It’s wonderful to be back in South Africa after having spent the past six days in Ukraine.
I’m speaking to you from Cape Town on a beautiful autumn morning in the Mother City, and on a day like this it’s easy to push what’s happening in Eastern Ukraine to the back of your mind.
It’s easy to think of it as far away, particularly with everything else going on here in our own troubled country.
But I want to implore you not to do that. If I learnt one thing on my visit to Ukraine, it is that this war will reach into every corner of the globe, and it will affect the lives of the poorest of the poor.
This is a war that is going to have severe global economic consequences, whether you choose to take an interest in it or not.
The reason for my visit to Ukraine was two-fold.
First, I wanted to see for myself what was happening there. I wanted to hear the accounts first-hand, from the people living through this nightmare.
I didn’t want to have to rely on a filtered, sanitised version of events, and I didn’t want to have any doubts over the accuracy or truthfulness of what we’re seeing on TV.
I know that we are heading for a very bleak time as the effect of this war hits our economy and our imports. This impact is right around the corner, and it will coincide with the winter months, the ongoing electricity cuts, our runaway unemployment and our spiralling inflation.
This will truly be the winter of our discontent, and when it arrives, Ukraine will be on everyone’s lips. I want to be able to speak on the issue from a position of authority.
And the second reason for my visit was to represent South Africa to the people of Ukraine. Because no one else is doing this.
Without knowing much more about our country and the local divisions on this issue, they were left with the impression that South Africa does not support their plight in this war, and that we had tacitly aligned ourselves with Putin’s Russia.
But as we all know, that could not be further from the truth. South Africans, overwhelmingly, are appalled by what the Russian military is doing to the people of Ukraine, and to their towns and cities and countryside.
The ANC most certainly does not speak for South Africa on Ukraine, and that was a big part of my message to the people I met there.
This included mayors, governors, members of parliament, members of the opposition, former prime ministers, academics, leaders of civil society and ordinary citizens.
I told them all the same thing: Our ANC government speaks only for its own narrow financial interests. It does not represent the citizens of South Africa in its immoral support for Russia.
I assured them that our government’s disgraceful stance in the UN votes, and its shameless attendance of Russian functions glorifying their military on the day their invasion got underway was viewed as a stain on our country by the majority of our citizens.
I pledged the support of South Africa to their cause, and I vowed that we would not stop putting pressure on our government to change its stance on this war, to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to call on Vladimir Putin to withdraw his army, to call for the opening of the port of Odessa and other Ukrainian ports where more than 30 million tonnes of exports are waiting, to call for the return of stolen Ukrainian grains and agriculture equipment, and to recognise that Russia and Putin are guilty of war crimes.
The ripples of this war are only just starting to arrive on our shores now, but they will soon be waves that will cause great suffering to ordinary South Africans, and particularly to a sector of our society that cannot afford any further economic hardship.
Think for a moment about the disproportionate amount of disposable income that poor South Africans spend on transport costs, on staple foods like bread and maize, and on things like cooking oil.
Sharp rises in these products will hit all of us in the pocket, but for those who spend such a large portion of their monthly income on these basics, the effect of this war will be unbearable.
On the front page of the Sunday Times yesterday we read, with horror, about the number of children dying of malnutrition in our country: 199 children under 5 years old, just in the first two months of this year, and those are the ones we know about.
These families, whose children go to bed starving every night, and who have to share slices of bread or tiny amounts of watery porridge, will be our victims of the war in Ukraine.
When global maize and oil prices spike even further, these are the people who will suffer. And many will die if we don’t step in with a plan to shield them from hunger.
That is why I get angry when I hear people say: This is not our war, we needn’t involve ourselves or speak out.
That is why the position that our government has taken - which is to avoid saying or doing anything that might offend Russia - is so deeply immoral.
They are not the ones who will send their children to bed, night after night, with no food. It’s easy to say this war is not our problem when you are cushioned from the real world by unimaginable privilege.
Before I left for Ukraine I spent a lot of time on the road, visiting very poor communities across the Eastern Cape, KZN and Mpumalanga. And I can assure you, the lived experience of the people I met on these trips is a million miles from that of politicians urging us to not upset Russia.
They will be the first to first to feel the effects of this war. They are the reason we cannot remain neutral and disinterested.
Allow me to now tell you about some of the things I learnt on this trip to Ukraine.
The most sobering observation was the realisation that this war is far from over.
No one knows for sure what Putin will do next. There are many theories and speculations, and analysts have painted several possible scenarios that range from an immediate withdrawal to an immediate escalation.
But it is clear that we are dealing with a megalomaniac who is driven by ambitions beyond the reasonable and the rational, and now finds himself increasingly without the option of a face-saving de-escalation.
It is very hard to tell what such a man is capable of, or what his next move might be. But even if he were to withdraw his entire army from Ukrainian territory tomorrow, the effects of this war will continue for a very long time.
Large parts of the country’s farmland will not be planted this season. Much of the eastern part of the country, including ports, are still mined. And many Ukrainians have been drafted into the army and are unavailable to work in their sectors of the economy.
So even if the fighting were to stop right away, the economic devastation - and particularly the agricultural aspect - will take years to overcome.
And this is not a Ukrainian, or even a European issue. This is a global issue.
Ukraine is the largest producer of sunflower oil, the third largest producer of corn and among the top 5 largest producers of wheat in the world. Between Russia and Ukraine, they account for nearly a third of the world’s wheat and barley exports.
