/ 12 May 2023

Putin is coming to SA after Russia rejects proposal for virtual Brics meeting

Pals: President Vladimir Putin can watch the Brics summit on TV in the Kremlin with Jacob Zuma.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has allegedly rejected a proposal made by his South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor, for President Vladimir Putin to virtually attend the Brics summit scheduled for August.

Insiders closely linked to the negotiations between the two countries said Pandor made the suggestion shortly before President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed an interministerial committee headed by his deputy, Paul Mashatile, to look into options on how to navigate the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) arrest warrant for Putin. 

Lavrov is due to visit South Africa next month and South Africa is expected to present a list of options the committee is considering ahead of the summit with fellow Brics members Brazil, Russia, India and China.

The Mail & Guardian spoke to several insiders in Pretoria and in the ANC, who each said it was unlikely the Russian government would shift from its stance that Putin would attend the conference in person. One source said Russia had, during talks with South Africa, dismissed the ICC as a weapon for the West.

In an interview published by Russia Today on Wednesday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the ICC warrant practically means there might be states lacking sovereignty who might think they have an interest in acting on that warrant if they get an opportunity. 

Peskov reportedly said it would be difficult to imagine that anyone would dare act on the warrant and that it was “unthinkable as Russia was one of the largest countries in the world and one of the biggest nuclear powers”.

The inside sources said the Russian government’s intelligence arm had already communicated with its counterparts in South Africa. One senior source close to the South African intelligence community said he was not aware of Russian spooks in the country, but South African officials were working with their Russian Federation counterparts.

“The SSA [State Security Agency] is definitely working with the Russian Federation to coordinate [Putin’s] arrival in South Africa,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous.

One insider linked to the Union Buildings suggested that Lavrov’s visit to Africa in February was in part to prepare for Putin’s Brics visit in August. Lavrov — one of Russia’s most senior political leaders — is said to have told Pandor that Putin’s appearance at the summit was “non-negotiable”. 

“They are saying are you hosting or are you not, if you are hosting, then host. If you don’t want to host then it means you are no longer a member. Then you must treat it that way,” the insider said. 

South Africa this year chairs Brics, a grouping aimed at countering Western-led global governance and economic structures. Together, the five countries represent about 41% of the world’s population, 26% of the planet’s land mass on four of the continents, 25% of global GDP and 20% of world trade.

When South Africa assumed the chairmanship, Ramaphosa said the country would use the opportunity to advance the interests of the African continent, whose countries would be invited to the August summit.

Sources said Mashatile’s committee was now exploring its legislative and legal options. 

They said South Africa’s only option was domesticating the Rome Statute so that visiting foreign heads of state could enjoy customary diplomatic immunity. 

Thy will be done: Vladimir Putin at an Easter Orthodox service. (Getty Images)

Article 98 of the Rome Statute states that the “court may not proceed with a request for surrender or assistance which would require the requested state to act inconsistently with its obligations under international law with respect to the state or diplomatic immunity of a person or property of a third state, unless the court can first obtain the cooperation of that third State for the waiver of the immunity”.

It adds that the court “may not proceed with a request for surrender which would require the requested state to act inconsistently with its obligations under international agreements pursuant to which the consent of a sending state is required to surrender a person of that state to the court, unless the court can first obtain the cooperation of the sending state for the giving of consent for the surrender”.

The Brics summit debate has divided the ruling ANC’s national executive committee (NEC), with some members wary of Putin’s appearance while others are insisting that South Africa should show loyalty to its Russian ally. 

One NEC member, who is part of the clique that believes South Africa cannot host Putin, said Russia would be “silly” to take a hardline position towards South Africa, which they argued still wields influence on the global stage. 

“There is something called spheres of influence. The US has certain places that it has designated as its spheres of influence. China has done the same, if you talk of the South China Sea,” they said.

“South Africa’s sphere of influence is the region and the continent and the diaspora. It is because of the role South Africa has played in that sphere of influence, solidifying its influence in the region and in the continent, that it was able to get the recognition that it did.

“It’s because of that we were able to sit in the G20 and be the only African country to sit in the G20 and invited in the G8 since 2001 and then chair the non-aligned movement. 

“We were the initiators of the conversation about Brics. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma was part of that conversation because of our role in our sphere of influence. But we’ve walked away from that, which has meant that our influence is reduced, but our influence has not completely gone away.” 

The NEC member added that it was important for the US that South Africa take a position against Russia because of the influence the country has on the continent. 

“Russia can’t take a hardline position against us because it knows there are repercussions to doing that. So the moment it takes a position like that, there’s a possibility that South Africa tomorrow will vote against Russia, for instance, in either the [United Nations] Security Council or General Assembly. I don’t think that it would be in Russia’s interest to take a position like that, also, because this is the only African country in Brics. If you alienate South Africa then what?” 

Another NEC member, who believes South Africa should withdraw its membership in the ICC, said Putin’s visit would not taint Pretoria’s reputation on the continent and around the world. They added that the Brics summit represented seeds of the collapse of US influence in global politics. 

During a discussion hosted by the South African Institute of International Affairs in Cape Town this week, Pandor said Brics nations were considering a move away from the US dollar as an international trade currency. 

The NEC member in favour of hosting Putin said: “We need to acknowledge the rise of other countries including China. There are new big players. What will be the day after we hosted Brics, what reputation are we trying to safeguard here?

“We are already members of Brics. My view is that there is no reputation to safeguard. We need to choose, are we part of the new wave or are we going to remain stagnant, stuck somewhere between two waves, when clearly the US wave is going down. We will lose more by not hosting Brics in South Africa. We can’t dictate to Russia who should come here to represent them.” 

The first NEC member accused Russia of putting South Africa in an awkward position to embarrass the country on the world stage. 

“When I think about it now, it wouldn’t be the first time because we got into a crisis about a nuclear deal, which the Russians were insistent on,” they said.

“If we allow Putin to come in violation of our own statute, the consequences are dire. We will become a pariah in the world. It’s as simple as that. We will be communicating a message that we are not a law-governed society. Effectively we will be violating South African law in order to appease Putin.”

They said South Africa’s relations with Russia were important only insofar as their historic ties, as well as the two countries’ positions on multilateralism and anti-imperialism. 

“So we come from similar positions about how the world order should be. Beyond that, our relations with Russia, they are inconsequential. Economically we are a lot more tied to China, India and the West than we are to Russia.” 

Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, said Brics-related matters would be announced once plans relating to the summit have been finalised with member states.

Pandor’s spokesperson, Lunga Ngqengelele, said the minister would not comment on Putin attending Brics because she was awaiting the outcomes of the interministerial committee’s deliberations. 

The M&G’s efforts to reach the Russian ambassador for comment were unsuccessful. 

The US has already signalled that it is unlikely to renew the Africa Growth and Trade agreement with South Africa, which ends in 2024. A withdrawal of the agreement could lead to other Nato member states following suit.