Ukraine’s charm offensive towards Africa passes through Pretoria

The last time a Ukrainian foreign minister visited Pretoria, Nelson Mandela was still president

Ukraine’s charm offensive towards Africa passes through Pretoria

The last time a Ukrainian foreign minister visited Pretoria, Nelson Mandela was still president. The year was 1998, which was a lifetime ago. “We should commit to never waiting so long again,” said from the outset, Monday, November 6, Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, during a joint press conference with Naledi Pandor, his South-South counterpart. African.

For comparison, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, has already traveled to South Africa three times since the start of the conflict in Ukraine in February 2022.

Mr Kuleba's visit once again highlighted the divide between kyiv and Pretoria, while South Africa has never condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. His government was even suspected of having supplied weapons to Russia. The proximity between Moscow and Pretoria is rooted in a common past of struggle against the apartheid regime.

But history sometimes forgets that it was the Soviet Union as a whole, including Ukraine, that helped the African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party, fight against the racist white minority government.

Tune their violins

With his visit, Dmytro Kuleba therefore intends to readjust the story. The Ukrainian Soviet Republic chaired the UN subcommittee against apartheid, he recalled. Naledi Pandor recognized “the support that Ukraine, as a member of the Soviet Union, provided to the fight for freedom.” Having agreed, South Africa and Ukraine could therefore, if Mr. Kuleba is heard, open “a new chapter”, started by the meeting between Presidents Cyril Ramaphosa and Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev in June.

Mr. Ramaphosa then took the lead of an African delegation, supported by seven African countries and composed of Senegalese, Comorian, Zambian and South African heads of state. She went to kyiv before meeting Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg. The Africans then proposed a ten-point plan which was only marginally considered.

“We have never considered the African plan for peace as a plan,” Dmytro Kuleba corrected, while considering that this visit by African heads of state was “crucial”, because it allowed South Africa to South to join the think tank on the Ukrainian peace plan and send a message “to the others”.

The others are notably the African countries with which kyiv is trying to reconnect. “Drowned in its internal problems”, Ukraine forgot this continent in the 1990s and 2000s. “It was necessary to ensure the transition between the Soviet empire and democracy, to move from a state economy to a market economy, regain our place within Europe. I regret it but, unfortunately throughout this period, we have not allocated enough resources to maintain our relations with African countries,” Mr. Kuleba explained in an educational effort.

A new network of embassies

Well aware of Russia's growing influence on the African continent, Ukraine for its part wants to offer a response based on development aid and once again become a welcoming land for African students. It also offers to share its expertise on the digitalization of administration and to use its pharmaceutical industry to sell medicines and manufacture them in Africa.

Finally, it does not only intend to export its cereals but to develop better agricultural practices on the continent. “The more Africans know about Ukraine, the less they will go to Russia,” hopes Mr. Kuleba.

This ambition is based on a new network of embassies. At least five are planned: in Ivory Coast, Ghana, Rwanda, Botswana and Mozambique. “It’s a big investment for us, who are in money-saving mode, but President Zelensky has made the political choice to allocate the necessary resources to strengthen our presence in Africa,” insists the head of Ukrainian diplomacy.

The minister's multiple trips to the continent bear witness to this offensive. South Africa is the twelfth African country visited in one year. But this time, Pretoria was not a stop on a tour, it was a trip in its own right, underlines Dmytro Kuleba. Is Ukraine looking to make headlines as the world looks toward war between Israel and Hamas? This visit “has nothing to do with what makes the headlines, it is a strategy, it is not linked to a need of the moment”, defended the minister.

The atmosphere remained cool in Pretoria

However, the war in the Middle East quickly entered the conversation. Unwavering support for the Palestinian cause, South Africa, via its Minister of International Relations, recalled that this visit took place in a context of “serious worsening of the conflict between Israel and Palestine”.

While on October 27 Ukraine abstained from voting on a resolution calling for a humanitarian truce and protection of civilians, Naledi Pandor, whose diplomats were recalled from Israel on Monday for “consultations,” called for unreserved condemnation of the ongoing “carnage” and compliance with UN resolutions.

Titled by a South African journalist on the reason for this behavior, the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs returned the ball: “Abstaining does not amount to voting against a resolution. And South Africa knows this better than anyone because it has abstained from voting on every resolution regarding Russia's massive invasion of Ukraine. »

Despite efforts at rapprochement, the atmosphere remained cool in Pretoria between the two parties. “We must respect everyone's position while having the assurance that no one is going to stab us in the back,” summarized Dmytro Kuleba, aware that South Africa's diplomatic weight gives it the status of “door of entry to the continent”.

Ukraine took a long time to cross the threshold and its Minister of Foreign Affairs measured the distance that remains to be taken before being received as a friend. Mr. Kuleba wanted to meet President Cyril Ramaphosa. An interview was planned, “but I was told this morning that he had gone somewhere.” In January, during Sergei Lavrov's visit, the South African head of state was, however, present.