UN ABSTENTION ANALYSIS
BRICS — has South Africa caught a monster by the tail and should it let it go?
It didn’t take a Nostrodamus to predict that South Africa might be biting off a bit more than it could chew when in 2011 it joined the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) to create the BRICS (in effect replacing the lower case ‘s’ with an upper case ‘S’).
South Africa was from the start clearly a tiny Gulliver venturing into the land of the Brobdingnags. At the time, most commentators focused on the huge disparity in the size of South Africa’s economy — about $387-billion in 2019, versus those of China — $15.5 trillion; India — $3.26-trillion; Brazil — $2.1-trillion; and Russia — $1.68-trillion.
But the more problematic disparity was really political rather than economic. It was the possibility that little South Africa and its democratic values could get stomped on by the geopolitical machinations of its much larger and undemocratic BRICS partners, China and Russia.
In a column for The Star in January 2011 entitled “Let’s face it: We are the dwarf among the BRICS” I asked, “Will membership of BRICS gravitate South Africa away from its democratic values, both at home and abroad?”
Others asked the same. Now that concern seems to be materialising as the South African government struggles to reconcile its higher principles with its BRICS solidarity while the Russian military juggernaut rolls across Ukraine. This dilemma should be prompting the government to at least examine whether its BRICS membership is really worth the price.
BRICs was originally just an investment concept invented by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neil who suggested to his clients in 2001 that there was rich picking to be had in these four rapidly emerging markets which he predicted would dominate the world economy by 2050.
Perhaps inspired by O’Neill, the BRICs began to evolve into a club of like-minded nations, first meeting informally on the margins of the G8 and the UN. South Africa’s interest was piqued when the four BRICs leaders — Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev, China’s Hu Jintao, India’s Manmohan Singh and Brazil’s Lula da Silva — met formally for their first summit in June 2009 in Yekaterinburg, Russia (was it a mere coincidence that this was the city where the Bolsheviks murdered Russia’s last Tsar, Nicholas II and his family, in 1918?).
Though largely still devoted to economic issues, especially in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, at Yekaterinburg the BRICs began to assume a political identity too. In their summit declaration, the leaders called for a “more democratic and just multipolar world order based on the rule of international law, equality, mutual respect, cooperation, coordinated action and collective decision-making of all states”.
They also called for a “comprehensive reform of the UN” to make it more democratic and efficient and they supported the aspirations of India and Brazil “to play a greater role in the United Nations”.
Neither then nor later did Russia and China, the two permanent members of the UN Security Council, ever translate this vague support into explicit backing for the ambitions of India and Brazil, and later South Africa, to become permanent members in an expanded UN Security Council.
But South Africa liked the idea of a club of emerging and developing nations to counter what it lamented as the uncontested dominance of the United States and the West.
And so it campaigned vigorously to join and was finally admitted in late 2010, taking its seat at the next summit in Sanya, China, in 2011.
China and Russia’s refusal to support the bid of the others to UN Security Council permanent membership remains an important indicator of the hierarchy of power in BRICS and should be kept in mind as one observes the three democracies in BRICS — South Africa, India and Brazil — manoeuvring around the machinations of Russia and China.
Already in 2014, soon after it joined BRICS, when Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, South Africa was put on the spot, caught between its BRICS solidarity and the ANC’s struggle-era friendship with Russia on the one hand and its principled opposition to blatant aggression on the other.
And so in the UN General Assembly vote rejecting Russia’s seizure of Crimea and upholding the territorial integrity of Ukraine, South Africa abstained. The resolution was overwhelmingly carried by 100 nations voting for, with 11 against and 58 abstentions.
This week, nearly eight years later, when the General Assembly again debated another, even larger, Russian incursion into Ukrainian territory, Pretoria once again abstained.
This time the resolution, condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and demanding its withdrawal, was carried by an even larger margin of 141 votes for, only five in favour and 35 abstentions. The voting this time was clearly driven by global outrage at the sight of Russian tanks, missiles and aircraft killing hundreds of civilians and destroying apartments, houses, schools and hospitals.
As so often in the past at the UN, the explanation of the vote, offered by SA’s ambassador to the UN Mathu Joyini, made a certain amount of sense at a certain level of abstraction and read out of context. She said the resolution was not helpful to the peaceful resolution of the conflict, mainly because it did not address the root causes of the conflict which were related to the security concerns of the two parties.
