Ramaphosa regrets

Andrew Donaldson writes on our President's sorrow over the death of Iran's President Raisi


Cyril Ramaphosa has expressed deep regret over the death of Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi. “This,” he said, “is an extraordinary, unthinkable tragedy that has claimed a remarkable leader of a nation with whom South Africa enjoys strong bilateral relations.” 

No surprises there, I suppose; the government’s fawning prostrations before Iran really can be likened to that of a catamite. But if Pretoria enjoys that sort of thing, who are we to object? 

We do wonder, though, what it is about Raisi’s leadership that Squirrel finds so remarkable. The Iranian president certainly wasn’t the life of the party — according to The Times of London, he lacked “much in the way of charisma, or any outstanding religious or political qualifications”. 

Raisi nevertheless rose rapidly through the ranks of Iran’s judiciary thanks to his support of his hardline superiors, most notably his mentor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s ailing supreme leader and the man he was tipped to succeed. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Raisi was a teenager when he joined the protests that toppled the Shah in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. He was reportedly one of 70 young seminarians chosen for a crash course in statecraft for Ayatollah Khomeini’s new regime and joined the judiciary at 20, serving as prosecutor in the provinces before his appointment as deputy prosecutor at 25 in the capital, Teheran.

It was in this role that, in 1988, at the end of the Iran-Iraq War, he was selected as one of four members of the so-called “death committee” which sentenced to death, over a five-month period, thousands of dissidents. As prosecutor, Raisi allegedly presided over their summary trials (some as brief as five minutes), supervised their torture and oversaw their execution. 

The killings were later described by a senior ayatollah as “the biggest crime in the history of the Islamic Republic”. Raisi however had no regrets, declaring in 2021, the year he was elected president: “If a judge, a prosecutor, has defended the security of the people he should be praised.”

In 2004, Raisi was appointed Iran’s first deputy chief justice and placed in charge of the “revolutionary courts” that prosecuted all dissent, blasphemy and other “crimes against the security of the state”. He brutally suppressed the so-called “Green Revolution”, the protests that erupted over the rigged 2009 presidential election.

Following his appointment as attorney-general in 2014, Iran’s execution rate soared to one of the highest in the world. Public executions in stadiums, mostly mass hangings, became commonplace.

In 2019, as head of the judiciary, Raisi oversaw the violent suppression of nationwide protests against sharp fuel price increases that year. As president, he presided over Iran’s accelerated drive to produce weapons-grade uranium following the collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal with the West. 

He oversaw the violent suppression of nationwide protests that erupted in 2022 following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a young woman arrested by the “morality police” for wearing her hijab improperly. In recent months, Raisi ramped up the escalation in the conflict between Iran and Israel following the October 7 Hamas terror attacks, which he praised.

There is much, then, about the man that Squirrel and his colleagues in government presumably regard as admirable and exemplary. And while they may view Raisi’s death on Sunday as a tragedy, they should perhaps reflect on the circumstances of his death. 

Along with his foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Raisi died in a helicopter crash in a remote, mountainous region of Iran. Not just any helicopter, mind, but an aged Bell 212 most likely purchased in the 1970s during the Shah’s reign. 

True, this repurposed “warhorse” — used extensively in the Vietnam War — has a proven track record when it comes to reliability and longevity, but there are doubts whether Raisi’s aircraft may have been fit for purpose. The Teheran regime, under Western sanctions for decades, would have struggled to provide adequate maintenance of the aircraft. 

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, believes that US sanctions were indeed responsible for the crash. Sky News quoted him as saying on Tuesday, “The Americans disown this, but the truth is that other countries against which the United States announced sanctions do not receive spare parts for American equipment, including aviation. We are talking about deliberately causing damage to ordinary citizens who use these vehicles, and when spare parts are not supplied, this is directly related to a decrease in the level of safety.”

That’s the thing about sanctions. They’re punitive. That’s their job. And it’s not just the ordinary folk who suffer as a result, as the ratbags often claim. They hurt the ratbags, too. And not just where travel is concerned.

Pilot error may also have had a role here. It’s been claimed that the Bell 212 was built for visual flight conditions, meaning pilots would have to rely solely on their ability to observe the terrain from the cockpit. Reports of heavy fog in the mountains, together with a brewing storm suggest perhaps that calling an Uber taxi might have been a better way of getting back to Teheran. A media clampdown however means that details of the accident remain a mystery.

