/ 10 August 2023

Kafka and the president’s men in Warsaw

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his press conference at the Konstantin Palace on July 29, 2023 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Photo by Contributor/Getty Images

South Africans have much to be depressed about. So, we complain and indulge in cynicism. Let us consider the proposal of the philosopher, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: amor fati. Love your fate, rather than to lament it, or fixate on otherworldly hopes. Famous comedians like Pieter Dirk Uys have thanked politicians for writing their scripts for them. It is healthy to see the humour in events that confuse and devastate us.

Occasionally we move from comedy to a higher “Kafkaesque” level. This adjective, derived from the writings of the Prague-born author, Franz Kafka, a great figure in 20th century world literature, mostly refers to a surreal world of nightmarishly complex, bizarre, absurd, or illogical quality. During a discussion of our president’s June peace mission to Ukraine and Russia with my friend, a former European ambassador, South Africa’s potential contribution to the Kafka Museum on the banks of the Vltava river in the Czech Republic struck us both.

Why did the president embark on the blitz-visit, seemingly out of the blue, as a latch-on to visiting Geneva, after mobilising a few other African leaders? Of course, we were under much international pressure because of our overt close ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia; refusal to condemn the brutally violent invasion of Ukraine for what it is; perceived comfort with war crimes like the alleged kidnapping of children and (hopefully wrong) suspicions about the provision of arms to assist in killing Ukrainians. 

Yet, my friend, who experienced firsthand from the front seats of many official aeroplanes negotiations in several central African countries, is of the view that South Africa is well-placed to offer mediation in international conflict. This is because of our internationally admired Constitution, independent judiciary and free media, besides our heroic struggle against colonialism and imperialism and successful transition from authoritarianism to democracy. Under leaders with the moral status of Nelson Mandela and eruditeness of Thabo Mbeki we indeed experienced a golden age of diplomacy. That era seems to be no more. 

As our president knows, successful negotiations follow thorough preparation, through very hard work through many long nights and weekends. This was one of the reasons the ANC largely prevailed in our constitution-drafting process. 

Did proper preparation take place before the mission into unfamiliar territory, rich in a history of interwoven ties, interests and tensions, which they could not hope to understand without expert think tanks and an envoy having frequently visited all concerned capitals? 

Perhaps we could merely have played to them the words of the Shakira song, My Hips Don’t Lie, “No fighting, no fighting!” Or did Kafka write the script for the Polish saga? 

Before we touch down in Warsaw, a few things about Poland, Russia and South Africa are worth remembering. One is that Chris Hani’s murderer, Janusz Walus, is Polish. Another is that Poland was for a considerable part of history crushed between and oppressed by Russia and Germany. This, a Polish professor, with hatred in his eyes, pointed out to me decades ago in the house of a famous German professor, nearby a visiting Russian professor, who understood little. Poland is, yet again, a frontline state in the way of Russian expansion.

The flight from Johannesburg to Warsaw, the gateway to Ukraine, filled with up to 120 presidential security staff and a dozen journalists, was postponed several times, mainly because of uncertainty who would pay for it. This finally settled, the flight took off with a three-day delay, disregarding the military’s warning that overflight must be authorised by every country on the trajectory. And, lo and behold, the Italians stopped the flight right at the entry of their airspace and made it circle around a few times, before they could continue to Warsaw.

Disaster loomed on touch-down in Warsaw.  Our president was not part of all this. In spite of the many protectors, the one to be protected was not on board. He was at the United Nations in Geneva, with his own plane and security detail. He would fly into Warsaw separately.

Regardless the fine details about permits, which presidential security head general Wally Rhoode (of Phala-Phala phame) tried to explain, is it then a surprise that the Poles, already on edge, flipped over backwards when they had a plane landing with 120 security personnel on board and at least 10  large (allegedly 1 x 1 x 1.5 metre) crates of weapons in the cargo … without a president to protect? They blocked the disembarking of the staff and the offloading of the weapons. My friend understands where the Poles are coming from.  

Presidential security agents must be armed and ready at all times. The president’s mission was for a couple of days only. How would the several platoons have protected him? Would they have opened the 10 crates on the tarmac, or in their hotel rooms, to shoot down terrorist aeroplanes or drones? How many weapons would each agent have carried? Were the rest to be left in the hotel lobby, under the supervision of a polite but tired concierge, hoping for a tip? And, how would they have got their weapons when these were stored away in heavily nailed down crates? When under threat, would they have asked the attackers to wait for a moment, for them to open the crates in their formidable arsenal and start shooting their president out of trouble, or prepare a safe environment for his landing?   

Further ad absurdum, the president would travel from Poland to Kyiv in Ukraine on board a train with limited seating capacity. How many of the 120 protectors would have gone on board with him? What about their weapons? Would they have taken the crates aboard the train, with several African heads of state and their entourage? If the crates were stored in the cargo car, which passenger trains had in days gone by, immediate action in the face of an attack would have required Quentin Tarantino’s hero in Kill Bill (played by Uma Thurman), who dug herself out of her own grave, before killing many bad guys. All of this was to be taken into war-torn Ukraine; or Russia — as if Putin’s security agents have not proven themselves to be more than efficient.

The whereabouts of our embassy in Warsaw at the time pose more questions. Did meetings not take place to prepare for all aspects of the visit, like the documents needed for passengers and cargo to transit through Poland?  My diplomatic friend is astounded by the apparent lack of planning.

One can keep your mind to the entertaining Kafkaesque, and not let it wander any further into the possible real destination of the heavy weapons. Kafka provoked thought, though. Who sent an explosive present or 10 pre-ordered handle-with-care packages to whom?  A brutal way of silencing concerns is the ominous important-sounding concept of “state security”. However, the Poles considered just that. They stopped the process in its tracks.

As far as we can see, the trip did not yield the result that a real magic wand weaver’s quick drop-in would. Presidents Vlod and Vlad looked equally perplexed. The destruction of hospitals and schools continued. Many saw the South African initiative as somewhere between ridiculous, shameful and sinister. At the very least it was unworthy of South Africa’s once upon a time status as a respected international player, mediator and standard setter. Even if some benefit may still arise from the visit, it could hardly justify the wacky Warsaw woes.

Where did it go wrong? Rhoode’s explanation was banal and unpersuasive: “It is racism. They want to sabotage South Africa … and put the life of our president in jeopardy.” Yes sir, sure.  Perhaps they wanted to finish what Walus would have, if he were not rudely interrupted. Anyway, who dares to doubt an accusation of racism? South Africans need not and cannot think further.  

What was learnt from the experience? According to the minister in the presidency, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni (as reported by Andisiwe Makinana in Business Day), we should perhaps not overestimate our constitutionally entrenched founding values of accountability and openness: “(M)aybe we should not take the media on this kind of trip.” 

From his grave in Prague, Kafka must have smiled wryly at this clumsy attempt to copy his portrayal of the absurd. 

Johann van der Westhuizen, who assisted in drafting South Africa’s Constitution, is a retired justice of the constitutional court, the founding director of the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights and a former inspecting judge of Correctional Services. The views expressed are his own.