I rubbed my eyes when scanning Monday’s weekly newsletter by Cyril Ramaphosa -thinking perhaps I had mistakenly chanced upon the English version of Pravda or Izvestia.

Ramaphosa and his “comrades” might lash out at DStv for cutting us off – one of the very small mercies from the merciless Ukraine war — from the beam of Kremlin propaganda spewed by Russia Today.

But reading the Ramaphosa newsletter suggests such anxiety is misplaced: the Kremlin today has no surer voice to parrot its views than Ramaphosa and his senior lieutenants. Even the slightly off-key Naledi Pandor — who dared to suggest that Russia’s unprovoked invasion of its neighbour must be reversed — was whipped back into line. She and her department were soon singing again from the Kremlin hymn sheet.

There is no ban (yet) in SA on calling the Russian aggression an “invasion” or “a war” (exemplified by indiscriminate bombings of civilians, besieging cities and displacing over 1.5-million Ukrainian citizens). However, Ramaphosa could not in his 600 word-plus Monday missive actually call events unleashed by Vladimir Putin on February 24 by their name. He comforted himself and contorted both reason and logic by using such Kremlin-approved euphemisms as “escalating conflict” and “disputes” and “historical tensions”.

Beyond his linguistic tiptoeing, he offers nary a word of condemnation or even acknowledgment that there is a right and wrong side in this unfolding horror show.

Given the rhetorical denunciations offered by Pretoria for every minor or major Israeli incursion into Gaza, or that the ANC led countrywide demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003 (which SA condemned unreservedly and did not suggest mediation or negotiations as an alternative — simply called for America to withdraw) our famous “whataboutism” collapses through its own contradictions. Even our inconsistencies are inconsistent.

And whatever the wrongs of the US-UK invasion of Iraq, for example, it was not exactly to supplant a democratically elected head of state. Saddam Hussein was no Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

One perhaps does not expect too much of the Ramaphosa cabinet when it comes to a basic understanding of history or geography. After all, Ramaphosa-appointed cabinet minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams famously did not know Geneva was in Switzerland.

Perhaps she could be forgiven since the ANC itself in 2019 designated Switzerland as a “former coloniser” guilty of “a history of master-slave relations” — when it objected to that country, along with our major EU trading partners, making some mild criticisms of South African economic policy. Switzerland has never colonised anyone.

So, if she and her colleagues now parrot out solidarity to the disappeared Soviet Union and ignore the existence of Ukraine (designated a republic by VI Lenin no less) and the entire sweep of international events, as well as solemn treaties signed by Russia since 1991 (Russia, for example, signed the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 undertaking to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine”), one might say “par for the course”.

But more is expected of our head of state. Even his evenhandedness between the aggressor Russia and the victim Ukraine does not survive his new posture of assuming Swiss-style neutrality.

This is because for the first time in its 550-year history Switzerland has decided to break its famed neutrality and pick a side, and last week imposed EU-style sanctions on Russia after the invasion.

When Thabo Mbeki was at the height of his Aids denialism, he advanced his fight with settled science and virology by eliding key paragraphs from scientific and medical research on antiretroviral drugs and simply ignoring, often in the same document he quoted, with ostensible approval, propositions which undercut his stance.

This form of intellectual dishonesty had real life and death consequences for hundreds of thousands (the definitive Harvard study suggests 300,000) of South Africans who died at the height of our officially sanctioned Aids insanity, for want of life-saving ARVs.

Ramaphosa does something similar with his panel-beating of the facts and the law in his newsletter. And he goes further — he basically lies by omission when he quotes from the UN Charter.

Ramaphosa quotes, with approval, sections of the charter requiring member states to “settle their disputes by peaceful means in the first instance, stating explicitly that parties to any dispute should first seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, conciliation, arbitration and similar mechanisms”.

He makes the worst outbreak of armed conflict in Europe since 1945 and the most egregious flight of civilians since the end of World War 2 sound like a labour dispute to be adjudicated by the CCMA.

Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits the use of military force against another state. Putin does not regard Ukraine as a state, but unfortunately for him both the UN and indeed SA do. But there is no mention of this key article in the Ramaphosa response.

In a further attempt to justify the appalling decision of his government to abstain from the UN general assembly resolution last week which condemned Russia and demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, Ramaphosa had to ignore that the resolution itself quoted from another section of the UN Charter, namely 2(2) which states that all member states shall fulfil “in good faith the obligations assumed by them in accordance with the charter”. This simply means you can’t invade your neighbour on spurious or trumped-up grounds.

I suppose the best that could be said for the dishonourable place in the world Ramaphosa has placed us is that it could have been worse. We did not, at least, join Syria, North Korea, Belarus and Eritrea and Russia in opposing the motion.

Ramaphosa on Monday was also silent on another fact emerging from the long history of UN motions from the general assembly. He did not, for once, remind his audience that, back in 1973, the general assembly resolved that “apartheid was a crime against humanity”. Though not international law at the time, because it was not a security council decision, this imprimatur provided the fight for democracy in SA with a moral wind of righteousness and placed Pretoria in pole position as an international outcast.

Yet in his newsletter, not only does Ramaphosa ignore the weight of international opprobrium against apartheid SA in this country’s transformation; he omits entirely how international sanctions tipped the scales against the NP government and weighed so heavily in the revival of the struggle for a free SA. This is precisely the playbook, with even greater emphasis, being used against Russia right now.

According to the revisionist Ramaphosa, these factors did not count. Instead, he suggested on Monday, it was due to the resolution of “intractable differences at the negotiating table” and the presence of “breakthroughs”. This was the apparent insight offered by the transition from apartheid to democracy. He of course ignores that the ANC demanded troops out of the townships before the process could continue, the continuation of international sanctions against Pretoria long after FW de Klerk inaugurated negotiations in 1990 and the presence of international monitors to deal with local violence.

The saddest aspect of this entire debacle, apart from choosing the wrong side in the greatest international crisis since 2001, is that our once significant voice and respected views count for so little in the world today.

We are just another country on the UN rollcall list somewhere between Somalia and South Sudan. We could not even persuade our immediate neighbours, Botswana and Lesotho, to vote alongside us. And continental giant Nigeria, along with Zambia, Kenya, Ghana, Egypt and Ghana and some 20 others, also parted ways with us.

This just weeks after Ramaphosa called on Africa to “speak in one voice” on climate change. Actually, the UN rollcall last week suggests that on key issues it does not, and choosing the wrong side as SA has now done on this international catastrophe is going to extract its own costs on us regionally, continentally and internationally.

Ramaphosa’s arguments this week with history, fact and international law do not change this new reality.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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