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Courtus interruptus? Don’t be fooled, Putin’s absence from SA may only be temporary

Courtus interruptus? Don’t be fooled, Putin’s absence from SA may only be temporary
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends an opening ceremony of a gravity-type base for natural gas liquefaction at the Novatek-Murmansk's Offshore Superfacility Construction Center for the construction of large-tonnage offshore structures (CSMCS) of Novatek company. 20 July 2023 . (Photo: Getty Images)

This, it is clear, was a decision arrived at because the government’s legal position was weak: South Africa would be in violation of its own law if it failed to arrest Putin. It was a decision arrived at with regret rather than moral fortitude.

The wave of relief that washed over the country after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that Russia’s Vladimir Putin will no longer attend the BRICS summit in person was palpable.

Putin, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes related to the organised kidnapping of Ukrainian children, is a global pariah who is responsible for the invasion of Ukraine, an event which has triggered a deadly war in which tens of thousands have died.

It was clear to Ramaphosa that not only would South Africa not host the summit of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) in November should the Russian leader visit, but that South Africa’s membership of Agoa would be at serious risk.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Putin to stay away from BRICS Summit in Joburg, will send Lavrov instead

Sanity seemed to prevail, no doubt heightened by the decision by the Department of Justice to issue a warrant of arrest for Putin following a Democratic Alliance court action aimed at forcing the SA Government, no matter how weak-kneed and unenthusiastic it may be, to arrest Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

But the euphoria around Ramaphosa’s statement may be premature.

What is notable about the announcement is the absence of any criticism, however faint, of the Russian invasion and zero support for the arrest warrant itself.

This, it is clear, was a decision arrived at because the government’s legal position was weak: South Africa would be in violation of its own law if it failed to arrest Putin. It was a decision arrived at with regret rather than moral fortitude.

Ramaphosa said in his sparsely worded statement: “By mutual agreement, President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation will not attend the Summit but the Russian Federation will be represented by Foreign Minister Mr Sergey Lavrov.”  

A subsequent ANC statement returned to fawning over Russia, saying: “The ANC notes the decision of the Russian government and looks forward to welcoming Minister Sergei Lavrov as one of the leaders of delegations from our BRICS partners. Minister Lavrov is one of the veteran foreign affairs leaders in the world and brings to the summit invaluable insights.”

Putin will apparently address the summit by video link, and will no doubt be received with the usual fawning, praise and reverence with which the South African government has always treated him.

The danger is that with the BRICS hullabaloo over, South Africa will find a new way to take the country to the brink with a new Putin crisis.

Ramaphosa has already publicly (mis)stated that South Africa wishes to withdraw from the ICC, a move which would give Putin — and other wanted war criminals — carte blanche to visit the country. His withdrawal announcement was withdrawn as it had been made prematurely, a case of courtus interruptus.

Failing that, there has been much speculation that the ANC will seek to pass domestic law that will exempt the government from having to arrest those wanted by the ICC, something which has been done by a range of countries seeking to hedge their bets with tyrants.

The problem with both of these possible paths is that they would open the door for Putin to visit South Africa without the interference of pesky human rights issues in the future. The outcome of such a visit — or, indeed, others wanted for heinous global crimes — would be, as we have learned from the present crisis, a substantial reduction in the country’s global standing and a reduction in its access to key markets for exports.

More than that, there is a matter of principle at play: the point is not that we should be doing what others do. Rather, we should do the right thing and take a stand on global human rights that is in keeping with our constitutional imperative.

It is no accident that the very first clause of the Constitution reads as follows:

“1. The Republic of South Africa is one, sovereign, democratic state founded on the following values: (a) Human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms.”

This, and not the opportunistic calculations of a desperate political party, ought to be the cornerstone of our foreign policy.

This was recognised by president Nelson Mandela. On the eve of taking office as the first democratically elected president of South Africa in May 1994, Mandela penned an article for the November/December edition of the journal Foreign Affairs titled “South Africa’s Future Foreign Policy”. It remains the clearest articulation of a foreign policy framework consistent with South Africa’s choice to become a constitutional democracy that entrenched fundamental human rights.

Asserting that the country’s new government would “build a nation in which all people — irrespective of race, colour, creed, religion or sex — can assert fully their human worth”, Mandela outlined six “pillars” on which South Africa’s foreign policy would be based. The first of these was “that issues of human rights are central to international relations and an understanding that they extend beyond the political, embracing the economic, social and environmental”. The other five were:

  • “That just and lasting solutions to the problems of humankind can only come through the promotion of democracy worldwide;
  •  “That considerations of justice and respect for international law should guide the relations between nations;
  •  “That peace is the goal for which all nations should strive, and where this breaks down, internationally agreed and nonviolent mechanisms including effective arms-control regimes, must be employed;
  •  “That concerns and interests of the continent of Africa should be reflected in our foreign policy choices; and
  • “That economic development depends on growing regional and international economic cooperation in an interdependent world.”

Mandela went on to outline this vision of foreign policy built on the foundation of human rights and democracy, saying that “because the world is a more dangerous place, the international community dare not relinquish its commitment to human rights.”

It was under Mandela’s leadership that South Africa joined the ICC, precisely to join the community of global nations seized with eradicating tyranny and abuse.

The world has indeed become a more dangerous place. Rather than weasel our way around tyrants, now is the time to reassert human rights as the basis of our foreign policy outlook.

The other road is the highway to hell via isolation and economic decay. DM

Greg Mills and Ray Hartley are with The Brenthurst Foundation.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Pet Bug says:

    Thank you,
    the article underlines that our constitution enshrines equality before the law, precisely due to our past.
    And it is precisely leaders who often need to be held accountable.
    The UK and Netherlands have a different history.
    We are us and our foundation is non-tolerance of anyone who acts against our Constitutional principles.

  • Trevor Pope says:

    By their friends shall ye know them…

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    It is very likely that after the ANCs cash crunch (and maybe even long before that), a significant amount of its funding is coming via some form of Russian money. That the ANC is willing to endanger the well being of this country to ensure these funds keep flowing is entirely inline with their usual modus operandi, be it cadre deployment, corruption or their iron grip on all power no matter the consequences. We simply cannot look to the ANC for any form of constructive or moral guidance.

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      Right. Now how do we get this comment out to every ANC member? Dunno, but lets try.

    • Alan Thompson says:

      Absolutely – if we take all of Mandela’s 6 pillars Russia could be seen as riding roughshod over them all. Russia has almost no role in SA; it’s not like it is China, the US or even the UK. There is no logical reason to maintain this love-in with them. The only 2 reasons for this refusal to condemn Putin are:
      A) The ANC is getting funds from Russia.
      B) Being part of BRICS makes SA feel more important than it really is, and a misplaced sense of pride takes over.
      Somewhere, somehow, it should be possible to find the link to who is donating to Luthuli House…

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    Great article. This should be sent to every ANC member to read. Mandela’s words will carry a great weight with honest readers.

  • Cheryl Siewierski says:

    Spot on. Thank you so much for raising those apparently long-forgotten Mandela foreign-policy pillars. THAT is the kind of South Africa we SHOULD be aspiring to. As far as we have strayed from them, we need those principles splashed about everywhere so people are reminded – feels like we’ve long since accepted that we are a basket case, but we CAN be better.

  • Peter Holmes says:

    To think that Putin withdrew from the BRICS bash to spare SA and his pal Cyril from a legal pickle is naive. Putin is not coming because he knows full well that, should he leave Mother Russia, it is likely he would never return.

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