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Wage peace not war – not only for Ukraine, but for all of us


Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

The #metoo movement, George Floyd’s murder and the climate crisis are evidence of a world at a turning point. And now, after the invasion of Ukraine, we are in a global battle for democracy itself.

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answered

(From What They Did Yesterday Afternoon” by Warsan Shire).

A heavy pall hangs over the world.

As Russian forces invade Ukraine, it is clear that this is more than a battle for Ukraine. We are, in real time, witnessing the realignment of the postwar order. 

In a sense, the world has been dancing on the head of a pin for decades now, represented in the effects of the excesses of capitalism and rising inequality. And in the midst of all this, an ascendent China and a United States itself increasingly weak and unprincipled about the tenets of democracy. 

The European Union has held together, though fragile after the bruising Brexit negotiations.   

The #metoo movement, George Floyd’s murder and the climate crisis are evidence of a world at a turning point. And now, the invasion of Ukraine really has become a global battle for democracy itself. It is a battle for democracy that cannot be lost, even as Russian troops continue their assault on key Ukrainian cities like Kharkiv and, at the time of writing, are making their way to Kyiv, possibly at a slower pace than Putin would have wanted.

Francis Fukuyama was wrong. History did not end. 

The root causes of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict are complex, and while Putin has united Nato allies in unprecedented ways – even Switzerland has come out of its cocoon of neutrality and Germany has vowed to spend more than 2% of GDP on defence and is sending weapons to Ukraine – the squeezing out of Russia from the global financial system is likely to make Putin even more bloody-minded.

Here in South Africa, our government seems unable to cobble together a coherent, principled response to the war. Perhaps unsurprisingly so, given that the ANC or this presidency is so hamstrung by factionalism and corruption. 

On the Russia-Ukraine war, South Africa has shown itself to lack what commentator Oscar van Heerden calls two essential ingredients of foreign policy – “consistency and predictability”. 

Over the past few days, our government has been inconsistent, to say the least. The Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor, released a strongly worded statement on 24 February. 

Among other things, it said, “South Africa calls on Russia to immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine in line with the United Nations Charter, which enjoins all member states to settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice are not endangered. 

“South Africa emphasises respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states.”

A perfectly reasonable position, one might have thought. But then came weekend reports of President Ramaphosa’s unhappiness about the statement. Minister in the Presidency, Mondli Gungubele, seemed to walk back Pandor’s statement by saying, “We will always be opposed to any conflict that leads to a loss of life. We are not prepared to say anything beyond that.”

Pandor’s speech to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday also emphasised the need for mediation, and was far less forthright than her department’s 24 February statement. Her speech came on the same day as the cringeworthy video clip of the ANC’s Cameron Dugmore celebrating South Africa’s 30-year ties with Russia at a party hosted by the consul-general of the Russian Federation in Cape Town. 

It was what the Americans would call a “bad look” and entirely tone deaf for the ANC to be partying with the Russians during their invasion of a sovereign country and amidst Putin’s threats of nuclear war. 

But it is hardly surprising that the ANC cannot be unequivocal. Realpolitik is always a factor, as are the ANC’s deep ties with the former Soviet Union dating back to pre-1994, as well as its ambivalence towards the US and its allies (often for the right reasons, it must be said. See Madiba’s speech on the Iraq war in 2003: Mandela attacks Blair and Bush | World news | The Guardian). 

There are debates to be had about the duplicity of, for instance, the United States. It is the same duplicity Madiba railed against in 2003 and referred to above. Examples abound of unprincipled stands taken by the West against Africa – on migration and Covid-19 vaccine access, to name but a few. Former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said on Fox News, without any hint of irony, that invading another country is a breach of international law. She appears to have a short memory. 

This war therefore requires us to hold two thoughts at once: outrage for all wars and breaches of international law by the US and its allies, and also outrage at this particular war, which threatens us all. 

Those within the ANC would also point to South Africa’s membership of the Non-Aligned Movement of 120 states. South Africa is also a member of BRICS and Russian money has been funnelled to the ANC for party political purposes. (From Russia with love: Company owned by Putin’s billionaire oligarch pal donated R5m to ANC | News24)

 Our deputy president, DD Mabuza, regularly goes to Russia for “medical treatment”, though it’s beyond the realm of transparency for us to know why. Former president Jacob Zuma did the same, and his nuclear deal with the Russians was scuppered only by civil society’s legal challenges.

Added to that, the ANC has long since lost its ethical compass. On Wednesday, South Africa abstained from a vote at the UN General Assembly to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. As the late Archbishop Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”  

Broadly speaking, the South African societal response to the war has been divided. There are many who align themselves with the “radical economic transformation” faction of the ANC that sides with Putin. In a tweet, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla proudly announced, “I stand with Russia.” Quite what this means is hard to tell. On this basis, she would presumably be accepting of South Africa invading Mozambique, let’s say? But these are tweets devoid of principle or reason.  

