Tears in Heaven: Why everything Ramaphosa & Putin touch ends in a gigantic farce
Leaving aside Soviet support for the ANC (and other anti-colonial movements) during the liberation era, there are sick-making corollaries between dying Russia and flailing South Africa.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who once helped negotiate the end of apartheid, flew to Eastern Europe to try to stop a war. It went … not so well.
Where is the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci when you need him?
Sadly, his teeth fell out and he perished in a fascist prison eighty-odd years ago. But not before he crafted his famous maxim, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Gramsci-isms, along with a few other Marxist T-shirt slogans, get flung around on South African Twitter like scat hurled by deranged bonobos. But last week something happened to render the morbid symptoms manifest: a South African Airways charter plane appeared on a forlorn patch of apron at the farthest end of Warsaw’s Chopin airport, bearing journalists, a small militia, guns, and several metaphors for the collapse of the human species.
Let’s rest our eyes for a moment on the contested aircraft’s livery: the blue lettering spelling out the words South African Airways. About a decade ago SAA was still a proud flag carrier, with a near-perfect safety record and fabulous service relative to its peers. But inside the airline’s corporate offices, a great gorging was under way, which was the case with every single state-owned enterprise in the country. As the Zondo Commission made graphically, emphatically clear, SAA was power-hosing cash into the State Capture cabal led, at least in spirit, by former president Jacob Zuma.
SAA is now kaput, the way much of South Africa is kaput — laid to waste by lies, bullying, theft and stupidity.
And so, a problem: the aircraft on the tarmac in Poland did not, in any meaningful sense, exist. Somehow though, South African authorities managed to double down: It is now clear that they hadn’t properly declared all the passengers on board, which included 120 security personnel, the aforementioned journalists, and several tranches of weapons and support systems packed into crates, for which the delegation was not holding the original paperwork required by Polish authorities. All of these people and all of this stuff were meant to join President Cyril Ramaphosa and a contingent of African leaders in their endeavours to secure a peaceful solution to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In terms of event management, Beyoncé travels with an entourage this big — but she makes actual money. Ramaphosa’s security detail, which was meant to protect an African delegation visiting an active war zone, spends actual money. So this sort of mission should be treated with serious attention to detail and real expertise. Instead, it is now clear that amateurs performed this job, and the flight jetted off into the geopolitical wilds without the appropriate form of diplomatic cover.
And so, by the strictest interpretation of international protocol, the plane should never have taken off, and should never have landed in Warsaw.
Oh, and while we’re at it, what was inside the crates that the South Africans were so eager to offload? Biltong and chutney chips? A nuclear warhead? One of Johannesburg’s errant tigers designated for an oligarch’s shag pad? Rob Hersov?
Or was this a repeat of another epic screw-up — the Russian Lady R cargo ship that docked in Simon’s Town last December, and then fled in the dark of night with who-knows-what in its cargo hold?
Nope. Just underwear, flak jackets and toys for the security hacks. This was not, sadly, a cocaine or cash smuggling trip.
Which brings us to the SAA charter plane’s inadvertent hosts. The Polish are, how shall we say, unpolished concerning the modern politesse of harmonious race relations. As my colleague Rebecca Davis noted, the country’s governing Law and Justice party tends far right and has expressed disdain for the LGBTQ community, George Soros (AKA Jews), blacks, and Disney remakes. They stand in alignment with the West regarding the war in Ukraine — and are thus deeply suspicious of South Africa’s stance on the matter — and have, very weirdly, demanded the extradition of extremist nut job Janusz Waluś, who murdered Chris Hani in 1993, almost plunging South Africa into an all-out civil war. Additionally, in April of this year, South Africa halted arms sales to Poland, in an apparent attempt to avoid antagonising the Russians.
Perhaps worse in this instance, Polish corruption works differently from our corruption, in that they like to see the money up front. Given these conditions, it was not possible to sweet talk a militia into their country and emerge with a positive impression of Polish hospitality. In other words, this was a collision of rancid national bureaucracies: Incompetence and hubris met racism and Homo Post-Sovieticus in a parking bay at Warsaw’s airport. The Poles were never — never — going to give the South Africans a free pass.
And so, as the non-existent plane idled on the tarmac, a diplomatic crisis unfolded — one that threatened to derail the peace mission that was going ahead regardless in Kyiv.
As the African leaders lumbered around the Ukrainian capital, conferring with President Vlodomyr Zelensky and other local leaders, several explosive welcome gifts were sent from Russia, presumably with love. Kyiv has endured a bombing campaign for the past 18 months or so, but while the explosions popped off on this particular day, and while the luminaries were ushered into a bunker for a fully authentic tourism experience, Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, insisted that there were no explosions.
The phantom booms, reported widely by independent media, and later confirmed by Ramaphosa himself, represented a bizarre act of denialism that literally has no precedent in international relations. This was the equivalent of Chemical Ali standing in a frontline trench insisting that it was an organic vegan restaurant.
Seven percent of Africa’s leadership was in Kyiv during a bout of Russian showmanship so glib and slimy that it beggars belief. And the South African spokesperson decided to engage in a bout of ANC flimflam vs Reality, in which Reality always delivers a humiliating KO.
