South Africa wraps up clunky peace mission to Ukraine and Russia

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President Cyril Ramaphosa, along with other African heads of state, has urged Russian and Ukrainian leaders to pursue peace during a challenging and largely symbolic trip to Europe.

The African Peace Mission leaders from the continent met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Friday 16 June and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday the 17th.

Ramaphosa along with Senegal President Macky Sall, Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema and Comoros President and Head of African Union Azali Assoumani represented the seven countries participating in the peace mission.

At a meeting with Putin on Saturday, Ramaphosa, who has always maintained that conflict must be resolved through negotiation and peaceful means, called for an end to the war in Ukraine.

President Ramaphosa was warmly received by President Putin and he thanked the Russian leader for agreeing to meet with the African leaders, SANews reports.

He tabled the peace mission’s ten points that had also been put forward at a meeting with President Zelenskyy on Friday, saying it was important to listen to what both leaders had to say.

“We are a seven-nation peace initiative and we are essentially on a peace mission to try and promote peace between Russia and Ukraine in this conflict.

“We are here to listen, as we did yesterday to President Zelenskyy. He outlined a number of issues to us and we did tell him that we would be meeting you where we would also listen to your perspective on this war.”

Reiterating his message to President Zelensky, President Ramaphosa said the African leaders wanted to listen with “respect and recognition of the views that you will put forward to us”.

The President said it was important for the mission to recognise the number of proposals put forward by key players in the world. He said Africa’s proposals are not in competition with the other proposals that have been put forward.

He articulated Africa’s stance to President Putin stating that Africa believes the war should be settled through negotiations and diplomatic means.

“The war cannot go on forever. All wars have to be settled and come to an end at some stage. We are here to communicate a very clear message that we would like this war to be ended. We say so because this war is having a negative impact on the African continent and indeed many other countries in the world.

“As a continent we are being negatively affected in terms of our economies, prices of commodities have gone up, particularly grain and fertilizer, and prices of fuel have also gone up. This is a consequence of a war that is ongoing. It is in our collective interest that the war should come to an end,” he said.

Africa wants to see a de-escalation of the conflict on both sides as it does not enhance the peace process.

Ramaphosa called for a guarantee of safety for all countries, for the movement of grains across the Black Sea and humanitarian support be provided to victims of war.

The African leaders called for the release of prisoners of war on both sides and further urged for the return of children to their families.

“There should also be post war construction and we should support the reconstruction that needs to take place beyond this war.”

President Ramaphosa said they had articulated this point to President Zelenskyy and he agreed that the African continent can play a role.

The African continent, he said, made the proposals and contributions with respect to the views put forward but also believing that there is a common position that can emerge and lead to peace.

Ramaphosa said the Africa Peace Mission was a historic one. “The African continent represented here through the seven countries has never been involved in a mission of this sort.

“We’ve taken this step believing that we can contribute and we would like to thank you for giving us the time to listen to what we are presenting but most importantly we want to listen to you,” Ramaphosa said.

He said the African leaders believed it was time for both parties to negotiate an end to the war as it is causing a great deal of instability and harm to various countries around the world.

Putin welcomed the “balanced attitude of our African friends with regards to the Ukraine crisis” and told the delegation that he valued their efforts in wanting a settlement.

Zelensky said peace talks with Russia would be possible only after Moscow withdraws its forces from occupied Ukrainian territory while Putin accused the Ukrainian side of not wanting to talk. Russia has also said withdrawing from Ukraine is not negotiable. Putin reiterated his position that Ukraine and its Western allies had started the conflict long before Russia sent its armed forces over the border in February 2022 and accused the West of being responsible for the increase in global food prices.

While the African leaders did not think that their engagement with both Presidents would lead to results that could end the war, Ramaphosa said they want to engage so that a peaceful solution is found. He said the African leaders stand ready and prepared to participate in further engagement.

Beset with challenges

The peace mission visit to Europe was beset with challenges, starting with security and media personnel spending 24 hours stuck at Warsaw Chopin Airport on Thursday because Polish officials would not let the chartered South African Airways A340-300 aircraft disembark its passengers because the security delegation was not in possession of the necessary permits for its firearms. Head of the Presidential Protection Services (PPS), Major General Wally Rhoode, expressed frustration over the delays as he believed the delegation was in possession of the necessary permits.

“They say we do not have permits, however we do have permits, the embassy here made copies of the original permits because they thought it won’t be necessary to have originals. All of a sudden we must have originals, they are delaying us,” Rhoode said, adding that Polish officials wanted to “confiscate our firearms.”

Further problems arose when some of Ramaphosa’s security detail and journalists were unable to join the president in Russia after the South African government failed to get clearance to fly over some parts of Europe, including Hungary.

Another stumble occurred whilst the South African delegation was in Kyiv and Russian missiles landed on the capital. Ramaphosa’s spokesman Vincent Magwenya denied seeing any attack, although Reuters journalists witnessed the South African delegation take cover in an air raid shelter.

Despite the South African-led peace mission, Ukraine’s counteroffensive continues and there has been no sign of a slowdown in fighting.

Director at African Defence Review, Darren Olivier, believes the trip “has been a diplomatic disaster. In it, South Africa deeply offended Poland and called it racist, accused Hungary of something it didn’t do, and alienated Ukraine by claiming it faked missile attacks. All thanks to arrogance, incompetence, and poor comms discipline.

“It was supposed to be a serious, hopeful mediation visit by mostly neutral outsiders: African countries badly affected by the war’s secondary effects on food and energy. Instead, it has been overshadowed by this fiasco. The other delegations must be furious with South Africa,” Olivier stated.

The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party is demanding to know how much “Ramaphosa’s failed diplomatic PR stunt” cost South Africa. DA leader John Steenhuisen said Ramaphosa “must be held accountable for the millions of Rands in taxpayer funds wasted” on the trip – reports suggest chartering the SAA A340 cost R16 million. Olivier and other commentators have questioned why two aircraft were needed for the trip when one could have done, and if the president and his security delegation were travelling together, the A340 might not have been grounded in Poland.

The DA said it is submitting a series of urgent parliamentary questions to determine the full cost of the visit. Steenhuisen said he will be writing to the South African Auditor General requesting that the cost of this peacekeeping trip “be declared as fruitless and wasteful expenditure, given the fact that due diligence was not carried out on the part of the South African state.”