent screamed “racism”, is it any wonder then that many South Africans don’t believe the incident was racially motivated ? This is something that the race card carrying cadres need to grasp ( despite their obviously limited understanding of crying wolf ), if they play the race card when situations are not racially motivated then they had better become accustomed to people doubting them. The ANC cries wolf with the race card all the time ( in SA it might better be called the “get-out-of-jail-free card” ) which is why people have no sympathy for them and naturally assume it was their incompetence and arrogance that resulted in the incident.

    • rmrobinson says:

      The race card is a valuable tool. It frees one from accountability. Crying RACISM means NEVER HAVING TO SAY I AM WRONG, INCOMPETENT, CULPABLE. Most importantly, it enables one to profit at the expense of the very people one should be serving.

      • Cheryl Siewierski says:

        True, but we shouldn’t discount the fact that racism still sometimes affects people’s decisions and actions towards their fellow human beings. Playing the race card when there are other reasons for behaviour (as in Rhoode’s case) desensitises us from the reality that racism is still sadly a reality. I have no doubt that Queenin felt it and her insights here are rather horrifying.

        • rmrobinson says:

          How do you imagine it feels like, being in the Ukraine today?

        • rmrobinson says:

          Why is her experience related to racism rather than the consequences of the usual bungling by the totally incompetent and inept ANC? What kind of government would have left a plane at an airport, only to flance off on the next stages of the trip, as the ANC government did?

  • Linden Birns says:

    Collateral damage? That’s a bit OTT. Uncomfortable? Certainly. But not a traumatic hardship being stuck on a largely empty widebody jetliner for 26hrs. For journos who rarely have so much time to research a story. It was 26hrs in which to:

    1. download and read SA’s regulations on the carriage of Dangerous Goods on civilian aircraft (see from page 131 of the Gazette no. 48228 of 17 Mar 2023):

    2. do a cursory search of aircraft losses in which Dangerous Goods was a cause or a probable contributory factor (hints, “Helderberg” and Comair Flight 206) and the threat to safety posed by false declarations of shipped goods or the failure to declare them.

    3. read SAA’s policy on Dangerous Goods (it’s on SAA’s website) and ask why it was ignored. Under the list headed “ PROHIBITED ITEMS – ALL SOUTH AFRICAN AIRWAYS FLIGHTS” it says “Firearms and ammunition is not accepted on SAA operated flights”.

    4. ask SA’s Director of Civil Aviation if she granted an exemption to the Dangerous Goods regulations. She is the only person able to grant one. If she didn’t, then

    5. ask Gen Rhoode who authorised the loading of the ammo and how compromising safety forms part of his “protection” remit?

    Poland’s past is undeniable, but often the simplest explanation is the accurate one, i.e. its officials were acting in the best interest of aviation and public safety.

    • Greg Deegan says:

      Spot on!

      • robster says:

        Exactly – if all the necessary paperwork was in place this would not have happened , so don’t blame the Polish Officials , blame the idiots in SA who think they can do as they please and get away with it by playing the race card. In Poland , rules are rules and they need to be abided by, so the officials applied the rules and the journalists and protection detail suffered the consequences of the SA officials not doing their job correctly

    • Graeme J says:

      Superb response. Dear Queenin, please answer those questions.

      Additionally, it really isn’t uncommon for pax to have to spend upwards of 24 hours in cattle class on planes on multiple long-haul flights. Whinging about it is unnecessary.

  • Paul Hjul says:

    ” the belief that SA was trying to deliver weapons to Russia”
    Um the facts speak clearly. There were weapons – lots of them – on a plane with a mission to go into Russia. The fact that the visit by heads of state didn’t require the security details speaks to everything.

    Let’s stop the charade. A section of the South African government has aligned and is unlawfully providing aide to the perpetrators of war crimes in Ukraine. The press who were party to this trip have a responsibility to dig and fully report. Establish what microcontrollers were aboard and in cargo (remember weapons need components Russia has a shortage of and some critical components are pretty light weight and can be procured here). Establish whether anybody on the protection detail would have had a multiple day gap in their schedule. Find out whether SAA was given a complete breakdown of what would be on the plane.

    Rhoode needs to be investigated and probably prosecuted for running a smuggling operation in which journalists were used as cover.

    In our hearts we know the truth. We need our journalists to bring it to light.

  • Bill Gild says:

    The story is getting stale….

