On a visit to the ancient central Chinese city of Xian in 2006, my Chinese government interlocutor told me this story about the Chinese psyche. He said that throughout their lives, the Chinese have to choose between being the head of a duck (part dwarfism), or becoming a tail of a dragon (part giantism).
A similar challenge has dogged the psyche of South Africa's diplomacy since the dawn of our democracy in 1994: does SA settle to be a head of the African duck (a giant amongst dwarfs)? Or does SA aspire to be a tail of the world's mighty dragons like China, Russia, Brazil and India (a dwarf amongst emerging giants)?
Can South Afica's true pre-eminent global potential and promise be realised in the context of this duck head-dragon tail tension? Or will this tension stunt South Africa's post-apartheid diplomacy, now and in the future?
What does South Africa's membership of IBSA and BRICS tell us about this diplomatic split personality of our country's diplomacy?
There is no doubt that the conceptualisation, establishment and consolidation of the India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) Forum was one of the seminal diplomatic achievements of the Thabo Mbeki Presidency.
Similarly, the belated admission of South Africa into the Brazil. Russia, India, and China (BRIC) represents arguably President Jacob Zuma's finest diplomatic moment so far.
It is unfortunate that the local media reporting on South Africa's admission into BRICS has not sufficiently credited South Africa's official diplomatic establishment, especially President Zuma and his Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoane-Mashabane, for this rare and unique diplomatic achievement.
It is as if this feat was akin to some horoscopic and interstellar alignment of heavenly stars up in the sky, over which our diplomats have no human influence and subjectiive control.
Yet the truth is that our diplomats put incredible hard work, commitment and far-sight into ensuring that, in spite of the cynics in the world, including the Goldman Sachs executive who coined the BRIC term, South Africa did indeed gain admission into BRICS.
Our membership of both IBSA and BRICS is a testimony that there is much that our official diplomacy can achieve for our country when driven by a clear and strategic vision, imbued with a clear commitment to achieve well-defined, but practical, goals, and informed by a deep-seated understanding and appreciation of South Africa's exceptional and unique place in the world.
But even just belonging to both IBSA and BRICS represent a monumental, and potentially existential, challenge to South Africa's post-1994 diplomacy.
Here are some of the salients of this monumental and existential challenge to our country's diplomacy, arising from our membership to both IBSA and BRICS.
IBSA is touted by its members as bringing together the developing world's largest democracies.
This of course represents an unintended condemnation by omission of what brings BRICS countries together.
Certainly not democracy, evidently.
Putting it bluntly, this means IBSA does not view China and Russia as democracies, which is an interesting thought indeed.
IBSA also brings together the three countries that aspire to be permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), along with Germany and Japan.
This fact itself makes IBSA a younger cousin of BRICS, which includes Russia and China, two global powerhouses which already enjoy a UN Security Council permanent seat veto.
In this context, is it not interesting to note that neither China, nor Russia, both leading members of BRICS and UNSC, has publicly committed itself to support the reform of the UN Security Council (UNSC) which entails the extension of the UNSC veto to putative future new UNSC permanent members, like IBSA Forum members?
It is like China and Russia enjoy returning the IBSA compliment, that is, they in turn do not view India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) as deserving veto-wielding UNSC permanent membership. Also an interesting thought indeed.
If anything, conventional diplomatic wisdom is that China is deadset against conferring on India, historically its bitter regional rival, the status of a veto-wielding UNSC permanent member.
On the other hand, BRICS is globally viewed as grouping together the world's emerging economic superpowers.
In our age of huge economic turbulence and uncertainty, BRICS is supposed to be the steady and strong hand on the world's economic steering wheel, offering the uncertain and unhinged economic world a re-assuring and soothing message of economic stability, certainty, growth and prosperity.
But whilst maintaining the steely and serene composure above the global water surface, underneath, out of sight, all the BRICS members are peddling hard and ferociously in competition and rivalry to gain greater market share in Africa.
Whilst the 1885 Berlin Conference somehow regulated the European colonial scramble for Africa, to minimise intra-colonial power frictions, conflicts and wars, today the BRICS conquerors of Africa's resources markets lack any handy diplomatic instrument to intermediate, and positively harness, their equally ferocious and insatiable new scramble for Africa's raw materials and market share.
The potential for misunderstanding and frictions amongst BRICS members over African resources cannot therefor be underestimated or dismissed completely.
