🔒 How world sees SA: Ramaphosa’s ICC gaffe underscores Putin quandary – FT

By Joseph Cotterill of The Financial Times

Vladimir Putin’s attendance at an upcoming emerging markets summit in Johannesburg was already a huge headache for his counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa, after the Russian president was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

And that was before this week, when Ramaphosa compounded the problem — and embarrassed South Africa — by wrongly claiming that the ruling African National Congress wanted the country to quit the court over “these types of problems”, when his party had resolved the opposite.

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South Africa’s presidency swiftly backtracked on Ramaphosa’s comments on Tuesday, but they came at the worst possible time for the delicate diplomacy over whether Putin would turn up for the Brics gathering, against the backdrop of the global fallout from Moscow’s war in Ukraine. As an ICC member, Pretoria would be legally obliged to detain Putin on arrival.

Also read: Ramaphosa backtracks on ICC stance before possible Putin trip

The gaffe “exposed the deep concerns that the government and the ANC have about this potential visit”, said Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, director for the International Commission of Jurists in Africa. “Clearly they’re discussing it, and they should discuss it, because it’s a very serious situation.”

Putin has been invited to the August summit although his attendance has not been confirmed. But if he did travel it would be his first appearance outside Russia or occupied Ukraine since The Hague-based ICC issued a warrant for his arrest in March.

Priyal Singh, senior researcher at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies, said legal precedent meant that “if Putin comes to South Africa, he has to be arrested, otherwise the South African government is in breach of not only its international obligations  but its own law”, although an actual arrest would be practically impossible.

Ramaphosa’s comments were the more baffling because, given the legal timetables, South Africa could in any case not withdraw from the court before the summit took place, lawyers say.

Also read: To Russia With Love: Why Pretoria won’t drop Putin

“The South African government is clearly aware of the sensitivities around this,”including “the immense negativity of the situation if Putin does turn up”, Singh added.

The ANC is under pressure to avoid a repeat of a low point in the country’s post-apartheid reputation for the rule of law when it defied its own courts and allowed Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s former ruler, to avoid an ICC warrant on a visit in 2015.

That has opened up options such as Putin sending a minister in his place or attending the summit virtually. The Russian leader will appear at an upcoming ceremony to mark the arrival of the fuel for Turkey’s first nuclear power station as an online guest.

The Putin problem adds another layer to the South African government’s contentious stance on the Ukraine invasion. The country is officially non-aligned, but it has hosted Russia’s foreign minister and criticised western aid to Kyiv, prompting criticism at home for moving too close to Moscow.

South Africa’s reasoning is it can highlight perceived international double standards over other invasions and occupations. But the problem, said Ziyanda Stuurman, senior Africa analyst at Eurasia Group, was that Pretoria’s foreign policy “comes across as inconsistent . . . acquiescing to China and almost fawning to Russia”.

Also read: South Africa faces quandary over Putin arrest warrant ahead of BRICS Summit – Ivo Vegter

One irony of the confusion created by Ramaphosa’s comments on Tuesday is that, despite a vague threat of future potential withdrawal, the ANC had actually restated its commitment to South Africa staying in the ICC.

Nicole Fritz, director of the Helen Suzman Foundation, a legal watchdog, said that while some ANC members do abhor the court and the vision of international order it represents, “there are a large number of officials in various government departments who are highly aware of South Africa’s obligations”.

South Africa was an early backer of the Rome statute, the treaty defining international crimes that led to the ICC’s founding in 2002, even as the US refused to join. It reflected the liberal and internationalist bent of foreign policy in Nelson Mandela’s early post-apartheid democracy.

Senior ANC figures such as Dullah Omar, Mandela’s justice minister, sought to win over sceptical developing countries by insisting that the ICC would “send a clear and unequivocal message that perpetrators of these crimes will not get away with impunity”.

“The Rome statute came about in 1998, four years after our transition to democracy,” said Fritz, pointing to a time when South Africa’s own quest for justice for apartheid atrocities was being hampered by a lack of prosecutions. “It was very much the idea that this international architecture would help guard against the type of situation we saw in South Africa,” she added.

Analysts see any western pressure on South Africa over the invitation to Putin as being focused on trade. The US could drop support for South Africa to host a forum this year on the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a US law that gives trade preference to many goods from approved African countries.

“That’s more likely to be prominent if Putin comes and the red carpet is rolled out for him,” Stuurman said.

Also read: Another SA headache as international warrant for Putin puts country in a spin over BRICS summit attendance

There is already scepticism among US lawmakers about whether South Africa, the biggest US trading partner on the continent, should stay in the trade deal beyond next year over what they view as a lack of commitment by Pretoria as well as its stance on Russia.

Despite these legal and diplomatic calculations, and the attraction of the Brics club to South Africa and Russia, many think that both governments will deem it more prudent if that red carpet goes unrolled.

“The smartest move would be for Putin not to come,” said Ramjathan-Keogh.