It was almost 40 years ago that Nelson Mandela, still locked up in a South African jail, was made an offer he had to refuse.
Desperately seeking a deal as the collapse of his apartheid regime grew closer, the late President PW Botha offered Mandela his freedom if only he would publicly renounce violence and dissociate himself from the armed struggle for the liberation of his people.
It was 1985, and Mandela had already spent 23 years in prison. But he was not about to betray his principles in exchange for an early release. “Only free men can negotiate,” he replied. “Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” In Ukraine today, we have learned to our cost the truth of those words.
Earlier this month we were happy to receive President Cyril Ramaphosa and a delegation of prominent African leaders on a visit to Kyiv. We welcome the emergence of a strong and unified African voice in international affairs. We are hopeful of a new era of broad cooperation between South Africa and Ukraine, two countries with unlimited potential. For too long the world has been dominated by the selfish interests of colonial powers. We applaud Ramaphosa’s efforts to explore the prospects for a negotiated peace in Russia’s war on Ukraine, even as we remain convinced that Vladimir Putin’s only interest is conquest.
The delegation’s visit coincided with a Russian missile strike on civilian targets in Kyiv, a typically contemptuous aggression that served as an unpleasant reminder of the potentially lethal disruptions that afflict so many Ukrainian lives.
The visit continued in St Petersburg with exactly the result we had warned that Putin would provide. As his African visitors began their conciliatory opening remarks, their Russian host reportedly interrupted with a familiar concoction of bluster, lies and deceit.
Russian troops were provoked by Kyiv and the West into invading Ukraine last year, claimed Putin. The annexation of Ukrainian territory was in Moscow’s “legitimate” interests. He was happy to negotiate, but only if Kyiv accepted these “new realities”. In other words, he’ll be willing to talk peace once Ukraine has surrendered to his armies.
At another point in his discussions with Botha, Mandela observed: “I cannot sell my birthright, nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free”. In Ukraine, we are fighting this war for the same reason that the African National Congress fought for the rights of its people from the day of its founding in 1912. We are not prepared to abandon our territories, nor sacrifice the futures of the people who live there. Our birthright is not for sale.
It’s perhaps worth recalling that Ukrainian support was an important component of the Soviet Union’s aid to the ANC during the long march of anti-apartheid resistance. Many Africans studied with me at my university in Kyiv. We know from the experience of that struggle that victory is rarely won easily or quickly. But we also learned how important it is not to give up.
Today we are acutely aware of the problems that Russia’s attacks on our country are causing for Africa. Ramaphosa reminded us that both Russia and Ukraine are major suppliers of grains and agricultural fertiliser destined for African markets. The rising costs of food and energy are hurting many African families.
We have paid a terrible price
Yet the dilemma we face is this: the war is not of our making. We did not ask to be invaded. We have been attacked by a superpower and have paid a terrible price. Our soldiers lie dead on the battlefield. Our children have been stolen and taken to Russia. Homes, schools and hospitals are turning to rubble across Ukraine. Our roads, bridges and dams are steadily being destroyed, with disastrous effects for many of our citizens.
Of course we yearn for peace. Of course we want this war to stop. Ukraine is a flourishing democracy with an ambitious, creative population. We want to be part of the modern world. Instead, we have been plunged into medieval horror by the criminal aggressions of a malevolent neighbour. The Moscow of today is not the Moscow that once sheltered and supported the ANC. It is run by cynical oligarchs who view Africa as a useful means to an evil end.
Ukraine will always be ready to discuss a long-term resolution of this conflict, once foreign troops are expelled from our country. We cannot negotiate as prisoners of Putin’s power plays. We are not yet free men.
Our president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has already offered a 10-point peace plan focused primarily on nuclear safety, security of food supplies, the release of all prisoners and a formal cessation of hostilities. But the plan, which is backed by international law and the UN Charter, depends on Russia recognising Ukraine’s territorial integrity and withdrawing its troops from Ukrainian soil. As long as Putin refuses to take that elementary first step, we are committed to removing his armies by force.
There is a clear pathway to peace here for anyone respecting international law, the sovereignty of nations and fundamental human rights. South Africa’s inspirational past provides it with a uniquely influential voice in international affairs.
As Mandela once said in a different context: “When the history of our times is written, will we be remembered as the generation that turned our backs in a moment of global crisis, or will it be recorded that we did the right thing?” DM