Africa is particularly heavily dependent on grains from this region. Ethiopia depends on Ukraine for more than a third of its wheat.
One in three pieces of bread made in Africa and the Middle East is made with wheat from the region.
Already we are seeing fast rising prices due to restrictions on Ukrainian exports through its ports. This is going to get far worse before it gets any better. That is why this is everyone’s war.
The next observation that really struck home for me was the incredible resolve of the people of Ukraine.
Given the intensity of the assault on their nation and the scale of the destruction, not to mention the horrific loss of life, it is easy to imagine giving up.
Indeed, many people have wondered why they don’t simply surrender to make it stop. Some so-called thought leaders have even implored President Zelensky to do just that - to surrender to Russia.
But the first thing that strikes you when you speak to leaders, academics or ordinary Ukrainians, is that surrender is not part of the vocabulary. And neither is self-pity.
There is an incredibly strong resolve among Ukrainians to fight to save their country, and to rebuild what has already been destroyed.
In areas where the Russian army had already withdrawn, it took mere days for them to begin the clean-up and rebuilding operation.
The streets of Kyiv are, for the most part, neat and tidy, services have been restored, bridges and roads around the city are being repaired. There was certainly no load-shedding or water outages when I was there.
The other thing you notice about Ukrainian society right now is how united they are. I met and spoke to various leaders in government as well as leaders in opposition.
They all stand united against a common enemy, and they have made it very clear they will not compromise with this enemy. They will only negotiate when all aggression has stopped.
And given that more and more weapons are pouring into Ukraine to bolster their resistance, this war looks to be far from over.
Every day that the Russian troops remain in Ukraine is one day longer that they cannot rebuild their country and restart their economy.
The people of Ukraine are doing all they can to end this war. But they need the rest of the world to back them up.
We must start by calling it what it is. This is not a Russian special military operation. This is not a two-sided aggression with equal parts of blame. Only one side is to blame here, and that is Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation.
This is a fight between good and evil. And in such a fight you cannot sit on the fence. You have to choose, and you have to choose the right side.
The people I spoke to cannot fathom how South Africa has taken the stance it has, particularly given our country’s own history at the wrong end of imperial conquest and our fight for freedom and democracy.
The academics I met, in particular, were bewildered by South Africa’s official response. Many of them remember very clearly the support given to South African exiles in Ukraine - and by Ukrainian universities - during the liberation struggle.
I was asked, on more than one occasion, what South Africa would expect the world to do if the same thing were to happen to us.
And so that is my question to President Ramaphosa too: What would you expect the global community to do if South Africa was the country being bombed to pieces, and South African citizens were being slaughtered by the army of another nation?
Because I can assure you, if you had traveled with me to Ukraine, if you had seen what I saw, if you had spoken to the people I spoke to, you would not still be sitting on the fence.
You would be mortified by your government’s initial response. You would be deeply ashamed and you would change your view.
You would speak out, wherever you had a platform, in an effort to bring this war to an end.
You would send your own fact-finding mission to Ukraine, instead of sending your party’s cadres off on holiday jaunts to Cuba, Europe and the Far East.
You would use your position in BRICS to put pressure on Russia and let them know, in the strongest terms, that you condemn their war crimes.
You would use your next phone call with President Putin to implore him to withdraw his troops and to open the port of Odessa to exports.
Because what is the point of saying you want to play a mediating role if you are not willing to do that?
Our own Parliament should do the same - send a multi-party delegation to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian leaders and assess the situation for themselves. And then once they have these facts, come back and help shift public opinion on Russia’s war against Ukraine.
In other words, be useful, for once.
In the meantime, I can assure you that I will not stop using my voice and the platform my position as leader of the opposition has given me to raise awareness of the plight of the people of Ukraine, as well as to help mitigate against the fallout of this war in our poorest communities.
The DA will continue to fight for the dropping of fuel levies, the dropping of VAT on more food products, and the dropping of the sugar tax. These are poverty-relief mechanisms that are well within government’s reach.
We will also engage our provincial government in the Western Cape on ways to bolster local production of crops such as wheat and canola in the province, in an effort to help shield South Africans from global shortages and rising prices.
What is coming down the line in the way of food and fuel price hikes - compounded with all our other challenges - is a very scary prospect. We need to focus all our efforts on building as much resilience into our economy as we possibly can, and offering poor South Africans every last bit of protection we can muster.
Forget about factional battles in the governing party. Forget about the senseless and endless continuation of Covid regulations. Forget about forcing children to wear masks at school.
None of those things are important. Like the Ukrainians, we now have a common enemy heading our way. We need to pool our resources and our efforts so that we can fight off rising food prices and keep poverty and hunger at bay.
If we fail at this task, this will be a winter none of us would want to remember.
Ukraine today stands on the frontier of freedom, not only in Europe but in the world.
If a nation is able to, unchallenged, roll tanks and an army across the border of a neighbouring nation, then what does it say about borders, and what are the implications for borders in Africa?
Freedom-loving people around the world cannot remain agnostic while this march of imperialism unfolds.
History will judge those who support this unjust war harshly, along with those who in a time of moral crisis remained silent.
We must choose freedom, we must choose democracy and we must choose the right side of history.
Issued by John Steenhuisen, Leader of the Democratic Alliance, 9 May 2022