🔒 Premium RW Johnson: Ramaphosa’s knee-jerk African Peace mission to nowhere

By RW Johnson

President Ramaphosa has now headed off with his African colleagues on their ill-considered mission to Ukraine and Russia. It is impossible to find anyone outside a few ANC loyalists in South Africa who takes this mission seriously. Let us spell out the reasons why this is so.

Although Ramaphosa has from time to time talked of South Africa offering its good offices to help mediate the Russia-Ukraine war, no one has hitherto treated this idea seriously.The basic problem is that no African state has any leverage over either Russia or Ukraine. And without the ability to twist arms, mediation is pretty much impossible. China has decisive leverage over Russia, America and Nato have leverage over Ukraine. True, President Erdogan was able to get Putin to allow Ukraine to make grain shipments – but Turkey controls the Bosphorus, the entrance to the Black Sea, which means that any Russian leader has to listen to Turkey. 

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So how did this mission come about ? The key, without doubt, was US ambassador Brigety’s explosive accusations of South African arms trading. This shook Ramaphosa who hurriedly said he’d appoint a retired judge to investigate. Despite the fact that the South African press repeatedly says that “Ramaphosa has appointed a judicial inquiry”, this is not true. No judge has been named and there is no sign that this will actually happen. 

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The reason for this is, pretty certainly, that both the business community and the Treasury have made it clear that this issue needs to be cleared up right away. As David Masondo, the deputy Finance Minister has pointed out, Brigety’s accusation has had a huge impact both on the Rand and South Africa’s bond market. Indeed, in the markets analysts bet that the Rand may soon sink to R20 to the dollar. 

This is having a disastrous impact on inflation, on the need for still higher interest rates, on the cost of borrowing for the Treasury and on South Africa’s ability to finance its budget deficit. Masondo is a Communist but he’s been at the Treasury long enough to understand what a market imperative is. 

The crude fact is that the markets believe Brigety and his boast that he would “bet my life” on what he said. Ramaphosa’s gambit about a retired judge has failed to instil confidence. Meanwhile it is clear that Sidney Mufamadi’s mission to Washington to soothe American feelings was a complete flop. The mission couldn’t meet the right people; Congress was in recess; the SA embassy in Washington hadn’t set up the right appointments and anyway the mission was unable to answer some of the hard-nosed questions it was asked. 

So what to do ? Ramaphosa spoke to Putin by phone and doubtless pointed out the parlous position South Africa finds itself in thanks to its friendship with Russia. Putin did what he could to help: Russia immediately ridiculed the notion that a consignment of ammunition from South Africa would have been any use against Ukraine. But nobody much trusts the Russians: their propaganda machine has been spewing out too many outrageous untruths for that. So Ramaphosa has desperately tried to fill the vacuum by suddenly devising this African mission. It is even possible that this too was suggested by Putin. 

In other words, this mission is not really aimed at peace in Ukraine. It is aimed at American and European opinion. It is supposed to show them “Look, we’re good guys, not Russian patsies. We are peace-makers and we are truly neutral between Russia and Ukraine”. 

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This won’t work for several reasons. First, the majority of African states voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but none of those states have been invited on this mission. No Kenya, no Ghana, no Nigeria, no Ivory Coast. It’s a deliberately unrepresentative delegation. 

Second, there are still a whole lot of questions to be answered: What was going on with the Lady R ? Or with the Ilyushin-76 that landed at Waterkloof ? Why the joint naval exercises with Russia and China ? Why all these anti-American resolutions by the ANC despite America’s large generosity to South Africa since 1994 ? Why did a South African general visit his Russian counterparts in Moscow ? Ramaphosa seems to hope that his peace mission will sufficiently cloud the issue so that these questions can be ignored. This won’t work any better than the judicial inquiry gambit. 

Finally, what is the peace mission to say to Zelenskyy ? He will doubtless ask them “What would you do if your old imperial power – Britain in South Africa’s case – suddenly announced that you didn’t really exist as an independent country and invaded you, taking over a fifth of your country ? Would you seek to compromise and hand over a large part of your country to them ?” It’s hard to see how Ramaphosa can answer that.

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Meanwhile the Russian Duma (Parliament) has been discussing the question: After Ukraine has been conquered, which countries should we invade ? Poland ? Moldova ? The Baltic states ? The Russian ex-President, Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s devoted underling, has referred to the Baltic states as still being Russia’s provinces – which it will reclaim. What to say in the face of this unabashed imperialism?

Zane Dangor, the director-general at Dirco, says that the mission will, in the first instance, want a cease fire and an armistice. But that would be a completely one-sided pro-Russian settlement. It would leave Putin in possession of all the territory he has seized. It would exact no compensation for all the Ukrainians he has killed, tortured or kidnapped. It would mean the Ukrainians have to cancel their Spring offensive. And it would give Putin the breathing space he wants to build up his forces again and then launch a further offensive. The only way to bring this back to a fair negotiation would be for Russia to give up all its gains, including Crimea, and then the two sides could negotiate about the future on a “without prejudice” basis. But neither scenario seems at all likely.

The fact is that this peace mission can do whatever song and dance routine it likes in Moscow and Kiev but it will achieve nothing. And at the end of it all the awkward questions that Ramaphosa is trying so hard not to answer will remain.

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