/ 22 June 2023

South Africa considers taking action against Polish embassy

Khumbudzo Ntshavhen
Minister in the presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni. (Jairus Mmutle/GCIS)

The South African government is looking at possible action it could take against the Polish embassy after a charter flight ferrying President Cyril Ramaphosa’s protection unit was grounded at Warsaw Chopin Airport.

Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni told a post-cabinet media briefing on Thursday that International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor’s department is considering “measures to be taken in addition to the work that has been done”.  

“The client department is SAPS [South African Police Services], who will then say what are the things that have gone right and gone wrong, but where have we as a country been offended in terms of diplomatic protocol, we will take the necessary preventative measures [and] necessary channels,” she said.

“You will recall previously we had an incident with the United States and the conduct of their embassy and we took necessary steps and we will announce through [the international relations department] what are the measures that we will take and channels we are using to address the incident, unfortunate as it was.” 

Last week, Poland blocked the South African delegation accompanying Ramaphosa to Ukraine and Russia on an African peacekeeping mission from getting off their plane for hours, citing undeclared dangerous goods on board.

Journalists travelling with Ramaphosa’s protection unit were also stuck at Warsaw’s airport. 

In videos released by the reporters on social media, Ramaphosa’s head of security, Major General Wally Rhoode suggested the Polish move was driven by racism and sabotage.

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 with a diplomatic passport.

In a statement, the Polish foreign affairs ministry said dangerous goods were on board the plane 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.

Ntshavheni refuted Warsaw’s statement during Thursday’s briefing, insisting that South Africa had “done everything properly”. 

“On our part, everything was done according to normal protocols. The SAA charter was a charter plane, not a normal flight so they can carry whatever is supposed to be carried by that delegation,” she said.

“There were no dangerous goods, there were weapons that formed the protection of our president. It’s normal,  all presidents as they travel internationally they travel with security and weapons and the permits allowed for them to come in.”

Ramaphosa and the heads of state of Comoros, Zambia, and Senegal, were part of the African delegation which met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv and then Russia’s Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg. Heads of state from Egypt, Congo and Uganda pulled out of the mission days before its departure on Thursday.

Ntshavheni lambasted South African media’s criticism of the peace mission, which she said had been celebrated worldwide. Threatening to leave local media behind on such trips in future, she said the government would not be deterred by what she called its negative portrayal of the mission. 

“It is the first mission in the world and on peace in Ukraine that had leaders meeting both the Ukrainian president and also the President of the Russian Federation, and that milestone on its own is a significant milestone,” Ntshavheni said. 

“It is for the first time that African leaders get involved in a resolution of a conflict in Europe. It has always been Europeans involved in resolving conflicts in Africa. And the first time that Africans took the initiative where others dared not go and they participated and started to say there is a possibility of a dialogue and resolution of these countries. 

And I think as a country, we must focus on that. Despite our obsession with wanting to find negativity with this government, we must focus on the good that the government is doing and give credit where it is due. We will accept the criticism where the criticisms must be levelled, where we have done well, commend us.”

She said the government had extended its apologies to the journalists caught up in that diplomatic incident. 

“But the peace mission was successful and we plead to South Africans to focus on what will build a better world and the contribution of South Africa in building such a better world,” Ntshavheni added.

The minister was also adamant that South Africa’s trade relations with the United States had already been in jeopardy prior to a fallout over Pretoria’s relationship with Russia. Even before the Russian war against Ukraine, she said, the US had already stated its intention to remove South Africa as a beneficiary of export concessions to the US under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa).

US lawmakers have urged their government to reconsider trade relations with South Africa following claims that Pretoria sold arms to Russia.

South Africa’s non aligned stance on the Russia/Ukraine war has caused tensions with its Western allies. Some ANC leaders believe this is behind last week’s perceived hostility from Poland, which has taken in refugees who fled the war.  

“The US has always wanted to remove South Africa from Agoa for one reason or the other. Data notifications started in 2019,” Ntshavheni said.

“This time around, the US indicated that South Africa is no longer a developing country, it is a developed country and is benefiting the largest in Agoa. As the government of South Africa, we have countered that assertion and indicated that South Africa is still a developing country with elements of a developed country.

“Therefore we cannot as a country and our people be punished or removed from Agoa on the basis of the gains we are making in development. The progress we make is also because of the contributions of the partnerships that we have with the US and we value that partnership and we have to appreciate that they continue to engage with us through formal diplomatic channels, and through government to government relations. We have a very good relationship with the US government.”