The Nelson Mandela Foundation has been following closely the invasion of Ukraine by Russian military forces. We are grieving for those who are losing so much. We are troubled by the complexity of the challenge to the world order, and by the vagaries of international rules of engagement. We see the unspeakable danger of nuclear plants coming under attack. We call for a cessation of hostilities and the restoration of peace in the region.
In 2003 Nelson Mandela spoke publicly, and angrily, about failures of leadership and an absence of credible justification when the United States and other Western countries invaded Iraq in defiance of the United Nations. Indeed, at what point is a country justified in invading another? At play here are notions of the sovereignty of nation states and the perceived right of such states to act in their own legitimate interests, and their assessment of the benefit or drawbacks of their actions. It is about nations being aware of both the extent and limits of their power and the conditions in which that power can be exercised. Today, the Foundation sees significant failures of leadership at many levels among contesting nations as the crisis in Ukraine unfolds.
One of the ironies of the public discourses swirling around the Ukraine invasion has been the outrage expressed by the United States, a country which for sometime has perfected the arts of invasion, occupation, and a contemptuous dismissal of international bodies. Of course, literal invasion is but one form of this phenomenon. The title of a new book by Susan Williams points to another form of invasion – White Malice: The CIA and the Neo Colonisation of Africa. Control of wealth, technologies, data, markets, idioms, languages and other apparatuses of power arguably define imperialism in the twenty-first century.
Underlying what is happening in Ukraine is a profound contestation around the notions of ‘belonging’ in the context of spheres of influence. For President Putin and his constituencies, Ukraine belongs to Russia’s sphere of influence. Over months and years now we’ve listened to Putin’s representations of Russian and European history to justify Ukraine staying within that sphere. Whatever we may think of this logic it informed the United States acting against Cuba in the 1960s and Grenada in the 1980s, who were within its perceived sphere of influence. To accept this logic in respect of the behaviour of the United States but deny its pertinence to the current conflict over Ukriane is to put a hand over one eye and claim to see everything.
The conflict over Ukraine has foregrounded another global fault line: racism. There have been disturbing reports of Black people and people of colour, being denied seats in buses evacuating refugees, and turned away from the Polish border. This illustrates once more a common global phenomenon in which the sufferings of white people in conflict situations habitually receive more attention and care. White lives are seen to matter far more than the lives of others. Racism remains as insidious and ubiquitous as it has ever been.
The horrors which have unfolded in recent times in Mali, DRC, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Zimbabwe and Eswatini are often experienced by white people as diminishing the human value of Africans as if white people are of a human order incapable of, and beyond, self-directed atrocity. Two European wars in the twentieth century, inaccurately called world wars, confirm that European people are neither worse nor better than the rest of humanity. Beyond that, Europe may often be seen to be of the disposition that many of the problems its former colonies experience have no historical European origins. The complex historical relationship between the two continents imposes an obligation of mutual respect. If we are ever to achieve solidarity in the global community, we must recognize our shared humanity and defend equally all victims of war and prejudice. All peoples of the world must strive for a just, equitable, and caring global community.
We have urged the South African government to show leadership at this critical moment and press for a ceasefire so that rigorous negotiations on the future can be mapped out. We have indicated to the government our availability to assist in this regard. A lesson to be relearned is that whether we are talking about Ukraine or about the many other crises around the world, when the rule of law is cast aside and strategies of violence adopted, the resulting misery is far more devastating among weak and vulnerable countries. It is imperative that channels for peacemaking, negotiation and dialogue be pursued urgently and relentlessly.
Coordinator: Communications and Digital Community
Nelson Mandela Foundation
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