South Africa’s Putin Problem
As a member of the ICC, Pretoria is obligated to arrest the Russian leader, but he has a standing invitation to visit the country in August.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: South Africa considers giving up hosting rights for the August BRICS summit, Sudan’s archaeological treasures are under threat, and Morocco’s electric-vehicle deal with China.
Could China Host BRICS?
South Africa is considering the possibility of China hosting the BRICS summit in August, officials say. South African media reports suggest the government was considering a proposal to move the summit to China, or neighboring Mozambique, to eliminate diplomatic pressure on Pretoria.
Pretoria is attempting to resolve the dilemma of hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin at the BRICS summit while also, as a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), being obliged to arrest and send him to The Hague following the ICC’s issuance of a warrant for his arrest for war crimes in Ukraine.
Should Putin attend the summit, it would further strain relations with the United States, the country’s biggest trade partner after China. Of the five BRICS members, Brazil and South Africa are signatories to the Rome Statute, whereas China, India, and Russia are not. There has been speculation that the South African government is exploring moving the summit to another BRICS member nation.
“We will have to assess what happens over the next couple of weeks or so but whatever decision we make will be in line with our obligations to international law and our own domestic law,” said South Africa’s international relations director-general, Zane Dangor.
South Africans worry that their country could lose out on future foreign investment and trade because of the close ties that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) maintains with Russia amid a country beset with domestic issues including a chronic energy shortage, high unemployment, and an economic slump.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration has claimed a neutral stance on the Ukraine war, abstaining on numerous U.N. votes to condemn Russia. The ANC has long championed a nonaligned, multipolar world, but its perceived bias toward the Kremlin has left its messaging looking confused and inconsistent.
Pretoria’s initial response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was to call on Moscow to “immediately withdraw” its forces. But it later hosted joint naval exercises during the first anniversary of the invasion and has sent its army chief to Moscow on a “combat readiness” trip.
U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety last month claimed Pretoria loaded weapons and ammunition onto a Russian vessel, sparking a diplomatic row between Pretoria and Washington that sent the rand’s value plummeting. Pretoria’s issuance last week of diplomatic immunity to attendees of the BRICS summit further damaged the currency.
The notice about immunity was “standard” practice to protect the conference, the Foreign Ministry said. “These immunities do not override any warrant that may have been issued by any international tribunal against any attendee of the conference.”
But some experts suggest it highlights that Pretoria may be looking for a loophole under diplomatic immunity and avoid sanctions from Washington that would impact preferential trade agreements.
Article 98 of the ICC Rome Statute states: “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.”
But analysts say no form of immunity is possible for a sitting president or head of state under the ICC and the Rome Statute.
South Africa’s international relations minister, Naledi Pandor, confirmed on Friday during a two-day planning meeting of BRICS foreign ministers that Putin was still invited to the August summit to be held in Johannesburg. She told her BRICS counterparts that since the war in Ukraine, global leaders “no longer share an understanding of the greatest global challenge.”
“A regional conflict has not replaced eradicating global poverty as the world’s greatest global challenge. How do we bring the world’s attention and resources back to this fact?” she said. “This is not the world we hoped for when the Cold War ended.”
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki has previously said that the summit was unlikely to take place in South Africa. “Because of our legal obligations, we have to arrest President Putin, but we can’t do that,” Mbeki said late last month in an interview with the radio station 702.
“We can’t say to President Putin, please come to South Africa, and then arrest him. At the same time, we can’t say come to South Africa, and not arrest him—because we’re defying our own law—we can’t behave as a lawless government,” Mbeki told SABC.
South Africa will again be in the spotlight when it hosts the G-20 summit in 2025. Moving or hosting the BRICS summit virtually may resolve Pretoria’s diplomatic dilemma but would damage its relationship with Eastern allies. Simply reaching an agreement among other BRICS members to disinvite Putin may be the only way to protect South Africa’s already faltering economy from more serious harm.
For the first time since Ramaphosa took office in 2018, South Africa was not invited to the G-7 summit held in Japan last month, marking the possible beginning of the country’s ostracization by the West.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, June 14, to Friday, June 16: East African finance ministers attend the South Sudan Oil and Power conference held in Juba.
Wednesday, June 14, to Friday, June 30: The trial of former Rwandan police officer Philippe Hategekimana continues in a French court.
Thursday, June 15: Launch of the African Union’s temporary site for the Great Museum of Africa in Algiers, Algeria, intended to preserve the continent’s cultural heritage.
Thursday, June 15: Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania’s finance ministers present their 2023/24 budget to parliament.
