/ 16 June 2023

UPDATE: Poland prevents Ukrainian bound South African delegation from disembarking for hours

Key Speakers At The South Africa Investment Conference
President Cyril Ramaphosa. File photo by Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Poland blocked the South African delegation travelling on a peacekeeping mission to Russia and Ukraine from getting off their plane for hours, citing what it said were undeclared dangerous goods on board.

Journalists who travelled to Poland en route to Ukraine were stuck at Warsaw’s airport with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s protection unit during the standoff. 

In videos released by the reporters on social media, Ramaphosa’s head of security, Major General Wally Rhoode pointed to racism and sabotage as reasons for having been prevented from disembarking the aircraft. 

In one video published by eNCA journalist Aviwe Mtila, Rhoode said the Polish government was placing Ramaphosa’s life at risk, adding that this was the first time he had encountered such a situation while having a diplomatic passport. Rhoode said the Polish police had said their South African counterparts did not have permits for entry to the country. 

“They are delaying us. They are putting the life of our president in jeopardy because we could have been in Kyiv this afternoon already,” he said.

“I want you guys to see this, how racist they are. When we started to open our packages, they wanted to confiscate our firearms, which is why we had to put them back.” 

Negotiations between the South African and Polish police had lasted well over 11 hours, according to a South Africa woman who flanked Rhoode during the impromptu media briefing.  

In a statement, the Polish foreign affairs ministry said dangerous goods were on board the plane carrying South African representatives without the necessary permission to bring them in.

It said there were also people on board the aircraft whose presence the Polish government had not been notified about beforehand.

“The ministry of foreign affairs of the Republic of Poland made every possible effort to properly prepare President Ramaphosa’s visit to Poland,” it said.

“Three consultation meetings had been held and representatives of the ministry of foreign affairs remained in constant contact with the South African advance team of president Ramaphosa’s office and the South African embassy in Warsaw.

“The South African side had been informed of all formalities necessary for the delegation’s entry into Poland and the required transport permits,” the statement said, adding that steps were being taken to resolve the situation.

Journalists later reported that they had now disembarked the aircraft and were making it through Polish customs. 

Poland, a member of Nato, a military alliance between 31 member states, has been critical of Russia’s invasion of its neighbour, Ukraine. South Africa has maintained a non-aligned stance on the war, annoying its trade partners in Washington.

This has been further exacerbated by Pretoria’s incoherent messaging on whether it would host Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in August during the Brics summit of member states Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, in light of the International Criminal Court issuing a warrant of arrest against him over crimes related to the war.

This week, four US senators from the Republican and Democratic parties wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, saying South Africa should not host the US-Africa trade summit because of its stance on the war. South Africa is a beneficiary of trade concessions with the US under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa)

The US has also accused South Africa of loading arms onto a Russian ship in Simon’s Town naval base in December.

In a statement, Blinken’s spokesperson Matthew Miller said Washington shared congressional concerns about South Africa’s potential security relationship with Russia. 

“And as good partners do, we have raised those concerns directly with multiple South African officials,” Miller told the Mail & Guardian

But the South African government has remained firm on its non-aligned position. Ramaphosa has said he would not be drawn into the conflict while his international relations minister, Naledi Pandor, insisted that Pretoria would not bow to US threats of being kicked out of the Agoa agreement. 

Ramaphosa’s peacekeeping mission to Russia and Ukraine had already hit a snag when the heads of state of Congo, Egypt and Uganda pulled out this week, opting to deploy their delegates instead. 

The mission — which includes Zambia, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire — is envisioned to form the first phase of negotiations for an end to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Ramaphosa arrived in Kyiv on a train from Poland to meet the Ukraine delegates. 

His spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, told radio station 702 on Friday morning that the peacekeeping mission was going as planned. He said that although the three heads of African states had opted out of the visit, they remained firmly behind the mission. 

Magwenya said talks between Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy would commence on Friday afternoon and thereafter the delegation would depart for St Petersburg. 

He said it was hard to rationalise the actions of the Polish authorities because Ramaphosa’s security had all the necessary papers and permits.  

“All passengers on the charter flight had Polish visas, because there was an understanding that they would transit in Poland. So it’s a bit difficult to understand what has informed the actions that were taken by the Polish authorities except to say we have a team on the ground consisting of embassy staff. Our own ambassadors are engaging with their counterparts trying to find speedy resolution to the impasse.” 

Ramaphosa, who earlier met Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, did not discuss the country’s refusal to allow his protection unit entry to the country because the meeting happened prior to the situation that evolved at the airport, Magwenya said. 

He said the two heads of state discussed their bilateral relations and the war in Ukraine and Poland’s stance on this. 

“President Duda was actually quite positive and complimentary of the African leaders’ peace mission and referred to it as necessary and wise and was quite supportive of the mission,” Magwenya said.

Poland shares borders with both Russia and Ukraine. It was the first port of exit for Polish people when Russia invaded Ukraine. There are about two million Ukrainian refugees in Poland. 

“I can assure you, and I can assure your listeners, the president is safe. Remember, during such visits the host country takes quite a degree of responsibility for the safety of their guest so we have a good diverse team from South Africa and for the Ukraine side,” Magwenya told 702.

He said South Africa had deployed a team two weeks prior to the visit for security assessments. 

*This story has been updated with a statement from the Polish ministry of foreign affairs, and to show that the South African delegates and journalists were eventually let off the aircraft.