Cyril's marshmallow diplomacy

Andrew Donaldson says the President could not bring much to the table in Urkaine and Moscow, after his small army got waylaid in "racist" Poland


FACED with the crushing failure of his peace mission to Ukraine and Russia, Cyril Ramaphosa has been left with no choice but to play the BS card. Just freely toss the brown stuff about and never mind the stench.

And so, despite all indications to the contrary, he has declared his vanity project a success. 

Yes, it was peace in our time, all over again. Or rather, peace in his mind. And, as such, a special sort of peace, one that few may recognise, but a peace nonetheless. 

While the president has admitted that his exercise would not “immediately” end the war, he was nevertheless hopeful that Kyiv and Moscow would take into consideration the proposals put forward by his African peace mission. Both Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin had shown a willingness to listen to African leaders, Squirrel has said. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Which is sort of true. They did listen. In a patient and somewhat bemused manner, I’d imagine, much like a teacher listens to an errant pupil’s fanciful excuse for not handing in homework in those few moments before detention is handed out.

But it is a matter of fact that, having listened to the African leaders, both Zelensky and Putin then wasted no time in rejecting their proposals; Zelenskyy because he believes peace is not possible until the Russians have completely withdrawn from Ukraine territory, and Putin because he is a war-pig with imperialist tendencies, hellbent on reclaiming old Soviet territories.

The latter, according to The Times of London, knocked the wind out of the mission’s sails by challenging the assumptions of the Africans’ plan, particularly its predication on internationally accepted borders. Simply put, why should Russia withdraw its forces from what Russia clearly regards is Russian territory?

If this was a knife fight, it was one Squirrel had entered armed with a bag of marshmallows. Or perhaps something far more useless, considering the shambolic circumstances of his “security” arrangements for the trip.

Not only was this a waste of time, but a waste of money, too. City Press reports that the SAA Airbus chartered to ferry the 120 security personnel deemed necessary to safeguard Squirrel on his “peace” jaunt, along with enough arms and ammunition to start a small war, will cost taxpayers between R14 million and R20 million. This excludes airport fees, crew costs and the flight insurance needed to cover the military hardware in the aircraft’s hold.

As it turned out, the Airbus was grounded at Warsaw’s Chopin airport. Passengers were stuck on board for 26 hours before being allowed to disembark. Flight clearance on to St Petersburg was then refused. Which meant the aircraft had no choice but to return to South Africa on Sunday — “lock, stock and barrel,” as City Press put it — without having accomplished a single mission objective.

The man responsible for this farce is Major General Wally Rhoode, the Inspector Clouseau-type figure who heads up the presidential protection unit.

Typical of cadre deployments, Rhoode is in no way, shape or form a professional or career police officer. He was however head of security for Squirrel’s 2017 ANC leadership campaign. The following year, he was appointed to the rank of major general in the presidential protection service. Previous “police experience” came in 2006 when Rhoode faced charges relating to an allegedly corrupt tender awarded by the National Prosecuting Authority, where he was employed at the time. Charges were later dropped.

With such expertise at hand, it is hardly surprising that, prior to the South Africans’ departure for Poland last Wednesday evening, Rhoode arrogantly dismissed concerns about his paperwork; SA Air Force staff at Waterkloof had apparently warned him that specific customs clearances were needed if they wanted to transport weaponry to Europe on a commercial aircraft ahead of Squirrel’s mission.   

These warnings were brushed aside. The president’s men, it’s said, boasted they do things differently and the SAAF need not bother themselves in such matters. 

Unfortunately, the Polish authorities do not do things differently. Hence the impasse over documentation at the airport and fruitless negotiations which lasted more than ten hours, after which Rhoode accused the Poles of sabotage.

Poland’s ministry of foreign affairs was however quick to dismiss this nonsense with a statement saying that the South Africans had simply not complied with regulations to enter the country. 

The Polish government, it said, had “made every possible effort to properly prepare for Ramaphosa’s visit to Poland”. There had been consultative meetings and various officials from both countries had been in constant contact with one another ahead of the visit. The South Africans had been informed in good time of  all the formalities necessary for entry into Poland. 

