/ 24 August 2023

No Sandton showdown at Brics+6

Brics Leaders (1)
Presidents Xi Jinping, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Cyril Ramaphosa and Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared in person at the Brics summit, with Vladimir Putin discreetly attending via video link. Photo: Marco Longari/Getty Images


For a government that can’t keep the lights on, ours has certainly turned up since the weekend, sparing neither pomp nor ceremony for friends from abroad and turning the space around the Sandton convention centre into one of the safest places on the planet.

Sandton has been a blue-light city since Monday, when the first of the Brics heads of state started to arrive, awash with uniforms of every possible persuasion.

There are even actual metro police at intersections directing traffic during load-shedding, rather than homeless people who usually do the job.

Sandton’s street people also appear to have moved — or have been moved — to less heavily policed pastures for the course of the week. 

There’s been a concerto of convoys, weaving in and out of the traffic built up around the convention centre for days, but even the presidential protection unit members have been on their best behaviour and have thus far refrained from kicking any Polo drivers in the head.

Perhaps there have been too many potential witnesses — and cameras — on the streets of Sandton; perhaps it’s the presence of important visitors with cheque books, but the blue-light brigade has thus far gone about their business with a remarkable level of restraint.

There’s still time.

The South African tendency to be late for everything — and our love for a good argument — appears to have rubbed off on our more punctual fellow Brics nations and, by Wednesday, the minute-by-minute programme had gone out the window.

The Brics family photo at the plenary was not only light of one leader, but was also three minutes late.

The agreements hammered out by the Brics sherpas — the diplomats tasked with doing the preparatory work for the summit — hadn’t been signed off on by the foreign ministers or the heads of state.

With no deal on the expansion of Brics, the adoption of the declaration scheduled for Wednesday lunchtime was delayed — along with a media briefing by President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his capacity as Brics chairperson — but by the early evening a deal was secured.

The result announced by Ramaphosa was expansion to admit six new member states (Argentina, Iran, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Ethiopia) — with a decision on a Brics currency and an alternative payment system deferred until the next meeting.

Not a bad first outing for Ramaphosa as Brics chairperson — or as host to President Xi Jinping, concluding the state visit with an armful of bilateral agreements with China and R670 million in investment in energy generation.

Ramaphosa clearly didn’t suffer for turning down the offer of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, to introduce him to his friends in Brics, and firing him instead.

The summit may have gone into extra time, but there has been far less drama during the event than there was in the months leading up to it.

There was some alleged discomfort on the part of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the level of attention being paid to his Chinese counterpart by Ramaphosa.

Xi paid a one-day state visit the day Brics started, and was busy signing bilateral agreements — and cheques — with Ramaphosa while Modi was waiting on the runway for Deputy President Paul Mashatile to receive him on our president’s behalf.

Modi was all smiles by Wednesday afternoon though, the result of both a successful bilateral with Ramaphosa in the morning and a historic moon landing by the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft later in the day.

The summit has certainly seen none of the frenzy that was whipped up ahead of the summit over the planned participation of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin because of the warrant for his arrest for removing children from Ukraine issued by the International Criminal Court.

Putin’s decision to send Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and stay at home and participate through a video link did away with the bulk of the noise around Brics, clearing the way for a way more pleasant — and efficient — summit for his fellow heads of state.

Video Vlad took one for the team and did Ramaphosa and the other Brics leaders — and the rest of us, for that matter — a rare solid, averting the showdown in Sandton that South Africa’s opposition parties had been hoping for.

John Steenhuisen and Julius Malema must be cursing Vlad the Invader for staying home and denying them airtime — and an opportunity to embarrass Ramaphosa on the international stage.

They’ve been invisible all week, with the incident-free summit — and the show of capacity, will and expertise by the host nation — a reminder that it is Ramaphosa, and not his critics, who is running the show.

And the country.