Foreign ministers of Ukraine and SA hit it off in Pretoria
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s peace initiatives seemed to have thawed relations between Pretoria and Kyiv.
After all the earlier tension between Ukraine and South Africa over Pretoria’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, much better vibes were tangible when Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, met his South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor, in Pretoria on Monday.
He called her “Naledi” and they both agreed they had had “really, really excellent in-depth discussions” at a joint press conference after their meeting. They even found themselves in agreement in defending their right to abstain from UN resolutions.
“Today, South Africa and Ukraine opened a new chapter in their relations based on shared aspirations for security and prosperity,” Kuleba said on his first visit to South Africa, certainly as foreign minister.
“President [Volodymyr] Zelensky and President [Cyril] Ramaphosa have given our relations a significant boost and today we discussed how to maintain that momentum.”
He was referring to the noticeably warming relations between the two presidents who met each other in person in Kyiv when the seven-nation African peace mission visited in June, and met again in person on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York in September and have also had a few phone conversations.
Diplomats, of course, always say nice things about each other’s countries. But this rapport was unusual given the tensions and resentments that dogged relations for most of 2022 and well into 2023.
Ukraine grew increasingly testy last year after South Africa abstained from one UN General Assembly resolution after another condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
After one of those, in October 2022, Kuleba told African journalists, “These abstentions are not abstentions towards Ukraine. This is an attempt to be neutral and abstain from … evaluating the war crimes committed by Russia, the killed children, the raped women, from the capture of territory.
“These abstentions are not about neutrality. These abstentions are about turning a blind eye on these awful crimes committed against the people of Ukraine and the territory of Ukraine.”
But, on Monday, Kuleba was asked why Ukraine had not supported last week’s UN General Assembly resolution calling for the protection of civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations in Gaza.
Kuleba stressed that Ukraine had not voted against the resolution. It had abstained. He said the resolution had contained many important elements which Ukraine found essential and it had supported an amendment to the resolution which also condemned the attack by Hamas on 7 October.
“Unfortunately, this amendment did not make it through into the text. But abstaining does not mean voting against the resolution. And South Africa knows it better than anyone else…” he added.
Pandor interjected: “They [the media] don’t believe that.”
Kuleba continued, “…because South Africa abstained from all the votes on all the resolutions relating to the large-scale invasion by Russia of Ukraine.”
The ministers were asked to explain how the two countries appeared to have overcome much of the old tension between them.
Pandor attributed it to the African peace mission, which Ramaphosa leads. She noted that she and Kuleba had spoken on more than one occasion in the past.
“And I think the genuine undertaking by seven presidents of the African continent, which includes Ramaphosa playing a significant role, have signalled our genuine commitment to helping to find peace.
“And I think our original decision as the government of South Africa that we would be non-aligned and that we would keep open the possibility of engaging both governments was a correct decision.
“We’re one of the few countries … rather, regions of the world, that are able to speak both to Ukraine and to Russia.
“Not everyone is able to do that, because if you’ve taken a side then you’re held to that side, rather than being of assistance in arriving at a resolution. So I think that South Africa has ensured that it is in a position where it can play a positive role and can do so over time,” Pandor said.
Kuleba added, “Every country is special. Every country is taking its own stance. And you have to respect that. And if you respect that and you build trust on that then you can deal with this country, solve problems and have relations together.
“And that’s what we are doing with South Africa, we have to respect each other’s perceptions, visions, knowing that no one is holding a knife behind one’s back… And we had a very candid conversation today and I appreciated it.”
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Though Pandor attributed the warmer relations to the African peace mission, the two ministers appeared to have different views about the achievements of that mission.
Pandor said the African peace mission remained active as there were ongoing discussions among the leaders on the mission’s 10-point peace plan.
There had been progress on two of the issues demanded by the African leaders. The first was that there had been a return of some Ukrainian children abducted by Russia and the second was the continued exchange of prisoners of war.
‘The sole peace plan’
Kuleba saw the African peace mission rather differently. He said at a later press briefing that Ukraine’s own peace formula remained the sole peace plan being considered. He said he had heard about an African peace plan but had not seen it on paper.
But the African peace mission to Ukraine was nevertheless crucial because after that visit a representative from South Africa was delegated by Ramaphosa to take part in the coordination of the meetings on Ukraine’s peace formula. This is being led by Ramaphosa’s national security adviser, Sydney Mufamadi, who has taken part in all three meetings on the Ukrainian peace formula, in Copenhagen, Jedda and Malta.
“So it was important that South Africa became the first African country to join to send the message that this is something you can take part in,” Kuleba said.
He noted that participation was growing, with 15 countries represented in Copenhagen, 44 in Jeddah and 66 in Malta.
“The visit of the African leaders to Ukraine was an extremely important moment of establishing direct contact… We do see a new quality of conversation, we do see new efforts being made in particular by President Ramaphosa.
“He remains in regular contact with President Zelensky. I talk with Naledi, so things are moving forward. There is a big goal of peace that everyone is looking for, but there are things on the road to peace that can be achieved. And I’m glad to see that South Africa has focused on some of these areas trying to deliver specific results.”
Another apparent reason for the thawing in relations is that Ukraine is on a sustained African charm offensive.
Kuleba noted that he had visited 12 African countries over the past year. In all except South Africa, it had been the first visit by a Ukrainian foreign minister. This was part of an “African Renaissance” for Ukraine which had allowed relations with the continent to lapse in the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s because of its preoccupation with its internal problems, such as transitioning from the Soviet era with its state-run economy to a democracy and market economy.
As part of its new African strategy, Ukraine would be opening embassies in Ghana, Rwanda, Mozambique, Ivory Coast and Botswana, with more to come.
This had been a huge undertaking for Ukraine, “because we are in a save mode with our finances. But when it came to strengthening our position in Africa, President Zelensky made a political decision that we will allocate resources for that.”
Kuleba said that traditionally, Ukraine and African countries had two pillars of cooperation: the education of African students in Ukraine and military and defence cooperation.
He said Ukraine was trying to continue offering education for African students in Ukraine despite the war, though at lower numbers. Ukraine could not afford military and defence cooperation during the war.
On his African travels, he had identified three new main areas for cooperation. The first was food security — not only exporting grains to Africa, but also sharing Ukraine’s knowledge of best farming practices.
He had heard there was a high demand from African countries for Ukraine’s advanced skills in digitalising government services. This was a tool to combat corruption and to make the lives of citizens easier.
The third area was pharmaceuticals, not only selling them to Africa, but also making them on the continent. DM