Quiet diplomacy, Cyril style

Andrew Donaldson on SA's efforts to get that warmonger Zelenskyy to see sense, and stop the Ukrainians' bombing themselves


I’VE been spending a bit of time with The Rest Is Politics, a podcast hosted by former Downing Street communications director Alastair Campbell and former British cabinet minister Rory Stewart that aims to provide listeners with an insider’s view on politics within the UK and without.

The pair are rather a formidable and fun team. The left-wing Campbell is fairly blunt and humorous, while Stewart, a likeable and erudite Tory, is possessed of both Etonian reserve and moral rigour. Seeing as they are poles apart on the political spectrum, there is a lot of agreeable disagreement, and they seem to enjoy needling each other over their differences.

I mention this only because, in a recent episode, there was a brief acknowledgment of  Cyril Ramaphosa’s desire to play a meaningful role in bringing an end to the war in Ukraine. It was not very complimentary: South Africa’s claim to be mediators? Nothing more than pretence.

That’s it. Just one curt, dismissive phrase to describe Squirrel’s ambitions to broker peace in this troubled world: South Africa is “pretending” to be a significant deal broker. How very cruel, then, of these white westerners to pee with some profligacy on the national batteries.

But let’s rewind a bit. During last Thursday’s parliamentary question session, Squirrel told MPs that “screaming and shouting” would not resolve anything. Which is sort of true. No matter how much one shouted or screamed, the president will not be swayed. The delusion of quiet diplomacy continues to metastasise.

“Only last night as I was addressing a dinner,” he loftily declared, “I got the message that two other heads of state also want to talk to South Africa so that the position we have taken can be taken forward. And some are even approaching us on a role that we can play…” 

We know he has been chatting to Vladimir Putin. He’s said as much; he’s been chatting with the war criminal, and Squirrel now has the inside skinny on the situation on the ground in Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, it’s more or less what Russian state media are telling anybody who bothers to listen. All is under control and there’s absolutely no slaughter of the innocents whatsoever, except where the Ukrainians are bombing themselves. As they do.

“I got it from no other than the President of Russia, who said negotiations are ongoing and they are showing progress. We have been approached by other interlocutors who are not necessarily directly involved … We stand ready and we stand on the side of peace, on the side of dialogue and on the side of negotiations.” 

All that’s left, then, is for Squirrel to get Volodymyr Zelenskyy to also stand on the side of peace, dialogue and suchlike, and all put unpleasantness will be behind us. “I want to speak to the president of Ukraine,” the president told parliament. “I want to speak to him and we’ve actually said we would like to speak to him.”

Zelenskyy may, alas, have more pressing matters to attend to at the moment. But there is one world leader who may welcome a call from Pretoria, and that is Boris Johnson. The British PM has not been having the best of wars.

On one hand, the Russian invasion has shifted attention from “Partygate”, the series of boozy bashes thrown by Downing Street staffers during the lockdown that have outraged the public here. It also handed Johnson a golden opportunity to emulate his hero, Winston Churchill, and recast himself as a leader with some moral authority in a crisis that is profoundly threatening European order.

On the other, he has cocked it up badly. By comparing the Ukrainian conflict with the Brexit project, he has alienated his European allies to such an extent that he has not been invited to take part in a crucial EU summit on the war. There may be other concerns as well: the drive to sanction the oligarchs of Londongrad and seize their ill-gained assets has revealed that a not insubstantial portion of this money has found its way into Tory coffers.

Of particular interest is Boris’s chum, Evgeny Lebedev (now Baron Lebedev), wealthy son of a former KGB officer and a man with considerable stake in British media. Such is the friendship that, in some circles, it’s a running joke that the PM is some kind of Russian security asset. He and Squirrel should get on like houses on fire.

Other news from the frontline

There’s been no shortage of diagnoses from medical experts and other armchair specialists on Vladimir Putin’s health. Though the Kremlin insists the Russian president’s mental state is “normal” — whatever that may be — rumours persist that he is seriously ill or dying. There have been suggestions that his immune system may be suppressed, that his erratic behaviour may be a symptom of steroid abuse, or that he may even be suffering from tertiary syphilis, a frontal lobe tumour or aggressive cancer. There are claims that his vengeful behaviour has been triggered by a sudden psychiatric disorder, and that his puffy face is due to Parkinson’s disease, dementia or too much Botox. 

Jeremy Clarkson, writing in the London Sunday Timesoffers a far more banal reason for Putin’s crazed behaviour: “He’s not very tall. Being not very tall seems to affect people … Their shortness eats into their very being and they become mad.” In which case we need to keep a watchful eye on the transport minister, Fikile Mbalula.

The bad news, though, is that Putin has access to some of the best medical care in the world and is unlikely to die from natural causes in the near future. Russian doctors are reportedly ace in treating the peculiar problems that bedevil the corrupt and despotic; both former president Jacob Zuma and deputy president David Mabuza have sought their help. In fact, it’s widely held that if the late Robert Mugabe had gone to Moscow rather than Singapore for his vampire transfusions, he would still be president of Zimbabwe. Such is the medical science pioneered in the USSR. Which, older readers may recall, successfully kept the Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev in power for several years after his death.

A spot of indigestion

My old friend Carl Niehaus has been given a Zulu warrior title by the Injeje yabeNguni Council. Do not scoff (if I may put it that way). The Sunday Times’s Hogarth column had a bash at mocking this accolade at the weekend, and in response Carl gave them short shrift, darkly commenting on Twitter about “house negroes” and “racist anti-Zulu drivel”. 

The council claims that Carl, a bona fide Umkhonto we Sizwe member despite what everyone else believes, single-handedly brought the apartheid regime to its knees. As such, he has “earned his stripes as per Nguni standard” and this “unites him with the native people for all eternity”. For this, Carl is to be known forevermore as Mpangazitha — “he who over-eats his enemies”. A praise poem has also been penned in which some of Carl’s enemies have been listed. They include Cyril Ramaphosa, Pravin Gordhan, Zizi Kodwa, Fikile Mbalula and Pule Mabe. 

This certainly is a lot to have on one’s plate, and has alarmed the regulars at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”). Many cultures maintain that eating people is quite wrong, even if they are the enemy. But times change and we need to be accommodating where Carl’s gustatory habits are concerned. The jury may still be out on Kodwa and Mabe, but Squirrel and Gordhan appear to be excellent stew material. As for the transport minister, well, not much meat there, but what there is, is quite chewy — although over-eaters run the risk of Mbalula repeating on them. Not a pleasant form of heartburn, I’ll bet.