JOHANNESBURG — South Africa is defending its high-profile attempt to lead mediation between Russia and Ukraine amid mounting criticism after its efforts fell well short.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa led a group of seven African leaders that met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Friday and with Russian President Vladimir Putin the next day, presenting a 10-point plan aimed at brokering a peace process.
After the talks in Kyiv, Zelenskyy said peace depended on a full withdrawal of Russian troops from occupied territory and added that he failed to understand what could be gained from the meeting with Russia’s president. In Moscow, Putin interrupted opening remarks by the African delegation to list reasons why he believed many of their proposals were misguided.
Ramaphosa, who led the delegation, was criticized upon his return home. Some commentators pointed to Ukrainian media accusing his spokesman of deliberately spreading “misinformation” by failing to acknowledge a Russian missile attack. Others lambasted the cost of the trip and its failure to provide a path to peace.
The opposition Democratic Alliance called for Ramaphosa to account for the use of public funds in what it called a “failed PR stunt.”
Its leader, John Steenhuisen, said Ramaphosa disgraced South Africa in the “so-called peace mission”.
Ramaphosa was joined by the presidents of Comoros, Senegal, and Zambia, as well as Egypt’s prime minister and envoys from the Republic of Congo and Uganda. They were particularly concerned with issues related to food insecurity, including African access to grain and fertilizer which have been affected by the war.
A stand-off between Polish authorities, a group of South African journalists, and a security team accompanying Ramaphosa also generated headlines during the trip. South African journalists and the Ramaphosa’s security team were barred from embarking in Warsaw for more than 24 hours. Polish border officials said the South African delegation did not have the necessary paperwork for weapons they brought on a chartered flight. Poland rejected accusations that racism was a factor in its decision to bar entry.
The Ramaphosa-led initiative was always going to be a tough mountain to climb. Ultimately, it was a missed opportunity for South Africa to reposition itself on the world stage.
It could have adjusted the growing perception in the West that South Africa actively supports Russia rather than being neutral and was also an opportunity for Pretoria to burnish its credentials as Africa’s de facto leader on the world stage.
Instead, Ramaphosa has returned to loud criticism at home and questions about his strategic judgment. The mission was not preceded by the diplomatic and technical preparations needed to give the leaders more leverage to support their mediation efforts. The speed with which Putin dismissed the delegation’s efforts, and the manner in which he interjected, was instead a brutal reality check about how little clout they have in such discussions. The row with Polish border officials merely amplified the sense of indignity. Worse still, any hope that they could improve access to grain and fertilizers, which have stoked food inflation in much of the continent, also evaporated.
The stakes for Ramaphosa were high. Other African officials on the trip had little to lose — they were on the world stage but largely let South Africa’s president do the talking. Ramaphosa faces an election next year against the backdrop of the Phala Phala scandal and rolling power blackouts. And an increasingly erratic foreign policy, colored by relations with Russia, has prompted embarrassing episodes such as mispeaking on leaving the International Criminal Court and is threatening a trade program with the United States.
Room for Disagreement
“No one expected the first round of the peace initiatives would lead to the end of the conflict,” said Vincent Magwenya, the South African president’s spokesman. He said President Ramaphosa was “enthused by both parties’ willingness of both parties to engage.”
The View From Lusaka
Lubinda Haabazoka, director of the Graduate Business School at the University of Zambia, told Russian news service RT that “those of us who understand the conflict from a neutral perspective... actually anticipated that Zelenskyy was going to refuse this deal” proposed by the African Union.
“Ukraine doesn’t have its own voice. Ukraine does what it’s told to do, so Ukraine is not independent at the moment, unfortunately,” Haabazoka said.