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 Bric group of Brazil, Russia, India and China arguably represents President Jacob Zuma’s finest diplomatic moment so far.
Local media has not sufficiently credited South Africa’s diplomatic establishment, especially Zuma and his minister of international relations and co-operation, Maite Nkoane-Mashabane, for this unique diplomatic achievement.
South Africa’s diplomats put in an incredible amount of hard work and commitment to ensure that the country gained admission to Bric. It is proof that there is much our diplomacy can achieve when driven by a clear strategic vision. But belonging to groups such as Ibsa and Brics also represents a monumental challenge to South Africa’s post-1994 diplomacy.
Ibsa is touted by its members as bringing together the developing world’s largest democracies. This, of course, represents a condemnation by omission of what brings the Brics countries together. It is certainly not democracy. Bluntly put, Ibsa does not view China and Russia as democracies.
Ibsa also brings together the three countries that aspire to be permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, making it a younger cousin of Brics, which includes two global powerhouses that already enjoy a permanent seat and veto on the council — Russia and China.
In our age of economic turbulence and uncertainty, Brics is supposed to help to steady the world’s economic steering wheel. But beneath the surface all the Brics countries are pedalling ferociously, in competition with each other, to gain greater market share in Africa. Yet they lack any diplomatic instrument to regulate this new scramble for Africa’s raw materials.
The potential for friction between Brics members can thus not be dismissed. Already there are tensions over territory, such as that between India and China over Tibet, and between China and Russia over Outer Mongolia and Russia’s far east. Such rivalries could trip up South African diplomacy if it relaxes its vigilance.
There is also an unspoken, latent rivalry between Brazil and South Africa over which represents Africa’s Lusophone countries — Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and Mozambique.
Brazil, the world’s pre-eminent Lusophone emerging superpower, has usurped this position from the economically gutted Portugal and believes it is the natural heir to the leadership of the Lusophone world, including Africa’s former Portuguese colonies. On the other hand, South Africa takes it for granted that, in Brics, it is the leader of all Africa, including those countries.
Likewise, there is competition between Brazil, Nigeria and South Africa over who leads the world’s black folks. Brazil and Nigeria are home to the world’s largest concentrations of black people.
Since 1994 Brazil and South Africa have perfected an egg dance of a tango around the explosive issue of the historical mistreatment of black people in Brazil and their continuing marginalisation in key state professions such as finance, academia and the diplomatic service.
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 issues in the world. It is therefore clear that although Ibsa and Brics are not simply a diplomatic marriage of convenience for South Africa, they are also not marriages made in heaven.
It is conceivable that, in the future, severe challenges will confront South Africa’s diplomacy — not from the usual expected quarters, but as a result of South Africa’s membership of Ibsa and Brics. Therein lies the real danger to our country’s diplomacy in the coming decades.
Isaac Mpho Mogotsi is a businessperson, former diplomat and executive director of the Centre of Economic Diplomacy in Africa