For all that, Rhoode and company came over all Russian-like, with unexplained “dangerous goods” on the flight, a dodgy passenger manifest and a brazen disregard for diplomatic procedure. Typical of Pretoria’s attitude when faced with such challenges, an angry Rhoode informed the media on board the grounded aircraft that the Polish officials were racist.

One of those journalists present was News24’s Pieter du Toit. Despite Rhoode’s massive fail, or perhaps because of it, Du Toit has produced some terrific copy from this shambles and makes the telling point that Squirrel and his peace mission simply refused to acknowledge Putin’s “expansionist impulse” and his plans to recover the old Soviet territories; there was “a complete reluctance to recognise Russia as a neo-colonialist power”.

Du Toit had done his homework — and had clearly been poring over the history books. During the Soviet era, he reported, Ukraine’s “sense of nationalism” and desire to be independent of Moscow had been the strongest of all the Soviet states. “During the late 1980s, which saw uprisings in the Baltic and Central Asian states shift the foundation of the Soviet Union, it was Ukrainian nationalists that gave the final blow to the Soviet dream when it refused any part in a mooted post-Soviet, but Russian-led, commonwealth of states.”

What’s more, Du Toit’s despatches offered a fresh — and disturbing — indication of how deeply Moscow’s justification for its invasion had permeated Pretoria’s mindset. Support for Russia was obvious. He writes:

“Even before the airplane left Air Force Base Waterkloof, a senior officer, close to the upper echelons of party and state and watching a football match between Ukraine and Germany on television before departure, was heard to say, ‘I can’t support Nazis’ before walking away. (If he was referring to Germany, it would of course be even more shocking.)

“Putin’s assault on Ukraine is ludicrously cloaked as a ‘denazification’ operation — and it has seemingly been ingested by senior government officials.”

It is unsurprising, then, that Ukraine simply does not trust South Africa. And who would? 

That country's leaders cannot fathom why the government of a party that had to endure hundreds of years of hardship, struggle and sacrifice against colonialism and apartheid could so readily support a neo-colonialist power in Russia.

Russia’s nervous neighbours are just as baffled. And they’re pretty annoyed at the “non-aligned” support for Putin’s war on Ukraine. Finland, for example, has bluntly warned that it will cut aid payments to those African states backing Russian aggression, limiting immigration and making it more difficult for foreign nationals to obtain residency or citizenship rights.


The war meanwhile drags on. It is hell out there on the frontlines. And it is hell back in Moscow, if what I read in the Telegraph is accurate. The newspaper reports that the Kremlin has doubled its wine allowance for Russian officials to alleviate the stress of the Ukraine counter-offensive: guests official banquets are now allowed two bottles per person instead of one.

Elsewhere, the newspaper says, Russian government officials are sipping cognac throughout the day and turning up to meetings morose and drunk. One source was quoted as saying: “Not everyone used to start their day with a glass of vodka but now I know more people who do. For some, a glass has turned into a bottle.”

This, of course, is the stuff of Hack 101: “National stereotypes, deployment thereof”. It may be a widely held perception that Russian government officials are by and large a bunch of hopeless drunks but is nevertheless crude and lazy to dismiss the lot of them as such. This is despite the well-documented fact that previous leaders like Boris Yeltsin had, let’s just say, a notable fondness for grain spirits.

But, back to Squirrel and his government. God alone knows what’s in the Kool-Aid they’ve been drinking. It’s probably not alcohol. But the side effects are roughly the same: delusion, paranoia, arrogance, stupidity … you name it, it’s all there.

There was the utter failure, for example, to read the mood of the room when the “mission” met with Zelensky in Kyiv on Friday.  Squirrel tried to pull off the well-worn Madiba Magic trick, guffing on on about Nelson Mandela’s example of achieving peace and through negotiation and reconciliation and so on.

Sadly, his flabber was wholly gasted when Zelensky responded with his own Madiba trick: Mandela would have fought the invader, he said, adding that “there is freedom in the bunker”.

Indeed. Like I said, marshmallows to a knife fight.