/ 22 September 2023

Has Ramaphosa’s administration passed the ‘Lady R’ test?

Ladyr (1)
The ‘Lady R’ at Simon’s Town naval base, Cape Town, in December. Photo: Jaco Marais/Gallo Images

We live in a world of extremes. Across the globe and in leading democracies, countries are being led by extreme right- and left-wing governments. 

The capitalist bible, The Economist, this week published a piece warning about the rise of the hard right across Europe, which will make it more difficult for the old continent to adopt sensible policies.

In Hungary, Italy, Poland, Finland and Switzerland they are in control, while their influence is growing in Germany and France because of immigration, sluggish economic growth and inflation that has dogged many of these countries since we emerged from the pandemic.

Across the Atlantic, while economically healthier, the US’s democratic project is under threat as the Republican Party is held hostage by the Trumpist call to Make America Great at the expense of everyone. 

China faces its own reckoning too: slowing growth, an ageing population and a leader in Xi Jinping who wants to cement the country’s preeminence on the world stage while fending off growing restlessness in his party’s ranks. 

India, with a Hindu nationalist leader in Narendra Modi, isn’t content with a little brother role in Asia and, as evidenced by its recent moon landing, wants to be regarded as a superpower in its own right. 

In this polarised geopolitical climate, South Africa found itself thrust into the limelight when US ambassador Reuben Brigety made explosive allegations in May about munitions being loaded onto a sanctioned Russian ship — the Lady R — in Simon’s Town to support Russia’s war against Ukraine. 

Weighed down by our many ailments, among them an energy crisis and anaemic growth, Cyril Ramaphosa has had to navigate a path through all the noise and pressures that came with any suspicions that we were aligned with the state of Russia in its aggression against another sovereign nation. 

Further complicating the task was that South Africa would host a Brics summit last month — to which Vladimir Putin was invited — and a summit on a long-standing US trade deal with the continent in November. 

In a world where a centrist approach gains no favour domestically and increasingly internationally, Ramaphosa had to take that route. There was simply no other choice, given our economic ties to both the West and the East, in this case represented by the reprehensible Russia. 

He had to defend the country’s long-held non-alignment stance, prove it through opening an inquiry into the allegations by Brigety, and lead an untidy but ultimately successful peace trip to Russia and Ukraine to demonstrate the African continent’s ultimate commitment to non-conflict. 

After ducking bombs in Ukraine, Ramaphosa’s administration had to then convince Putin, an ally of his biggest enemy in his much beloved ANC — Jacob Zuma — not to come to the Brics summit because it would be a price too steep for an ailing South African economy.

 It was a tall order and one that all evidence shows the Ramaphosa administration has somehow managed. 

The Brics summit passed with no incident, the grouping is on the verge of getting six new members, Putin didn’t come, the non-aligned stance is no longer being questioned (publicly at least) and just this week, the US confirmed that the African Growth and Opportunity Act summit would definitely be taking place in November. That’s a lot of bullets dodged in a matter of five months that carried some hard long-term risks to all of us. 

Sober diplomacy.