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Ramaphosa’s Russia-Ukraine efforts long overdue

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Pictures: Jairus Mmutle/GCIS and AFP Stringer/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service – President Cyril Ramaphosa has had a call with his counterpart from Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, on the conflict in the region. If an agreement could be reached by Presidents Putin and Zelenskyy following peace talks with President Ramaphosa, South Africa’s role in trying to end the war would have been weakened by South Africa’s delayed direct involvement using her tried and tested negotiation skills, the writer says – but better late than never, he adds.

By Bheki Mngomezulu

The proverb, ‘after the storm comes a calm’ means that things often improve after a difficult, chaotic, and stressful situation. This proverb best explains war situations wherever these wars happen. As a norm, during the war, people die, national resources are wasted in sustaining the war, international relations are negatively affected, and the infrastructure is destroyed. Importantly, orphans, widows and widowers are left stranded.

Once the war is eventually over, the time to pick up the pieces begins. Funds are set aside for the reconstruction of the country, and the factions that were involved in the war shake hands, smoke a peace pipe, and start anew. Counting the losses becomes part of the new beginning.

The most pertinent question becomes: when will Ukraine ever welcome this peace experience or when will the storm end and bring about calm to the people of Ukraine? Many lives have already been lost and the infrastructure has been destroyed by Russian artillery. With no light at the end of the tunnel, pessimism has engulfed the country and there is uncertainty about the country’s future.

The decision by South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa to hold peace talks with the Presidents of the two warring countries (Russia and Ukraine) is meant to contribute to the calm referred to above. This is a commendable effort. The dual question becomes: why has the President waited for this long? What has prompted him to act now?

On February 24, 2022, President Vladmir Putin waged war against Ukraine – a move which stunned the world and left many asking questions. This marked a saturation point of the war of words which had been making the rounds for some time. Until the year 1991, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw Ukraine becoming an independent state with full political sovereignty. This was confirmed by a referendum which voted for the independence of Ukraine giving the country the right to make its own decisions.

The fact that Ukraine experienced the spheres of influence from both the European Union on the one hand and the Russian Federation on the other hand was a timebomb which was bound to explode at any time. In 2008, Ukraine submitted her application to integrate with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) Membership Action Plan (MAP). As would be expected, this did not go down well with Russia. President Putin was concerned that if Ukraine joined Nato, this would bring the West on his doorstep. He vowed to act swiftly and decisively before Ukraine could be formally accepted as a full member of Nato.

It was the victory of Viktor Yanukovych in the 2010 general election which halted this process. President Yanukovych wanted Ukraine to keep closer ties with Russia, not the West. This victory worked in President Putin’s favour. With each election, and with a new President ascending to power, Ukraine’s relations with Russia and the country’s application for Nato membership continued to dominate Ukraine’s politics until Russia decided to launch an attack in order to curtail Ukraine’s dream of joining Nato.

Therefore, the decision by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to apply for Nato membership is not a new development. However, his decision coincided with President Putin’s resolve to curb Western encroachment closer to his territory. In that sense, it could be argued that President Zelenskyy was simply reactivating a process which pre-dates his term of office. Unfortunately, his decision left Putin infuriated, hence his decision to attack Ukraine.

Picture: Kopano Tlape/GCIS/Taken on October 23, 2019 – South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is welcomed by President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation at the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia. Both Russia and Ukraine trust South Africa. It will therefore not be difficult for President Ramaphosa to initiate peace talks, and in any case this gesture is long overdue, the writer says.

This war has polarised the world and tested each country’s political maturity. When the issue was first debated and voted on at the UN General Assembly, 141 countries supported the resolution which criticised the Russian invasion. A total of 32 countries decided to abstain (including India and China) while seven countries (including Russia) opposed the resolution.

When the matter was tabled again in March 2022, the same 141 countries supported the resolution to criticize Russia and to agree on the imposition of sanctions. This time around, the number of countries which abstained increased to 35. South Africa was amongst these countries.

