Business Maverick


After the Bell: SA diplomacy is sliding off the rails at an absolutely critical point

After the Bell: SA diplomacy is sliding off the rails at an absolutely critical point
Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen during his press conference at the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, 27 July 2018. (Photo: Mikhail Svetlov / Getty Images)

It would require enormous diplomatic finesse to take the BRICS club further, particularly at this time. And we are seeing little of that from any of the members, least of all South Africa.

In January this year, South Africa took over as chair of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA) grouping, and in August this year, SA will host the grouping’s 15th summit. The summit faces two crucial questions, but from a news point of view, it is likely to be overwhelmed by a single question: Will Russian leader Vladimir Putin attend in person and, if so, what will that mean for SA’s membership of the International Criminal Court (ICC)?

Last month, the court issued an arrest warrant for Putin following the unlawful deportation of children from occupied areas in Ukraine to Russia, which quite apart from being loathsome, is contrary to the Rome Statute. And that is without even considering the legality of invading a neighbouring country.

A lot has been written about this, particularly around Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor’s description of Russia as a long-standing friend, just calmly ignoring international law. The problem is that she went further, criticising what she sees as the inconsistency of the ICC.

In a spirited riposte, columnist and writer Eusebius McKaiser points out in a piece on the TimesLIVE website: “I cannot for the life of me make sense of a practical contradiction at the heart of Pandor’s moralism about the International Criminal Court.

“Here’s the problem with this reasoning,” he continues, “it simultaneously (correctly so) judges the West for moral inconsistencies on their part, but then proceeds to emulate that very inconsistency by turning a blind eye to the human rights of African citizens being trampled on by their leaders.” 

There is a kind of false binary, he writes, in “choosing to either love the West uncritically or to suck up to Putin as a middle-finger to Western hegemony”.

It’s a point that has been made repeatedly but is just ignored by SA’s diplomats, and I suspect that might be partly to do with the critical nature of the upcoming summit. It’s just too important to break relations with Russia now, which would really throw the summit into the wastepaper bin. The stakes are too high.

The two big issues for the conference are first, whether or not the grouping should be expanded into a BRICS-plus group and, if so, with what countries and, second, how to use the grouping to establish an alternative currency to the dollar. There has been much speculation about both in the international media recently, particularly after Brazil and China moved to trade in their own currencies.

Dangerous liaisons: SA’s Russian roulette jeopardises trade agreements with US and other Western nations

The most cogent and reasoned response to both issues comes, as you might expect, from Jim O’Neill, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management and a former UK treasury minister (otherwise known as Baron O’Neill of Gatley), who came up with the idea in the first place.

O’Neill famously coined the BRIC acronym in 2001 (before SA joined), really to impress on Westerners what the world might look like if the four countries reached their potential. The idea became very popular in the first decade of the new millennium when it seemed the four were progressing even faster than was originally projected. This was so much so that the four countries decided to formalise the group, and later invited SA to join.

Writing in Global Policy magazine, O’Neill points out that while the progress of all four of the original countries in the noughties was excellent, the wheels came off in the second decade. He said he sometimes teases policymakers that, in terms of economic performance, the period before the BRICS political club came into existence was much better than the one since. 

Right from the start, O’Neill has been critical of SA’s participation in the club. “As for South Africa, I believe that it is a wonderful country. But other than the simple fact that it has a more developed financial system than anywhere else in Africa, it is not clear why they particularly deserve to be part of such an economic group.” 

From long experience, I know that when a German person says it was great to meet you, and we should get together sometime, what they mean is it was great to meet you and we should get together sometime. When a British person of a certain class says it was great to meet you and we should get together sometime, what they mean is that it would be really great to not see you ever, ever, ever again. So, South Africans should perhaps take the compliment with a pinch of salt. But O’Neill is spot-on that since joining the club, SA’s economic performance has been “particularly disappointing” or, to put it another way, piss-poor.

