Putin: Double trouble for SA

Andrew Donaldson on arresting, or not arresting, the peace-loving Russian President during his upcoming visit


It has been a while since we paid much attention to the ramblings of EFF commander-in-chief Julius Malema. However, his undertaking this week that Vladimir Putin will not be arrested should he visit South Africa has given the regulars pause for thought, here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”).

It should be quite obvious by now that Pretoria has every intention of ignoring the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court against the Russian president for alleged war crimes. South Africa is a signatory to the Rome Statute that set up the ICC and is thus bound to execute the warrant should Putin arrive in August for a Brics summit.

But the government is reportedly consulting lawyers in a bid to weasel out of its obligations. As international relations and co-operation minister Naledi Pandor told the SABC: “We are awaiting a refreshed legal opinion on the matter. We are concerned about the situation of the people of Ukraine. What we would want to do is be in a position where we could continue to engage with both countries to persuade them towards peace.” ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

A “refreshed” legal opinion, incidentally, is one that neatly dovetails with your own expert intuition. You may have to scratch around quite a bit until you find one. But that is by the by. What intrigues is Malema’s avowal to “protect” the Russian warmonger from the ICC, which wants to prosecute him for his alleged involvement in the deportation of almost 14 000 children from Ukraine. 

“Putin is welcome to visit South Africa,” the Citizen quoted Malema as saying. “No-one is going to arrest Putin. If needs be, we will go and fetch Putin from the airport to his meetings. He will address, finish all his meetings and we will take him back to the airport. We are not going to be told [what to do] by these hypocrites of the ICC.”

Thus the guff from the leader of an organisation that failed to organise transport for his supporters to attend the so-called nation-wide shutdown. A more imaginative leader would have argued the low turnout was due to the fact that his call for a national shutdown was so successful even the bus companies failed to pitch up for work. 

But supposing a Russian delegation pitch up for the Brics bash in Durban. Would the “genuine” Vladimir Putin be among them?

Following recent video footage of Putin paying a surprise visit to the occupied city of Mariupol reports that emerged suggesting that the Russian leader is using one or more body doubles.  

Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, told the Daily Mail that the deployment of body doubles began as Putin’s influence in the Kremlin waned. The doubles were detected, Budanov said, when they stood in for Putin on “special occasions”. Following the invasion of Ukraine, however, their deployment has become more commonplace.

“We know specifically about three people that keep appearing,” Budanov said, “but how many there are, we don't know. They all had plastic surgery to look alike. The one thing that gives them away is their height. It's visible in videos and pictures. Also gesturing, body language, and earlobes, since they are unique for every person.”

According to ITV, a video on the body double theory has now gone viral. In addition to speculation about his ears, there is much chatter about a mole on the Russian leader’s face that is constantly shifting position. There is also talk that the surgical procedures the body doubles are subjected to is now showing age-related strain, and remarks about rogue goitres, double chins and dewlaps are not uncommon. 

The good news, though, about the body doubles is that they offer the ANC government a convenient manner in which to circumvent the ICC arrest warrant. South Africa could, with great fanfare, hand a bogus Putin over to the court for trial in the The Hague. 

This would do much to repair the damage to the country’s reputation that followed the Zuma administration’s refusal to execute the ICC’s arrest warrant against Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir.  This was in 2015, when Bashir, accused of genocide, was swanning about the Sandton Convention Centre at an African Union summit. The government claimed it was not obliged to arrest those accused of crimes against humanity so long as they were sitting heads of state.  

The scorn and derision from the international community came on thick and fast and, being a hyper-sensitive bunch, Ramaphosa’s government obviously doesn’t want a repeat of that diplomatic horrorshow. But arresting a Putin body double would allow Squirrel’s nutjobs an ideal reverse ferret opportunity.

True, tough questions would be asked when the body double’s true identity was revealed, maybe after an earlobe and mole examination. But the ANC are experts at feigning innocence and can, without blinking, protest that they acted in good faith. 

Obviously, the real Vladimir Putin would have to be in on the scheme. Nothing, after all, must be allowed to compromise Pretoria’s neutral stance regarding its “historical” ally’s brutal war in Europe. 

As for Malema … well, the guy can’t even get it together to hire a few buses for his supporters in their bid to cripple the country. So how in the hell will he manage to pick anyone up at the airport?

Return to the Heart of Dickness

I once wrote a small book, a tract more like, on Brett Murray’s controversial painting of Accused Number One and his penis. I’m not sure many people read Heart of Dickness: Jacob Zuma and The Spear (Tafelberg, 2012), as it was only available in a digital format

At the time it was hoped that the ebook “short”, as it was called, would become a popular format for long-form journalism. It was a short-lived idea; most South Africans are notoriously aliterate and, among those who aren’t, there remains a widespread reluctance to pay for “news” content.

