What started out as a more or less ho-hum state visit by President Cyril Ramaphosa to India, 25-26 January, had morphed into perhaps one of the most strategically consequential visits the president has made during his tenure in office. Why so? Because of this front-page Sunday Times article on: “India to buy SA arms – and help save Denel.” There is a lot behind reportage on this outcome of Ramaphosa’s visit to Delhi, signalling the possibility that this state visit may be the tip of a geopolitical iceberg that had frozen South African-Indian relations for over a decade; as Tshwane’s relations with China and Russia tended to define the SA-BRICS alignment at the expense of its first South-South mini-lateral alignment with India and Brazil in the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Trilateral Dialogue Forum.
The fact that IBSA partners India and Brazil appeared to leave South Africa strategically in the lurch upon their sudden post-G8 ‘Outreach 5’ (Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa) bonding with China and Russia in launching the BRICs quartet in 2009 did nothing to help South Africa’s relations with either Brazil, or especially India, given Delhi’s geostrategic rivalry with Beijing. Moreover, the Chinese made little secret of Beijing’s interest in seeing IBSA disappear. South Africa’s induction into what became China’s 2011 hosting of the first BRICS summit, has reinforced perceptions that South Africa’s membership was sponsored by Beijing as the bilateral Sino-South Africa relationship also flourished with Tshwane assuming an active role in the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). IBSA, meanwhile did indeed increasingly recede into the background, especially after Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s failure to participate in the 2013 Delhi summit causing it to be cancelled. Not until a ministerial level summit in October 2017 did IBSA resurface.
The Intra-BRICS dynamics that caused IBSA to become marginalized are unclear. But the strategic autonomy cost for its individual members has been substantial, especially in the case of South Africa. Given that BRICS is not an alliance, at best an economic semi-alliance, IBSA which used to be billed as a grouping of like-minded democracies of the South, could have and potentially can serve as a ‘caucus’ within BRICS/BRICS Plus just as BRICS operates as a caucus within the G20. Perhaps the most urgent question is whether an IBSA revival can be assumed on the basis of the Modi-Ramaphosa summit given the ascent of the ultra-right wing Jair Bolsonaro regime in Brasilia and its decidedly anti-internationalist proclivities outside of pledging allegiance to the Donald J. Trump administration in Washington. As such, Brazil places the future both of BRICS and IBSA in some no small amount of uncertainty. Moreover, Venezuela’s internal political meltdown spilling over into its neighbours, Brazil included has already drawn a sharp division between Brazil and Russia that would certainly make thing’s awkward in the BRICS summit that Brasilia is expected to host in 2019. Former Brazilian President Lula Ignacio da Silva’s progressive regionalism involving the establishment of autonomous regional platforms is now dormant. These included the fledgling Union of South American Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Countries. Their sidelining makes it difficult to imagine a Bolsonaro ‘regional outreach.’ So who knows, maybe, it’s time for IBSA to regain its profile while BRICS loses momentum?
India’s Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi and Brazil’s ultra-right Jair Bolsonaro may have more to talk about within IBSA than in BRICS, while President Ramaphosa’s pragmatism has already proved an apparent winner with Modi. Call this a ‘Progressive Recession’ moment in global politics wherein for South Africa, strategic pragmatism replaces what has been the undecidedly un-strategic transactionalism that has eroded the country’s international credibility over the past several years. Whatever comes of IBSA trilateralism, the bilateral potential reflected in the Cyril-Modi meeting of minds on South African arms sales and how this stands to benefit Denel should not be underestimated. At the very least, this hook-up stands as an excellent replacement for what had loomed as prospective South African arms industrial dependency on ultra-reactionary Saudi Arabia at a time when Saudis and Emiratis, in their anti-Iran offensive, are bidding to buy up as many African economies as they can in roping them into a Sunni Gulf Arab imperium. Bailing out Denel would have been a ‘crown jewel.’ Ramaphosa’s decision not to endorse a Saudi-Denel deal, now replaced by a more natural defence industrial alignment with fellow IBSA-BRICS partners, India enhances South Africa’s strategic autonomy requiring it to balance its ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The prospect of being drawn into the sectarian geopolitics of the Gulf is not in South Africa’s, or more broadly, Africa’s interest. In the process, India demonstrates some real strategic value added for South Africa outside of Delhi’s obsession with China and its rivalry with Beijing in the Indian Ocean, which has also complicated South Africa-India relations. Tshwane wants no part of those fault-lines either. Perhaps President Ramaphosa will succeed in striking a balance between China and India that better suits South Africa’s interests. Arms sales to India seems an excellent place to start after years of Denel being blacklisted by India due to allegations of corruption in 2005. A decade of sanctions was a lost opportunity when there was potential via IBSA for a trilateral global South defence industrial cooperation alongside the still existing naval trilateralism of IBSAMAR. Then there is the trilateral development cooperation of the IBSA development fund managed by the UN Office on South-South Cooperation. But this has never advanced much beyond a pilot project now overshadowed by the BRICS New Development Bank. So the South Africa-India arms deal could be just what thaws the lost momentum in the bilateral if not trilateral equations.
Francis A. Kornegay, Jr. is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Global Dialogue associated with UNISA, a member of the JIOR international editorial board and Global Fellow of The Wilson Centre in Washington. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent IGD/Unisa policy.