Transformation of South Africa’s foreign policy through Brics – why Putin tips the scales

Lisa Thompson (First Published in the Mail & Guardian 6 July 2023) 20 November 2023

To say that the lead-up to the 2023 Brics summit in Sandton, South Africa, in August has been tumultuous, seems milk-toast mild.

The International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for President Vladimir Putin, issued on 17 March 2023, thrust South Africa’s foreign policy, in all of its inter-governmental disarray, into the centre of the post-Covid global geostrategic political economy power shift.

This shift, to a rebooted, more robust form of South-South cooperation, is described as a value and norm re-alignment to reflect the common emerging market developmental status of the Brics states and aligned blocs such as the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).

China’s economic power is the driver behind the shift in global power dynamics, and South-South cooperation is predicated on China’s expanding footprint in Brics states, and, very significantly, within South Africa.

South Africa, as the smallest of the Brics economies, has achieved heightened geostrategic significance in Brics as a result of its “gateway to Africa” status. Over the past decade, China has become the largest trade partner in South Africa and Africa. South Africa’s positionality within the bloc is evidently of great diplomatic importance to the US and Western Europe.

The rise of Brics, led by China, as a counterweight to the US-dominated global institutional networks, has occurred gradually over the past decade and a half. Until quite recently, Brics summits were dismissed as talk shops, and the idea of South-South cooperation as a reality has been drawn into sharp question, due to the differences between Brics states in size, political orientation and economic power.

These differences have turned out to be less of a hindrance than critics had anticipated. Trade, International Development Assistance (the Chinese Government’s term for Aid) and Investments have reached unparalleled levels, despite Covid-19’s effect on the Chinese economy well into 2022.

The foreign policy dithering on Putin’s imminent attendance of Brics on the part of the South African presidency, department of international relations and cooperation (DIRCO) and the department of trade industry and competition (DTIC) could be put down to inept and inconsistent inter-governmental policy formulation practices. Yet this is only part of the story in the new, post-Covid, global political economy.

The most significant dimension to the management of Putin’s visit, on the part of DIRCO and the presidency, is the clear shift to questioning the dominance of US and Western-led ideational norm-setting in the global arena.

Why is this so important? Many critics have questioned South Africa’s status in Brics. Thus the decision to host Putin post the ICC arrest warrant is an ideational tipping point to the North-South and South-South power balances on the global institutional stage.

To underline this pivotal moment in global politics, take, for example, the pronouncements of the deputy minister to the presidency, Obed Bapela, in May, stating that South Africa planned to change its laws so that the country “will give itself exemptions of who to arrest and who not to arrest”, adding further “in June we’ll be submitting the law in parliament.”

This challenge to the ICC by the South African presidency was heightened by comments made by Bapela on how the ICC, or states upholding its warrants, had historically overlooked these in the case of leaders with notorious proven genocide credentials.

This includes, most prominently, the UK’s 1998 decision not to extradite General Augusto Pinochet after the atrocities committed in Chile during his presidency. Bapela also highlighted that lack of prosecution of George W. Bush and Tony Blair for civilian deaths in Iraq in 2003 showed a lack of consistency on the part of the ICC. Bapela went on to say “Mandela would have said [that] the inequality, the inconsistency by the ICC, is a problem”.

Last week, while confirming that the Brics summit will go ahead as planned in South Africa, foreign minister Naledi Pandor backed up this policy stance at the Brics Foreign Ministers’ meeting held in Cape Town,

“Our vision of Brics is for our partnership to provide global leadership in a world fractured by competition, geopolitical tension, inequality, and deteriorating global security.”

Pandor’s message between the lines is clear — international calls on norm-setting will not go unquestioned within these more robust South-South geostrategic configurations. At the same meeting it is reported that the foreign ministers from Brics countries called for a “rebalancing” of the global order.

The bloc has historically built its solidarity on setting sights on a larger collective voice in the international arena. Ironically, the question of the ICC’s ruling and the management of Putin’s purported war crimes has amplified this South-South solidarity commitment. The real issue here is less about Putin and much more about the geostrategic shift in the balance of power that is gaining rapid momentum because of Brics.

An unfortunate part of this tussle, is the dichotomy that has characterised North-South and South-South solidarities. Frequently depicted as a choice between one set of loyalties or the other, there has been a tendency both in foreign and public policy and analysis to view critiques of South-South solidarity as being “pro the US and Northern hegemony” or vice versa, South-South policies are taken as anti-US and the North. This false dichotomy is hardwired into the global narrative on the pros and cons of trade and aid flows to either North or the Global South.

The tensions between the geostrategic realignments have emerged as a result of these push-pull power dynamics: potentially profoundly affecting all aspects of South Africa’s international standing and policy balancing act on international partnerships.

A case in point are the pronouncements by members of the US Congress on the ongoing status of the African Growth and Opportunity Act. The possibility of the Act being rescinded in 2025 triggered Western Cape Premier Alan Winde to lead a delegation to Washington DC in June, causing a further flurry of diplomatic debate within South Africa, led by DIRCO, as to the ambit of foreign policy making and the legitimacy of the trip.

While, ironically, the trip was endorsed by national government and Dirco officials and representatives from the agricultural sector were also present in Washington at the meetings with Winde, the furore about the diplomatic engagement between a provincial premier-led delegation and the US government highlights the degree to which this North-South and South-South solidarity dichotomy plays itself out in fragmented foreign policy.

Clearly, the new global balance of power could be positive for the South African democratic and development trajectory. Equally so, international condemnation for appearing to favour undemocratic regimes could do even more harm to our fragile, floundering economy and volatile currency.

Internally, weak foreign policy coordination yields the potential to create further jockeying for international partnerships by political parties ahead of the 2024 national elections.

The global hyper-focus on South Africa in Brics prior to the Sandton summit underlines the significance of the shifts in power in the new global order. It also underlines the growing potential strength of South Africa on the global stage through membership of the Brics bloc. It may be the critical test of South Africa’s foreign policy coordination and finesse, or the lack of it, in terms of global allegiances.

To this end, the ICC warrant has President Cyril Ramaphosa at centre stage in the debate about the importance of South-South solidarity and norm setting to South Africa. Whether Putin decides to stay at home or not, all eyes will be on Ramaphosa in the coming weeks to determine whether South-South solidarity bolsters South Africa’s international status or diminishes it.


Lisa Thompson is a political economist and public sector transformation specialist based at the University of the Western Cape.

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