russian headache

BRICS ministers meeting leaves South Africa in choppy waters over Putin’s possible attendance

By Ray Mwareya

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Posted on June 8, 2023 12:33

 © Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa during their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. (Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko / POOL / AFP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa during their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. (Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko / POOL / AFP)

The mystery over whether Russia’s Vladimir Putin will be present for the summit in August overshadowed the BRICS foreign ministers meeting in Cape Town last week, where they discussed a counter-currency to the USD and giving impetus to the BRICS bank. 

The core foreign ministers of BRICS – Naledi Pandor of South Africa, Ma Zhaoxu of China, Mauro Vieira of Brazil, Sergei Lavrov of Russia, and Subrahmanyam Jaishankar of India – met in Cape Town and issued a roster of grand ambitions. They called for the BRICS-owned New Development Bank to be refinanced and become the world’s premier multilateral development institution”.

A new global currency, freed from the whims of the US treasury department, must come into circulation, the ministers said. The biggest gripe during the meeting was expressed by Jaishankar, who called for a multipolar world’.

At the heart of the problems we face is economic concentration that leaves too many nations at the mercy of too few,” he said.

However, if the BRICS foreign ministers thought a list of lofty demands would dominate the agenda – reporters’ questions on whether Putin will come to the real BRICS meeting in August quickly took centre stage.

The host, South Africa’s Pandor, saw it as her role to keep the press and protesters at bay over the thorny issue of Putin’s attendance.

The president [Cyril Ramaphosa] will indicate what the final position in South Africa is,” she said.

Putin is living under an ICC arrest warrant over charges that he presided over a regime that has murdered and kidnapped children from Ukraine. The Russian government dismisses the ICC charges as baseless and has retaliated with its own arrest warrant on the ICC’s chief prosecutor.

Shuffling around Putin

The question of whether the Russian president will show up for the BRICS leaders’ summit in August has left South Africa’s government with its biggest foreign policy headache since the end of apartheid.

In the lead-up to the foreign ministers meeting last week, South Africa’s foreign affairs department declared the gathering ‘a protected event’. The BRICS leaders meeting in August will also be a ‘protected event’. This means participants in both meetings will have ‘diplomatic immunity’.

It is normal. It is routine. It’s nothing special. It has nothing to do with the Russian president. This is the notice of immunities we gazette each time we host an international conference or summit,” Clayson Monyela, the head of public diplomacy for South Africa’s foreign affairs ministry said.

However, chatter in South Africa’s domestic media claimed that the government is proposing switching the summit to one of its neighbouring countries which are not signatories to the ICC’s Rome statute, thereby skirting the issue.

Mozambique has been mentioned as a possibility. However, Pandor has not changed the location and confirmed that the August summit will still take place in Johannesburg.

“South Africa’s ruling ANC (party) wants to make Putin someone else’s problem,” mused three commentators in a leading South African daily.

“The question of Putin being in South Africa clouds a key movement with regard to BRICS,” tweeted Stephen Chan, an African diplomacy expert at the University of London.

One unofficial possibility swirling in South Africa’s political circles is that the ANC, which holds the majority in the country’s parliament, may change the country’s laws to ensure it has the power to arrest or let go any visiting foreign dignitary indicted by the ICC.

Forcing arrest

What has drawn more pain into South Africa’s headache over Putin’s likely visit is a mandamus court application recently filed by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party to force the South African government to arrest Putin should he arrive in August.

“If Putin touches down on South African soil, then any warrant of arrest endorsed by a magistrate must be given effect by the (South Africa) government, following which President Putin must be detained and surrendered to the ICC,” said Glynnis Breytenbach, the DA’s shadow minister of justice.

The DA’s court application leaves the government in choppy waters. If South Africa’s high court compels the government to arrest Putin but the government declines – the South African justice minister would have violated two key pillars of the constitution, a high court order and an ICC warrant.

The debacle has come to the point whereby the South African government may consider hosting a ‘virtual summit’ of the BRICS leaders meeting to avoid more headaches.

Putin’s announcement?

Perhaps the clearest indication that South Africa will soon be forced to make a final decision on Putin’s August visit comes from its deputy president, Paul Mashatile. On 18 May he said that an ‘inter-ministerial committee’ he is chairing will make an official statement on Putin’s visit.

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