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President Ramaphosa Cuts Short Foreign Trips To Address South Africa’s Power Crisis

  • After an urgent virtual meeting with ministers and officials, President Ramaphosa is on his way back to South Africa to ‘deal with current Stage 6 load shedding’ crippling the country.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has cut short his international travels to fly home to deal with the Eskom power crisis. His decision follows an urgent virtual meeting that he called with all the relevant Cabinet ministers and senior officials on Sunday, 18 September.

There has been growing political pressure for Ramaphosa to return to South Africa to deal with the power crisis precipitated by several Eskom power units tripping and forcing the parastatal to introduce Stage 6 power cuts. Diesel supplies to power back-up gas turbine plants fell dangerously low early on Sunday.

Ramaphosa met US President Joe Biden on Friday, 16 September, then flew to London ahead of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral on Monday, 19 September.

He was scheduled to return to New York after the funeral to attend this week’s high-level opening segment of the annual United Nations General Assembly session. But his spokesperson Vincent Magwenya announced on Sunday evening that Ramaphosa had changed his plans.  

“The President will no longer be travelling to New York from London. Instead he will head home to deal with current Stage 6 load shedding. The President has just finished an urgent virtual meeting which he convened with all the relevant ministers and officials.

“This was in between attending to the lying in state of Her Majesty and the King’s reception tonight. He wanted a briefing on what led to so many units tripping, taking the country back to a situation that had been managed. He further wanted to understand what could be done immediately to resolve the current state of load shedding,” Magwenya said. 

He added that South Africa’s statement at the UN General Assembly would be delivered by International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor instead. 

South Africa abstains

Ramaphosa’s decision to miss the UN General Assembly is rather ironic, given that South Africa has just abstained from a resolution that would allow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to address the same session of the General Assembly by video so he could stay at home to direct his country’s defence against Russia’s invasion.

UN rules normally require world leaders to attend the high-level opening component of the annual General Assembly session in person. But because of the pressing demands of fighting off his giant neighbour’s military assault, Zelensky asked if he could deliver his address remotely. 

A resolution to allow an exception to the rules so he could do so was adopted in the General Assembly on Friday by a vote of 101 in favour to seven against. Russia, Belarus (Russia’s military ally in the war against Ukraine), and political allies Cuba, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Nicaragua and Syria, voted against. South Africa and 18 other countries abstained. 

South Africa’s decision to abstain for the fourth time on a UN General Assembly resolution concerning Russia’s war against Ukraine has raised eyebrows in the diplomatic community. Many have questioned why Pretoria apparently opposed Zelensky’s seemingly self-evident right to address the world community in a moment of crisis for his country.

It turns out that, as so often with South Africa’s voting at the United Nations, Pretoria’s ostensible reasons for abstaining came down not to the substance of the resolution but to its wording.

Polarisation

Zane Dangor, director general of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, explained in a statement that South Africa fully supported the principle of Zelensky addressing the General Assembly by whatever means possible. 

But South Africa had abstained because of language in the resolution, which he said had politicised what should have been a purely procedural matter and also because of the manner in which countries supporting the resolution had engaged in the debate on the resolution on Friday. This had served to “further polarise the international community”.

South Africa apparently objected to the language in the resolution that said Zelensky should be allowed to participate virtually “owing to ongoing foreign invasion, aggression, military hostilities”. Pretoria also objected to an exemption being granted only to Ukraine. 

South Africa instead backed an amendment to the resolution proposed by Belarus, which deleted the references to the ongoing foreign invasion and also replaced the word “Ukraine” with “any Member or Observer State facing the situation described above”.

In other words, Belarus, South Africa and others that supported this amendment felt the exemption to allow a head of state to address the General Assembly remotely should apply to any country facing similar circumstances and should not single out Ukraine. This amendment was voted down.

During the debate, the Ukraine’s representative told the General Assembly that the original resolution aimed to support Zelensky’s right to address the assembly in the most extraordinary circumstances — the ongoing Russian aggression against his country. He called on member states to support the resolution in its initial version and to vote against any attempt to undermine it.

Canada’s representative said the draft decision aimed to provide a specific exemption for a very exceptional circumstance, and the situation in Ukraine warranted such an exception.  

He said Belarus’s amendment was not proposed in good faith as it sought to “erase Ukraine from the picture” just like Russia, aided by a complicit Belarus, aimed to “erase Ukraine from the map”.  

The UK’s representative said the only reason the assembly had this discussion was because Russia had invaded Ukraine and Zelensky could not travel to the US. Belarus did not introduce its amendment “in good faith” and that the president of one delegation, dealing with an invasion by its neighbour, could not travel, the representative said, adding that the exception could be granted without setting a precedent.

‘Sovereign equality’

Dangor said in his statement that “it is unfortunate that the recommended amendments were not agreed to. We do not agree that the proposed amendments to the resolution were hostile and it is unfortunate that it was characterised as being so. 

“In our view, they reaffirm the sovereign equality of all member states. The nature of the debate today leads to further polarisation of the international community at a time when we should be working together to end conflicts in Ukraine and elsewhere.”

He added that even after the amendments were defeated, South Africa had considered voting for the original unchanged resolution “solely to express our support for inclusive participation including in this case, Ukraine. 

“However, because of the manner in which states supporting an unchanged … resolution engaged in the debate this morning, we have had no choice but to abstain as the debate served to further polarise the international community.” DM 

First published by Daily Maverick (South Africa)

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