The ANC govt's Ukraine folly

RW Johnson says the idea that SA could be invited to mediate reflects one of Pretoria's abiding fantasies

When South Africa withdrew its initial statement demanding Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine – and then abstained on the resolution in the UN General Assembly condemning the Russian invasion, President Ramaphosa claimed that this left South Africa in a good position to mediate the dispute – and said that already an (unnamed) third party had suggested such a role to him.  

This idea that South Africa might be asked to mediate major international disputes is one of Pretoria’s abiding fantasies for it conjures back up that distant time when the ANC was thought to occupy “the moral high ground” and when South Africa was thought of as having achieved a miraculous compromise.

(In fact, of course, De Klerk was responsible for that. For a sitting president enjoying complete military supremacy over his opponents to voluntarily offer a democratic settlement which guaranteed that he and his party would lose power, probably for ever, was indeed miraculous. One searches in vain for historical parallels.)

Ramaphosa, of course, played a role in the reaching of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, but it is difficult to know how important a role that was. The idea was that Ramaphosa, as an ANC man, could talk on equal terms to the gun-toting IRA. I have always been sceptical. To be any good as a mediator one needs to know the dispute and its parties backward, forward and in detail. I spoke to Ramaphosa just before he set off for Ireland and he knew virtually nothing of what he was stepping into.

What we do know is that Tony Blair and the Irish premier, Bertie Ahern, had been working hard on a deal for some time; that British intelligence was heavily involved; that President Clinton had taken a keen interest and that Senator George Mitchell played a crucial – perhaps the crucial – role through many months of diplomacy.

Mitchell also chaired the final talks which produced the agreement. One suspects that Ramaphosa and his co-mediator, Marti Ahtisaari, were mainly window-dressing. But what mattered to the ANC was that when the Agreement was reached praise was showered on all and sundry, including Ramaphosa.

Thabo Mbeki had the bizarre notion that South Africa might mediate between Israel and Palestine. The cabinet held endless meetings to discuss the problem, all entirely pointless for simultaneously South Africa adopted a fiercely pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel position.

Indeed, the Mbeki government seems to have been instrumental in pushing the idea, which has motivated BDS ever since, that Israel was an apartheid society. Israelis I knew treated the idea of South African mediation as a joke: “If we ever agreed to South Africa as a mediator that would mean we had decided on suicide. And the whole point about suicide is that you don’t need outside help.”

In any case, Israel doesn’t want a mediator and has been quite reluctant to accept even the US in that role.

In fact the two countries who have emerged as key mediators between Russia and Ukraine are Israel and Turkey. Israel’s Prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is the only world leader who has held discussions with Putin since the Russian invasion began – and he has also been publicly thanked by President Zelenskyy of Ukraine for his mediation efforts.

Bennett has spent many hours on the phone to the two leaders and even broke the religious ban on travelling on the Sabbath, saying Israel had a moral obligation to do all it could. Israel has offered to take 100,000 Ukrainian Jewish refugees.

Turkey is of pivotal importance. Although in NATO it has not joined in the sanctions on Russia. It controls the entrance and exit to the Black Sea -crucial to both Russia and Ukraine – and it is now the main gateway to Russia. Russia is completely barred from European airspace but flights between Moscow and Istanbul continue as before. It is hardly surprising that the talks between Ukraine and Russia are being conducted in Turkey.

Note that Israel voted at the UN General Assembly to condemn “Russian aggression” in the strongest terms. Moreover, the Israeli foreign minister, Yair Lapid, promised that Israel would not be “a route to bypass” sanctions against Russia, which it intended to observe fully.

Turkey was, if anything, even more forthright in denouncing Russia at the UN. Its representative there spoke of how the General Assembly session “was convened due to the unjustified, illegal and illegitimate act of aggression against a founding member of the UN by a permanent member of the very organ (the Security Council) entrusted with preserving peace and security, a session that was held as a result of the use of veto power by the very member that is perpetrating this aggression. We reiterate that Russia’s ongoing military offensive against Ukraine violates the principles on which this organisation was founded...The international community could not have been a spectator to such an act of aggression. In today’s resolution the UN emphasises loud and clear that it stands against egregious violations of the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and political unity of fellow member states.”

South Africa, on the other hand, decided that it would indeed be merely “a spectator” to this act of aggression and offered its services as a mediator. Weeks later Ramaphosa is still waiting in vain for any phone call from President Zelenskyy and in fact Ukrainian diplomats have made clear their anger and contempt for South Africa’s “humanitarian” resolution at the UN which entirely failed to mention that it was Russian action causing the humanitarian crisis. The UN voted not even to consider the resolution.

So the fact that Israel and Turkey condemned Russia has not prevented them from emerging as the key intermediaries in the current crisis. South Africa, on the other hand, has lost respect amongst its most important investors and some of its biggest trading partners. It also voted against most of its Commonwealth partners, and it watched as African states like Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Zambia and Botswana all won plaudits for their strong stand against Russian aggression.

And unlike any other African state South Africa has the added status of having been a founder member of the UN. That alone should have made it reflect – as Turkey did – on the UN Charter and the organization’s fundamental purpose of preventing war.

The fact is that Ukraine was a completely peaceful neighbour to Russia. It was not threatening it in any way. Russia’s war was one of choice, killing civilians and grabbing territory very much as Hitler did. Russia’s absurd justifications that it had to “de-Nazify” Ukraine which was committing genocide, were also very much of a piece with Hitler’s Big Lies that Germany was being attacked by the Czechs, the Poles and, ultimately, the Russians. Unsurprisingly, even Putin has now had to drop his talk of genocide and de-Nazification.

Faced with that upholding the UN Charter should have been a moral necessity for South Africa. As for its claim that “neutrality” would help it satisfy its ambition to be a mediator, it should reflect on the fact that Turkey has been supplying Ukraine with the drones which have destroyed many Russian tanks – and yet Turkey is a key mediator while South Africa’s mediation services have been spurned.

It is difficult to imagine that South Africa’s behaviour during this crisis gained it respect from anyone. Ramaphosa has spoken in slavish terms of how grateful he was for a phone call from “His Excellency President Putin of the Russian Federation” but one notes that not even Putin has asked Ramaphosa to mediate.

One cannot but feel that South Africa has completely squandered its diplomatic capital. Not long ago we witnessed the extraordinary sight of our foreign affairs establishment getting into a rage over Miss South Africa attending an event in Israel – and being successfully defied by that young woman. Which other country’s foreign office would get into public squabbles with a beauty queen - and lose?

Meanwhile Israel has been hosting a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers – an event important enough to attract the attendance of the US Secretary of State. The Palestinian foreign ministry said the meeting was “a harsh attack against the Palestinian people” but nobody was listening to that. The foreign ministers resolved to turn the meeting into a permanent forum.

There is here a strong sense of things moving on, of a new era opening up. Israel’s GDP per capita now exceeds that of the EU and it is by some margin the strongest and most successful state in the Middle East. Its gravitational pull is only likely to increase. Does Pretoria even notice these things ? It has made a huge mistake by allowing BDS to dictate its foreign policy, a mistake which has already put it at odds with the AU (which has granted Israel observer status over Pretoria’s protests) and which will leave it further and further behind in the slipstream of others. But even that is as nothing compared to its folly over Ukraine.