Meanwhile, back in Warsaw, the SAA plane, now mostly carrying disgruntlement and rage, was meant to follow the African dignitaries to St Petersburg to meet the paymaster-in-chief, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But in a sudden act of malevolent cartography, Hungary leapt up from behind Poland and interrupted the flight path. Indeed, somehow, the relevant South African officials had muddled up the planet, insisting that Hungary, which was behind them, was blocking their way to Russia, which was in front of them.
Someone needs to introduce the mission planners to Google Earth.
But the show must go on. Following a press conference that sort-of expressed solidarity with the Ukrainians while not pissing off the Russians — a fine line, indeed — Ramaphosa and the delegation made their way to meet Putin, who due to his somewhat paradoxical hatred of Nato, Nazis and Western Pride parades, kicked off all this fuss in the first place.
The engagement between the Russian leader and the Africans was filled with bonhomie, but as Ramaphosa read off his ten-point plan to bring a resolution to the conflict, it was clear that there was nothing nimble enough to generate a peace initiative. There is, of course, the sticky problem of Russia’s continuous “special military operation” within Ukrainian borders — an act that threatens the very notion of sovereignty on which international relations are premised. Like most non-aligned folks, Ramaphosa and his African counterparts could not magic or back slap their way out of that one.
War is war by any other name.
Why did this mission fall into such farcical disarray?
In order to answer this, and without drawing a moral equivalence, we have to point out a sinister overlap between the peace mission and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Whatever justifications the Putin regime may have for their actions, they preside over a gangster state that has been gutted — from top to bottom — by pervasive corruption. Along with this corruption comes a species of cruelty and violence, but also unrelenting stupidity, all of which render the mechanisms of a functioning state moot.
When Putin decided to roll his “second best army in the world” into sovereign Ukrainian territory, he had already lost the war. The invasion almost immediately exposed the vicious gangsterism that had shredded his military’s capacity — the cruel hazing and exploitation of young recruits; the lack of maintenance of military vehicles; the lack of lateral thinking (of any thinking) in the top brass, who simply expressed slavish loyalty to The Boss.
Before the invasion, The Boss was widely regarded as a strategic genius. But Putin is not a genius. In fact, he simply got lucky for the longest time. He was parachuted into power as the best-worst option after the sacking of the Yeltsin era, and now rules a vast territory, with a population of 150 million and the most significant natural resource dividend of any country on Earth. Russia basically shits commodities. But it also bears an incredibly rich cultural and scientific history, all of which boded well for the future. Instead, it’s all been squandered, because Putin’s empire — like all empires — is ipso facto anti-progress reactionary.
The philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell said that power is the production of intended effects. If so, then Putin has very little power. His intended effect was to destroy and replace Ukraine’s government, shatter Nato, discombobulate the “Western alliance”, further entrench European addiction to cheap Russian oil and gas, return his empire to its former glory, and the Russian Federation to its rightful place as a top-ranking superpower.
Oh, and to reestablish the lucrative pro-Kremlin corruption machine that pertained in Ukraine prior to the 2014 Velvet Revolution, the greatest beneficiary of which was — yup — Putin Himself.
As it turns out, he has failed in every single one of these objectives, resulting in around 200,000 Russian casualties, and a slightly smaller number in Ukraine. His non-ideological ideology — imperial anti-wokeism — is a bargain-basement version of white supremacy that doesn’t have the underpinning of a single actual idea. Thanks to Putin and his men, Russia is a dead country, stuck in a ghastly interregnum, oozing morbid symptoms.
The Ukraine invasion marks its end point. It may take a while, but it’s cooked.
This is the country South Africa’s leaders have chosen non-aligned alignment with? Leaving aside Soviet support for the ANC (and other anti-colonial movements) during the liberation era, there are sick-making corollaries between dying Russia and flailing South Africa. The latter, too, has become a gangster state, in which almost nothing works the way it should. Short-termism, political and geopolitical myopia, greed, ideological wishy-washiness and a regime full of losers is the legacy the ANC trails behind itself.
In the ’90s and zeroes, despite irritating the West now and again, South Africa could dribble the diplomatic ball through the defenders of the Washington consensus with real skill. But since the Zuma-era destruction of the intelligence services, and in the general amateurisation of the country, there is no longer access to the necessary diplomatic expertise.
The gutting of Dirco, the SSA, the SANDF, and SAA — a massacre of acronyms — led to the farce in Poland. (It’s also worth noting that, despite the racism displayed by Polish officials, there has been no move to officially call out this behaviour by the South African authorities — no demarche, no recall of the ambassador, no statements of outrage.)
The truly enraging thing about this slapstick peace mission is that it could have nudged decentre-ing of geopolitics from the usual superpower and superpower-adjacent Western players, and their foes in the East. The Ukraine invasion — I hate to say it — presented an opportunity for South Africa to step in and find a middle way, to act as a genuinely non-aligned arbiter that could help nudge the West and East out of their stupid, boring proxy battles.
Why should food security in African countries be threatened by an unnecessary war in Eastern Europe? Why should Africans starve while they fight?
This cannot be allowed to stand. And yet, South Africa has blown it.
Sure, the unseriousness, the incompetence, and the corruption result in some genuine comedy (so long as you’re not stuck on the plane). But as far as interregnums go, this one is excessively morbid. And it can’t end soon enough. DM