Cyril plays Jan Smuts, but Brics Plus is a dangerous tiger to saddle


Cyril plays Jan Smuts, but Brics Plus is a dangerous tiger to saddle

This week's Brics summit could significantly affect international power dynamics. But it's important to note that only six of the 11 states in the expanded club are democracies that show any respect for human rights. At least three of these states regularly kill citizens who criticise the government. South Africa might benefit from Brics Plus, but there is a price to pay for aligning with a group of nasty autocracies, writes MAX DU PREEZ.


ONE of the leading heads of state in Brics is a serial killer. His latest victim was also a perpetrator with thousands of people's blood on his hands.

On day two of the summit, the man who openly challenged Vladimir Putin of Russia's authority exactly two months ago, Yevgeny Prigozhin, died when his plane was blown out of the sky near Moscow.

Dozens of Putin's critics have been killed in the past few years or have died under extremely suspicious circumstances. It is now widely called “Sudden Russian Death Syndrome".

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There is, of course, still no forensic evidence that the head of the Wagner Group of mercenaries was assassinated on Putin's orders, but there might be very few sensible people in the world who don't believe that to be the case.

I would wager that the intelligence agencies of Brazil, India, China and South Africa reported to their heads of state in Sandton by yesterday that they believe it was Putin's revenge.

However, Putin, who participated in the summit virtually due to fear of arrest under an International Criminal Court warrant, was not nearly the main man at the summit.

That was Xi Jinping of China. Brics — in four months Brics Plus when Iran, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates become full members — is China's instrument to advance its power struggle with the US.

And Xi's almost embarrassing bromance with Cyril Ramaphosa was the talk of Sandton. Many agreements have been struck between China and South Africa, and many promises of aid and investment, including in nuclear power, have been made.

President Cyril Ramaphosa meets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the Union Buildings ahead of the Brics summit in Sandton.
President Cyril Ramaphosa meets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the Union Buildings ahead of the Brics summit in Sandton.

The summit was a personal triumph for Ramaphosa. It was excellently organised, and in all his appearances he came across as a statesman. Putin specifically mentioned it at the end of the summit: “I would like to point out that President Ramaphosa showed unique political mastery as we negotiated all the issues," he said.

“Brics has embarked on a new chapter in its effort to build a world that is just, a world that is also inclusive and prosperous," Ramaphosa announced on millions of televisions worldwide.

His performance and the praise he received will help secure a meaningful role for South Africa in Brics Plus, and the summit probably also marked the end of any hope Paul Mashatile may have had of challenging him.

(Can you imagine how Jacob Zuma would have fared as the host of such a high-level summit? Or even Mashatile?)

Ramaphosa's role in Brics brings to mind Gen Jan Smuts, who was a respected international statesman and negotiator but not very popular or successful in his own country.

Ramaphosa and India's Narendra Modi are the only two Brics heads of state who have a working relationship with the US, Britain and the European Union. In anticipation of the summit, Ramaphosa worked behind the scenes for the past few months to appease the West after his government messed up so badly after the start of the Ukraine conflict last year.

Western countries are not impressed with the prospect of an expanded Brics but are cautious, keen not to push India and South Africa further into the arms of China and Russia.

Iain Martin wrote in The Times in London the day before yesterday: “Take your partners, please, for the next dance at the autocrats' ball. This week at Sandton, the anti-western Brics alliance is tripping the light fantastic. There's the host, South Africa, being swept along by China. Here comes India, a democracy that cannot decide who it wants to dance with, being subjected to intense wooing by its old friend Russia. An exuberant Brazil is conducting the orchestra, a familiar anti-American tune."

(The Russians were a bit sour when the Indians landed a device on the moon's South Pole on Wednesday, something Russia failed to do just last week.)

The feelings of two diplomats I spoke to yesterday are that the course of the deliberations and the shooting down of Prigozhin's plane during the meeting are likely to undermine Putin's reputation. “He is now under increasing pressure among the last friends he had in the world, his inner circle, and also among the broader population of Russia," one of them said.

At least 24 prominent Russians who were critical of Putin and/or his war in Ukraine, mostly senior businesspeople and oligarchs, were killed in 2022. They included two businessmen in the gas industry, Leonid Shulman and Alexander Tyulakov, who reportedly committed suicide; Vasily Melnikov, Vladisvlav Avayev and Sergey Protosenya, who supposedly wiped out their families days apart then killed themselves; Andrei Krukovsky of the Sochi hotel group who fell from a balcony; and Aleksandr Subbotin of a gas company, who died shortly after curiously ingesting toad poison. In July last year, energy leader Yuri Voronov was shot dead in his pool in St Petersburg; last August, Putin critic Dan Rapoport fell to his death from the window of his apartment in Washington; just a few days later, oil magnate Ravil Maganov fell from his apartment window in Moscow; a few weeks ago, IT millionaire Grigory Kochenov died when he fell over his balcony wall.

These were just the last year's cases of Sudden Russian Death Syndrome. Better-documented cases included journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, Boris Nemtsov in 2015, and the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2020 — he is now in a penal camp.


Prominent journalist and writer Anne Applebaum wrote in The Atlantic yesterday: “With [Prigozhin's] plane crash, the violence on the periphery of Russia’s empire has now migrated to its very heart. Putin’s rule has always been maintained by a heady combination of opportunism, bribery and the façade of Russian nationalism, propped up by the subtle threat of violence. In the aftermath of Prigozhin’s rebellion, Putin needs something more spectacular: theatrical, public violence; violence of the kind that brings down a plane soon after takeoff in the middle of a sunny day; violence designed to terrify anyone who secretly wished for Prigozhin’s victory."

Among the new members of Brics Plus, things are not much better. Iran continues to carry out public executions of opponents of the regime, and thousands of women have died during recent protests.

The de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, personally ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi in October 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and his body was dismembered.

This is the club we now belong to.

Let's raise a glass to that. Cheers!

♦ VWB ♦

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