South African President Jacob Zuma on Thursday joins a club of the world’s most important developing nations at a summit in China, in the latest effort to assert his nation on the world stage.
South Africa has lobbied for years to win a place alongside Brazil, Russia, India and China in a group known as BRIC, which aims to form common positions in global economic forums.
Pretoria sees admission as another feather in its cap, along with its role in the Group of 20 major world economies and its return to the UN Security Council in January.
BRICS is also a way to project South Africa’s increasingly confident voice abroad, officials say.
“We are amongst the countries that has become impatient with the misrepresentation in the global politics that has been dominated by the Western world,” foreign minister Maite Nkoane-Mashabane told a meeting of business leaders.
“We are coming into saying it is about time that the countries of the south should be listened to,” she said. “We are also quite a force to be reckoned with as far as emerging economies are concerned.”
How that plays out remains to be seen.
With 49 million people and an economy worth $527 billion, South Africa is dwarfed by even Brazil’s two trillion dollar economy, never mind China’s.
South Africa has already shown a willingness to break with its new club on key issues. It was the only BRICS country on the UN Security Council to vote for the no-fly zone over Libya.
That marked a sharp break from former president Thabo Mbeki’s nine years in power, when South Africa was roundly criticised for its “quiet” diplomacy over Zimbabwe and for seeking to deflect UN action on Myanmar’s military junta.
Zuma, on the other hand, speaks stridently on the troubles in neighbouring Zimbabwe. While voting for the Libyan no-fly zone, he criticised the scale of the NATO bombing campaign and joined an African Union mission to seek a ceasefire.
But South Africa also waffled for months on recognising Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, as violence ungulfed that nation.
And Zuma shrugged off US President Barack Obama’s pleas to keep Haiti’s exiled former leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide from returning home before elections in the Caribbean nation.
“There has been some level of strategic incoherence in South Africa’s record of foreign policy,” said Aubrey Matshiqi, an analyst at the Centre for Policy Studies, a think-tank.
After emerging from white-minority apartheid rule, South Africa faced expectations to always take a principled stand on human rights in global matters, but instead is evolving its own way of determining its national interest, he said.
“There are many factors that determine a country’s foreign policy. For instance, they have to take into account the country’s key strategic interests,” he said.
Scott Maxwell, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, said South Africa’s heightened profile came from its position as a gateway to the rest of the continent.
Foreign investors are increasingly looking to Africa as the next new market, with sub-Saharan Africa expected to be one of the world’s fastest-growing regions this year.
South Africa is positioning itself as both the gateway to the continent, and the voice of its one billion people, which gives its opinions an outsized influence — much of the reason the BRIC countries want to hang in together.
“South Africa is seen by both the East and West as a strategic partner and South Africa is becoming aware that they are being courted,” Maxwell said.
“They see that they have leverage, but how they use this recognition and wield that power remain to be seen.”