South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is leading the delegation, which also includes heads of state from Zambia, the Republic of Congo, Egypt, Senegal and Uganda.
The countries have taken different positions on the war, with South Africa, Uganda and the Republic of Congo abstaining from a United Nations resolution earlier this year condemning Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion and demanding it withdraw its troops.
Zambia and Egypt voted in favor of the resolution, while Senegal didn’t participate.
Ramaphosa’s spokesman, Vincent Magwenya, said the delegation’s trip was “imminent,” although exact dates were not made public due to security concerns.
“We are anticipating that quite imminently a delegation of African heads of state will head to both Ukraine and Russia,” he said.
South Africa has been criticized in the West for its warm relations with Moscow — having hosted Russian warships for joint military exercises earlier this year — and last month the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa accused the country of having provided arms to Russia.
South Africa denies the charge that weapons were secretly loaded onto Russian vessel "the Lady R" while it was docked in Cape Town late last year, but the controversy has strained relations with Washington.
A group of U.S. lawmakers raised questions this week on whether South Africa should still be eligible for trade benefits and top South African business leaders have also warned the country could pay economically for its stance, raising the possibility of sanctions.
Steven Gruzd, an analyst at the South African Institute for International Affairs, says it is hard to predict whether the six-leader mission will make a difference. With heavy fighting going on, he says the time is not ripe for negotiations but adds that any attempt at peace making should be welcomed.
“I think it might be a way for South Africa to distract from the ‘Lady R’ scandal, about South Africa allegedly arming Russia on a ship that was loaded at night in secret, and the other flak that South Africa has been getting, but I do think it’s coming from a genuine place of wanting to make a difference," said Gruzd.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has welcomed the African leaders’ mission, as has Ukraine. But in an online news conference last week, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned that some things are non-negotiable.
“Any peace initiative should respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, it should not imply, even in-between the lines, any cessation of Ukrainian territory to Russia. Second, any peace plan should not lead to the freezing of the conflict,” said Kuleba.
Ramaphosa is a seasoned negotiator, having been instrumental in talks that ended apartheid. But so far, peace plans proposed by other countries, including China, have failed, and critics are skeptical the African leaders’ mission will achieve much.
Meanwhile, the South African government is still mulling over what to do about the upcoming summit of the BRICS group of emerging nations in Johannesburg, which Putin has been invited to attend.
With a warrant from the International Criminal Court out against the Russian leader, South Africa would be obliged to arrest him, and there are reports the country is looking for a way out through a legislative amendment to their ICC agreement.
South Africa has denied speculation it is considering moving the summit entirely.