In a way, this should not come as a surprise. There are three reasons for that.

Firstly, South Africa’s foreign policy is clear when it comes to dealing with conflict situations. Unlike other countries which are quick to invoke hard power in the form of a military response, South Africa believes in using soft power which is anchored on diplomacy or negotiations.

Secondly, South Africa has a long history of friendship with both Russia and the Ukraine. During the liberation struggle, some of South Africa’s liberation fighters were trained in both countries. Therefore, it would not be easy for South Africa to take a side on this political stalemate. Taking a neutral stance was an obvious choice.

Thirdly, on December 24, 2010, China invited President Jacob Zuma to attend what was called the BRIC Summit. This invitation set South Africa on a new pedestal. After this Summit, South Africa joined BRIC countries thereby changing the name to BRICS. This was in line with Africa’s determination to promote South-South relations.

Given these three factors, it did not come as a surprise that South Africa took a neutral stance at the UNGA when voting took place on the Russian invasion. The aim was to keep the door open for South Africa to play a mediating role between the two countries. It is an irrefutable fact that South Africa has amassed vast experience in peaceful negotiations. Within Africa, this is evidenced in the country’s involvement in peace talks in countries such as Lesotho, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, among others.

But what is concerning is that there has been no evident attempt by South Africa to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. The war started in February 2022 and only recently have South African politicians showed determination to lend a helping hand in trying to resolve the impasse. One visible step is South Africa’s seven-member delegation to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) led by Speaker of the National Assembly Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

These MPs made South Africa’s position clear when they advanced the argument that anyone who wants to contribute to the resolution of the Russia/Ukraine conflict must hear both sides. Failure to do so would amount to being partisan. They acted properly and in line with South Africa’s foreign policy agenda.

Given this history and context, one would have expected President Ramaphosa to act sooner than later. Surely, South Africa cannot always be seen taking a unilateral position on issues of a global context. However, having taken the first step to abstain at the UNGA, it would have been preferred for the President to touch base with both President Putin and President Zelenskyy. Any positive outcome of such involvement would have elevated South Africa’s global political stature.

Having peace talks with the leaders of the two countries at war is not necessarily wrong. But the context has changed significantly. There have been casualties on both sides – albeit in different magnitude. Therefore, even if President Ramaphosa’s peace talks could yield positive results, some might argue that it is not his involvement that brokered peace but the fact that both parties are now tired of fighting. Indeed, President Putin did not anticipate that his invasion would last this long. The sustained war took him by surprise.

Secondly, other countries and the UN Secretary General António Guterres have already been involved in trying to reason with both Russian and Ukrainian leaders. Therefore, if an agreement could be reached by Presidents Putin and Zelenskyy following peace talks with President Ramaphosa, South Africa’s role in trying to end the war would have been weakened by South Africa’s delayed direct involvement using her tried and tested negotiation skills already highlighted above.

Surely, the President might have a leg to stand on. While it is true that South Africa is always willing and ready to mediate between and among warring factions, the country’s foreign policy does not promote an imposition on or interference in the affected country’s political sovereignty. The onus is on the countries’ political leadership and their citizenry to express and demonstrate their willingness to smoke a peace pipe.

But while this line of thought is valid, the fact remains that President Ramaphosa should have acted earlier than now. This should not be misconstrued to mean that I am averse to the view that ‘better late than never’. The reality is that there is a lot at stake with this Russian invasion of the Ukraine. The war has negatively affected international relations, resulted in food shortages, increases in food prices and other commodities such as oil.

Given the gravity of the impact of this war, it would have been better for President Ramaphosa to have acted swiftly. Both countries (Russia and Ukraine) trust South Africa. It would not have been difficult for President Ramaphosa to initiate peace talks. Therefore, his latest move is long overdue.

Prof Bheki Mngomezulu is Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD) at Nelson Mandela University

This article is original to The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.