Ramaphosa gets bad vibes from Putin — but European leaders stream into SA
Pretoria’s relationship with Moscow looks strained after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s comments to Vladimir Putin during the African Peace Mission. But other European leaders are flocking to South Africa and French President Emmanuel Macron wants to come to the BRICS Summit.
South Africa could host French President Emmanuel Macron instead of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the BRICS Summit in August. That rather unorthodox but intriguing possibility reflects the ambiguous place South Africa finds itself in diplomatically as it struggles to shift Western perceptions that it supports Russia in its war against Ukraine.
This week SA, though much criticised for its pro-Russian stance on Putin’s war against Ukraine — and facing US sanctions because of it — looked, at least momentarily, more pro-West than pro-Russia.
In St Petersburg, Ramaphosa seemed to have a rather bad encounter with Putin, which was good for his reputation in the West, while at home he hosted the Dutch and Danish prime ministers on a productive visit and then headed to Paris to participate in Macron’s high-level summit on reforming the global financial system to better address poverty and climate change.
No doubt in Paris he discussed with Macron the French leader’s unorthodox wish to attend the BRICS Summit.
If Macron does come instead of Putin, he would be one in a steady flow of European leaders to South Africa recently, with more than 20 heads of state or government, or ministers, visiting in a month.
Apart from Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, who made a rare joint visit to SA this week, underscoring their European solidarity and membership of the European Union (EU), Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa met Ramaphosa in Pretoria earlier this month and next week German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock will visit.
Several other European ministers have also been here over the past few weeks and later this year SA and the EU will hold a summit in South Africa. “There’s lots of traffic,” said one European ambassador
The unconventional Macron
French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna was also in South Africa this week. She told journalists that she had informed her counterpart Naledi Pandor that Macron was available and interested in attending the BRICS Summit to pursue dialogue with the bloc’s members. BRICS comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, but Colonna made it clear that Macron would not attend if Putin did.
Pandor responded that it would be an “innovation” if Macron attended, but that it would be up to Ramaphosa as the current BRICS chairperson to decide who to invite.
Meanwhile in Moscow, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the RIA news agency that Moscow had informed South Africa that it would be inappropriate to invite Macron, as the leader of a Nato country, to the BRICS Summit.
Macron is an unconventional leader who sees himself as a global bridge builder. Since Ramaphosa has attended several G7 summits as a guest, it shouldn’t be so strange for Macron to attend a BRICS Summit. However, he might also have just been yanking Putin’s chain, reminding the world of the embarrassing predicament the Russian leader finds himself in, where South Africa does not want him to attend the BRICS Summit.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for Putin’s arrest in March, charging him with the war crime of complicity in abducting Ukrainian children and deporting them to Russia. As an ICC member, SA would have to arrest Putin if he set foot in SA for the BRICS Summit.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Vladimir Putin in South Africa: A diplomatic and legal dilemma for the government
Ramaphosa apparently tried to persuade Putin not to visit South Africa when he met him on the margins of the wider meeting which Putin had in St Petersburg last Saturday with Ramaphosa and other continental leaders of the African Peace Mission to Ukraine and Russia.
Diplomats told Daily Maverick this week that Putin had rebuffed Ramaphosa’s appeal, refusing to agree to participate in the BRICS Summit virtually or to send a representative in his place. That puts Ramaphosa in a tight spot and it is not yet clear how he will wiggle out of it.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Ramaphosa meets Putin and presents 10-point plan to end war between Ukraine and Russia
Western ambassadors in Pretoria believe that Putin is probably just making SA sweat because they don’t think he intends to come to South Africa, as he has barely left Moscow since he launched the war against Ukraine in February 2022.
“What kind of friend would do that?” one ambassador asked.
Ramaphosa had already annoyed Putin by delivering some unwelcome messages to him during the earlier meeting of the leaders of the African Peace Mission.
First, he called the war against Ukraine just that, a “war”, and not a “conflict” as in the past. Russia only ever refers to it as a “special military operation”. Second, Ramaphosa called on Putin to return the Ukrainian children to their homes. And third, he called for respect for the United Nations Charter, particularly respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations.
Putin was clearly irritated, interrupting the presentations by the African leaders to insist that Russia believed children are “sacred” and that it had only taken the Ukrainian children to Russia to protect them.
He retorted to Ramaphosa’s invocation of the UN Charter by saying it was the Western nations that had provoked the war by backing pro-Western Ukrainian leaders who had effected a coup against the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.
Ramaphosa’s peace mission was marred by logistical incompetence around peripheral issues like security, which distracted attention from its main thrust. But Western diplomats are quite pleased that Ramaphosa managed to convey some necessary messages to Putin.
However, like Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, they were not impressed with Ramaphosa’s call on both Russia and Ukraine for a “de-escalation” of the conflict. They said this implied that both Ukraine and Russia were equally responsible for the war, ignoring the reality that Russia was the aggressor.
A window of opportunity
The diplomats say that some of the European leaders come to South Africa motivated by the intention to hear and possibly influence its position. But there were also other factors, such as the delay of visits caused by the Covid pandemic and the realisation that Ramaphosa and his government would be distracted by next year’s national elections. So the present is a window of opportunity.
Much of the continuing Western interest in South Africa is because it has chosen this country as a pilot study in how to help developing countries achieve a just transition to renewable energy.
Several Western countries have invested $8.5-billion in SA’s Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) which is helping it to move from coal to renewable energy while preserving the jobs of coal workers and communities. One of the reasons Ramaphosa was invited to the Summit for a New Global Financing Pact in Paris this week was because SA’s JETP is being replicated in Indonesia and Vietnam and then Senegal.
The visit by the Dutch and Danish prime ministers this week was also largely focused on clean energy. SA and the Netherlands launched South Africa’s first dedicated green hydrogen fund, the $1-billion SA-H2.
The Netherlands is also providing €300-million in concession financing for South African energy and water infrastructure. And as part of the Just Energy Transition, the Dutch are also supporting a “climate-smart” horticulture demo facility at the Grootvlei coal-fired power station in Mpumalanga, growing food in greenhouses to help the workers and community transition from coal.
Western governments, however, are becoming impatient as they wait for South Africa to publish more details about its implementation plan for the JETP. In particular, they say foreign investment is being held up pending greater clarity on the promised unbundling of Eskom into generation, transmission and distribution divisions. DM