Ramaphosa emerges from his chrysalis

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the upside and downside of the President's BRICS' "triumph"


A fortnight ago President Cyril Ramaphosa was still widely being dismissed as out of touch and ineffectual, barely competent to tie his own shoelaces. Following last week’s BRICS summit in Sandton, he has emerged from his dowdy chrysalis as the newly-crowned master of the universe.

There have been gushing tributes from Russia’s Vladimir Putin — Ramaphosa showed “unique diplomatic mastery” in negotiating the expansion of the BRICS alliance — as well as I-told-you-so’s from many who five years ago were similarly rapturous about CR’s “new dawn” for South Africa but had since slunk sulking into the shrubbery when nothing happened.   ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

They now have renewed optimism and expectations are soaring. Not only will Ramaphosa, who is likely to be re-elected president next year, rescue the stumbling Republic, but he is now also designated standard bearer of the Global South (trademark registered).

Cyril should not get too giddy-headed and South Africans should temper their expectations. The world is not so simple and there’s a long queue of prime ministers and presidents who sought glory and adulation on the international stage, only to fall flat on their faces at home.

It may well be that BRICS will prove to be a game changer — an independent-minded constellation of developing nations that can act as a genuine counterpoint to Western selfishness and domination. What a fine and long-delayed advance that would be.

BRICS does after all, as it keeps pointing out, represent 46% of the world’s population. It also comprises 36% of global GDP when measured at purchasing power parity, rather than using the hegemonic and imperialist United States dollar as the measure. (No one is permitted to comment on BRICS, now to be known as BRICS Plus, without at least once using the words “hegemonic” and “imperialist” to describe Western perfidy, particularly as embodied by the US.)

But it’s naïve to think that China, which is the dominant force in BRICS in every aspect, doesn’t have hegemonic aspirations of its own. Or that Russia doesn’t nurse imperialist dreams; ask Ukraine and other former Soviet states.

Consider also Putin’s malignant involvement, using the Wagner group as a proxy, in the Central African Republic, Mali and Libya. As well as the potential for mischief-making in a perpetually unstable African Union — eight coup d'états in the last three years, including in the past week in Gabon and Niger in July — at a level that rivals and probably exceeds that of all the Western nations combined.

The expansion of BRICS with six new members —Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — aggravates an already decidedly undemocratic and authoritarian bent. With others queueing to join, the challenge will be to avoid what has made the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the economically-focused BRICS’s political equivalent, so ineffectual.

NAM has been going for more than 60 years and has 120 members. What should have been a major force for peace and development has achieved remarkably little, because it has never been truly independent. Instead, it has relentlessly and shrilly excoriated the West while never daring to criticise Russia or China, or one another.

And therein lies the rub. While the African National Congress has never made any secret of its pro-Russian position and its enduring faith in the Marxist-Leninist policies that its communist patrons long ago abandoned, post-1994 it tried and initially succeeded in walking the thin line of doing so while not alienating the West. Ramaphosa, however, appears to believe that the global political balance has reached a tipping point and is abandoning all caution, to throw in South Africa’s lot with the Chino-Russian bloc.

Whatever the many failings of the West, it contains a web of democratic mechanisms that no matter how imperfect combine to deliver societies that are vastly more congenial to live in than the totalitarian alternatives, no matter how successful they are economically. Not many would-be migrants, even from neighbouring countries in Asia, seek to make their way to the People’s Republic of China. Or Russia. The traffic is uniformly the other way, to the West.

Yet Ramaphosa, by word and deed, is moving South Africa unambiguously into that bloc, gambling that the West — the US is about to decide whether we continue to enjoy the substantial benefits of the African Growth and Opportunity Act — will be so desperate to retain what influence it has that it won’t react punitively.

It’s a gamble that is likely to succeed, for now. In the longer term, much depends on the outcome of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the US presidential election next year. But with the world in a state of flux that it hasn’t experienced for decades, it might be wiser to wait before nailing South Africa’s colours so boldly to the mast.

Nevertheless, there is room for our president to display his “unique diplomatic mastery”. It is paradoxically true that Ramaphosa’s status as Putin’s pet gives him leverage over the Russian leader. This means that he is in a position, unrivalled except for China’s Xi Jinping, to pressure Putin over the invasion of Ukraine. He will have to use that leverage If there is to be any hope for the African Union’s peace proposals on Ukraine but, on previous experience, it seems unlikely that he has the stomach to do so.

For whatever his lauded diplomatic skills, our president is not generously endowed with moral courage.

Last year, when his foreign minister criticised the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she was smartly rapped over the knuckles and forced to issue a cringing retraction. This week, when ZANU-PF’s thugs stole the election for the sixth time since 2000, the ANC was unabashedly delighted, with Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula crowing “viva President Emmerson Mnangagwa” and Ramaphosa congratulating the Zimbabwean government for holding a successful election “despite burdening sanctions which the people of Zimbabwe continue to unjustly endure”.

This is despite the Southern African Development Community (SADC) election observer mission’s announcement that the elections “fell short of the requirements of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Electoral Act, and the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections”. Observer missions from the AU, the Commonwealth and the European Union voiced similar conclusions.

It is not whimsical to expect some steel from Ramaphosa. It’s a necessary ingredient to diplomatic success.

International relations is a continuous process of balancing ethicality, pragmatic self-interest, and the lure of expediency. Unfortunately, successive ANC administrations have placed a dwindling emphasis on political morality and realism, in favour of a callous opportunism that is heavily laced with grievance.

Whether Ramaphosa’s supposedly masterful approach will advance our country’s interests internationally remains to be seen. But it certainly doesn’t make one particularly proud to be South African.

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