This was a reference to Moscow’s professed concern that if Ukraine were allowed to join Nato, it would jeopardise Russia’s security.
Yet Joyini nowhere criticised Russia’s invasion or called for Russia to pull out of Ukraine.
South African officials explained that the General Assembly was “completely one-sided” so SA could not have voted for it.
They recalled, however, that SA had already demanded that Russia withdraw from Ukraine, in a statement issued by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) on 24 February — the day the Russian tanks crossed the border and missiles rained down.
These officials denied media reports that President Cyril Ramaphosa was unhappy with the Dirco statement, insisting that he and Dirco Minister Naledi Pandor were in complete agreement on it.
They noted that the statement demanding Russia’s withdrawal was still on Dirco’s website and so remained valid.
“We could hardly do otherwise,” one official said about that statement. “Whatever Russia may think, what else could we call this but war?”
All of these ambiguities and ambivalences suggest that Ramaphosa and his government are trying to have their cake and eat it; to stick to their basic principles while at the same time expressing solidarity with their BRICS partner Russia.
But it is certain that very few of the uninitiated understood the nuances. They demanded an unequivocal condemnation of Russia for the atrocities it was committing in the eyes of the world. Instead, they got pedantic nit-picking.
Abstinence in the face of important decisions has always been South Africa’s problem at the UN. When it took up its non-permanent seat on the Security Council for the first time in 2007, it outraged many of South Africa’s friends by abstaining from a vote condemning the Myanmar junta for human rights atrocities.
South Africa’s ambassador Dumisani Kumalo offered an arcane, nit-picking procedural explanation about how human rights issues were supposed to be dealt with by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, not the Security Council in New York.
South Africa also followed a policy of automatically abstaining by default on any issue which entailed criticism of a particular country (with one or two notable exceptions such as Israel).
Then, on Lindiwe Sisulu’s watch as international relations minister, SA provoked an outcry when it abstained from a resolution condemning the Myanmar junta for atrocities against the Rohingya Muslim minority. Sisulu ordered SA’s UN ambassador to reverse his decision and condemn Myanmar. She also rescinded the automatic abstention policy, insisting that each decision on such sensitive decisions should be cleared by Pretoria.
Abstentions have continued, though not quite on the same scale. Western countries have been pleased to see South Africa occasionally voting against China and Russia, for example when Pretoria insisted that the Sudanese military should cede power after the ouster of Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and Russia and China refused to “interfere”.
That, though, was a far less sensitive issue than voting for this week’s resolution condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine would have been.
That would have taken courage and independence South Africa evidently could not muster. It would not have been alone if it had. Though China and India also abstained, Brazil — despite President Jair Bolsonaro’s Trump-like bromance with Putin, surprisingly joined the vast majority in voting to condemn Russia’s aggression.
On Thursday, journalists asked US assistant secretary of state for Africa Molly Phee whether South Africa would suffer consequences for abstaining. She said the US had no intention of parsing the vote and singling out individual countries.
Nonetheless, just a moment later in her virtual briefing with African journalists, she said Washington would look for ways to reward African countries that had supported the General Assembly resolution.
Ultimately, though, the vote was not about pleasing the US or any other country, but about South Africa’s reputation in the eyes of the world. When everyone was watching, it showed itself to be standing on the wrong side of history. The nation of Mandela lost a little more of its already tarnished magic.
And is BRICS worth this loss of reputation anyway? The bloc is not what it used to be. India is now led by a Hindu nationalist, Brazil by a populist right-winger. China’s Ji Xinping has assumed imperial ambitions. And Putin this week already manifested such ambitions. These are not obvious champions of the values BRICS was created to espouse.
Internal tensions are growing. Despite their BRICS solidarity, Indian and Chinese troops clashed fatally along their disputed border in Kashmir two years ago. South African officials reveal that they often have to mediate between the two countries inside BRICS. And they add that Russia often plays a double game in this standoff, sometimes backing its old ally India and sometimes its new ally China.
Economically, there is still the New Development Bank that has loaned South Africa billions of dollars for infrastructure and Covid recovery. But South Africa had to put billions in to join the bank to qualify for these loans.
Globally, BRICS seems to have lost its lustre. In 2015 Goldman Sachs, which invented the concept, closed its dedicated BRICS investment fund. That may have been a symbolic turning point. DM
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