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Ukraine Nobel Laureate Appeals to 'Neutral' South Africa  

FILE - South-Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa and Russia's President Vladimir Putin attend a meeting at the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia, Oct. 24, 2019. (Photo by Sergei Chirikov/Pool/AFP)

A Nobel Prize-winning Ukrainian is in Pretoria this week as part of a group urging South Africa's government to re-think its friendly relations with Russia as it wages war on Kyiv. The Ukrainians called on South Africa to honor an International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant and arrest Russian President Vladimir Putin if he goes there for a summit in August.

Oleksandra Romantsova, who heads Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties, an NGO that won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, is in South Africa along with an official from the Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce, to try and shore up support for Kyiv.

Pretoria has taken an officially neutral stance on the conflict and has refrained from criticizing Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The government is close allies with Moscow, going as far as holding bilateral talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier this year and hosting Russian war ships in February for joint military exercises.

Romantsova told VOA the group had met with officials from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, and it had a good and “productive” discussion.

She said as a regional leader, however, it was disheartening that South Africa had not taken a stronger stance in speaking up about the illegal invasion by Russia.

“For Ukrainians, who know Nelson Mandela and struggle of South African population for dignity, equality and human rights, it’s truly quite disappointing,” she said.

She said as a country that has good relations with Moscow, South Africa should use that platform to warn Russia about its human rights abuses in Ukraine, such as the kidnapping of thousands of Ukrainian children. She suggested South Africa could play more of a mediation role.

She noted, though, it was “really painful” to see Putin invited to a summit of the BRICS countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — scheduled for August in Johannesburg.

FILE - Center for Civil Liberties head of the board Oleksandra Matviychuk, right, and executive director Oleksandra Romantsova attend the press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 8, 2022.
FILE - Center for Civil Liberties head of the board Oleksandra Matviychuk, right, and executive director Oleksandra Romantsova attend the press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 8, 2022.

The International Criminal Court recently accused Putin of war crimes, saying he is responsible for the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.

South Africa is a signatory to the ICC and is technically obliged to act on the warrant should Putin attend the event — which he hasn’t yet confirmed.

If he does come, Romantsova hopes South African authorities will act.

“South Africa should follow the ICC rules and arrest Putin if he attends BRICS,” she said.

South Africa’s hesitancy to condemn Russia is often attributed to their relations during the Cold War, when Moscow courted the anti-apartheid activists who now dominate the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party.

But a Kyiv university professor traveling with the delegation, Olexiy Haran, told VOA that Ukraine itself, as part of the former Soviet Union, was equally supportive of the ANC.

“In times of apartheid, Ukraine provided lots of support to South African liberation struggle… So definitely, we supported you and we hoped that you would support us during our fight for freedom,” said Haran.

The delegation said they had requested a meeting with the ANC but had not heard back.

ANC spokeswoman Mahlengi Bhengu-Motsiri told VOA the party had never received a request to meet.

Asked if they would consider meeting now, she said she’d have to consult with the ANC leadership before she could answer.