Will the election of Cyril Ramaphosa in South Africa derail Putin’s agenda in BRICS?

Thembisa Fakude
11 min readJan 2, 2019



South Africa hosted the 10th BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa) Summit in Johannesburg in July 2018. All heads of States from BRICS countries attended the function. President Tayyip Erdogan also attended, Turkey has indicated its intention to join BRICS. He has suggested that the leaders of the five-member BRICS bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) should add “T” to the acronym (1). BRICS summit in South Africa was preceded by the official state visit of the President of China Xi Jinping. The visit of president Xi stole the limelight from the summit. President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa announced during that visit that the South African government had signed several agreements, including memorandums of understanding (MOUs) on investments, amounting to $14.7 billion with China (2).

BRICS was initiated to facilitate economic development of its member countries and allies. It is also meant to counter political and economic hegemony of the Western powers amongst other things. The first BRICS summit was held in Yekaterinburg, Russia in 2009, whilst Vladimir Putin was the Prime Minister of Russia. After serving his tenure as prime minister, Putin was re-elected to the presidency in 2012. He has been the only constant leader within BRICS since its formation and has been instrumental in influencing its direction. This paper will seek to answer a question: Will the election of Cyril Ramaphosa in South derail Putin’s agenda in BRICS? It will look at the origins and objectives of BRICS and Russia’s influence inside BRICS. It will juxtapose the leaderships of President Zuma and Ramaphosa to that of President Putin in its argumentation.

Background and objectives of BRICS

BRICS is an acronym for Brazil, India, China and South Africa. It is an alliance of developing countries meant to support each other in their sociopolitical and economic development agenda. It aims to promote cultural exchanges, commerce and political cooperation between its member countries. South Africa was the last country to join BRICS in 2010. The first BRIC (Brazil India, Russia and China) summit, a predecessor of BRICS, was held in Russia in 2009 as already stated above. The announcement of South Africa joining BRICS was met with great criticism by many observers and countries. Amongst the critics was the man who coined the acronym BRIC, Goldman Sachs Asset Management global chairman Jim O’Neill. He observed at the time that South Africa has too small an economy to merit inclusion, and that countries such as Nigeria carry more power now (3). However over the years South Africa has proved to be a strong and valuable member of the alliance. Investment deals between South Africa and its BRICS partners have reached fever pitch, with China leading the way. Several Chinese billion-dollar firms have headed south in recent times. Among them mobile and green energy companies such as Hisense, FAW, Beijing Automobile International Corporation, Phalabora Mining Company, China Longyuan Power Group (4). BRICS is seeking to create an alternative to Western hegemony in global politics. It has become a strong geopolitical bloc with an unofficial policy of counterbalancing Western power (4). Putin wanted to counter the hegemony of the European Union (EU) by establishing a strong coalition with countries of the Global South most of whom were part of an alliance during the cold war. Russia and China also seem to share a political vision. Rejecting Western notions of multi-party democracy and separation of powers, both countries have leaders who believe that strong individual leadership and centralized authority, with no role for an active organized opposition, is essential to preserving stability and reaching their goals (5). BRICS plans to coordinate security arrangements and cultural exchanges. There is also a discussion to establish some sort of security alliance amongst members, this is meant to counter the impact and seriousness of NATO. However what will make this more difficult to achieve is the location and the distance between these countries and indeed their changing political ideologies. They are dispersed geographically, their economies are in different stages of development and there is a fair degree of ideological dissonance between (6). Moreover the political and economic makeups of member countries make it difficult to imagine any form of cohesion. Brazil of the future under the President Elect Jair Bolsonaro for an example is going to be totally different to that of President Lula Da Silva and Dilma Rousseff.

