How Brics made a former champion of human rights into the muzzled lapdog of suspect superpowers
SA makes a cameo, and unflattering, appearance in Barack Obama’s best-selling first volume of his presidential memoirs, A Promised Land. The scene is the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009. Obama tells of a dramatic confrontation with Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier who was at the summit with his Brics colleagues Brazil, Russian, India and SA.
The Kyoto protocol, which Copenhagen was expected to supercede, had absolved emerging powers such as Brazil, China and India — all big polluters — from binding obligations to curb their emissions. Copenhagen was supposed to do away with the so-called “differentiated responsibilities” and have all countries pay their fair share. China and the other countries were unhappy, preferring the status quo. But China had surpassed the US in CO2 emissions.
There were many conflicting agendas at the summit. The Europeans were unhappy with the Americans, who wouldn’t agree to a binding treaty for the simple reason that they would not be able to sell it back home. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton told Obama that China, India and SA seemed content to sit back and let the conference “crash and burn and then blame it on the Americans”.
The Europeans agreed to a nonbinding accord, but left it to Obama to sell the treaty to the Chinese.
The first assignment was to locate Wen. Some reports said he was already on his way to the airport. Obama himself didn’t have much time left. A ferocious storm was about to hit the East Coast of the US, and he’d have to leave in just under three hours if his plane was to be able to get home. Wen was finally located in a meeting with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, Brazilian president Lula da Silva and our own Jacob Zuma. (SA didn’t formally join Brics until 2010, but it seems it was already taking part in its deliberations.)
Obama, with Clinton and a gaggle of secret service agents in tow, set off for the venue and, to the surprise and probably horror of its attendees, gate-crashed the meeting. As Obama puts it: “Wen and Singh remained impassive, while Lula and Zuma looked sheepishly down at the papers in front of them.”
In his telling, Obama proceeded to engage in what seems more like a harangue than a sober discussion, at the end of which Wen did a volte-face and agreed to endorse the accord. What is surprising — and telling — is that, once the Chinese capitulated, the other leaders — who had up to that point been dead against the agreement — needed no persuasion to fall in line. Suddenly the accord was OK with them — a classic example of sycophancy.
SA joining Brics was hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough, especially by the Zuma administration that had come to power a year earlier without much credibility. It was also viewed in some quarters as a country turning its back on the West — which includes its biggest trading partners and is the wellspring of the values on which the new SA was founded.
Politically the country has very little in common with China or Russia, for instance. And SA’s GDP is minuscule compared with that of the other Brics countries. Mexico and Turkey seemed to stand a better chance for membership. Which is why SA joining the group was regarded as a coup, and confirmed the view that the country could punch above its weight in world affairs.
But membership doesn’t always come without downsides, and these require astute navigation. India, like SA, is a democracy, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a controversial and unpredictable leader. And there’s the burning issue of Kashmir. In Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil has an erratic and Trumpian figure. But it is with regard to China and Russia that SA has to tread most carefully.
When SA rejoined the world community in 1994, the new government made human rights a central pillar of its foreign policy. It spoke out forcefully whenever human rights were abused; for instance, at one point it refused to sell arms to Turkey because of unbecoming conduct by its government.
But since joining Brics, SA’s voice has not only been muted, it has been muzzled. And in some instances the country has even carried water for its more powerful allies, among the biggest human rights abusers in the world. SA dare not annoy the likes of China and Russia. It cannot afford to. It is, in a sense, hostage to their fortunes. Russia has been the biggest culprit. SA, for instance, appended its name to a Brics statement condemning Australia for its threat to bar Vladimir Putin from attending the G20 meeting seven years ago. The country also issued a mealymouthed statement on Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
A lot of Putin’s enemies have died under mysterious circumstances and this week Amnesty International seemed to confirm that Russia may slowly be killing the detained Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most prominent foe. Also this week, Putin signed a law that would potentially keep him in power until 2036. He’s already been in power for more than two decades, longer than any leader since Josef Stalin.
China, the real engine behind Brics, has also been harshly criticised for its harassment and detention of possibly up to a million Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, in what it calls “re-education camps” in Xinjiang. These are all actions alien to what we stand for.
In joining Brics, SA may have deemed that, though it may require a little trimming of its principles, it was good for business: keep your mouth shut and take the money. But that not only creates a split personality — it betrays the cherished values on which this country is founded.