S A president, Cyril Ramaphosa
Opinion & Analysis

Ramaphosa now Putin’s go-between

WHEN South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa consulted his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in a telephone call a week or so ago over whether he would attend the BRICS leaders’ summit in South Africa in August in person, I wonder whether Putin reciprocated by consulting his newfound go-to-African leader of choice about his decision to unilaterally pull out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI) with Türkiye and Ukraine a few days later.

Ramaphosa should be under no illusion that the two issues are inextricably linked because they pertain to the very persona and policies of the Russian leader, who in the aftermath of Putin’s invasion of and war against Ukraine has become a pariah at least in the eyes of the UN and international conventions and the West and its allies, which includes several African countries.

The fact that Putin, who is subject to an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant and South Africa as a signatory to the Rome Statute, which governs the ICC is expected to help in Putin’s arrest, will now not attend in person instead by video-link from the Kremlin could be seen by some as a triumph for Ramaphosa’s realpolitik foreign policy — a decision taken by mutual agreement.

On the other hand, his detractors at home perceive Putin’s reversal of diplomatic fortune as a lawfare victory that forced a U-turn on the Ramaphosa government, or as a failure of the ANC to protect the Russian leader as the extreme left maintains.

At best, Ramaphosa has turned out to be the diplomatic go-between with Putin whether by design or default. The reality is that the African continent remains split over the war between Russia and Ukraine, with some countries showing reluctance to back UN resolutions condemning Russia for its actions in Ukraine.

On the other hand, Ramaphosa has come under frantic international pressure to arrest Putin should he attend the 15th BRICS summit, hence the seeming U-turn, and at home from ANC factions for both ideological reasons and anti-West sentiments, some of which are justified especially in terms of the marginalisation and neglect of African interests over the last decade or two in particular relating to sovereign debt forgiveness, access to FDI, overvaluation of African risk perceptions especially by the Western rating agencies.

The fact that Ramaphosa had a telephone conversation a week or so ago with Ukrainian President Volodimyr Zelenskyy before similar calls a few days later with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Putin reinforces the linkage between the conflict and the BSGI.

The discussions, confirmed The Presidency, “revolved around the African leaders peace mission, the ongoing negotiations between Russia and the UN about the Black Sea Grain Initiative and the need for a permanent and sustainable solution to the movement of grain from Russia and Ukraine to the international markets.”

Perhaps Ramaphosa can learn from the experience of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan who initially tried to play both sides in the Ukraine conflict and then warmed to Putin as a riposte to US and EU foreign and defence policy relating to Türkiye, successfully brokering the BSGI to the relief of the world, only for it to be scuppered by the Kremlin as Ankara, emboldened by Erdogan’s stunning victory in the May general election, started looking westwards in an attempt to remedy a dire economic situation at home, sweetened by a promise by the Biden administration to supply Türkiye with F16 jet fighters and the EU re-opening negotiations about the status of Ankara’s associate membership.

Perhaps Erdogan has configured that Putin’s days are numbered which necessitated a realignment of foreign policy which has seen a rapprochement with the Arab Gulf states and a heightened economic and infrastructure building presence in Africa including Senegal, Somalia and South Africa.

● Parker is an economist and writer based in London. — Cape Times

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