When South Africa became a democracy in 1994, its own long struggle against apartheid led it to align itself with global human rights struggles. The country has come to be seen by many countries as a champion for and leading proponent of human rights. It also became somewhat of a moral compass for other nations in this regard.
There are numerous examples of South Africa’s role in promoting human rights on various multilateral platforms. One early example dates back to 2001 when it hosted the United Nations Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related intolerances (UNWCAR) in the port city of Durban. But over the years the shine has worn off South Africa’s positive human rights reputation. The country has made several miscalculations and controversial decisions which have compromised its position around the world. Though the country’s government remains a steadfast supporter of Palestine, Cuba and Western Sahara, some South African arms companies have sold weapons to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two of the main parties accused of committing war crimes in Yemen.
Some of South Africa’s political alliances have raised eyebrows, too. Chief among these is its membership in BRICS, a bloc of five developing economies consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, which joined in 2010. The term “BRICS” was coined by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O'Neill.
One of BRICS’s objectives is to counter the US and Western political hegemony. Its formation generated much optimism, particularly as it planned to establish a bank that would facilitate, among other things, easy access to funding for infrastructural development on the African continent. The bloc also aimed to ease travel restrictions between member states to facilitate the movement of people and business.
But criticism of BRICS has mounted in recent years – much of it aimed at members’ governments and their human rights violations.
Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro is a case in point. His racist utterances, bombastic behavior and admiration of former US President Donald Trump have drawn criticism against him and his government. In January 2020, Bolsonaro posted on Facebook that “Indians are undoubtedly changing. They are increasingly becoming human beings just like us” – a comment that enraged Brazil’s Indigenous people and led to protests. Bolsonaro’s attitude toward COVID-19 has also drawn Brazilians’ ire, with some calling for him to be held liable for thousands of COVID-related deaths. At one point, media in Brazil quoted him as saying: “In my understanding, the destructive power of this virus is overestimated. Maybe it's even being promoted for economic reasons."
Another BRICS member, India, is also in the spotlight for human rights violations committed under the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Muslims in India have been under constant attack since Modi was elected in 2014. Recently a law was promulgated prohibiting Muslim girls from wearing head scarves in schools. In March 2022, a top court in the southern Indian state of Karnataka upheld a government order that banned the wearing of head scarves inside schools. And towards the end of May 2022, violence erupted after BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma made insulting comments about the Prophet Muhammad. She has since been suspended by the BJP. Houses belonging to Muslims in Utter Pradesh who took part in protests against Sharma’s statements were demolished.
China, meanwhile, is accused of running detention centres in its Xinjiang region and using these to imprison and torture Uyghur Muslims. Thousands of Uyghurs have died, and many have disappeared at the hands of the Chinese government in Xinjiang. According to the BBC, human rights groups believe China has detained more than one million Uyghurs against their will over the past few years in a large network of what the state calls "re-education camps", and sentenced hundreds of thousands to prison terms.
And Russia, currently in the global spotlight after its February invasion of Ukraine, also has a long history of allegations about human rights violations. These include poisoning government opponents living outside Russia. Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned by Russian agents in the city of Salisbury, England in March 2018. Alexei Nalvany, a vocal critic and political opponent of President Vladimir Putin, is serving prison time after being convicted of fraud and corruption; he insists the charges are trumped up.
With such questionable BRICS bedfellows, South Africa is greatly at risk of being isolated by Europe and the US if it insists on remaining within the bloc. The disadvantages of continuing to be part of BRICS are simply greater than the benefits for South Africa. The US is determined to crack down on those countries that work with Russia and similar countries; its Countering Malign Russian Activities Act in Africa broadly defines such malign activities as those that “undermine United States objectives and interests”. South Africa’s Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe seems publicly unworried, announcing that the country may buy oil from Russia despite sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and its allies. That would be a big mistake – it could be a first step towards South Africa’s isolation.
South Africa must put the interest of its own people first and reclaim its position as a global leader in human rights. As a first step, it must cancel its BRICS membership.
About the author
Thembisa is a senior research fellow and Director at Afrasid. He holds a Masters degree in Politics, he is a columnist with the Middle East Monitor in London and a research fellow at Al Sharq Forum in Istanbul, Turkey. He also serves on the board of Common Action Forum in Madrid, Spain and on the board of Mail and Guardian publication in South Africa. He is the former Bureau Chief of Al Jazeera Media Network for Arabic and English Channels in Southern Africa.