South Africa's president leads mission to end Ukraine-Moscow war amid scepticism over his partiality

South Africa's president leads mission to end Ukraine-Moscow war amid scepticism over his partiality
Ramaphosa (left) and Putin, at an earlier Russia-Africa summit / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews June 16, 2023

Explosions sounded in the Ukrainian capital on Friday (June 16) as a group of African leaders visited the city on what they have billed as a peace initiative, which will see them visit Moscow next.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa is leading the delegation of seven African leaders, whose other members include the leaders of Zambia, Senegal, and Comoros, whose head of state is the current African Union chairperson.

The leaders of the Republic of Congo, Egypt and Uganda had also planned to travel to Ukraine but will be sending representatives instead, a spokesman for Ramaphosa told News24, a South African news outlet, without further explanation.

In a video posted while an air raid alert was still active in the Ukrainian capital on Friday morning, Vincent Magwenya, a spokesman for the office of the South African president, said that Ramaphosa had “arrived here safely”.

The delegation has met Ukraine’s leader, Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv, and is due to speak to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on June 17 in St Petersburg. The African delegation will be the first to meet with the leaders of both Russia and Ukraine.

The stakes of the war are high for Africa, which has seen crucial supply chains, particularly for grain and fertiliser, disrupted due to the war.

“As you all know Africa has been severely impacted by this conflict in terms of food insecurity, price of grain, price of fertilizer,” Magwenya said, as quoted by The New York Times. “But equally, this mission serves to seek a road to peace that will elevate the suffering that has been experienced by the people in Ukraine.”

The South African presidency said in a release on June 15 that it is at times of escalated conflict that a search for peace must be equally accelerated. “This peace initiative should be seen as complementing other peace initiatives that other parties have put forward. The strength of this mission is that African leaders will be engaging with both parties,” it added.

Ramaphosa has in recent weeks been in conversation with Putin, Zelenskyy, China’s Xi Jinping, and UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres regarding efforts to facilitate the peace process, in line with South Africa’s standing as “a non-aligned state,” the statement noted.

The mission, however, gets underway as the West continue to question South Africa’s declared neutrality in the conflict. 

“Exasperation over Pretoria’s ambiguous position on the war mounted over what has been called the ‘Lady R incident’, referring to a mysterious Russian ship that docked in a military port near Cape Town in December 2022 which the US later alleged was then loaded with a cargo of South African weapons,” according to France24 on June 15.

“Two months later, as the world marked the war's one-year anniversary, South Africa held joint military exercises with Russia and China. The drills – dubbed ‘Mosi,’ which means ‘smoke’ in Tswana, a local South African language – threw Pretoria’s self-proclaimed neutrality into question.”

On May 11, Reuben Brigety, the US ambassador to South Africa, said weapons were loaded on the vessel, an allegation that Ramaphosa’s administration has rejected.  It later said the ship delivered military material from Moscow.

On May 15, South Africa’s army chief Lawrence Mbatha visited Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart, Oleg Salyukov. Russia’s defence ministry later said the meeting was meant to boost "military cooperation and implementing projects aimed at improving the combat readiness of both countries’ armies".

"South Africa often conducts military exchanges with Russia and other countries. However, it is worth noting that this trip went ahead, even though the United States had officially accused the South African government a few days earlier of supplying arms to Moscow," said Anurag Mishra from the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) in Verona, Italy in an interview with France24 last month.

South Africa and Russia have been close since Moscow supported the African country in its fight against apartheid up to independence in 1994.  The countries are members of the BRICS group of emerging economies whose other members are India, China and Brazil.  South Africa is scheduled to host a summit of the grouping in August 2023. 

Putin, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged crimes against humanity in Ukraine, is invited for the event. As a signatory to the Rome Statute that establishes the ICC, South Africa is obliged to arrest him if he attends in person and hand him over for prosecution at the Hague, the seat of the ICC. Ramaphosa’s government is exploring ways to handle the matter.

As Western pressure mounts on South Africa over its declared neutrality on the Ukraine war, a group of American congressmen want the country to lose its right to host a US-Africa summit on preferential trade later this year. 

“We are seriously concerned that hosting the 2023 AGOA [Africa Growth and Opportunity Act] Forum in South Africa would serve as an implicit endorsement of South Africa's damaging support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine and possible violation of U.S. sanctions law,” the legislators say in a letter to US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.

“Further, these actions by South Africa call into question its eligibility for trade benefits under AGOA due to the statutory requirement that beneficiary countries not engage in activities that undermine United States national security or foreign policy interests.”