South Africa was from the start clearly a little 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 China’s – $15.5 trillion; India – $3.26 trillion; Brazil – $2.1 trillion; and Russia – $1.68 trillion.
But the most problematic disparity was really political rather than economic. It was the possibility of tiny South Africa and its democratic values being trampled on by the geopolitical machinations of its much larger, 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 joining the BRICS lead South Africa away from its democratic values, both at home and abroad? the stranger?
Others have asked the same. Now, that concern appears to be materializing as the South African government scrambles to reconcile its higher principles with its BRICS solidarity as the Russian military juggernaut rolls through Ukraine. This dilemma should prompt the government to at least consider whether its BRICS membership is really worth the price.
The BRICs were originally just an investment concept coined by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neil, who suggested to his clients in 2001 that there was a rich selection to be made in these four rapidly emerging markets that he believes will dominate the global economy by 2050.
Perhaps inspired by O’Neill, the BRICs began to evolve into a club of like-minded nations, meeting at first informally on the margins of the G8 and the UN. South Africa’s interest was piqued when the four BRIC leaders – Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev, China’s Hu Jintao, India’s Manmohan Singh and Brazil’s Lula da Silva – formally met for their first summit in June 2009 in Yekaterinburg, Russia (was it a mere coincidence that this was the city where the Bolsheviks assassinated Russia’s last Tsar, Nicholas II and his family, in 1918?).
Although largely still devoted to economic issues, particularly following the 2008 global financial crisis, in Yekaterinburg, the BRICs have also begun to assume a political identity. In their statement at the summit, 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 in 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, translate this vague support into explicit support for the ambitions of India and Brazil, and later of South Africa to become permanent members of 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 unchallenged dominance of the United States and the West.
He therefore campaigned vigorously to join and was finally admitted in late 2010, taking his seat at the next summit in Sanya, China in 2011.
China’s and Russia’s refusal to support the others’ bid for permanent membership of the UN Security Council remains an important indicator of the power hierarchy in the BRICS and should be kept in mind when e see the three BRICS democracies – South Africa, India and Brazil – maneuvering around the machinations of Russia and China.
Already in 2014, shortly after joining the BRICS, when Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, South Africa was put in the hot seat, caught between its solidarity with the BRICS and the friendship of the ANC with Russia on the one hand and its principled opposition to blatant aggression on the other.
Thus, during the vote of the General Assembly of the United Nations rejecting the capture of Crimea by Russia and defending the territorial integrity of Ukraine, South Africa abstained. The resolution was passed overwhelmingly by 100 nations voting in favour, 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 again abstained.
This time, the resolution, condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and demanding its withdrawal, was adopted by an even wider margin of 141 votes in favor, only five votes in favor and 35 abstentions. This time the vote was clearly driven by global outrage at the sight of Russian tanks, missiles and planes killing hundreds of civilians and destroying apartments, homes, schools and hospitals.
As so often in the past at the UN, the explanation of the vote, offered by SA Ambassador to the UN Mathu Joyini, made some sense at some level of abstraction and was 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 linked to the security concerns of both parties.
This was a reference to Moscow’s stated concern that if Ukraine were allowed to join NATO, it would jeopardize Russia’s security.
Yet Joyini nowhere criticized Russia’s invasion or called on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine.
South African officials explained that the General Assembly was “completely one-sided”, so South Africa 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 February 24 – the day the Russian tanks crossed the border and where the missiles rained down.
These officials denied media reports that President Cyril Ramaphosa was unhappy with Dirco’s statement, insisting that he and Dirco Minister Naledi Pandor were in full agreement on the matter.
They noted that the statement calling for Russia’s withdrawal was still on Dirco’s website and therefore remained valid.
“We could hardly do otherwise,” an official said of the statement. “Whatever Russia thinks, what could we call it other than 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 expressing their solidarity with their BRICS partner, Russia.
But it is certain that very few uninitiated people have understood the nuances. They demanded an unequivocal condemnation of Russia for the atrocities it was committing in the eyes of the world. Instead, they made pedantic quibbles.
Abstinence from important decisions has always been South Africa’s problem at the UN. When he first took his non-permanent seat on the Security Council in 2007, he outraged many friends of South Africa by abstaining from a vote condemning Myanmar’s junta for the atrocities of human rights.
South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo offered an arcane and punctilious procedural explanation of how human rights issues were supposed to be handled by the UN Human Rights Council at Geneva, not by the Security Council in New York.
South Africa has also followed a policy of automatic abstention by default on any issue involving criticism of a particular country (with one or two notable exceptions such as Israel).
Then, under the presidency of Lindiwe Sisulu, minister for international relations, South Africa caused an outcry by abstaining from passing a resolution condemning the Burmese junta for the atrocities against the Muslim Rohingya minority. Sisulu ordered South Africa’s UN ambassador to reverse his decision and condemn Myanmar. She also overturned the automatic abstention policy, insisting that every decision on such sensitive decisions should be approved by Pretoria.
Abstentions continued, but not quite on the same scale. Western countries have been delighted to see South Africa occasionally vote against China and Russia, for example when Pretoria insisted that the Sudanese military cede power after the ousting of Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and that Russia and China have refused to “interfere”.
That, however, was a far less sensitive issue than the vote on this week’s resolution condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine would have been.
It would have taken courage and an independence that South Africa obviously could not muster. He wouldn’t have been alone if he had been. Although China and India also abstained, Brazil – despite Trump’s bromance with Putin, President Jair Bolsonaro surprisingly joined the vast majority in voting to condemn Russia’s aggression.
On Thursday, reporters asked US Under Secretary of State for Africa Molly Phee whether South Africa would face the consequences of her abstention. She said the United States did not intend to analyze the vote and single out individual countries.
Nonetheless, just a moment later during her virtual briefing with African reporters, she said Washington would look for ways to reward African countries that backed the General Assembly resolution.
Ultimately, however, the vote was not about pleasing the United States or any other country, but about South Africa’s reputation in the eyes of the world. When everyone was watching, he showed himself that he was standing on the wrong side of history. Mandela’s nation has lost some more of its already tarnished magic.
And are the BRICS worth this loss of reputation anyway? The block isn’t what it used to be. India is now ruled by a Hindu nationalist, Brazil by a right-wing populist. The Chinese Ji Xinping assumed imperial ambitions. And Putin has already shown such ambitions this week. They are not obvious champions of the values the BRICS was created to espouse.
Internal tensions increase. Despite their BRICS solidarity, Indian and Chinese troops clashed to death along their disputed border in Kashmir two years ago. South African officials reveal that they often have to mediate between the two countries within the BRICS. And they add that Russia often plays a double game in this showdown, sometimes supporting its old ally India and sometimes its new ally China.
On the economic front, there is still the New Development Bank which has lent South Africa billions of dollars for infrastructure and Covid recovery. But South Africa had to invest billions to join the bank in order to qualify for these loans.
Overall, the BRICS seem to have lost their luster. In 2015, Goldman Sachs, which invented the concept, closed its investment fund dedicated to the BRICS. This may have been a symbolic turning point. DM