The South African government is creating a growing public relations disaster, domestically and internationally, with its diplomatic egg dance about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Pretoria’s tortured efforts to maintain some sort of neutrality in regard to Russia’s increasingly destructive assault on Ukrainian civilians is rapidly losing it friends, both at home and abroad.
This week Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Cape Town called on the South African government to condemn “loudly and clearly those who bomb health centres and places of refuge” in Ukraine.
And in New York, South Africa is also taking huge flak, from Ukraine itself and from Western and other nations, for proposing a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly calling for humanitarian aid to be delivered to Ukraine – without mentioning Russia at all as the cause of the humanitarian crisis.
One former Western diplomat in South Africa said he was stunned by South Africa’s apparent indulgence of what he called the “medieval barbarity” of Russia’s invasion and its intensifying bombardment of civilians in many Ukrainian cities.
Makgoba said at an exhibition dedicated to the work of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu that he was distressed by South Africa’s “silence on the horrific bombing of health facilities and civilians in Ukraine”.
“Where is our ubuntu, our humanity?” he asked. “We Africans complain of the appalling indifference of many Europeans to the suffering of Africans when there is conflict on our continent. Are we seeking to mimic the Europeans in their lack of compassion, their lack of outrage at the suffering which women and children are subjected to? Do we want to reduce ourselves to their level?”
Those sentiments reflect what mainly Western diplomats are also saying about South Africa’s diplomacy and its failure so far to condemn the suffering Moscow has inflicted on Ukraine, especially its civilians, who are being killed in their thousands.
Diplomatic sources said Ukraine itself was particularly incensed that South Africa had sponsored a resolution on providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine – in opposition to a resolution that Ukraine itself had introduced and that was co-sponsored by several countries including France and Mexico.
The Ukraine text included condemnation of Russia as the cause of the humanitarian crisis. South Africa put forward an alternative resolution that removed any reference to Russia.
South African diplomats said this was necessary in order to get Russia’s support for the resolution, as without its support the humanitarian aid would not be delivered.
But the Ukraine-Mexico-France resolution was approved by an overwhelming majority of 140 votes in favour and only five against. The South African resolution was defeated on a technicality, as the General Assembly voted 67-50 to not even consider it.
Western diplomats said Ukraine took the initiative to prevent the vote on South Africa’s resolution as it was outraged that Pretoria had failed to consult with Ukraine on its resolution and also to provide any support to Ukraine at all. This included the apparent reluctance of International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor to meet Ukraine’s ambassador in Pretoria, Liubov Abravitova, or to arrange a call between President Cyril Ramaphosa and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – to match Ramaphosa’s call to Russian President Vladimir Putin two weeks ago.
In fact, Abravitova told DM168 that Pandor’s department had asked for a teleconference between Ramaphosa and Zelensky this week. It is not clear why that has not gone ahead yet.
Ukraine and other, particularly Western, nations also felt that SA was acting as a “stalking horse” for Russia, by presenting a resolution that was favourable to Moscow.
South African officials strenuously denied that their text was close to Russia’s. They pointed out, for example, that their text contained clauses calling for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – within internationally recognised borders – to be respected. That in effect meant that SA implicitly rejected Russia’s claim to the Crimea and to the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
But Russia embarrassed South Africa when its ambassador stood up in the UN General Assembly and called on all states to support the South African resolution.
South Africa and Western countries also clashed in Pretoria over their attempts to find a compromise resolution.
Both sides accused each other of being unwilling to compromise.
This was most evident when South Africa proposed to include a clause in its resolution recalling the March 2 General Assembly resolution, which was overwhelmingly supported, that had strongly condemned Russia for its “aggression” against Ukraine and demanded it withdraw its forces.
Pretoria felt that would have implicitly acknowledged Russia’s responsibility for the humanitarian disaster in Ukraine without jeopardising the humanitarian resolution by explicitly pointing to Russia.
South African diplomats said that Western ambassadors in Pretoria had been willing to consider this compromise but that their ambassadors in New York had rejected it. A Western ambassador, however, insisted that South Africa had submitted its resolution before this compromise could be discussed. He expressed concern that the General Assembly decision not even to vote on South Africa’s resolution would be spun as “the West not even being prepared to listen to the Global South”.
South African diplomats confirmed that that was indeed how it is being interpreted.
A Western ambassador acknowledged that there was a certain logic in Pretoria’s argument that removing all reference to Russia from the resolution might induce Russia to support it – and so ensure humanitarian aid was delivered.
“On the other hand, pretending there is no aggressor reduces the pressure on Russia to implement anything. What we need is not for Russia to allow humanitarian corridors but for Russia to stop shelling Ukrainian cities and to withdraw their troops.”
Western governments are largely seeing South Africa’s ambivalent posture on the Ukraine crisis as reflecting Ramaphosa’s need to mollify the ANC hardliners – who are pro-Russia and anti-West – in a year when he faces re-election as ANC leader.
The internal ANC domestic politics of the Ukraine crisis should emerge more as the ANC’s NEC is due to discuss it at its meeting from 25 to 27 March. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Spar, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.