Russian president Vladimir Putin’s acceptance of an invitation to attend a summit in Durban for major emerging economies has left South Africa with a significant geopolitical dilemma to resolve.
Last week, Professor Anil Sooklal, South Africa’s representative to the Brics group that also comprises Brazil, Russia, India and China confirmed to reporters that all its heads of state had agreed to attend the summit in person.
Established in 2009, the Brics economic bloc is becoming an emerging-market alternative to the West’s dominance of the global financial system. This year’s 15th Brics summit takes place in late August and is chaired by South Africa.
Normally such news would attract limited attention. However, on foot of the arrest warrant recently issued for Putin by the International Criminal Court (ICC), the development is being portrayed as the first opportunity to arrest Russia’s leader for his alleged war crimes in Ukraine.
The ICC charged Putin in March with being complicit in the illegal deportation of more than16,200 children from Ukraine to Russia since his forces invaded its neighbour in February 2022.
The African National Congress-led government looks at a loss about how to defuse the crisis
As an ICC member, South Africa is obliged to arrest Putin if he enters the country, and to hand him over to the Hague-based tribunal. To do so would clearly damage the government’s close relationship with Russia and South Africa’s standing with its Brics allies, but to refuse could trigger a severe economic backlash from Western nations, the country’s main trading partners.
Indeed, the African National Congress (ANC)-led government looks at a loss about how to defuse the crisis. On Tuesday, president Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC both said that South Africa would be withdrawn from the ICC over the matter. But a day later, the presidency said in a statement that the pronouncements were wrong and the country would remain a member of the court.
It appears the situation is made all the more complicated by South Africa’s history with Russia and the West. Aside from its ties with the former Soviet Union that date back to its fight to end apartheid, elements of the ruling party mistrust EU nations due to their colonial history. In addition, a desire in the ANC to promote a multipolar world where it has a growing influence is also at play.
There are also question marks over the ICC’s legitimacy in South Africa, given it has focused on prosecuting Africans since it came into existence, while powers such as the US and China refuse to submit to the court’s jurisdiction.
To date, Ramaphosa’s administration has refused to take sides in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, saying that to end the hostilities between the two nations world leaders must adopt a “neutral position” to foster peace. In line with this stance, it has abstained from voting on several United Nations resolutions that condemn Russia’s invasion. South Africa also held naval manoeuvres with Russia and China in February off its KwaZulu-Natal province’s coast, refusing to bow to pressure from the West to cancel the exercises.
Asking Putin to attend the summit virtually rather than in person appears an obvious way to resolve the conundrum, but this has yet to be publicly floated as a solution by South Africa
Unsurprisingly, the war games have prompted US and EU diplomats in Pretoria to question South Africa’s motives, as its position threatens to damage lucrative trading partnerships in return for a relationship with Russia that has little economic benefits. According to EU data, 35.6 per cent of South Africa’s exports in 2022 went to the EU, US and UK, while only 0.23 per cent went to Russia.
Furthermore, South Africa exports goods worth billions of dollars to the US each year under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which gives the country duty-free and quota-free access to its market. US officials have warned that this non-reciprocal preferential treatment is now under threat because of South Africa’s drift towards Russia.
Asking Putin to attend the summit virtually rather than in person appears an obvious way to resolve the conundrum, but this has yet to be publicly floated as a solution by South Africa.
Professor Janis van der Westhuizen of Stellenbosch University’s department of political science believes the government hopes Putin simply will not show up for the summit, on the basis “it is unwise to be so far from home while waging a war”.
Van der Westhuizen added that another possible approach to tackling the situation would be for South Africa to argue it should get a temporary reprieve from its legal obligations under the ICC to allow Putin to freely attend. “This would be justified on the basis the Brics summit would be an ideal place to discuss a possible peace process” for the conflict, which Brazil’s president, Luiz Lula da Silva has already proposed.
According to the Institute of Security Studies’ international legal expert, Ottilia Maunganidze, the best way to ensure Putin’s arrest were he to travel to South Africa is for Interpol to issue a Red Notice that complements the ICC arrest warrant. “Legally, South African police are bound to carry out an arrest pursuant to an Interpol Red Notice and this doesn’t need an application for an arrest warrant closer to the date he is expected in the country,” she said.
However, Maunganidze said no Red Notice for Putin’s arrest had been issued as of April 21st.
Given what happened the last time the ICC called on South Africa to arrest a head of state, it seems pertinent to ask why one has not been issued to date. In 2015 South Africa’s government refused to comply with an ICC warrant to arrest the then Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who attended an African Union meeting in Johannesburg, despite a local court order compelling the police to do so. In the end, Al-Bashir was allowed to fly home unhindered.