For someone who believes in antique ideologies — from state control of the economy to racial nationalism — Cyril Ramaphosa speaks in very postmodern terms.
Postmodernism is the philosophy that there is no scientific or historical truth; and CR certainly peppered his remarks last week on the war in Ukraine with lashings of this concept.
Ukraine-born author Peter Pomerantsev titled his book on Vladimir Putin’s Russia Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. This is excellent shorthand for Ramaphosa’s remarks at the Union Buildings last week on the occasion of the visit here of German chancellor Olaf Scholz.
His description of Russia and Ukraine as “co-belligerents” explicitly creates a moral and military equivalence between aggressor and violator of sovereign rights on the one hand, and the defender of territorial integrity on the other.
In further remarks Ramaphosa criticised EU sanctions imposed on the aggressor while choosing characteristic silence on Russia’s blockade of Ukranian ports which now threatens world food supplies, including our own.
Just how imperilling this faraway war is for us was revealed by the CEO of SA’s largest food producer days after Ramaphosa’s non-remarks on the threat. Noel Doyle, of Tiger Brands, advised Business Day in an interview: “We are going to face a very serious challenge over the next six months … products like oats, flour, maize and bread are [likely] to increase [in price] between 15% and 20%.”
The replacement costs of these staples will surge by about 45% to 50% now that existing cheap wheat is finished, he warned.
The old Roman fix for the disaffected populace of “bread and circuses” is not available. The R22m giant flag is not flying to distract us, and pap will soon enough replace bread for most citizens. A winter of discontent looms large.
A critic of postmodernism, Francis Fukuyama, described a lot of its verbiage as “a cognitive wasteland”. Ramaphosa comported to this definition when he contorted himself, at the press conference with Scholz, on why sanctions against apartheid SA were good but those imposed today, with much greater severity against Russia, were bad.
“Those sanctions were different,” Ramaphosa advised an inquiring German journalist, without elaboration or explanation.
It’s a bit like the algorithm housed in the basement of the department of international relations & co-operation’s nearby headquarters in Pretoria. Each Israeli human rights infraction spews forth a condemnatory statement of outrage from the South African government. Russia’s multiple and murderous war of aggression, as Scholz correctly called it, receives nary a mention nor the slightest wrist slap.
But Ramaphosa not only practises extreme cognitive dissonance on the war in Ukraine, but in justifying our spectacular fence-sitting at best, and silent support for Russia at worst, he is obliged to do violence to our own history.
Thus he offered that the end of apartheid and the birth of democracy in SA was achieved through “negotiations, dialogue, engagement between two belligerent entities”. No word here that the ANC and the UN General Assembly had characterised one of the “belligerents” as practising “crimes against humanity”, nor how the armed struggle was pursued when hope of an earlier negotiated settlement was, frankly, hopeless. Just, in his view, a negotiation between two sides to a quarrel.
Panel-beating history and the misuse of inapt analogies to defend a morally dubious proposition is distorting.
So, too, was Ramaphosa’s view on Africa’s intended contribution to conflict resolution. He warmly endorsed the attempts of the AU chair, Senegal’s President Macky Sall, to broker peace between Ukraine and Russia. “Africa has a role to play because it has access to both leaders [of Ukraine and Russia],” Ramaphosa enthused as Sall sallied forth to visit both Moscow and Kyiv.
That of course is true of dozens of states and international organisations, including those imposing severe sanctions on Russia and arming Ukraine.
But on the adage of charity beginning in your own back yard, the record of the AU in brokering peace and amity between “belligerents” is hardly stellar. The atrocities committed in the ongoing civil war in Ethiopia, and the violent ejections of governments in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso are just the most recent examples. And the very continental body, the AU, charged and funded to broker peace and democracy, has been missing in action. Or hapless to achieve a positive result. Good luck then in achieving a peace settlement in Europe.
These pesky and boring facts enjoy little truck with Ramaphosa with his bland, and historically fraught, embellishments.
Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the scene last week from the Union Buildings was the contrast between the two presidents and their own national histories.
Germany, the aggressor nation of the first half of the 20th century, became in the aftermath of the horrors it inflicted in World War 2 a model of modern democracy and international pacifism. The mortal threat posed by Russia to its continental security on February 24 forced it to change its posture: it is now massively ramping up military expenditure, sanctioning Russia and sending sophisticated arms and munitions to Ukraine.
Russia offers modern proof of the ancient Athenian ultimatum to their Melian victims: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
Ramaphosa’s silence on the latest update of this “might is right” world view is a crippling example of moral blindness. It is particularly blighted when he is the historic and political representative of those who, not long ago, were themselves victims of precisely this formula.
Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA