On the streets of Delhi, Cyril Ramaphosa’s face is currently beaming from lampposts and roundabouts.
“WELCOME,” reads one placard. “His Excellency Mr Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa”.
There are posters featuring Ramaphosa alone, and billboards which see his face shine out alongside that of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Indian flags co-mingle with South African flags in Delhi’s diplomatic heartland.
The effect is of a government pulling out all the stops to woo Ramaphosa and the sizeable contingent of Cabinet heavy-hitters who have accompanied him to India: Pravin Gordhan, Lindiwe Sisulu, Gwede Mantashe and Naledi Pandor among them.
A welcome ceremony for Ramaphosa on Friday morning saw him met with a 21-gun salute and horse-mounted troops at the Presidential Palace, where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Ram Nath Kovind greeted him. Saturday features Ramaphosa as Chief Guest – in essence, VVVIP – at the country’s 70thRepublic Day celebrations: an honour not bestowed on any South African since Nelson Mandela.
“South Africa and India: a very great friendship!” summarised one of the city’s countless tuk-tuk drivers.
All this pageantry and deference is par for the course when it comes to a state visit from one of India’s most significant international partners. One of the events on Ramaphosa’s Indian programme was organised by the entity known as IBSA (Indian-Brazil-South Africa): a reminder that South Africa and India’s organisational ties extend beyond, and pre-date, BRICS, the body which brought India, Brazil and South Africa into formal cooperation with Russia and China in 2010.
The event in question, the inaugural Gandhi Mandela Freedom Lecture, saw Brazilian ambassador to India Carlos Duarte give thanks to Ramaphosa for delivering the lecture on question.
Ramaphosa, Duarte said, had met with newly-elected Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro on Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
When BRICS hosts its annual meeting this year in Brazil, said Duarte, Bolsonaro is “looking forward” to seeing Ramaphosa and Modi there.
With right-wing populist Bolsonaro having ascended to the seat of power in Brazil, Ramaphosa is now keeping even more questionable company among the BRICS heads of states than previously. Ramaphosa now stands alongside four world leaders for whom the term “strongman politics” seems practically to have been invented: Brazil’s Bolsonaro, India’s Modi, Russia’s Putin and China’s Xi Jinping.
And while Ramaphosa continues to publicly espouse South Africa’s adherence to the foreign policy direction set by Nelson Mandela – driven by “democracy, justice, human rights, and good governance”, as Ramaphosa put it in Delhi on Friday – the idea that his BRICS team mates share those values seems ever more open to question.
South Africa’s foreign policy is about to come under the microscope much more closely. Ramaphosa reminded his audience on Friday that South Africa has just officially assumed its seat as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council for the period 2019-2020.
“As we take up our non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council, South Africa is acutely aware of the responsibility we have been entrusted with,” Ramaphosa told the audience at Delhi’s glitzy Leela Hotel.
“In Madiba’s honour, we have chosen for our term the theme: ‘continuing the legacy: Working for a Just and Peaceful world’.”
The first tests of the country’s commitment to those lofty ideals are already at hand, with the US having requested a meeting of the Security Council on Saturday to discuss the ongoing political crisis in Venezuela.
Though the US, Canada and a number of South American states have rallied in support of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido’s attempt to seize power, Daily Maverick understands that South Africa is unlikely to follow the same course as part of its commitment to upholding the outcome of electoral processes.
This follows criticism levelled against South Africa for having accepted the outcome of the recent poll in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) despite the results being heavily disputed.
The issue of Venezuela is likely to be a diplomatic lightning rod with far-reaching implications.
Ramaphosa’s new ally Bolsonaro, for instance, told the Washington Post this week that incumbent Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro “must (be) removed from power”. Russia’s ambassador to the UN, meanwhile, has reportedly said that his country will oppose the calling of a UN Security Council meeting on Saturday as unnecessary.
The Venezuelan situation may represent a baptism of fire for South Africa at the UN Security Council – while, of course, another political crisis is playing out closer to home in the form of the ongoing instability in Zimbabwe. On this point, too, South Africa has been hammered for its hitherto mealy-mouthed response to the situation unfolding within its northern neighbour’s borders.
In Delhi, Ramaphosa and his team are enjoying the fruits of public diplomacy – handshakes, red carpets and banquets – while Ramaphosa maintains his administration’s commitment to the ideals not just of Mandela but also of Indian icon Mahatma Gandhi.
“It was Gandhi-ji who told us: ‘be the change you want to see in the world’,” Ramaphosa said on Friday.
Davis is covering events in India as part of a media delegation invited by the Presidency.