SA on international stage: Ramaphosa’s ill-fated peace mission, a desperate distraction amidst scandals and failures

This opinion piece, by Bloomberg columnist, Bobby Ghosh criticises President Cyril Ramaphosa for his attempt to position himself as an honest broker in the conflicts in Moscow and Kyiv. Highlighting the recent US allegations that South Africa supplied arms to Russia, undermining Ramaphosa’s credibility. The president’s lack of leverage is emphasised, as he is part of a B-team of African leaders on the peace mission. Ghosh also questions Ramaphosa’s leadership, as an inquiry into the arms transfer is announced, and his failure to condemn Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Furthermore, Ghosh notes Ramaphosa’s posturing abroad while conflicts closer to home remain unresolved.

Ramaphosa’s Ukraine Peace Mission Is Pure Deflection

By Bobby Ghosh*

You could almost see the egg dripping from Cyril Ramaphosa’s face as he announced an African peace mission to Moscow and Kyiv, scheduled for early next month. Speaking only days after US allegations that South Africa had supplied arms to Russia, South Africa’s president must have known his attempt to cast himself as a honest broker in the conflict is doomed. But he is desperate to distract attention from his economic and political troubles at home as well as his foreign policy failures.

Along with credibility, Ramaphosa is also lacking in leverage — with either of the belligerents. It would be one thing if he were traveling with leaders of the BRICS group, but China and India have their own interests to pursue. So the South African will be part of a B-team that includes the presidents of Egypt, Zambia, Senegal, the Republic of Congo and Uganda.

He will not be the only pretend-peacemaker among the six African leaders in the mission: General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has been allowing Russia to use Egyptian airspace, turning down American entreaties to block military flights. But it is one thing to allow Vladimir Putin to transport weapons to his frontline troops in Ukraine, and quite another actually to provide those arms.

Ramaphosa has announced an inquiry into the arms transfer, and some in South Africa speculate that the president may not have had personal knowledge of what was being loaded on to the Russian cargo ship, known as the Lady R, at the Simon’s Town naval base in Cape Town in December.

Even if true, this would reflect poorly on his leadership. The ship’s arrival was flagged well in advance, and there can have been little doubt that Western intelligence agencies would keep it under close watch while at port.

South Africa also welcomed Russian (and Chinese) warships for a joint naval exercise in February.

So Ramaphosa can count on a warm welcome from Putin when the mission arrives in Moscow, but a conversation with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy last weekend will have given the South African a taste of what awaits him in Kyiv. Zelenskiy issued a blunt statement after their chat: “Anyone who helps an aggressor with a weapon will be an accomplice with all the consequences.”

Liubov Abravitova, Ukraine’s ambassador to South Africa, followed this up with an indication of what Kyiv wants from Ramaphosa: To get off the fence. Since Putin’s invasion is a violation of the United Nations charter and her country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, she said, “we consider it is the [obligation] of every member of UN to condemn Russia for its aggression.”

South Africa has conspicuously failed to do so. In part, this is because senior leaders of the ruling African National Congress, grateful for Moscow’s unstinting backing during their struggle against apartheid, confuse the current occupant of the Kremlin with those who ruled that roost during the Cold War. There are other reasons, no less specious, trotted out by some of Ramaphosa’s counterparts in the Global South, whether they be opportunistic (like India’s Narendra Modi) or doctrinaire (like Brazil’s Lula.)

Ramaphosa’s peacemaker pose is the more pharisaical because he has shown little interest in that role in conflicts much closer to home. He can only hope Zelenskiy is too polite to question his credentials or to point out that South Africa has not played a significant part in resolving wars on its continent, such as the recent civil war in Ethiopia or Sudan’s ongoing war of generals.

Meanwhile, Ramaphosa’s posturing abroad won’t impress his critics at home, where the economy is hobbled, not only by international factors like the war in Ukraine but also by what central bank Governor Lesetja Kganyago has described as “largely self-inflicted wounds.” The most telling indicator of the government’s mismanagement is the severe scarcity of energy: South Africans have had to endure 16 consecutive months of blackouts — of up to 12 hours a day — because state power utility Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. aging coal-fired plants can’t meet demand. 

In addition to a cool reception for his peace initiative in Kyiv, then Ramaphosa can expect a cold response from South Africans in their winter of discontent.

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*Aparisim “Bobby” Ghosh is an Indian-born American journalist and commentator. He is a columnist and member of the editorial board at Bloomberg Opinion.