The establishment of a bank has been BRICS’s greatest achievement since its formation. The New Development Bank (NDB) based in Shanghai China, was established in 2014. The purpose of the bank is to provide lending facilities to the member countries. The agreement amongst the member countries in this regard “stipulates that the Bank shall mobilize resources for infrastructure and sustainable development projects in BRICS and other emerging economies and developing countries, complementing the existing efforts of multilateral and regional financial institutions for global growth and development. Furthermore the New Development Bank shall have an initial subscribed capital of US$ 50 billion and an initial authorized capital of US$ 100 billion. The initial subscribed capital shall be equally distributed amongst the founding members. The voting power of each member shall equal its subscribed shares in the capital stock of the Bank”. There are a number of pros and cons in this statement of intent by the bank. The main concern is that all members, irrespective of size, are to be treated as equals and are expected to deposit equally to the reserves of the bank. It is also assumed therefore that they will have equal access to the facilities provided by the bank. This is but one of the decisions that many have accused Russia of imposing on the rest particularly South Africa, the “smallest member” of the group. The general feel is that Russia used its leverage and its relationship with former President Zuma to agree to these terms.

Will the election of Cyril Ramaphosa in South Africa impact the working of BRICS moving forward?

As the Ukrainian crisis emerged and the Group of Eight (G8) was converted into the Group of Seven (G7), Russia’s approach expanded to include two additional features. The first is the promotion of initiatives to develop a common platform to respond to security threats that range from armed conflict to cyber warfare. The message this conveys to the world is that BRICS is united not only by common interests in social and economic development and global financial configuration, but as an alliance seeking to reform international relations (7). Will those ambitions continue or be altered as member countries elect new leaders?

First, the change of leadership in Brazil is most likely to have a huge impact on BRICS. In October 2018, Brazil elected Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right wing congressman to the presidency. The politics of Bolsonaro and those of other member countries are in all appearances contradictory. It difficult to anticipate any meeting of minds on politics within these member countries moving forward. Bolsonaro has described having daughters as a “weakness”, he told a congresswoman she was “too ugly” to be raped, claimed some black people were not “even good for procreation”, and said he would rather have one of his four sons “die in an accident” than be gay (8). Coincidentally, Putin has two daughters and Ramaphosa is black. Bolsonaro has continued to utter statements that have angered and embarrassed many Brazilians.

Second, China under Xi Jinping seems committed to forge ahead with bilateral agreements with other member states notwithstanding the existence of BRICS, case in point President Xi’s official state visit to South Africa on the eve of the BRICS summit. President Xi subsequently promised $14.7 billion of investment during the visit, where President Cyril Ramaphosa is on a mission to kick-start economic growth after a decade of stagnation (9). Moreover the eponymous reference of President Xi Jinping in the constitution while still in power is very significant, he has become literally a political reference point. Putin might find it difficult to dictate an agenda to a man who is rapidly regarded by over a billion people as a “living saint’.

Similarly the election of Ramaphosa in South Africa is also very significant. Who is Cyril Ramaphosa? He is a lawyer, a former unionist who later became one of the wealthiest businessman in South Africa. Unlike many of his colleagues within the ANC he never went to exile. He was responsible for drafting the constitution of South Africa which at some stage was regarded as the “Rolls Royce” of all constitutions because of its progressiveness. In 2011 Ramaphosa paid for a 20-year franchise agreement to run 145 McDonald restaurants in South Africa. Ramaphosa became the president of the governing African National Congress (ANC) in December 2017 and the president of South Africa in February 2018. His predecessor President Jacob Zuma, has been touted as a close ally of Putin. Unlike Ramaphosa he had no formal education, spent most of his political life in exile and was amongst those from the ANC who received military training in Russia, he speaks Russian. During the apartheid years, when much of the West froze out South Africa with sanctions, Moscow provided asylum and military training to members of the African National Congress (ANC) (10).