What We’re Watching
Egypt-Israel border deaths. Israel said an Egyptian security officer shot dead two Israeli soldiers before being killed along with a third Israeli soldier in a gunfight along their shared border. Egyptian officials said the incident occurred after the security officer crossed into Israel in pursuit of drug smugglers.
Israel and Egypt signed a peace deal in 1979, and the border is largely peaceful. Egyptian Defense Minister Mohamed Zaki said an Egyptian security officer was pursuing a group of drug smugglers around the Nitzana border crossing between Israel and Egypt. Both sides said they are investigating the incident.
Israel is still regarded as an enemy by many Egyptians. The Egyptian officer has been regarded as a martyr with hashtags “Egyptian Border Operation” and “Egyptian Martyr” trending on Egyptian social media.
Fears for Sudan’s cultural relics. Sudanese paramilitary fighters from the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) took over an archaeological museum in Khartoum late on Friday. The museum holds priceless artifacts dating from around 2500 B.C. to 1500 B.C.
In videos circulating on social media, ancient coffins can be seen being opened. RSF fighters claim that the corpses are victims, “the work of kayzan,” a term used to describe Islamists affiliated with former dictator Omar al-Bashir, but museum officials say the skeletons are thousands of years old.
The RSF released a counter video filmed inside the museum grounds showing a soldier denying that the RSF had harmed the museum’s artifacts. The video purportedly showed RSF fighters covering up the exposed mummies with sheets and closing coffins.
Elections in Guinea-Bissau. Elections for Guinea-Bissau’s national legislature took place Sunday, more than a year after President Umaro Sissoco Embalo dissolved parliament.
Embalo, a former army general, won a December 2019 runoff election. Since assuming office, he has lessened the power of government institutions. He dissolved parliament last May and postponed legislative elections that had been scheduled for December 2022. He survived a February 2022 coup attempt when heavily armed men suspected to have been members of the military attacked the government palace and detained officials.
Almost 1 million voters registered to elect more than 100 lawmakers from six parties. Preliminary results are expected later on Wednesday.
This Week in Tech
Morocco and Gotion High-Tech, a China-based company specializing in batteries for electric vehicles, signed a memorandum of understanding to establish an electric vehicle battery plant, the first of its kind in Africa, with a potential production capacity of 100 gigawatts. The project is estimated to cost 65 billion dirhams (about $6.4 billion) and aims to strengthen Morocco’s goal of being Africa’s leader in electric vehicle manufacturing and renewable energy.
Since 2018, Morocco has surpassed South Africa as the biggest African exporter of passenger cars. Rabat aims to create 25,000 jobs over the next 10 years through the project. The agreement was signed on the sidelines of GITEX, a summit that took place last week in Marrakech, seeking to support foreign investment in African tech companies.
- Stop Worrying About Chinese Hegemony in Asia by Stephen M. Walt
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- Gen Z Has Finally Found Its Karl Marx by Samuel McIlhagga
Chart of the Week
Burkina Faso is the world’s “most neglected crisis” as attention remains on Ukraine, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). Armed groups control around 40 percent of the country’s territory. More than 2 million people are internally displaced, while 800,000 live under a militia blockade with no access to basic services such as water. The country has one of the world’s fastest-growing populations of internally displaced people.
“The powerful response to the suffering inflicted by the war in Ukraine demonstrated what the world can deliver for people in need. Political action for Ukrainians has been impactful and swift, borders kept open, funding plenty, and media coverage extensive,” said Jan Egeland, NRC’s secretary-general. “We must do more to end the suffering in Burkina Faso before despair becomes entrenched.”
What We’re Reading
U.S. failure in Africa. In the Elephant, Rui Verde suggests that the United States can counter China in Africa only by investing in human resources and supporting the training of African professionals within the continent such as nurses, doctors, and engineers.
“The truth is that China’s entry into Africa from the 2000s onwards was not due to any historical relationship, practically irrelevant, but to a void, a void left by the West,” Verde writes. “Now, it is this void that persists, despite the new rhetoric and the countless initiatives, trips and forums held in the American capital or in Europe.”
Ghana’s pioneering playwright. In the Africa Report, Nana-Ama Danquah writes about the Ghanaian playwright and novelist Ama Ata Aidoo, who died last week at the age of 81. Aidoo rejected a popular notion of what she described as a “Western perception that the African female is a downtrodden wretch.”
The author’s first play was The Dilemma of a Ghost, in which a Ghanaian student returning home brings his African American wife into a traditional culture and extended family that he now finds restrictive. Her first novel was the semi-autobiographical Our Sister Killjoy, published in 1977, about a Ghanaian girl traveling through Europe.
Aidoo’s writings on “the fissures in the relationships between Africans on the continent and Black people in the diaspora spoke to me, a Ghanaian-born girl being raised in America, like nothing else had,” writes Danquah.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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