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To paraphrase Nelson Mandela, Ukraine’s birthright is not for sale


Andriy Yermak is head of the Ukrainian Presidential Office and chief-of-staff to President Volodymyr Zelensky.

In Ukraine, we are fighting for the same reason that the African National Congress (ANC) fought for the rights of its people from the day of its founding in 1912. We are neither prepared to abandon our territories, nor sacrifice the futures of the people who live there. Our birthright is not for sale.

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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Lawrence Sisitka says:

    Perfect choice for the final quote from Mandela 🙂

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    A brilliant and heartfelt piece that summarizes the situation of Ukraine. Alas, one is not dealing with Mandela’s ANC of yesteryear, but rather with today’s anc – a rotten, putrid and stinking waste material that belongs in a sewage or incinerator. Besides being a totally self-serving, corrupt, predatory and criminal syndicate masquerading as a government, not only have they have betrayed the very values of their founding fathers and the struggle, but the whole country as well. Party interest trumps all else! Nothing but high treason! SA had the potential of being a giant amongst nations, but thanks to this vile anc, we are now pariahs in the world by 1) supporting the most wicked and diabolical human rights abusers and murderers like Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran etc. 2) following stupid and failed communist/socialist policies and dogma that led to bankruptcy, poverty and misery. Imagine that these morons still call themselves, comrade! Unfortunately Andrij, you need to look elsewhere for support and carry on being steadfast and brave as you will get precious little support from these hypocrites and scum.

  • Annette Lansink says:

    Very true. Indeed, any peace plan must start from the premise of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine in accordance with international law. The Ukrainian people have been defending themselves very heroically for the past 16 months. Sadly, Russia has no qualms of using airstrikes against civilian populations in Ukraine, the latest on Tuesday on a restaurant in Kramatorsk – the missile killed 11 people, including children, and according to the NYT wounded 56 all civilians. Very tragic.

  • Rae Earl says:

    Ramaphosa has backed a loser and has continued giving him support in the face of mindless cruelty and despotism. Ramaphosa unfortunately will never change. The rank stupidity of his and, by extension, his cabinet, in their support of Russia’s gangsters is merely serving to alienate South Africa in the eyes of the Western world. At the cost of being boringly repetitive, I append a quote by author Ayn Rand, a Russian who grew up in the dogma of communism and eventually emigrated to America and took up the fight against what she realised was the most wicked and self serving culture in existence. It describes the ANC of today perfectly:

    “When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion – when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing – when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors – when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you – when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice – you may know that your society is doomed”.
    Ayn Rand

    • rmrobinson says:

      I grew up on Ayn Rand. She has since been vilified but, reading this excerpt, I am reminded at the reasons for my admiration. I like the Russians (far more than I like the americans or ‘american’ culture) but, I deplore the culture of corruption in Russia. About this, read, for example, Peter Poerantzev. For american corruption, James Risen’s Pay Any Price is a good read. To understand the English obsession with the lie of appearing superior, read “Why are we the good guys” by David Cromwell.

    • rmrobinson says:

      Apologies, Pomerantsev

    • rmrobinson says:

      In case it is necessary to state, I utterly deplore what Russia is doing to the Ukraine.

    • rmrobinson says:

      And even more so, the utterly deplorable collusion by the corrupt outfit ruining South Africa with that awful undertaking.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Great addition, Earl. It is new to me but it summarises what detestable communism is all about. It is a failed creed that only leads to misery, poverty and destruction, leaving behind a wasteland where only the elite and connected cadres prosper at the expense of the rest of the population. A veritable curse on the world. The next step after its demise, is like Putin’s Russia – brutal and murderous dictatorship where he and his pals, aka oligarchs, steal the country blind. ANC deja vu

  • getgregh says:

    The ANC government is complicit with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. No moral code can absolve them from a ‘neutral’ stance. A true friend will always tell one of a mis-step, with humility and integrity. No excuse or exception. Their mis-management of all state apparatus is a classic example of their character.

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