Ramaphosa’s rise to power was on the back of allegation of corruption against Zuma. At the centre of allegations was the multi billion Rands Russian Nuclear energy deal involving South Africa and Russians and by extension President Zuma and Putin. The nuclear expansion deal backed by Zuma envisaged adding an additional 9,600 MW, but ratings agencies cited the project as a cause for concern given the country’s recurring budget deficits and ballooning public debt (11). The South African high court in the Western Cape province ruled that the agreement struck between Mr. Zuma and President Vladimir Putin in 2014 to co-operate on the reactors was unlawful (12). Later in 2018 minister in the President’s office Mr. Jeff Radebe announced that South Africa no longer had an agreement with the Russians to procure for the development of nuclear energy for the country (13). Ramaphosa has since instituted a Judicial Commission of Inquiry into allegations of state capture, corruption and fraud in the public sector including the organs of state. These developments have naturally created a strain between Ramaphosa and Putin. The following events suggest a further deterioration of their relationship:

When Putin was inaugurated in Moscow earlier in 2018, Ramaphosa sent his Deputy, David Mabuza to Moscow. Mabuza went to convey Ramaphosa’s message of congratulations to Putin on his re-election in March, and his subsequent inauguration on May 7 as president of the Russian Federation (14). This was couple of months after Ramaphosa was inaugurated as the president of South Africa. As the new head of state he was expected to attend the inauguration, particularly given the significance of Russia in global politics.

Second, in a rather bizarre political decision, Mabuza was appointed as a special envoy to Russia. Many questions were raised subsequently. Amongst them was why does South Africa need a Special Envoy to Russia over and above an ambassador? Could it be perhaps that Ramaphosa is trying to avoid dealing with Putin?

Furthermore, according to a government official, there was some unhappiness among Russian diplomats that Chinese President Xi was granted a state visit whilst Putin, who had been publicly invited twice before by Zuma, had not been granted a date for a visit yet (15). Putin arrived for BRICS heads of state formalities hours before they began, held meetings with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, as well as bilateral meetings with the leaders of Argentina, Angola, Turkey, Zambia, China and India. He left the country without much fanfare save for some negative reporting concerning his late arrival, which was in itself seen by many a sending a message of disgruntlement to the host. President Xi of China on the other hand had a lion’s share of publicity before and after the BRICS summit.


Ramaphosa’s education, political alignment and financial independence has made him less susceptible to Putin’s allure. That means he is most likely to be an active member in decision making in BRICS adding a challenge to “Putin’s agenda” (16). This will undoubtedly add certain dynamics in the workings of BRICS and could also impact on multilateral platforms particularly on the ongoing conflicts in the world. South Africa has in the past tended to vote with Russia or at best abstain when it comes to certain conflicts involving Russia. In May 2018 for an example, South Africa opposed holding an urgent debate on the Syrian crisis in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, in so doing South Africa joined countries like Syria itself, China, Venezuela, Russia and Cuba (17).

Secondly, the appointment of Mabuza as the Special Envoy to Russia over and above his cabinet responsibilities will continue to raise more questions. Why has Ramaphosa decided to appoint a special envoy to Russia, what about other countries of similar economic and political significance? It is seems in all appearances that Ramaphosa wants to minimize his interaction with Putin by creating a buffer between them.

Finally, South African economy is much smaller compared to those of other members of BRICS, its population size is also very small comparatively. According to Joint Statistical Publication issued by BRICS, in 2013 South African population was 50, 6 Million people compared to the biggest country by population within BRICS, China which stood at 1,35 Billion people. It has notwithstanding these facts accepted equal responsibility when it comes to its commitments to the BRICS bank. This suggests that something must have been agreed between Putin and Zuma, something more self serving than national interest. It is something most observers believe will seize under Ramaphosa and is likely to frustrate Putin.

In conclusion, notwithstanding its size, South Africa has used its membership and proximity to BRICS member countries to forge new strategic relations. It is likely to continue with that trajectory. However that will happen on its own terms. The cancellation of the nuclear deal in particular between South Africa and Russia is perhaps one of the first significant in that regard.


