SA’s human rights history compromised by membership in BRICS

Thembisa Fakude
6 min readJun 19, 2022


The struggle against apartheid propelled South Africa (SA) to align herself with human rights struggles around the world. It also set SA to the forefront of global human rights activism. Consequently, SA has been regarded by many countries around the world as the champion and a leading proponent of human rights. SA became the moral compass in this regard to world.

SA has also been playing an important role at various multilateral platforms in promoting human rights. In 2001 SA hosted the United Nations Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related intolerances (UNWCAR) in the port city of Durban. The hosting of this significant event was an acknowledgement of South Africa’s continual role in human right championing by the UN. What followed the UNWCAR was a string of international conferences, sporting events and a streamline of international leaders and celebrities into South Africa.

However, over the years the traffic of positivity into SA has dwindled mainly due to the country’s mishandling of its international relations. SA has made several miscalculations and controversial decisions which have largely compromised her position around the world. Notwithstanding the continual support of Palestine, Cuba and Western Sahara; SA’s reputation as a champion of human rights has been compromised by some of the decisions the country has taken over the years. South African arm companies for an example are selling weapons to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two of the main parties accused of committing war crimes in Yemen.

Moreover, South African political alliance choices have also impacted its position as the champion of human rights, particularly its membership in BRICS. South Africa joined BRICS in 2010. BRICS is an acronym for five developing economies i.e., Brazil, Russia, India, China, and SA. The term was coined by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill. The formation of BRICS invited a level of optimism in Africa. One of the objectives of BRICS is to counter the US and Western economic and political hegemony. It is planning to ease travel restrictions amongst member states to facilitate movement of people and business. It has also established a much-needed BRICS bank that hopes to facilitate, amongst others, easy access to funding of infrastructural development in Africa. However, over the years the level of optimism has dissipated; there has been growing criticism of BRICS member countries for violations of human rights and undemocratic tendencies. Consequently, growing calls for South Africa to cancel its affiliation and membership in BRICS.

Take for an example the behaviour of the right-wing President of Brazil, Jair Messias Bolsonaro. His racists utterances, bombastic behavior and admiration of former President Donald Trump has invited criticism against him and his government. In January 2020, Bolsonaro posted on Facebook that “Indians (Brazil’s indigenous population) are undoubtedly changing. They are increasingly becoming human beings just like us”, this comment infuriated the indigenous people of Brazil and led to national protests. Moreover, Bolsonaro’s attitude towards COVID-19 has also been criticized by many in Brazil with some calling for him to be held liable for thousands of COVID-19 related deaths of Brazilians. Bolsonaro believes that “the destructive power of this virus is overestimated. Maybe it’s even being promoted for economic reasons.”

India has not done well neither when it comes to promotion of basic human rights and democracy particularly under the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Muslims in India have been under constant attacks since the election of Modi 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 banning wearing of head scarves inside schools. There has been on-going protests and clashes between the government and Muslims since the election of Modi. Last week, country wide protests and violence ensued after a senior member and spokesperson of BJP , Napur Sharma, made insulting comments against Prophet Mohammed. Many Muslims were arrested and injured by the police. Meanwhile in Utter Pradesh were protests were concentrated, houses belonging to Muslims who participated in protests were demolished. Government has been criticised for “unjust form of collective punishment”.

When SA was accepted into BRICS, skeptics criticized SA of “biting more than it could chew”. In terms of land mass and population size, South Africa is extremely small compared to other members of BRICS. The largest member of BRICS, China for an example has the total land mass of 9597 million square kilometres and 1.4 billion people. South Africa on the other hand has a total land mass of 1,219 million square kilometres and population of 59.3 million. These differences in size and scale suggests that there could never be equality in decision making inside BRICS; size does matter in politics. The rationale provided SA for joining BRICS is that the coalition has enough capacity and markets that could benefit SA. However economic and political benefits in this regard have been far and in between for SA. Instead, SA’s reputation as the human rights champion has taken a heavy knock as a result of association.

China, a significant member of BRICS is accused of running detention centres in its Xinjiang region. It is also accused of using these detention centres to imprison and torture the Uyghur Muslims. Thousands of Uyghur Muslims 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.

Russia, another member of BRICS, has been accused of gross human rights violations including poising of government opponents overseas. Sergei Skripal and her daughter Yulia were poisoned by Russian agents in the city of Salisbury, England in March 2018. Russia also continues to crackdown on political dissent. President Putin’s critic and political opponent, Alexei Navalny is currently serving a prison sentence in Moscow for some propped up fraud charges. Right now, Russia is committing unprecedented human rights violations in Ukraine following the invasion of that country on 24 February 2022. Thousands have been killed, millions displaced and there has been severe and deliberate infrastructural destruction; towns anc cities have been brought to the ground.

SA finds itself in a very precarious position of being isolated by Europe and the US if it continues to deal with Russia notwithstanding what is happening in Ukraine. Moreover, US is determined to go against those that work with Russia by using the Countering Malign Russian Activities Act in Africa mechanism. The bill broadly defines such malign activities as those that “undermine United States objectives and interests. According to Gwede Mantashe, Minister of Minerals and Energy, SA is considering buying oil from Russia notwithstanding sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and its alliances; that will be a big mistake. It could be a first step towards isolation of SA.

In conclusion, SA’s government must put the interest of South Africans first and that of BRICS last. It also needs to resuscitate its position as the leader of human rights by standing firm against violations by members of BRICS. The first step the government must take towards that realization is to cancel its membership in BRICS. SA stands to loose its respect by other nations around the world if it insists of remaining part of BRICS. The disadvantages of continuing to be part of BRICS are simply greater than benefits for SA, serious reconsideration is therefore critical.



Thembisa Fakude

Senior Research Fellow Africa Asia Dialogues, Johannesburg, SA Research Fellow Al Sharq Forum, Istanbul, Turkiye Columnist, Middle East Monitor, London UK.