The Sandton Summit by Emmanuel Matambo: Part II - The Elephant or Bear in Room: Putin’s absence at BRICS 15th Summit

By By Emmanuel Matambo, Research Director at the Centre for Africa-China Studies, University of Johannesburg

As expected, the Sandton Summit of the BRICS from 22 to 24 August 2023 was momentous, the host, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa announced BRICS would more than double its membership with the inclusion of Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabi and the United Arab Emirates.

This was the first time that leaders of the BRICS would meet in person since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent global restrictions.

For Vladimir Putin, the wait for an in person summit continues as he was precluded from attending the Sandton Summit by an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

This article, the second in series of three, deals with what Putin’s absence meant for South Africa’s diplomatic instincts – its standing in the BRICS and its relationship with other international players such as the ICC and the United States.
South Africa’s initial reaction to the commencement of hostilities between Russia and Ukraine was condemnation, urging Russia to withdraw however, this later changed to a cagier assessment and ultimately to abstaining from voting on the Russia-Ukraine conflict at the United Nations.

The backpedaling was apparently a result of the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s only ruling party since the end of apartheid.

During its decades as an exiled and proscribed liberation movement, the ANC and its partner the South African Communist Party (SACP), benefited from Soviet largesse, this history partly explains the residue of gratitude to Russia, though it should be added that Ukraine was a crucial part of the Soviet Union.

Thus, to merely interpret South Africa’s equivocation on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, a stance that is largely interpreted to favour Russia, solely on history is to miss the complete picture.

South Africa is Russia’s ally in the BRICS, and is loath to be seen as a Western stooge in the developing world, a suspicion which a condemnation of Russia could confirm.

Thus, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council on 7 April 2022, South Africa abstained.

The resolution received a two-thirds majority in the 193-member General Assembly with 93 countries voting in favour, 24 against and 58 abstaining.

On 8 April 2022, the day after Russia’s suspension from Human Rights Council, South Africa admitted “We are witnessing the tectonic shifts in global affairs, particularly since the Russian Federation used force without sanction by the United Nations Security Council in Ukraine on February 24th.” Was this an indirect admission on South Africa’s part that Russia was in the wrong? What explains it vacillating behaviour on international affairs? Perhaps the manner in which post-apartheid South Africa was birthed explains this.

Post-apartheid South Africa came into being amid bullish expectations of being a democracy with moral authority, a cause burnished by the person of the globally revered Nelson Mandela however, South Africa was also keenly aware of its historical reputation as a votary of Western colonialism in the developing world thus, even Mandela’s personal moral integrity did not occlude him from closely fraternizing with controversial figures such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi and Palestine’s Yasser Arafat.

This strange association was premised on at least two foundations; the first was that, while the West equivocated on apartheid, Cuba, Libya and Palestine were effusive in courting the ANC and condemning apartheid, secondly, inveighing against these countries for their alleged human right abuses would be construed as going against Third World solidarity, thus continuing South Africa’s historical association with the developed world at the expense of previously colonized regions.

This background explains South Africa’s stance on Russia, to condemn it would be to put South Africa in NATO’s orbit, to defect from players that helped to condemn apartheid, at times, this association tends to trump South Africa and Africa’s tangible needs such as access to grain from Ukraine and Russia which was severely disrupted by the conflict.
Enter the ICC
On 17 March 2023 the ICC announced that it was charging Vladimir Putin with war crimes.

South Africa was thrust in a difficult quandary as it was the host of the BRICS Summit due in five months (August 2023) and Putin was expected to attend.

A sense of déjà vu was palpabler because in 2015, the former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir visited South Africa with an ICC warrant hanging over his head.

Legally South Africa was obliged to arrest al-Bashir, it demurred and al-Bashir left South Africa unscathed.

This unleashed a gale of odium because even South Africa’s own courts found the government derelict.

The South African government was hard-pressed and resorted to a half-hearted threat to leave the ICC and this was quietly dropped when the fallout from the al-Bashir saga petered out.

It was to surface again in 2023 with Putin’s warrant, in June 2023, South Africa's president Cyril Ramaphosa alongside the president of Senegal, the Comoros, Zambia together with the Prime Minister of Egypt and envoys from the Republic of Congo and Uganda, formed a delegation that went to Ukraine and Russia on a mission to promote a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Ramaphosa had called for the suspension of the ICC warrant against Putin as a peaceful solution was being sought.

This was rebuffed; thus, South Africa still had to reconcile its obligations to the ICC to arrest Putin if he came to country, and the invitations had already dispatched to Russia and other BRICS members, all of whom had been given diplomatic immunity.

On 19 July, 33 days before the Summit, South Africa announced that "By mutual agreement, President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation will not attend the Summit but the Russian Federation will be represented by Foreign Minister, Mr Sergey Lavrov.”

It was a startling announcement, as it went against the ANC’s stance, communicated by its Secretary General Fikile Mbalula who stated that “If it was according to the ANC, we would want President Putin to be here even tomorrow.” “You would welcome Vladimir Putin, right now,” Stephen Sackur of the BBC pressed Mbalula. “Of course, we will,” was Mbalula’s emphatic response.

This, again, demonstrated the chasm that occasionally emerges between the diplomatic and political tastes of the ANC as party, and the government it controls.

This difference showed in the government’s initial call for Russia to leave Ukraine, which was not in kilter with the ANC’s more accommodating approach. 

What, then, should be read into South Africa’s decision, “by mutual agreement with Russia,” to let Minister Lavrov stand in Putin’s stead in Sandton?
South Africa’s Diplomatic Dexterity
As stated above, South Africa has had to straddle historical contexts, political and economic realities and multiple identities that each impose certain diplomatic standpoints.

A historical stereotype as a colonial and capitalist outpost has forced post-apartheid South Africa to over compensate its association with the developing world, at times with devastating consequences on the developing world

Partly because of the tacit support that Russia gets from countries such as South Africa, Africa currently lacks 30 million tons of grains whose way to the continent has been blocked due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the collapsing of the Black Sea grain initiative.

At the same time, South Africa does not want to fiendishly antagonize the West as it has close ties with the European Union and the United States.

Thus, as University of Johannesburg Professor Bhaso Ndzendze has urged, Africa is being courted by China, Russia and the US, but should not pick sides.

South Africa seems to be heeding this advice even though in the West its neutrality is understood as collusion with rogue players – Russia in this case.

Allegations that South Africa had sent arms to Russia rankled in the West, and America in particular, ever eager not to offend powerful players, in April 2023 the South African government sent Sydney Mufamadi, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s security adviser to the United States to explain South Africa’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine war.

It would not be the last of such a mission because during the budget vote in national assembly on 31 May, Ramaphosa announced that he “will be sending the minister of international relations and co-operation, the minister of trade, industry and competition, the minister of finance and the minister in the presidency as my envoys to the G7 countries to explain our peace mission and to deal with various diplomatic matters.”

From the above, it could be deduced that South Africa has been walking on a careful diplomatic line.

It is steeped in the politics of the developing world, the exigencies of BRICS membership, but is also aware of its obligations to upholding international law thus Putin’s in-person absence at the Sandton Summit save South Africa diplomatic anguish; what it entails is that, had Putin landed in South Africa, the government would have been forced to arrest him and the consequences of that are ghastly to contemplate.

Article Tags

BRICS Summit

BRICS Bloc Expansion

Emmanuel Matambo

Russia and Ukraine Conflict

Vladimir Putin


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