In a press release full of sunshine and good PR, “the Muslim community of South Africa joins fellow South Africans in welcoming the arrival of the BRICS delegates to our shores and our country.” It was issued by four Muslim organisations, apparently in a charge led by the Muslim Judicial Council.
“We are fully committed to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s investment initiative to build an economic powerhouse in the southern tip of Africa that will spill over into the rest of sub-Saharan Africa,” the statement read.
It was a direct response to a legal application to arrest Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, by another Muslim group, the Johannesburg-based Muslim Lawyers Association, and the South African Kashmiri Action Group, which could have scuppered the BRICS summit.
There were frantic efforts by officials to prevent the summit from sinking. On Thursday night last week, instead of going home, Energy Minister Jeff Radebe got on a long-distance flight to India, with possibly not much more than a suit bag and briefcase in hand. Diplomacy was required.
Radebe had to convey to Modi’s people a decision by the National Prosecuting Authority last week not to arrest and prosecute their leader when he arrived in South Africa for the annual summit also involving Brazil, Russia, India, China, and a few plus-players too.
“All the heads of state of the BRICS countries always attend the summits, and if Modi didn’t come, it would have been an embarrassment,” a government official said.
Even before the NPA’s decision, Modi would not have had any arrests to fear, as Eyewitness News reported the gathering was protected by the Geneva Convention.
Still, the 2015 saga with Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, when he rocked up for the African Union summit and wasn’t arrested, is still fresh in everyone’s mind.
Ramaphosa’s government didn’t want to risk an international embarrassment of equal measure.
Also, it wasn’t just Modi. The Muslim Lawyers Association contemplated similar action against Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (whether it’s because of this or South Africa’s non-recognition of his coup d’etat in 2013 that he declined the invite to attend BRICS is not clear), and they were also building cases against Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping. Xi arrived in South Africa on Tuesday for a state visit.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can also expect to be followed around by some protesters, organised by the Turkish Solidarity Network, which is unhappy with the way the recently-lifted two-year state of emergency violated human rights. The MJC, however, congratulated Erdoğan on his recent elections win in June.
Back to South Africa and India. The relationship between the two countries is, at best, a little complicated. Back in 2013 when South Africa last hosted the BRICS summit, the Indian government was upset about long delays in the programme and an apparent lack of respect by South Africa for protocol, which meant a planned bilateral between then president Jacob Zuma and prime minister Manmohan Singh did not take place, but meetings with the Chinese and Russian presidents did. (Judging from the two-hour delay of a press briefing on BRICS preparations on Monday, and the last-minute issuing of the summit programme on Tuesday afternoon, some chaos at this summit wouldn’t be a surprise at all.)
Building closer relations with India is probably somewhere on Ramaphosa’s to-do list, but at least he and Modi have in common a dislike for the Zuma-friendly Gupta family. During his 2016 state visit to South Africa, Modi snubbed a dinner at which he had heard some of the Gupta brothers would be present, and now some conspiracy theorists in the Indian High Commission in Pretoria reckon Gupta-friendly officials might be fuelling efforts to embarrass Modi, as payback.
There is also the racist anti-Indian utterances that have been coming from the Economic Freedom Fighters, which might really be aimed at settling tax probe scores. Still, the Muslim community is sensitive to the fact that they could give the EFF some ammunition if a fight about political issues in India scuppered the BRICS summit.
The MJC in its statement emphasises the economic benefits of BRICS.
“We believe that the hosting of the summit will encourage investment into the African continent, and more specifically South Africa, at a moment when our country needs it the most to combat the impact of poverty and inequality.
“We also believe that BRICS has a vital role to play in establishing more equitable economic growth among member countries,” the statement read.
If this summit were derailed, “the majority of South Africans will have reason to be angry at us,” an MJC supporter said, adding that the lawyers hold “extremist” views.
Another official, however, said it all boiled down to Ramaphosa. His detractors are still out there and in government, and Zuma – who wanted to delay his resignation so that he could “introduce” Ramaphosa to the African Union and the Southern African Development Community leaders – would have felt vindicated if Ramaphosa failed on this one.
Some leaders behind the MJC are fans of the New Dawn, which is why the MCJ wished Ramaphosa, by name, well in hosting the BRICS summit.
Muslim Lawyers Association’s Yousha Tayob reckons South Africa would do well to consider ethics in its foreign relations. He said the association did not oppose development, but had problems with some leaders attending the summit.
“It seems like economics trumps moral conscience once more,” he said. DM