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‘Neutrality in face of injustice sides with the oppressor’

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Picture: Aris Messinis / AFP – File picture taken on February 24, 2022. Firefighters work on a fire on a building after bombings on the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv as Russian armed forces invade Ukraine from several directions. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military operation in Ukraine on February 24, 2022 with explosions heard soon after across the country and its foreign minister warning a “full-scale invasion” was under way.

By Janet Jobson and Phumi Nhlapo

On February 24, last year, the day that Russia first attacked Ukraine, the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation stood out as one of the first South African organisations to categorically condemn the invasion.

It is what our founder, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, would have done. But it was an action that was not universally welcomed. Many felt that we should rather take a “wait and see” approach; potentially position ourselves, or at least South Africa, as neutral to play a role in being able to negotiate peace.

From the outset, we felt it was naive and unjust to equate supposed “neutrality” with being able to play a role in bringing about peace. As the Arch so clearly put it: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have sided with the oppressor.”

Whatever questions the South African government, or other actors may have had about the provocations and origins of the invasion, it was certainly clear from the outset that this was a war of aggression against innocent people. It was also clear that there is unlikely to be any role for South Africa as a mediator or peace negotiator, especially if we showed such little empathy for the plight of the Ukrainian people.

Even if one could not see that clearly in February 2022, there can no longer be any ignorance about the aggressive and unjust intent of the Russian government and its forces. The shelling of towns and cities and the annexation of Ukrainian territory is plainly unjust and illegal.

Picture: Aris Messinis / AFP – File photo taken on February 24, 2022. Olena Kurylo, a 52-year-old teacher stands outside a hospital after the bombing of the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv. Russian armed forces attempt to invade Ukraine from several directions, using rocket systems and helicopters to attack Ukrainian position in the south, the border guard service said. –

To hold up the idea that there is some reason for “neutrality” left is absurd. We are ashamed of the South African government’s refusal to make a clear and proud stance for human rights, for peace, and for justice.

As we engage in naval war games with Russia and China, the moral bankruptcy of our government’s position becomes even starker. Behind the dehumanising geopolitical rhetoric, the finger-pointing about who may have instigated this war, and the tap dancing around how best to respond, human beings are being harmed. We are all being harmed.

The world urgently needs a peaceful end to Russia’s war on Ukraine, and the Russian government needs to be held to account for its acts of aggression. None of this can happen while the bombardment continues.

The Arch once said: “It is hard to shake your hand when your foot is on my neck.” It ought to be possible for the world – and South Africa in particular – to prevail upon one country to stop bombing another as an urgent and immediate step towards peace.

One year on, with thousands of lives lost and incalculable infrastructure damaged, it is not too late for our government to recognise the injustice being committed against the Ukrainian people. To mourn with us all the casualties of this war. To find, at last, our common humanity.

The Arch shared widely the notion that our destinies are tied up with one another; that an injury to one is an injury to all.

Jobson is CEO of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation and Nhlapo is its chief operating officer