  1. Russia Today, Turkey wants to join BRICS because it is disappointed in NATO and EU- analyst, https://www.rt.com/news/434685-turkey-join-brics-eu-nato/, 12 Dec. 2018
  2. 2. Business Report, Siphelele Dludla, #BRICS: SA signs $14 Billion trade agreement with China, https://www.iol.co.za/business-report/brics/brics-sa-signs-14-billion-trade-agreements-with-china-16210130 12 Dec 2018
  3. 3. Daily Maverick, Khadija Patel, Analysis: Scrutinising South Africa’s inclusion in BRICS, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2012-04-03-analysis-scrutinising-south-africas-inclusion-in-brics/ 12 Dec 2018
  4. 4. Business Insider, Erin Conway-Smith, Russia’s Putin and South Africa’s Zuma are spending an awful lot of time together, https://www.businessinsider.com/russias-putin-and-south-africas-zuma-are-spending-an-awful-lot-of-time-together-2015-5, 12 Dec. 2018
  5. 5. BRICS Business Magazine, Jack A Goldstone, China’s dream, Russia’s ambitions, https://bricsmagazine.com/en/articles/china-s-dream-russia-s-ambitions, 13 Dec. 2018
  6. 6. World Economic Forum, Samir Saran, The next ten years of BRICS-Will the relationship last?, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/brics-first-next-ten-years/, 12 Dec 2018
  7. 7. Council of Councils, Sergey Kulik, Russia and the BICS: Priorities of the Presidency, https://www.cfr.org/councilofcouncils/global_memos/p36758, 12 Dec 2018
  8. 8. Al Jazeera English, David Childs, Who is Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right president? https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/10/jair-bolsonaro-brazil-presidential-candidate-181007020716337.html , 17 Dec. 2018
  9. 9. Reuters, Alexander Winning, China Xi pleadges $14.7 Billion investment on South Africa visit, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-safrica-china/chinas-xi-pledges-14-7-billion-investment-on-south-africa-visit-idUSKBN1KE2A3, 12 Dec. 2018(11)
  10. 10. Ibid, Russia’s Putin and South Africa’s Zuma are spending an awful lot of time together, 12 Dec. 2018
  11. 11. Reuters, Africatec, Update 3-Russia’s Putin raises nuclear deal at Ramaphosa meeting during BRICS, https://af.reuters.com/article/southAfricaNews/idAFL5N1UM2MZ , 17 Dec 2018 (19)
  12. 12. Financial Times, Joseph Cotteril, https://www.ft.com/content/ce7d0fdc-2a7d-11e7-bc4b-5528796fe35c, 12 Dec., 2018
  13. 13. Fin24, Khulekani Magubane, SA no longer has agreement with Russians on nuclear, says Radebe, https://www.fin24.com/Economy/sa-no-longer-has-agreement-with-russians-on-nuclear-says-radebe-20180604, 12 Dec. 2018
  14. 14. Business Day, David Mabuza goes to Moscow to congratulate Vladimir Putin on his re-election, https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/national/2018-05-14-david-mabuza-goes-to-moscow-to-congratulate-vladimir-putin-on-his-re-election/, 12 Dec. 2018
  15. 15. News24, Carien du Plessis, Behind the scenes diplomatic wrangling with Putin and Modi threatens to derail BRICS summit, https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/behind-the-scenes-diplomatic-wrangling-with-putin-and-modi-threatens-to-derail-brics-summit-20180726, 12 Dec. 2018
  16. 16. Comment by a senior member of the governing party in South Africa, 11 Nov. 2018
  17. 17. Daily Maverick, Peter Fabricius, UN: SA opposition to holding urgent debate on Syria a “worrying example of siding with dictators, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2018-03-04-un-sa-opposition-to-holding-urgent-debate-on-syria-a-worrying-example-of-siding-with-dictators/ , 12 Dec. 2018



Thembisa Fakude

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