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ICC tap dancing underscores ANC’s policy muddle

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Picture: Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via Reuters – President Cyril Ramaphosa welcomes Russia’s President Vladimir Putin at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg in 2018.

By Sipho Seepe

Stripped of all the hype, the self-created crisis facing President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration boils down to whether it has the gumption to arrest Russian President Vladimir Putin when he arrives in South Africa to attend the BRICS Summit later in August this year.

As a signatory of the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court (ICC), South Africa is duty-bound to arrest Putin after the ICC issued a warrant for his arrest for the alleged war crimes in Ukraine. Ramaphosa’s vacillation on whether the ANC has decided to withdraw from the ICC comes as no surprise. He has not been a man of conviction.

Playing to the gallery during his meeting with Finnish President Sauli Väinämö Niinistö on Wednesday, Ramaphosa boldly stated that “the governing party, the African National Congress, has taken the decision that it is prudent that South Africa must pull out of the ICC”. For a second, this appeared to be Ramaphosa’s “Mandela moment”.

During his presidency, Nelson Mandela told the world that no country can dictate who South Africa’s friends are. Not mincing his words, Mandela told former US President Bill Clinton that “those who feel irritated by our friendship with (Muammar) Gaddafi can go jump in the pool”. Naledi Pandor, the Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, said as much. Speaking at a joint economic co-operation with Russia, she unwaveringly stated that “there are some who don’t wish us to have relations with an old historical friend”.

“We have made it clear that Russia is a friend, and we have had co-operative partnerships for many years, including partnerships as we combated the apartheid regime, which decimated our people and our country. While we are friends with many in the world, we cannot become sudden enemies at the demand of others.”

Well, Ramaphosa is no Mandela. The ink had hardly dried before Ramaphosa backtracked from his earlier statement. Claiming that Ramaphosa misspoke, the corrected version issued by his office declared. “The presidency wishes to clarify that South Africa remains a signatory to the Rome Statute and will continue to campaign for equal and consistent application of international law.”

When caught between a rock and a hard place, Ramaphosa finds refuge in plausible deniability. Taking a cue from its president, the ANC found itself having to embarrassingly backtrack on its version too.

This schizophrenic behaviour gives credence to the view that the country is led by a prepaid president and that the ANC NEC is comprised of mere puppets. The real power lies elsewhere. Nothing goes without it being vetted by the puppet masters. Interestingly so, in seeking to provide clarity on the matter, the Presidency conveniently omitted to indicate whether Putin would be welcome at the BRICS summit.

We have not appreciated the impact that apartheid has had on the psyche of some of our leaders. Steve Bantu Biko described them well when he wrote: “But the type of black man we have today has lost his manhood. Reduced to an obliging shell, he looks with awe at the white power structure and accepts what he regards as the ‘inevitable position’. In the privacy of his toilet, his face twists in silent condemnation of white society but brightens up in sheepish obedience as he comes out hurrying in response to his master’s impatient call.”

For their part, the ANC Tripartite Alliance members and political parties on the left, such as the EFF, have made their position clear. The SACP was among the first to condemn the decision of the ICC to issue an arrest warrant for Putin for alleged war crimes in Ukraine. The party has since called on the “government to act with speed in withdrawing from the ICC and repealing the Implementation of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Act 27 of 2002”.

Ramaphosa’s reassurance does not resolve the question of whether Putin would be arrested or not. Be that as it may, the South African government will find it difficult to extricate itself from its obligation to arrest and deliver Putin. The Commander-in-Chief of the EFF did not mince his words. He vowed: “Putin is welcome here, and no one is going to arrest him. If needs be, we will go and fetch him from the airport to his meeting. He will address (and) finish all his meetings, and we will take him back to the airport. We are not going to be told by these hypocrites of the International Criminal Court who know the real violators of human rights and the murders of this world.”

The ANC’s discussion on Putin is meaningless. Both the South African High Court and the Supreme Court of Appeal had invalidated the government’s notice of withdrawal from the ICC, pointing out that such withdrawal should involve parliamentary approval. Time is not on the government’s side. Schedule 1 of South Africa’s Implementation Act, passed on 16 August 2002, creates “a structure for the national prosecution of the international crimes of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, which includes the crime of apartheid”. “The overall purpose of the Implementation Act is to bring the perpetrators of serious international crimes to justice, in domestic courts or in the ICC.”

Tap dancing can only take Ramaphosa so far and no further. The tap dance around Putin is likely to be costly. This is not only a matter between Russia and South Africa. It involves all the other BRICS countries: China, India, and Brazil. We should also not kid ourselves; the balance of global economic power is shifting from the West to the East. The message sent out is that the ruling party and its President of South Africa cannot be trusted.

At the same meeting in which the ANC sought to resolve the ICC conundrum, the ANC reversed a decision to delay the decommissioning of coal plants. This flies in the face of the promise that Ramaphosa made to the superpowers. US President Joe Biden had publicly praised South Africa for “closing the South African coal plants ahead of schedule and investing in clean alternatives”.

In this case, the ANC sought to stamp its authority and protect South Africa’s interests. As matters stand, it is unclear whether we have an ANC-led government or a government-led ANC or whether the direction and script are being choreographed by external masters. What is clear on the world stage is that the dance of Ramaphosa on the ICC is not one of natural cadence. Nor does it demonstrate the steady footedness of a leader who knows where he is going.

Prof Sipho Seepe is an independent political analyst