Another school of thought in South Africa has been that this is “someone else’s war” or “Europe’s war”. “Please leave Africa out of it,” they say.

It’s a narrow-minded view to take, given the interconnectedness of the world. As economist Wandile Sihlobo put it so well this week when he wrote of the possible consequences of this war for our region: “Wheat and other grains are back at the heart of geopolitics following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Both countries play a major role in the global agricultural market. 

African leaders must pay attention. 

There is significant agricultural trade between countries on the continent and Russia and Ukraine. African countries imported agricultural products worth $4-billion from Russia in 2020. (How Russia-Ukraine conflict could influence Africa’s food supplies)

The notion that this is “Europe’s war” and that it will not affect us is to misunderstand the global moment we are in.

What kind of world order will be shaped after this, remains to be seen. 

As Putin continues his assault on Ukraine, there are signs of unintended consequences – global alliances regarding cutting Russia off economically, politically and socially have strengthened.  

Might Putin have massively miscalculated the world’s response? Time will tell. Then there is China. What will its response be regarding Taiwan and Tibet now? 

Ultimately, what happens in Ukraine is all of our business. Anyone who believes in the fundamental rights of people to choose their government, should be deeply aggrieved by what is happening in the world right now. As Jeremy Corbyn said this week, “Nobody wins a war. War is a defeat for all of us.”

Ultimately, it is also about solidarity. It is the same spirit of solidarity many around the world showed South Africa as it battled apartheid for decades. It is the solidarity that should be shown to the people of Ukraine and to all across the world who suffer displacement and violence of different kinds.

So much has been said about living in a post-Covid world. Yet, the world appears to have (mostly) moved on now to the existential crisis of this new war.

The larger lesson must, surely, be that working towards the things that make for peace must be our universal goal. Yet peace is not merely the absence of violence or war, or not having someone shoot at us or a car bomb go off in the street. There are other sinister forms of violence that often work slowly to erode peace. 

As Catholic scholar Christopher Clohessy once said: “… when a child dies of starvation or malnutrition, it’s a kind of violence. When human beings suffer from preventable diseases, when they are denied a decent education, housing, and opportunity to raise a family, or to participate in their own governance, it’s a kind of violence. 

“We need to actively work against such an absence of peace, with the understanding that peace doesn’t just happen. There are things that make for peace: there has to be justice in the way people are treated, for instance. There has to be honesty, so that people can trust each other. 

“There have to be moments when we are willing to compromise. Justice, honesty and a certain compromise: these are the things that make for peace.”

Clohessy goes further to say that as a global society, we need to start dealing with the absence of peace where we are, or we will be left only with hindsight. 

“Hindsight,” he says, “does not un-pollute our rivers and waterways; hindsight does not resurrect the dead we kill in our wars or plug up the holes in the ozone. Hindsight does not take away the visible bruises of physical violence or heal the invisible ones of verbal abuse. 

“Hindsight is pretty useless. 

“Years from now, people will look back with hindsight, and wonder why we were so slow to deal with the discrimination we imposed upon others because of their gender, race, religion, language or marital status.”

And so the violence of everyday life in so many parts of the world, including South Africa, means we need to work far harder to wage peace. 

The interconnectedness of global life in 2022 means that deprivation and injustice resonate around the world, with frightening consequences. DM


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    and today Putin started carpet bombing villages.

    Can’t fight a ground war and win so go for the 30,000 feet method.

    Ukraine needs something bigger than Stingers.

    turn up the sanctions, time to stuff Putin back into Stone Age where he belongs. Russia is a tiny economy entirely dependent on oil gas and coal. Energy will cost more for a year but the longterm benefit of reducing Putin to the point where the Russians do a Tsar exit will be worth it.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    The usual clarity and nuanced appraisal of matters War and Peace (apologies Tolstoy – recommended reading for fellow Russian Putin). Very pertinent reminder of the need to condemn the use of violence irrespective of which corner it emerges – a challenge for the ANC post Madiba/Arch era and only given lip service by CR or his faction. What is intriguing is the emergence of a new language with words like ‘demiliterisation’ and ‘denazification’ to replace war and occupation. Yesterday it became illegal in Russia for any media to use the term ‘war’ to describe what it is doing in Ukraine – with a 15 year imprisonment jail sentence ! Shades of the elimination of the term ‘Tiananmen’ from Chinese and Hong Kong history or slave trade from Anglo American history? And at the commencement of the invasion, it was ‘peacekeeping’ mission (quickly dismissed by Guterres) – presumably the tanks were loaded with chocolates and roses – maybe even teddy bears for the kids they would kill! Shameless .

  • John Strydom says:

    Dudu Zuma stands with Russia! NOW the world will shake.

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