  • rmrobinson says:

    It must have been awful, being stuck on that plane.
    But the more I read, the less reason I find to justify accusations of Polish racism. It appears to be a case of just another bungled ANC operation, coupled with the usual ANC indifference to the ‘collateral damage’ (in this case the journalists and other occupants of the plane) of that incompetence and indifference.
    What is really of concern, is the persistent failure to report on the tragedy playing out in the Ukraine. While one appreciates how terrible it must be to be stuck on a plane indefinitely, it is far, far worse, to have one’s town bombed to smithereens, to have one’s fellow citizens slaughtered and raped by an invading army. Why are the Africans not reporting on this?
    Then there is the report, today, in Die Vrye Weekblad, that the ‘mission’ was no African idea, but happened at the instance of Putin’s cronies and his fellow cronies in Africa. Any thoughts on that?
    Further, it seems the Polish refusal to let the plane and its contents in was based on an ANC failure to do thins properly. Really? Who would have thought?

  • William Kelly says:

    I feel for you. It seems as if some endow journalists with the expectations of a Lois Lane, but the reality is far from a comic book. The Polish culture aside, and it’s not just them that’ll boot you out when it’s closing time, the statement made by them stands in stark contrast to that made by our presidency. Which was to ignore the embarrassment, with you as, ahem, collateral damage. As a common courtesy, did you by any chance receive an apology from anyone? And secondly, would you accept a future invitation?

  • ingo rencken says:

    When the SAA plane landed in Poland, it set in motion a set of events unfamiliar to most South Africans and particularly ANC personal. This is because Poland, like the rest of Europe is a rules based system, a concept totally alien to the ANC , whose only notion to do with rules is they must be broken. Which is fine when you live in a country like SA. But if you dare to venture to a civilized country you should not be surprised to come up against another alien concept which is known as “ accountability “ . What happened at the Warsaw airport was a case any law respecting individual on this planet knows all too well. Simply a case of “ you break rule, you stay on tarmac”

    • P B M .. says:

      Accountability. As you say, a totally alien concept to most ANC ‘comrades’. Ramaphosa and his ilk erroneously over-estimated their ‘importance’ and thought they could simply go to Poland and get away with bypassing protocol. They got what they deserved.

  • Mark Cowell says:

    Queenin. It seems you were literally sitting ontop the real story….12 cases of weapons and amo, loaded on a civilian airliner, on a supposed diplomatic mission. I look forward to your second instalment following this up
    PS are DM going to reclaim the abortive journalists expenses from The Presidency?

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    Instead of an opinion piece by an ‘embedded’ journalist I would have appreciated a critical, in-depth story about non-alignment wrt international politics and why it’s important; the lessons learnt from so-called peace missions and why they fail or succeed; why there was such a large military/security detail; and the consequences of bad planning and an entitled and inflated sense of self of the SA government, worthy of the newspaper this journo writes for.

    • Robert Gornal says:

      My thoughts as well inasmuch as why about 120 security people which is far more than used to protect the president of the USA or Prime Minister of UK for example. Did they use the number of security people to cover the contents of the 12 crates of weapons, if so they were taking weapons to Russia because if they came back without them nobody would know.

  • Mike Blackburn says:

    No matter what anyone says… this sounds like a circus. Which airline launches an aircraft without the necessary permits? If they let that sort of thing happen what other oversights are occurring? I’m sorry but SAA is an accident waiting to happen.

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    It is true that black travellers are treated quite differently at East European airports, I have witnessed that firsthand. It is also true that white South Africans who travel in Africa are treated differently too. I have witnessed that too and in at least occasions we feared for our lives. But, two wrongs don’t make a right. And I am sorry that this was your experience. South Africans take a lot of undeserved criticism about being racist. We have come a long way make no error. But in truth, my waters tell me something more sinister was underway during this junket that had nothing to do with race and for that reason I am grateful the Poles abided by their regulations.

  • Derek Hebbert says:

    12 Containers of weapons!!! 120 security personnel!!! Were they expecting to get involved in a mini war?? You cant make this stuff up.

  • Meindert Hoving says:

    You say, “The government had been trying to at least get us to Russia, but was unable to secure clearance to travel through Hungarian airspace.”
    Why would you go South via Hungary and not East over Belarus ?

    • Dietmar Horn says:

      For me the most puzzling question in this story. Can’t the DM editorial team clarify this for an interested readership?