Read Daily Maverick: Vladimir Putin in South Africa: A diplomatic and legal dilemma for the government

Perhaps inadvertently, O’Neill underlines the nature of SA’s dilemma as a member of the club. It’s like SA was accidentally invited to a party with the coolest kids in town but then has to spend the entire night wondering who to talk to and why she came at all. The August conference provides some sort of opportunity to make a stab at becoming a slightly less accidental member of the club.

But this too is fraught with diplomatic pitfalls. The first problem is that the two countries that would probably most like to join are Saudi Arabia and Iran — Saudi Arabia to make more of a push on the global stage, and Iran because it needs all the friends it can get. But including them would be extremely difficult, partly because the group would then be dominated by oil-producing countries and more importantly, the group would be defined by a very, very powerful anti-Western bias. It would consummate the BRICS not as a constructive club but as a predominantly hostile political grouping.

As O’Neill cogently asks, what is the real goal of the BRICS group? If it’s just symbolic, well then, inviting other large-population countries to join makes sense. But if the group intends to achieve anything concrete, the criteria should be more selective. Already, cooperation between group members has “seemed difficult” (another huge understatement). 

O’Neill himself proposes the group establish criteria based on population and economic thresholds: say 100 million people and an economy of a certain size. That would mean including countries like Nigeria and Indonesia. But it should also, he says, look for “legitimacy gains” for the group as a whole, which would put countries like Turkey and Mexico in the frame. 

And lastly, it should look for countries to help its goal of challenging the reform of global institutions, which was one of the original reasons for forming the grouping. The West still dominates the IMF, the World Bank, the United Nations and, for that matter, the global financial system. If BRICS really wants to pose a challenge to these now severely outdated structures and, as it happens, the dominance of the dollar, it needs to expand on a credible basis.

I like O’Neill’s arguments, but I do think the future of the BRICS grouping is much more clouded than he suggests. The invasion of Ukraine complicates the issue beyond Putin’s mere physical attendance. It would require enormous diplomatic finesse to take the club further, particularly at this time. And we are seeing little of that from any of the members, least of all South Africa. DM/BM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    Tim’s likening of South African being invited to a party with the cool kids is very apt and can be expanded upon: having arrived at the party, and desperate to impress, South Africa will do literally anything they ask of us; we’ve all seen the movies of the teen outcast getting into trouble to impress the ‘in crowd’ who are usually also the venal school bullies. We’re that kid.

    The second point is that we’re still at kindergarten levels of diplomatic maturity. Or perhaps, more pointedly, we’ve regressed to kindergarten levels, with foreign policy makers who are utterly clueless about the modern world, about the interconnection between diplomacy and economy and who yearn, in the most puerile way, for a return to the Cold War, so they can strut their stuff on the stage and South Africa’s citizens be damned. South Africa has not benefitted one iota from BRICS membership – it hasn’t increased our exports of value-added products to the 3.2 billion people in the other BRICS countries; it hasn’t seen our engineering companies being invited to build roads, railways, ports, airports or power stations in other BRICS countries: all we’ve done is open the floodgates to cheap and nasty imports from these countries, now followed by their contractors to take work away from us domestically and in the region. We’re the chihuahua that sees in its own shadow a bull mastiff. A bit pathetic.

    • Pet Bug says:

      Great comment.

    • Anthony Sturges says:

      South Africa and the ANC in particular, are still ensconced in the past, believing that the ethos of a ‘Brezhnevian Soviet communist oligarchy’ still exists. Pandor’s fawning welcome of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in the face of international condemnation of Russia, deserves the opprobrious responses it no doubt attracted and underlines the diplomatic naivete it emanates from.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    As typically with the anc with all that they do and are – clueless, inept, self-serving, hypocritical, criminal, rapacious, destructive, corrupt, arrogant, disloyal, treasonous – I could go on and on! It boggles the mind that the masses in this country, who have been so very badly betrayed by such a treacherous rabble, way past their sell by date and so far removed from the original ANC, cannot see the reality for what it is! Such a shame and so detrimental to our country. Blindly closing rank and supporting a vile and evil mass-murderer KGB thug that is Putin, does us absolutely no favours and it will come back to bite us.

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