The theory within the South African diplomacy seems to be that by tagging its smaller boat to the massive economic cruise liners of Brazil, Russia, India and China, South Africa will be pulled up by the rising tides occasioned by the rapid global economic advances of its incredibly huge economic BRIC partners.
Empirically, it will soon be possible to statistically measure, and compare, the gains made by South Africa and Australia, respectively, from their varying association with BRIC countries.
Will South Africa gain more economically from its formal BRICS membership?
Or will it be Australia that gains more economically from BRIC countries, merely by its closer geographic proximity to the huge Indian, Russian and Chinese markets?
For now Australia's impressive economic growth rates, and solid financial and monetary position, even in comparison with South Africa, seems to be settling the question, for the moment, in favour of Australia.
This then poses the question: to what economic gain, comparatively, is this much-touted formal BRICS membership for South Africa?
It is also worth remembering that within BRICS, only Brazil and South Africa are not nuclear armed powers.
The possession of nuclear weapons by Russia, India and China, among BRICS members, points to the fact that Eurasia remains the region still most likely to host a nuclear confrontation amongst competing and rival countries of this region, if such ever happens, into which SA's diplomacy can be unwittingly ensnared, with devastating consequences.
Great historical suspicions still linger between India and China, eg over Tibet, on the one hand, and between China and Russia, eg over Outer Mongolia and Russia's Far East, on the other hand, despite recent diplomatic efforts to address these historical differences.
There are also unresolved territorial disputes between India and China, and between China and Russia.
In addition, these three Eurasian nuclear superpowers are involved in intense and unrelenting competition for influence and rivalry over the hugely strategically vital region of Central Asia.
Pakistan and Afghanistan represent the most concentrated form of these rivalry and competition amongst these three emerging global superpowers within BRICS.
Any of these rivalries amongst some of the BRICS members may trip and damage South Africa's diplomacy, if its vigilance, even if just for a blink, is compromised.
But as if this were not enough a challenge to South Africa's diplomacy already, there is an unspoken, and
unstated, latent rivalry and competition between Brazil and South Agrica over which of the two BRICS countries is the leader and true representative of Africa's Lusophone countries of Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, and Mozambique.
Brazil, now the world 's undisputed pre-eminent Lusophone emerging global economic superpower, which has usurped this covetted position from the economically gutted Portugal (a member of Europe's ailing PIIGS), believes it is the natural heir to the leadership mattle of the Lusophone world, which includes these Potuguese-speaking Afican counties.
On the other hand, as the undisputed head of the African duck, South Africa takes it for granted that it is the leader of all of Africa, including these Portuguese African countries.
There is also a bitter rivalry and competition between Brazil, Nigeria and South Africa over exactly who amongst these three regional powers is the undisputed and authentic leader, and representative, of the world's Black folks.
Both Brazil and Nigeria are home to the world's largest concentrations of black folks.
The bitter spat between South Africa and Nigeria in 1997, then led respectively by President Nelson Mandela and military ruler General Sani Abacha, over the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa by the brutal Nigerian military junta, provided the world with just the first, but not the last, key-hole peek into how very nasty and vile such competition for, and rivalry over, the leadership of the world's Black folks amongst these three powers can get.
Since 1994, both Brazil and South Africa have perfected an on-the-eggs tango around the explosive issue of the lamentable historical mistreatment of Black folks in Brazil, and their continuing racial marginalisation from key Brazilian state professions, finance, acedemia and diplomatic service, which are to date dominated by Brazilian White folks.
On the other hand, South Africa has strategically, and so far pretty successfully, positioned itself as the world's foremost pointsman on African, and Black folks, issues in the world.
It is therefor clear that whilst IBSA and BRICS are more than South Africa's diplomatic marriages of convenience, they are much less marriages made in heaven.
In fact these diplomatic marriages among these emerging global powers may be intended purely to engender courtly love in the other non-BRICS global powers.
Hypothetically, it is conceivable that in the future some of the severest monumental and existential challenges that will confront South Africa's diplomacy will arise, not from the usual and expected quarters, eg NATO, but from our country's very membership of IBSA and BRICS, if our diplomacy gets complacent and smug from the feel-good factor arising from being counted among the top five global emerging powers.
There in lies the potential future danger to our country's diplomacy in the coming decades.
Isaac Mpho Mogotsi is Executive Director, Centre Of Economic Diplomacy In Africa (CEDIA). He is also a businessman and former diplomat. A shortened version of this article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian.
Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter