South Africa


BRICS — has South Africa caught a monster by the tail and should it let it go?

BRICS — has South Africa caught a monster by the tail and should it let it go?
Chinese President Xi Jinping (back), South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (front left), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (front second left), Russian President Vladimir Putin (front second right) and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (front right) at the 11th BRICS summit at the Itamaraty Palace in Brasilia, Brazil. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Pavel Golovkin / Pool)

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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  • Craig B says:

    In this particular matter the South African government is so arrogant in Africa. They should be consulting extensively with the likes of Rwanda and Kenya who have diplomatically shown themselves to have expertise here way beyond what we have.

  • Nick Jacobs says:

    Or perhaps South Africa’s post-apartheid government is in its emo-teenager stage where they feel a need to simply be contrarian. In which case, we all hope they will grow out of it as time goes on.

    • Hiram C Potts says:

      Respectfully, hoping that the ANC will change is wishful thinking.
      It’s not about being contrarian, democracy is anathema to the ANC. They’ve repeatedly shown their true colours. Most recently in the way they seized the opportunity to impose & inflict Soviet-era Stalinist diktats on us during the initial COVID lockdown.

      Remember alcohol, cigarette bans & dictating what food & what shoes one was allowed to buy?

      The ANC’s corruption & the damage that they’ve inflicted on our economy are straight out of Putin’s “handbook” on how to run a kleptocracy. Russia has oligarchs we have cadres.

      • Martin Ernst says:

        Yes the ANC is through and through a tyrannical autocratic monster that believes that it knows better than everyone else despite the vast mountain of evidence that they are actually a bunch of fools and criminals. There is nothing democratic about the ANC and never has been, and as they say, a leopard does not change its spots.

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    Thank you very much, Mr Fabricius, I certainly agree that it is necessary for South Africa to urgently reconsider its relationship with BRICS, which is now causing South Africa to become isolated and in a precarious position internationally, and does not seem to provide substantial benefits. It is also not aligned with commitment to human rights, democracy, and the principles of international law. This stance of “neutrality” in relation to Russia amounts to appeasement and condination of the war on Ukraine. South Africa is really placing itself on the wrong side of history.

    • Dave Jacobs says:

      Abstention equals support of Russia in the eyes of pretty much the rest of the world. Personally, I think it goes much deeper than a BRICS alignment, as evident from the countries that abstained from the vote. South Africa finds itself in the company of the oppressors and the warmongers of the world. An no sane and civilized person on this planet will buy the South African’s governments explanation. “What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are” (C.S.Lewis) With SA’s inaction, it has already said a lot about what type of country we are and what we stand for. It is indeed sad times we live in.

  • Stephen T says:

    This UN vote seems to be little more than international virtue signalling at this point, but on the other hand it also appears fairly clear now that the BRICS idea was just pie-in-the-sky. Not because it was a bad idea but rather because of the Janus-faced hypocrisy of some of the bigger players.

    The more I see of the international stage the more I am convinced it operates with all the complexity and nuance of a school yard – the bullies and their sycophant lapdogs versus everyone else.

  • Change is Good says:

    The citizens of this country have fully embraced democracy and being a member of BRICS does not fit well with these principles.
    It is time to exit and there should be no flip flop on this decision, but we are talking about the ANC, so nothing will be done.

  • Rob Wilson says:

    Our government has proven itself morally bankrupt, and any principles died with Nelson Mandela. Our governments lack of backbone is disgusting.

    • Gerrie Pretorius Pretorius says:

      The anc has never had any principals nor morality. How on earth could it have ‘died with nelson mandela’?

  • Hermann Funk says:

    The above picture is evidence enough why SA should leave BRICS.

  • Brian Cotter says:

    BRICS is the current partnership, support in Apartheid era for ANC was the basis of ANC/Russian Communist friendship. This debt has still not been repaid. Pay back time. Any reneging of this by ANC could mean all the payments to ANC hierarchy, crimes and misdemeanors could come out in public. After Naledi made her statement a Deputy Minister did the reporting, surely if Cyril wasn’t going to get his hands dirty the Deputy President, our semi resident Russian, should have given the statement.

  • Willem Boshoff says:

    The major BRICs players have terrible human rights records. And way too little attention has been paid to India’s one-sided occupation of Kashmir.

  • Smudger Smiff says:

    The ANC is a Marxist regime that still believes Russia is a true friend.
    Well, good luck with that.
    It has turned a blind eye to Russian atrocities and missed the opportunity to make new friends in the Western free world.
    Must dash – looking for my copy of ‘keep the red flag flying’

  • Dhasagan Pillay says:

    Of course not. But we also can’t pretend we’re the love child of Uncle Gweezy and Juju flipflopping our way into absolute irrelevance because we say one thing then do another – like the cease hostilities please statement followed by the kowtowing Feb 23 visit to the Russian embassy and the abstention from a #@***% NON-BINDING resolution in the UN Gen. Assembly. That would have allowed us to walk the line of meaning what we say and saying what we mean. India, Brazil and China have equally proved themselves to be terrible friends of the Russian people, by not standing up to simply tell our friend the truth – this is a bad move on your part buddy. Now let’s see how we can fix it. As you do when your friend dyes his or her hair orange and black like a Bengal Tiger’s stripes. It’s not rocket science or politics – it’s basic humanity. *smh*

  • Sandra Goldberg says:

    Strange how otherAfrican nations ( Ghana , Kenya) showed South Africa up!What were the hidden reasons for South Africa’s immoral and cowardly abstention? The President was obviously displeased with the initialwritten disapproval( itself tardy) put out by Dirco- could it have anything to do with an ANC elective conference, or the Deputy President’s strange and frequent ‘ medical’ trips to Russia? While we can only guess at the real reasons, it is apparent that this country suffered a damaging blow to its international reputation.

  • Christopher Campbell says:

    South Africa is certainly not an Emerging Market so should stop the pretence. Their abstaining in the recent UN resolution was gut wrenching but normal for the glorious leader!
    Long overdue to take positive action on multiple fronts. ANC are no longer a struggle party, they have been a party of government since 1994 but have just ignored the people and gorged on anything that they could.

  • Joe Irwin says:

    Did anyone really expect the glorious movement to condemn Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine?
    I doubt that Ms Pandor consulted with any of here communist colleagues before she released her statement. She will probably lose her position because of it.

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