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    This will likely remain shrouded in gossip with no clear picture emerging, but I certainly empathize with you Queenin. I’m sorry you felt abused, whether racially motivated or not it seems particularly small minded of the Polish to treat civilians so. I enjoy your articles also – thanks for your contributions to our country’s wellbeing.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    ” in the belief that SA was trying to deliver weapons to Russia.”. Can you blame them?

  • Val Ruscheniko says:

    This SA debacle can be summed up in two words – Sheer Arrogance.

  • Jennifer D says:

    Racism and sexism are easily dismissed by those not subjected to these arrogant attitudes and it is quite probable that the Polish are racist and they clearly treated our representatives with contempt.
    Something which none of us should be happy about – Poland is definitely not in my list of countries to visit. The conclusion that the Polish did not appreciate SA’s pro Russia stance is more likely the reason for their unacceptable behaviour. Regardless of the circumstances, this was a diplomatic mission and our representatives should have been accorded basic decency.

    • rmrobinson says:

      I have visited Poland, being privileged to be invited to a wedding in a small village. I loved it, loved the Poles, they made me drink Vodka and I made them toat Die Bokke (this was in 2007, just before the finals of the world cup in which we smashed England, so they were only too happy to join in the toast, they do not like the English, but then, who does?)

    • rmrobinson says:

      Sorry, I meant to write ‘toast’.

  • Bennie Morani says:

    Why all these spiteful comments about a journalist’s experiences? Queenin’s article was by no means a defense of the planning for the ill-fated trip. And why should all these (presumably white) readers dismiss an account of racism in a country well known for its right wing xenophobic government and the fairly widespread racism among many of its people? (you can read an account of this in the fairplanet website)

    • Caroline de Braganza says:

      I concur Bennie. Sadly, racism lives on everywhere and Queenin’s experiences should not be fobbed off so disparagingly.

    • rmrobinson says:

      In my book that is not what Poland is well known for. It is well known for its music (Chopin, for example), its history, its literature, its suffering.

      • Bennie Morani says:

        Even during Hitler’s time, Germany was known for its magnificent composers (Bach, Beethoven), its philosophers, authors and playwrights. And Russia is known for its own composers, authors etc. The world is not a binary place of either good versus evil.

    • Cheryl Siewierski says:

      Completely agree. That she experienced racism AND that SA had a disastrous ‘mission’ (and here I’m not sure whether I’m talking about its ‘peace’ mission or its weapons and trained forces delivery mission since they both failed) are completely independent of each other.

  • rmrobinson says:

    Something in this narrative does not sit right with me. I mean no disrespect to the writer. But why are we treated to her feelings when, in the country adjoining Poland, bombs are, right now, terrorising and killing people? Is it not an egotistical indulgence to complain about being stuck on a plane when people are subject to terror in the very country one is meant to be reporting on? And why am I not reading one word from Africans in sympathy with Polish fears about what might face them? WW II is not that far away, and Poland suffered heavily. Is Africa that blind, that deaf, that dumb, to the suffering of others?

    • Bennie Morani says:

      I am afraid your disrespect shines through clearly. Journalists were traveling with the SA delegation to cover a futile peace initiative. This proved impossible. The story outlining the experiences of the members of the SA delegation was a totally valid one. I have seen many articles on Ukraine that don’t deal with the terror that its inhabitants are going through. Maybe these should all have been censored? And aren’t our whinges about load shedding also selfish indulgences in the light of the horror of what is going on in Ukraine (and many other conflict areas such has Sudan and Burma)?

      • rmrobinson says:

        You mean her failure to show even an iota of respect to the victims in the Ukraine counts for naught? She was was part of a botched South African mission. Why does that make her a victim of Polish racism?

      • rmrobinson says:

        I once arrived in Norway and had to observe a Norwegian passport official observe my passport, regard me with great suspicion, telephone left right and center, all of which took about an hour. Was that racism? Should I be screaming and shouting about being a victim? What utter rubbish.

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    That must have been a roller coaster ride emotionally speaking. The last minute arrangements and postponements then the long trip to Poland. Once there the delay with no info and being confined to the plane. The unfriendly airport officials confronted with anomalies which put them on high alert. They are trained not to be friendly and treat people with suspicion. No wonder you were glad to come home! I feel the journos were human shields for the security force and their weapon smuggling attempt. It’s good that they didn’t get away with their cynical subterfuge.

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