South Africa's relationship with Saudi Arabia continues to grow. Saudi Arabia has made substantial investments in South Africa over the years and continues to do so. Saudi Arabia and South Africa have signed agreements and memorandums of understanding worth about $15 billion during a state visit by South Africa’s President to Riyadh over the weekend. President Cyril Ramaphosa led a delegation of ministers and business leaders to Saudi Arabia at an invitation of Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammad bin Salman.
According to the Presidency, the meeting prioritised "economic bilateral between the two countries and nothing else". Notwithstanding, Ramaphosa surprised many when he announced during a briefing with journalists that Saudi Arabia plans to join Brazil, Russia, China, and South Africa (BRICS). South Africa will be assuming the Presidency of BRICS in 2023.
Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 February this year, BRICS has amplified its expansionist intentions. Iran, which holds the world's second-largest gas reserves, has applied to join the BRICS. This has raised concerns about whether Russia, a leading member of BRICS, is using the organisation to push back against western hegemony as it continues to seek new markets for its goods and services. Western nations have imposed varying widespread economic sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.
A message of defiance
President Cyril Ramaphosa's announcement of Saudi Arabia's plans to join BRICS contradicted earlier statements by the Presidency that the Saudi visit was only going to concentrate on economic discussions. Before Ramaphosa embarked on the visit, there were earlier reports that he was likely to carry a message from US President, Joe Biden to Bin Salman regarding the reduction of oil production by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Biden had earlier in the week, following the decision by OPEC, threatened Bin Salman with "consequences".
The announcement to join BRICS has further added credence to reports that Ramaphosa did pass on the message to Bin Salman. Plans to join BRICS at this juncture in international politics and as the war in Ukraine continues, suggests a doubling down by Bin Salman, a clear message of defiance back to the US using Ramaphosa as a conduit. However, for Ramaphosa, this was used as an opportunity to reassure his counterparts about his commitment as suspicions of his strengthened relationship with Biden continues within BRICS.
Ramaphosa's announcement on Saudi Arabia rebuffed reports and suspicions particularly those that proliferated in the media about him being an emissary of Biden.
Checkered human rights' records
However, what should be of major concern for South Africans is not just that Cyril Ramaphosa acted as an emissary for Joe Biden in this instance; It is the continuing membership of South Africa in BRICS given the calibers of its current membership and indeed future members. South Africa finds itself surrounded by member countries with checkered human rights records and proponents of unprogressive politics.
The country remains an odd partner in the bloc considering its respect for democratic principles and its continual, at least in rhetoric, promotion of basic human rights across the globe.
Recently South Africa has been criticised for its voting patterns at multilateral platforms, including its stance on the invasion of Ukraine.
For example, plans by Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt to join BRICS further complicate South Africa's position inside the organisation.
Egypt continues to crack down on political activists, and has jailed thousands of journalists and those who speak against the government. Iran continues to crack down on protesters and has suppressed basic freedoms. The recent death of a young woman for violating the dress code has led to nationwide protests and deaths of dozens of protesters.
Saudi Arabia stands accused of having ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018. Moreover, Saudi Arabia's continuing bombardment of civilians in Yemen has been widely criticised.
South Africa will have to take a firm position at some point regarding its membership in BRICS as the bloc expands.
The blind and desperate admission of countries, irrespective of their human rights track record into BRICS could further compromise South Africa’s position as an advocate of human rights in the world. Moreover, the expansion of BRICS membership takes away the exclusive nature of the organisation, something South Africa strived for in the first place.
BRICS has ceased to be an exclusive platform of foremost developing nations.
(This article first appear on News24, a South African based publication)