However, one person who did read the book, I’m pleased to report, was the celebrated English novelist Nicola Barker. Ten years ago, in a wry piece on her Lenten sacrifices, she showered it with praise as a guest diarist for the Financial Times:

“My sister … went on to tell me that an excellent ebook had recently been published about the controversy, so [my partner] Ben promptly downloaded it on to my iPad (it’s Lent — I couldn't download it, obviously. In fact, I couldn't download it even if I could download it because I lack the requisite technical facility). The book is called Heart of Dickness (classic title!) by Andrew Donaldson. It’s only short but it’s an utterly fascinating, dry, funny and at points rather sobering investigation into the conflict between creative expression and human dignity in the post-apartheid era. It’s an absolute snip at a mere £2, and I’ve been feasting on it all week. Well, when I say feasting…”

Barker’s comments were especially welcome. When the furore over Murray’s painting erupted, with the ANC mobilising against the Johannesburg gallery that exhibited, there was a great deal of clamour about the rights to freedom of expression. So much so, that it overshadowed the intentions and meaning of Hail to the Thief II, the Murray exhibition of which The Spear was only a minor, satirical work. 

Zuma, his family and the ANC approached the courts to have the painting banned. In his responding South Gauteng High Court affidavit, Murray explained why he considered satire as “critical entertainment”: 

“While I might be attacking and ridiculing specific targets, what I am actually doing is articulating my vision of an ideal world in which I want to live. In this instance, that preferred ideal in the South African context is the Freedom Charter. What satire can do in a political context is that it can be seen as a political contestation as it opens a political debate.”

But not everyone agreed. Some commentators, regarded as progressive and erudite, felt that a painting of the president and his penis was somehow too shabby a hill on which to mount a defence of artistic freedom.

Too grubby and low-rent, in other words, and there were those uncomfortable accusations of racism to boot, a white man painting a picture of a black man’s genitals. Not just any man, mind you, but a father who, like many black men, felt these slights rather deeply.

We forget, of course, that some of the most celebrated victories for freedom of expression have centred on works that were deemed utterly offensive at the time. Consider, for example, the watershed obscenity trial in 1960 against Penguin Books for publishing DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover

The book had been privately published more than 30 years previously, but attempts to make it available for general readers were met with outright hostility by the British establishment, which balked at its graphic descriptions of the physical relationship between a working-class man and an upper-class woman.

As the prosecutor in that case, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, put it to the jury: “Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or servants to read?” (Jury members burst out laughing in response.)

I was reminded of all this by the current hoo-hah regarding the “updating” of Roald Dahl’s children’s books for more contemporary readers. Dahl, of course, was a notorious misogynist and anti-semite. This has not tempered the outrage that many feel regarding the bowdlerisation of his books and, indeed, works by other writers, like Agatha Christie.

Perhaps the best take on the controversy has come from His Dark Materials author, Philip Pullman, who argues that Dahl’s books should be left alone and allowed to quietly go “out of print” rather be reworked to render them less “controversial”. Some of the changes are indeed ludicrous. The word “fat”, for example, has been removed from every one of Dahl’s children’s books. 

Pullman’s broader point is more telling, though, and that is that the recycling of Roald Dahl’s books suggests an industrial literary complex that exists to the detriment of more contemporary authors. 

“If [Dahl] does offend us,” he told the BBC, “let him go out of print. That’s what I’d say. Read Phil Earle, SF Said, Frances Hardinge, Michael Morpurgo, Malorie Blackman. Read Mini Grey, Helen Cooper, Jaqueline Wilson, Beverley Naidoo. Read all these wonderful authors who are writing today who don’t get as much of a look-in because of the massive commercial gravity of people like Roald Dahl.”

That said, I can’t wait for the botherers to rediscover the works of Herman Charles Bosman. That’s going to be fun.

The gospel

Meanwhile, another Putin supporter, my old friend Carl Niehaus, has exciting news: he has been beavering away on his memoirs. Earlier this week he tweeted: “Got up as usual this morning at 04:00 to put in my 3 hours daily work into finishing my follow-up autobiography that will be called: A LUTA CONTINUA! My fist autobiography called, FIGHTING FOR HOPE was published in 1993. This is a much longer book, & it will not pull any punches!”

A “fist” autobiography? Not pulling punches? Ha! An indication, perhaps, that A Luta Continua! may just contain a few good jokes. Hopefully this is the reason why this work is a much longer book than his first, painfully dull, effort and not because it drearily details all the close family members that Carl has had the misfortune to bury. No word of a publisher or a publishing date just yet.