Ukraine, one Year on – ‘If you are Neutral in Situations of Injustice, you Have Sided With the Oppressor’

On 24 February 2022, the day that Russia first attacked Ukraine, the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation stood out as one of the first South African organisations to categorically condemn the invasion. It is what our founder, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, would have done.

But it was an action that was not universally welcomed. Many felt that we should rather take a “wait-and-see” approach; potentially position ourselves, or at least South Africa, as neutral in order to play a role in negotiating peace.

From the outset we felt it was naïve and unjust to equate supposed “neutrality” with being able to play a role in bringing about peace. As the Arch so clearly put it, “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have sided with the oppressor”.

Whatever questions the South African government or other actors may have had about the provocations and origins of the invasion, it was certainly clear from the outset that this was a war of aggression against an innocent people.

It was also clear that there is unlikely to be any role for South Africa as a mediator or peace negotiator, especially if we showed such little empathy for the plight of the Ukrainian people.

Even if one could not see that clearly in February 2022, there can no longer be any ignorance about the aggressive and unjust intent of the Russian government and its forces. The shelling of towns and cities and the annexation of Ukrainian territory is plainly unjust and illegal. To hold up the idea that there is some reason for “neutrality” left, is absurd. We are ashamed by the South African government’s refusal to make a clear and proud stance for human rights, for peace, and for justice.

As we engage in naval wargames with Russia and China, the moral bankruptcy of our government’s position becomes even starker. Behind the dehumanising geopolitical rhetoric, the finger pointing about who may have instigated this war, and the tap dancing around how best to respond, human beings are being harmed. We are all being harmed.

The world urgently needs a peaceful end to Russia’s war on Ukraine, and the Russian government needs to be held to account for its acts of aggression. None of this can happen while the bombardment continues.

The Arch once said: “It is hard to shake your hand when your foot is on my neck.” It ought to be possible for the world – and South Africa in particular – to prevail upon one country to stop bombing another as an urgent and immediate step towards peace.

One year on, thousands of lives lost and incalculable infrastructure damaged, it is not too late for our government to recognise the injustice begin committed against the Ukrainian people. To mourn with us all the casualties of this war. To find, at last, our common humanity.

The Arch shared widely the notion that our destinies are tied up with one another; that an injury to one is an injury to all.