Reflections on a Visit to Ukraine: Humanity is Indivisible, Africans Must Choose the Right Side of History

With the war in Ukraine now in its 12th month since the Russian invasion on 24 February last year, the visit to South Africa this week by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reminds us of what is at stake in this conflict and why it is clear which side of history Africans should be in this struggle.

26 January 2023 ·   9 min read

Reflections on a Visit to Ukraine: Humanity is Indivisible, Africans Must Choose the Right Side of History


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By Archbishop Thabo Makgoba

I would like to address you on a journey I have recently taken, a journey of faith more than geography, of awareness in learning that humanity is indivisible.

Ukrainians not only live with endless disruptions to their lives with the destruction of critical infrastructure, but they live under the constant lethal threat of missile and drone attacks. The human spirit is remarkable, indomitable, more so when we are united and have faith.

The Russian invasion has opened a gate of fire for Ukrainians, upturning lives, rupturing families, destroying towns and villages and levelling cities. The twin forces of calamity and violence have been employed in a manner unseen in Europe since the Second World War.

We should not remain silent in the face of such terror.

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu told us: “If you are neutral in a situation of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

In an age where we look around for leaders to inspire and guide, Ukrainians have responded in ways which should humble us all.

During my visit to Lviv and Kyiv I was able to meet with leadership and with ordinary Ukrainians, people who have confronted great danger by remaining stoic, steadfast and courageous.

We can learn many good lessons from their example. And we should do so in ways that embody and personify the spirit of the teaching of Christ.

Some might ask why a bishop from Africa, where there are many intractable problems and violent conflicts, bothered to travel all the way to a distant European country.

I was reminded by the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, who I met during our trip, of the wise proverb: “It is better to see once with your own eyes than to hear an explanation 100 times.”

My encounters in Ukraine confirmed what caused me to set out on this journey. No one’s suffering is more or less worthy than another’s. Humanity is indeed indivisible.

As Africans we know, probably better than most, what it means to suffer under the yoke of a violent oppressor. We must resist being put in our little boxes, turning a blind eye to others because they are not like us.

This is the lesson of Mandela and of Tutu.

Strong, truthful leadership can make a great difference in these circumstances. Think of Winston Churchill, who stiffened the resolve not only of a nation but the free world in the face of the Nazi horde. Think of Madiba, who put us on a path of reconciliation where many expected bitterness and retribution.

Many times during our trip we heard Ukrainians cite Gandhi, Mandela and Tutu, and take courage from their words.

We should take our lead from them and from Kofi Annan, among the pantheon of great African leaders, who said after 9/11: “If today we see better and we see further, we will realise that humanity is indivisible.”

I absolutely concur.

‘A neutral position is a way to nowhere’

In Ukraine, a very difficult lesson in leadership is unfolding. In every town where the Russians have been defeated, mass graves, torture chambers and the result of a deliberate assault on civilian homes and lives are found.

In Bucha, we visited the mass grave in the grounds of the church of Andrew the Apostle. In this suburb of Kyiv, 419 civilians were killed in the invasion, more than 50 summarily executed by the invaders, many with their hands tied behind their backs.

The pastor at the church, Father Andriy Galavin, reminded me that the international system is only as useful and strong as those who commit to its functioning. “There are systems in the world like the UN,” he told me, “but no justice. Without justice there is the risk of revenge. But,” he said, “this is not the way of Christians. But it is crucially important that this does not happen again. A neutral position is a way to nowhere. When we rang the bell warning strongly about the Russians,” he emphasised, “everyone was silent.”

There will be a day of reckoning for these crimes. But first, there must be peace.

In Lviv, I also met Myroslav Marynovych, the vice-rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University, a man who endured a Russian jail for speaking out against the regime. The founder of Amnesty International’s Ukrainian chapter, he says of surviving his decade in prison, “I would now say that faith was the basis of my strength; at the time, I was just tired of living in a world of lies.”

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What I saw in Ukraine is a determination to not be drawn into retaliating, but rather to defend the country. As President Volodymyr Zelensky recently remarked, every day he struggles not to descend to this animal level of conflict.

Ukrainians strive not to use the same methods as the invaders, to rightly maintain the moral high ground, a necessary but difficult leadership stance, especially in the face of indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population.

Pathways for peace

This is true too of our response to the war. We should not become angry. We should become empathetic. We should not hate but seek justice. We should not seek vengeance but seek a world in which all seek to overcome evil with good.

It is this spirit which will create pathways for peace, bridges between communities in an environment of mistrust. As Archbishop Desmond reflected during the darkest days of apartheid, “Enemies are always friends waiting to be made.” These routes to peace are not to be found in humiliation, but in reconciliation, and through law, not war.

Kofi Annan warned after 9/11 of the need to adjust to new realities, and to be active participants in their resolution. “A deeper awareness of the bonds that bind us all has gripped young and old,” he said. “A new insecurity has entered our mind, regardless of wealth and status.”

The costs of war are today not borne alone by Ukrainians, despite our attempts to stick our heads in the sand. We live in a world without boundaries. What happens in Ukraine affects us all, not just economically, but especially in terms of our values and the path and purpose of our politics.

As a result, we are faced with critical choices which will determine not only Ukraine’s fortunes but our own. We will have to choose which path to follow. Ukraine is a metaphor for the different futures that confront Africa, and the choices behind them.

Each country of course has to find its own path through reform to a just and better society. There is no one size or pattern that fits all. We should be careful that we don’t sleepwalk into creating a society where these values are difficult to find and impossible to restore.

But we know what not to do and how not to act. The Prayer of St Francis of Assisi is just such a declaration of faith and intent.

In this spirit, we cannot preach the ideals and values of constitutionalism and then do business with those where there is a flagrant disregard for human rights.

We cannot speak of a common humanity and be comfortable with systems of government which ensure some elites are more equal than others. We cannot rely on institutions to protect our rights and the fabric of order if we do not stand up against those who promote disorder and the breaking of international norms and rules. We cannot eat if others go hungry.

Any leader must be in touch with their people. Before coming to Ukraine, I took note of the findings of a recent opinion survey which found that 75% of South Africans believe that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is “an act of aggression that must be condemned”. I was also heartened to learn of their answer to the question of what South Africa should do if a sovereign democratic country is invaded by its neighbour. More than 80% said the country should offer either military, diplomatic or moral support.

We must ensure our leaders are in touch with their citizens in putting people first in their policies and at the centre of their international relations.

‘Money seeped in Ukrainian blood’

The mayor of Kyiv, Vitali Klitschko, the former world heavyweight boxing champ, asked specifically of South Africans to not do business with Russia and to profit from its “bloody money — money seeped in Ukrainian blood”.

Klitschko repeated another message we heard many times over from Ukrainians, including from church leaders of all faiths: “If we stop our resistance, we will be eliminated as a nation. If President Putin will stop the shooting the war will end.”

The costs of war are massive, but they are also hidden.

The cost to Ukraine of the invasion can be seen visibly in the destruction of infrastructure, more than $120-billion at last count.

To this can be added the cost to the global economy — more than $3-trillion to date — including more than a billion Africans who have been negatively affected by the rise in fertiliser and fuel costs and the shortage of Ukrainian grains on which many depend, both through direct exports and food aid.

It can also be assessed from the number of internally and internationally displaced persons (so-called IDPs) in Ukraine, with 15 million of its 43 million people having been displaced since the start of the war. Eight million have left Ukraine altogether. I visited one centre for IDPs in the company of the Ukrainian-Rwandan Olympic champion Zhan Beleniuk, which has seen 80,000 pass through its doors. Some of the children are there without their parents, or with just one parent, as their fathers are fighting at the front.

These costs can also be counted through the loss of human life, perhaps as many as 150,000 having been killed since February.

The world has moved on since 1945 in so many ways. But such cruelty appears to still permeate the thinking of some, despite a world driven not by steamships but seamless digital communication.

It is horrific to see first-hand the broken bodies in the hospitals and broken lives in the refugee camps we visited.

Plastered on the blue and white walls surrounding St Michael’s Monastery of the Orthodox Church in Kyiv are the names and faces of more than 4,000 soldiers killed since the war began. I met two young women who were putting up the picture of the husband of one of them, killed in September, having returned to the front after being wounded in the first days of the war. The other young woman was there for her brother, a paratrooper, who died leaving behind three children and a pregnant wife. We said the Lord’s Prayer together, outside in the snow, hand-in-hand, a moment that left me, I confess, in tears.

And the costs of war are not just determined in terms of lives lost or infrastructure destroyed. It is the price of opportunities and livelihoods snuffed out, people going cold and hungry in the fierce Central European winter, and the difficulty of sustaining normality in the face of incessant Russian attacks on critical infrastructure, especially in these freezing winter months. As Russia has increasingly struggled on the battlefield, it has turned its attention to softer, civilian targets.

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This is no way for an interdependent world to attempt to sustain itself.

We know only too well from South Africa, that if some don’t eat, others will not sleep at night. The same awareness of social synergy increasingly shapes our thinking about the environment.

Apathy creates clear and present dangers all too obvious to me after my Ukrainian experience.

Ukraine exists in a region steeped in history and outrage. Next door, Poland is dotted with former Nazi concentration camps, the site of the killing of about half of the six million Jews systematically exterminated during the Second World War.

It is sometimes forgotten that more Ukrainians fought and died on the allied side during the Second World War than French, British and Americans put together. Ukrainians suffered bitterly to defend the Soviet Union just as they are now leading the struggle to prevent its reimposition.

We should also not forget the more than four million Ukrainians who died in the Holodomor famine engineered by Josef Stalin in 1932/33.

Ukraine is a democratic country

While Ukraine grapples, like many states, with issues of corruption and governance, it is a democratic country. Zelensky was elected, in a free and fair election, in 2019 with more than 70% of the vote.

Whatever the tough, grinding circumstances in which the current war is being fought, Ukrainians are fighting for something. When they look over their shoulder, they see their countrymen and women. It will be impossible to convince Ukrainians to stop fighting in the absence of a “just peace”.

This explains why the church leaders I met were convinced of the struggle of this “just war”. The Orthodox Patriarch said to me: “We are unbreakable because we have a strong spirit and truth is on our side. We don’t want,” he said, “something belonging to our neighbours, but we only want to protect something that is our own.”

This highlights other, wider costs of this war and its outcome.

The German anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller reminded us of the costs of inaction and indecision when he wrote after the Second World War: “First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

African governments — and African people — need to act by finding their voice in international affairs, and stand up and be counted in this war.

Mayor Klitschko was among those who cited Nelson Mandela as one of his own heroes. “He fought not only for South Africa but for human rights around the world,” says a man familiar with courage and adversity. He called on all South Africans to be “proactive for peace”.

My fellow Africans, if we are to passage safely through the widening gates of fire and conflict we need to make some difficult choices.

All of us need to become agents of change if we are to give values real meaning.

“We become human beings when we support each other,” said Oleksandra Matviichuk, the Nobel peace laureate who we also met in Kyiv. “War turns people into numbers,” she says. “Only justice returns people their names.”

Her Centre for Civil Liberties has already identified 27,000 cases of war crimes, from forced abductions, to rape and murder, where terror, she told us, is used as a tool of war, to create a “learned helplessness”. This is a method, she says, adopted by those who fear freedom.

By standing up to this terror, Ukraine offers an example of a successful democratic transition as much as it promises a fresh start in a global system which might offer protections to people over states.

The need for the creation of such a rules-based system — at home and outside — is a common mantra among Ukrainians.

If you support freedom of choice, if you support the right to determine your destiny, Ukraine’s struggle is your struggle, and its rights of choice and of freedom must be defended.

In this, as Father Galavin said in Bucha, his church grounds having become a temporary cemetery for the murdered, “The real weapon we have is the word of God.”

Ukraine’s freedom is a victory for those everywhere who cherish a system respecting individual human rights, of inclusivity rather than elite privilege and protection, of the right to self-determination instead of imperialism, and of liberty over totalitarianism.

It is as clear as day against night, of good over evil, on which side of history Africans should be in this struggle.