Ramphosa’s polignominy

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the President's disastrous peace mission to Ukraine


To a politician, brokering peace is almost as orgasmic a prospect as is declaring war. 

Hemmed and harried by the humdrum of domestic politics, it’s irresistible. The international stage may provide only a brief window for them to strut their stuff, but the public relations exposure is golden and the potential benefits usually outweigh the risks.

No one honestly expects you to succeed, especially not with the big, gnarly, knotty wars, so it doesn’t much matter if you fail. At least you tried, you can proclaim virtuously to your audience, as you surrender the limelight to the next peacemaking pretender. And, if against all odds you succeed, delirious applause and a Nobel Peace Prize might follow. 

That said, it is important to pick your conflict carefully. Avoid the endless border disputes over resources that have plagued many of your fellow African states for the past 60 years since independence. These spats are unglamorous — to be honest, embarrassing — and don’t make for good international television. In any case, few in the global big-player league to which you aspire likely give much of a stuff about Africa. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

So, when President Cyril Ramaphosa’s beady eyes fixed on the war in Ukraine, after what has been an undeniably difficult time — Phala Phala, load shedding, economic distress, disputed arm shipments to Russia — his heart must have leapt at the possibilities. Fly into Poland at the head of a hastily assembled posse of African leaders, quick side trips to Kyiv and Moscow. Some duty-free shopping. Out again. What could go wrong?

After all, he knew that he was an unrivalled negotiator. Everyone said so. As the behind-the-scenes shaper of the globally hailed deal that ended almost five decades of apartheid conflict, he had crafted the frog-boiling tactics that were now coming to fruition. 

But on that occasion, in 1993, it was the figureheads, Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk, who won the Nobels. This time the glory would be all his.

There were other potential payoffs. The peace sortie would flag South Africa’s leadership of the African bloc in a multipolar world. It would outflank moves in the United States Congress to end trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunities Act. And it would further ingratiate Ramaphosa’s administration with President Vladimir Putin as a reliable stalking horse for Russian interests, ensuring that the bankrupt African National Congress wouldn’t lose its monthly stipend.

Instead, it turned into an unmitigated disaster. Elsewhere, such a litany of unforced errors might topple a government. At the very least, some ministerial and bureaucratic heads would roll.

But not only have we been inoculated against any expectations of our rulers accepting responsibility for their failures, but as a nation, we’ve drunk deeply from the flagon of victimhood. If something goes awry, it is never our fault but rather entirely the result of dastardly imperialist scheming and/or racism. 

While both phenomena exist, in this case they were incidental. As the dust of obfuscation settles and the first round of arse-covering explanations are shown to be threadbare, a clearer picture is emerging. It’s one of presidential hubris, bureaucratic ineptitude, and diplomatic naïveté. 

There should be no doubt that Ramaphosa was confident of a PR coup. In the past five years, he has held only one press conference. Now he suddenly authorises an accompanying plane for a 120-person security detail and a media contingent.

After several delayed starts, caused by a scramble to get visas for the accompanying journalists and procure a plane — the national carrier doesn’t have any spare and charter companies are leery of flying into war zones — the motley assemblage embarks for Rzeszow in Poland. From there they would travel by train to Kyiv. 

Unfortunately, South Africa had neglected to inform the Italians of the VIP trip and the planes had to circle off the coast of Sardinia until they got overflight permission. They then, for as yet unexplained reasons, diverted from Rzeszow to Warsaw.

Problems escalated upon landing. While Ramaphosa and his “close protection” bodyguards proceeded via Rzeszow to Kyiv, the other plane’s occupants weren’t allowed to disembark for 26 hours, before being sent packing. 

Several in the security team, explained the Poles, didn’t have visas and weren’t on the pre-authorised list that International Relations had submitted. Several of those claiming visas had only photocopies of their passports. 

The aircraft’s cargo manifest didn’t remotely tally with what was being offloaded. The twelve containers of weapons were found to have a substantial amount of materiel that had not been authorised, including heavy arms and sniper rifles.

Maybe this all reminded the jittery Poles of another South African diplomatic disaster – the 1981 attempt to overthrow the Seychelles government with a charter plane full of mercenaries. In that particular clown show, an alert customs official foiled the plot when he discovered an AK-47 rifle in the hand luggage of one of the “tourists”.

For Ramaphosa’s head of security, Major General Wally Rhoode, it was unthinkable that the South Africans were at fault. He denounced the Poles as “racist” and trying to “sabotage” the peace mission, as well as deliberately “endangering” the life of the president. 

It’s not immediately obvious why the Poles, with vivid memories of Russian aggression against their country, would want a peace mission to fail. Perhaps that’s what happens when a president allows a cop to pronounce on international geopolitics in press briefings.

As if all this weren’t bad enough, it got worse.

A South African official announced that the quarantined plane would return to Johannesburg because they couldn’t get overflight permission from Hungary to proceed directly to Russia. When it was pointed out that Hungary, which is south of Poland, was not any rational flight path to Moscow, the explanations became hazier. Someone, somewhere, had refused permission, the officials insisted. Estonia was mentioned. Maybe Mongolia.

Meanwhile, on the peace train, the African delegation got together for a strategy meeting. Unfortunately, also inadvertently caught on the official video shot at the gathering were two arms dealers with supposed ties to the Russians. Non-alignment means different things to different people.

Soon after arrival in Kyiv, the Africans had to be bustled into a public air raid shelter because of Russian missiles. The attack was reported by Reuters, BBC and Al Jazeera journalists on the ground. However, the Presidency spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, insisted it was “all lies and misinformation” designed to paint Russia in a poor light.

Embarrassingly, for Magwenya, Ramaphosa himself mentioned the missile attack in a speech, saying that the “launching of missiles today does not deter us”. No retraction or apology from Magwenya, who like Rhoode, fancies himself as a diplomat.

The mission managed to stumble through the Kyiv and Moscow legs without any further disasters. However, the cool response it got in both capitals would have given the Africans little encouragement.

They should not be surprised. Aside from Ukraine’s reasonable suspicions of pro-Russian partisanship, it is simply too early for serious peacemaking. Neither Ukraine nor Russia is yet inclined to negotiate. 

There’s no ignominy in this. Although the mission’s efforts were misguided, they were well-intentioned. 

The ignominy comes from the South African government’s lack of basic competencies, which is matched only by its overweening arrogance. These have made it an international laughing stock, most importantly in the two places it most seeks to influence, the White House and the Kremlin. 

At home, too, there has been reputational damage for a president who again has shown to be ineffectual and incapable of exerting authority over his minions. 

It would be difficult to script a worse peace mission, except one in which a Russian missile annihilated the presidents of Zambia, Senegal, Comoros and South Africa. 

What would the Major General have said then about “racism”? 

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye