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South African Peace Initiative in Russia-Ukraine War Seems To Be Going Nowhere.

By Crystal Orderson, Cape Town, South Africa.

At the weekend, a foursome of African leaders led by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa returned from a trip to Russia and Ukraine, as part of efforts to reach a peace agreement between the warring giants of Europe.

However, with neither warring sides agreeing to peace talks, did it make any difference, or was it just an attempt by Mr Ramaphosa to secure attention on the global stage, amid mounting problems in South Africa?

Since they returned, the members of the ‘peace mission’ – especially South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa – have received hostile criticism from many in Africa.

Billed a “peace mission” by the group, the trip puzzled many observers, not least because of an apparent lack of substantive preparation.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, many African countries have remained publicly neutral and abstained from voting against Russia at United Nations meetings.

In March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

South Africa’s apparent reluctance to enforce that writ during Putin’s expected visit to Cape Town for the upcoming Brics summit in August is being interpreted as Pretoria leaning to Moscow’s side. It is  unclear if South Africa would hand Mr Putin over to the International Criminal Court, should he show up in South Africa for that meeting.

A recent allegation by the United States ambassador to South Africa that Pretoria was supplying arms to Moscow has also put South Africa in a diplomatic dilemma.

All that was before this month’s trip. Reportedly brokered by Algerian-born French businessman Jean-Yves Ollivier, it had no backing from the African Union.

First, three members of the original party – Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Republic of the Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni – cancelled days ahead of the trip. Ollivier is a known associate of Nguesso.

And then there was a logistical nightmare involving South African security officials. A plane carrying journalists, security personnel and 15 containers with weapons from Johannesburg was detained at the Warsaw airport by Polish authorities.

After three days, the plane returned to Johannesburg as Warsaw insisted that the South Africans did not have the correct paperwork for the mission.

Despite these setbacks, Ramaphosa, Senegal’s leader Macky Sall, Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema and Comoros President Azali Assoumani, who also holds the rotating chair of the AU, eventually made it. So did representatives of the Ugandan and Egyptian leaders.

The contingent met Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv, before heading to Moscow to see Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

The delegation put forward a 10-point plan that included sending prisoners of war and children back to their countries of origin and unimpeded grain exports through the Black Sea. But the effort is yet to yield any results.

During a joint press conference with the African delegation, Zelenskyy reiterated that there would be no peace agreement while Russia continues to occupy parts of Ukraine, telling reporters that to allow any such dialogue is “to freeze the war, to freeze everything: pain and suffering”.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in televised remarks that Moscow shared the “main approaches” of the African plan, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying peace was “difficult to realise”.

As the African delegation was in Kyiv, Russian missiles shelled Ukraine, forcing the visiting group to seek cover in a bomb shelter.

The shortcomings of the trip have led to plenty of reactions back in Africa, especially in South Africa.

The mission “was an attempt to reaffirm that the country can and does punch above its weight in global terms … but fell flat largely because South Africa has been naive” in foreign policy, Ayesha Kajee, a research fellow at Johannesburg-based think thank Africa Asia Dialogues, told Al Jazeera.

Kajee told Al Jazeera that “the weakness of the mission is that Africa has not been able to resolve its own conflicts”.

The left-leaning opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party mocked Ramaphosa and the mission while condemning the Polish authorities.

“The South African head of state had to travel to Kyiv in a compromised state, in a war zone, without his security detail. This is an unacceptable and deliberate form of humiliation,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, Ramaphosa has hailed the initiative as “historic”, saying the delegation took “a non-aligned stance” on the issue, which “lent credibility to the mission and engendered trust from both sides”.

“Another point of the peace proposal being put forward by African leaders is the opening up of the movement of grains across the Black Sea for grains from Russia or Ukraine to reach world markets,” added Ramaphosa in his newsletter this week.

But there is still a perception that Ramaphosa, who led the delegation, was seeking to score points abroad as he faces a barrage of problems at home.

Sources: Al Jazeera, BBC, Foreign Affairs.