South Africa’s tough balancing act

 ·18 Jul 2023

President Cyril Ramaphosa says arresting Russian President Vladimir Putin, should he come to South Africa, would amount to a declaration of war against Russia.

South Africa has recently seen its ties with the West come under severe strain, with it believed that South Africa’s government, particularly the ANC, is favouring Russia, despite the country’s stated “non-aligned” stance.

These tensions came to a head when the US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Briggerty, accused South Africa of supplying arms to Russia in an explosive statement earlier this year.

Despite tensions easing somewhat since then, there are still growing concerns that South Africa could now be kicked out of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which brings in billions to both the automotive and agricultural sectors.

Tensions will be further exacerbated if Russia’s President attends the 15th BRICS summit scheduled to take place in Johannesburg between the 22nd and 24th of August.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), of which South Africa is a member, has issued an arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes in Ukraine.

Should he come to the summit, South African officials, by law, would have to arrest him.

Yet, President Cyril Ramaphosa has warned that arresting Putin would amount to a declaration of war on Russia.

As reported by TimesLive, in an answering affidavit to a DA application in the Johannesburg High Court that has just been made publicly available, Ramaphosa said that he has a constitutional obligation to protect the national sovereignty and peace of the republic.

He added that the government at the Rome Statute (the treating defining the ICC) for any ways that South Africa could avoid its obligation to arrest Putin. For example, Article 97 allows a state to communicate to the ICC that there are problems that impede its ability to executive an arrest order.

However, the opposition leader, the DA’s John Steenhuisen, was less than impressed with the president’s arguments.

“It is clear that the South African government is making every attempt to obfuscate and cover up this pivotal matter to avoid public scrutiny and to mask its inability to stand up to warmongers and despots like Vladimir Putin, as should be expected from any human rights-based foreign policy,” Steenhuisen said.

“Deploying flimsy arguments which allege that the Russian Federation would declare war on South Africa should we arrest Vladimir Putin, are little more than strawman arguments when the Constitutional principle and both domestic and international law make the merits of this case crystal clear.”

Will he, won’t he?

The government has been headstrong that it will not pick a side and remain non-aligned, despite the growing threat of Western retaliation.

Deputy President Paul Mashatile said he is confident that an African-leader initiative to end the war in Ukraine will succeed.

“South Africa has recently been subjected to immense pressure in order to choose a side in the ongoing war in Ukraine… The ANC would like to firmly reiterate its anti-war stance, which we have asserted since the war began more than a year ago. We are for the silencing of the guns in Ukraine,” Mashatile said.

As reported by Financial Times, Mashatile said that Rampahosa is in direct talks with Putin over the issue of the ICC arrest warrant.

“We want to show him (Putin) the challenges that we face because we are part of the Rome Statute, and we can’t wiggle out of this,” Mashatile said.

However, it still remains unclear if Putin will attend the summit or not, with it reported that Ramaphosa was able to convince the Russian leader not to attend and an attempted coup lessening Putin’s appetite to leave his country.

Should he attend, the government will have to decide if it breaks international law or declares war.

Read: E-toll refunds, state banks and NHI – South Africa wasting time on things ‘that will never happen’

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