Cape Town, South Africa – At the weekend, a quartet of African leaders led by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa returned from a trip to Russia and Ukraine, as part of efforts to resolve the war between the nations.
Dubbed a “peace mission” by the group, the trip puzzled many observers.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, many African countries have remained publicly neutral and abstained from voting against Russia at United Nations meetings.
In March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin. South Africa’s apparent reluctance to enforce that writ during Putin’s expected visit to Cape Town this August is being interpreted as Pretoria tilting to Moscow’s side.
A recent allegation by the United States ambassador to South Africa that Pretoria was supplying arms to Moscow has also put South Africa in a diplomatic dilemma.
All that was before this month’s trip. Reportedly brokered by Algerian-born French businessman Jean-Yves Ollivier, it had no backing from the African Union.
And it was almost thwarted by a number of unexpected scenarios.
First, three members of the original party – Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Republic of the Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni – cancelled days ahead of the trip. Ollivier is a known associate of Nguesso.
And then there was a logistical nightmare involving South African security officials. A plane carrying journalists, security personnel and 15 containers with weapons from Johannesburg was detained at the Warsaw airport by Polish authorities.
After three days, the plane returned to Johannesburg as Warsaw insisted that the South Africans did not have the correct paperwork for the mission.
Despite these setbacks, Ramaphosa, Senegal’s leader Macky Sall, Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema and Comoros President Azali Assoumani, who also holds the rotating chair of the AU, eventually made it. So did representatives of the Ugandan and Egyptian leaders.
The contingent met Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv, before heading to Moscow to see Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
The delegation put forward a 10-point plan that included sending prisoners of war and children back to their countries of origin and unimpeded grain exports through the Black Sea. But the effort is yet to yield any results.
During a joint press conference with the African delegation, Zelenskyy reiterated that there would be no peace agreement while Russia continues to occupy parts of Ukraine, telling reporters that to allow any such dialogue is “to freeze the war, to freeze everything: pain and suffering”.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in televised remarks that Moscow shared the “main approaches” of the African plan, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying peace was “difficult to realise”.
As the African delegation was in Kyiv, Russian missiles shelled Ukraine, forcing the visiting group to seek cover in a bomb shelter.
‘An attempt to … punch above its weight’
The shortcomings of the trip have led to plenty of reactions back in Africa, especially in South Africa.
The mission “was an attempt to reaffirm that the country can and does punch above its weight in global terms … but fell flat largely because South Africa has been naive” in foreign policy, Ayesha Kajee, a research fellow at Johannesburg-based think thank Africa Asia Dialogues, told Al Jazeera.
Kajee told Al Jazeera that “the weakness of the mission is that Africa has not been able to resolve its own conflicts”.
The left-leaning opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party mocked Ramaphosa and the mission while condemning the Polish authorities.
“The South African head of state had to travel to Kyiv in a compromised state, in a war zone, without his security detail. This is an unacceptable and deliberate form of humiliation,” the statement said.
“While Cyril Ramaphosa is an incompetent and corrupt buffoon of imperialism who is incapable of taking a firm stance on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the South African state and our sovereignty were undermined through him.”
For some analysts, while the mission may not have achieved any immediate success, it presented an opportunity for Africa to discuss first hand the effects of the war – especially on food security – on millions across the continent, from Antananarivo to Addis Ababa and Cape Town to Cairo.
According to the African Development Bank, the war has led to a shortage of about 30 million tonnes of grain in Africa.
“The fact that Africa was able to express itself around the conflict was a good thing … some say Africa had no business going there when we have conflicts here,” Christopher Afoke Isike, a professor of African politics and international relations at the University of Pretoria, told Al Jazeera.
“[But] the conflict is impacting us directly with the shortage of grain exports and fertilisers …the war is a threat to Africa; more so than the conflict in Sudan. It was a matter of continental interest,” he added.
‘Ramaphosa’s ego trip’
Meanwhile, Ramaphosa has hailed the initiative as “historic”, saying the delegation took “a non-aligned stance” on the issue, which “lent credibility to the mission and engendered trust from both sides”.
“Another point of the peace proposal being put forward by African leaders is the opening up of the movement of grains across the Black Sea for grains from Russia or Ukraine to reach world markets,” added Ramaphosa in his newsletter this week.
But there is still a perception that Ramaphosa, who led the delegation, was seeking to score points abroad as he faces a barrage of problems at home.
National power utility Eskom is still struggling to resolve repeated blackouts for as many as 12 or more hours daily nationwide, despite Ramaphosa’s appointment of an electricity minister. And soaring living costs have made the president increasingly unpopular.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance’s John Steenhuisen told Al Jazeera that millions of rands in taxpayer funds had been wasted on the trip, which he said was “designed to spin the utterly incompetent Ramaphosa out of trouble over his ongoing support for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin”.
“He even flew an entire contingent of journalists to Europe in the obvious hope that they would help save his collapsed political image, said Steenhuisen. “Ramaphosa’s ego trip to Europe has spectacularly backfired.”
“We were collateral damage,” Lindsay Dentlinger, a broadcast journalist on the trip, said in an interview with a local radio station. “There was a bureaucratic bungle from the SA side.”