Less mysterious, though, is the fact that, for many Iranians, particularly women, Raisi was a despised tyrant. They’re not terribly upset about his death. Anti-government protesters inside Iran report that they have been urged by officials to attend official mourning events for Raisi. They say that authorities are “desperate” for public displays of grief. 

And, if there was regret, the BBC reports, it was from some of the relatives of the more than 5 000 political prisoners executed after the “death committee” trials. They had for years hoped that Raisi would one day face justice in the ICC for crimes against humanity. This will now never happen.

By and large, though, ordinary folk are generally pleased to see the back end of the tyrannical and corrupt. Elections are the preferred means of getting rid of them. But sometimes we must make do with helicopters flying into mountains. Such a sudden and violent exit from public life may be “unthinkable”, as Squirrel believes. But it’s only unthinkable for the ratbags.

History in the making

The uMkhonto we Sizwe Party claims that the Constitutional Court’s ruling on Monday that its leader, Jacob Zuma, may not stand as a candidate in next week’s elections is not surprising. 

After all, it clearly states in the Constitution that anyone who has been handed a prison sentence of 12 months or more may not hold a seat in Parliament, and even the MKP understands that. They also understand that Convict Number One was handed a 15-month jail sentence for contempt of court in 2021. It is therefore a simple matter of doing the sums to conclude that their patron and figurehead is not able to take part in the elections.

But, according to party spokesman Nhlamulo Ndhlela, the struggle is not over. The Concourt decision, he claims, infringes on the rights of voters who want uBaba as their head of state. This is obviously wrong. But no worries. The MKP is aiming for a two-thirds majority at the polls so it can change the Constitution and thus usher in Zuma as the country’s president once more.

There’s no word, though, when this will happen. But when it does, well, what a joyous day that will be as we all return to that magical 19th century Zulu kingdom, a place where land is plentiful, the cows are fat in the fields and where every man is chief and his many wives know their place. 

Sadly, this probably won’t happen anytime this century. But the dream endures.

Salty dogs

Being a landlocked country, Eswatini does not have much of a maritime tradition. But it does try. Readers with long memories may recall that, back in the late 1990s, Swaziland (as it was then) reportedly misplaced its entire merchant navy, a single vessel called the Swazimar. According to The Star, transport minister Ephraem Magagula told the Swaziland parliament in response to an MP’s question: 

“The situation is absolutely under control. Our nation’s merchant navy is perfectly safe. We just don’t know where it is, that's all. We believe it is in a sea somewhere. At one time, we sent a team of men to look for it, but there was a problem with drink and they failed to find it, and so, technically, yes, we've lost it a bit. But I categorically reject all suggestions of incompetence on the part of this government.

“The Swazimar is a big ship painted in the sort of nice bright colours you can see at night. Mark my words, it will turn up. The right honourable gentleman opposite is a very naughty man, and he will laugh on the other side of his face when my ship comes in.”

It never did turn up, the Swazimar. The story, according to fact-checking site snopes.com, was a hoax. Magagula’s ship, sadly, never did come in. 

But now it has emerged that Eswatini really does have a merchant navy, a fleet of oil tankers, no less. Bloomberg News reports that the ships are linked to Hennesea Holdings, a “dark fleet” operator based in Abu Dhabi which has been targeted by the US’s Office for Foreign Assets Control for sanctions-busting trade in Russian oil. 

Despite criticism that the sanctions imposed on Russia by G7 countries are too soft and easily circumvented by Moscow, they do appear effective when levelled against individual vessels. Many of these sanctioned tankers are sitting idle and empty, dotted around the world, according to tracking data compiled by Bloomberg.

But, in order to avoid this fate, some of these vessels are assuming new identities. Five Hennesea tankers now sail under the Eswatini flag. “The tiny land-locked country in Southern Africa … is among the latest to offer ship registry services,” Bloomberg reported. “This comes after the International Maritime Organisation issued a warning in April regarding flags it identified as fraudulent. It raised specific concerns over flags purportedly administered on behalf of Guyana and Eswatini respectively.”

Cosying up to the Russians in such a manner does not bode well. But, as the ancient mariners here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”) do point out, it is surely only a matter of time before Eswatini will be taking part in naval exercises in the Indian Ocean. This will be a big step forward for the nation, as it’s previous water-borne adventures were restricted to the notorious Cuddle Puddle at the hot springs spa at Mbabane.