The challenge of being non-aligned in a divided world

by Clem Sunter: Scenario planner, speaker and best-selling author.
There is a good reason for remaining in BRICS, as the alliance represents the next generation of countries that could dominate the world economy in the second half of this century. But that doesn't mean we mustn't get to the bottom of what happened with the Russian cargo ship, Lady R.

In January and April last year, I wrote a couple of articles for News24 mentioning the red flag of an invasion of Ukraine by Russia; and how the worst-case scenario flowing out of the flag could be a third world war, possibly involving nuclear weapons.

In the second article, I quoted extensively from Flagwatching, a book which I authored and Tafelberg published in 2015.

In retrospect, I made the mistake in the second article of omitting the final paragraph of the section on the red flag in the book.

It reads as follows: 

Maybe for once we should feel lucky as South Africans to be in the Southern Hemisphere, a long way away from the immediate area of the conflict. However, this flag could pose a tricky choice for the South African government if things go really pear-shaped. Do they support Russia as a fellow member of BRICS, the new economic grouping consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, which has just established the New Development Bank headquartered in Shanghai? Do they support America because it does not help to be on the wrong side of the largest economy on Earth? Or do they choose a middle course like China? Life becomes complicated in a divided world.

The allegation that arms supplied by South Africa were loaded onto the Lady R - a Russian ship which docked at Simon's Town Naval Base in early December 2022 - has highlighted the point made in the last sentence.

Obviously, the supply of weapons to Russia breaches the principle of non-alignment and steering a middle course.

As far as I know, none of the other three BRICS members - Brazil, India and China - has crossed this particular line in the sand. They know the consequences and do not want to be put in the same category as Iran and North Korea.

The sheer magnitude of the repercussions so far for South Africa arising from the allegation - when no firm evidence has yet been put forward either way to support or deny it - demonstrate the scale of the sensitivities involved and what is at stake in terms of the country's future relationship with the West and the world at large.

Getting excluded is last thing SA wants

One thing is for sure.

With our economy already reeling from load shedding, the last thing we want is to be excluded from any free trade agreements like the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) between the US and sub-Saharan Africa; or worse still go back to the old days of having sanctions re-imposed on us which curtail some of our trading opportunities with the West altogether.

South Africa's private sector has done a wonderful job in getting through the pandemic and adapting to load shedding, but a further level of downside like this could prove a bridge too far.

Hence, the independent inquiry by a retired judge into the whole affair must be completed in months, not years, and be seen as a genuine attempt to get to the bottom of the Lady R saga.

Investors hate uncertainty and the longer uncertainty lasts, the more the South African economy will suffer, unemployment will rise, and the rand will fall.

Inflationary pressures will further aggravate the cost-of-living crisis and small businesses will receive another deadly blow. It all adds up to an extreme version of the "Low Road" scenario where we descend quickly into anarchy with the potential of becoming a waste land.

However, we must also consider the longer-term impact of being part of the BRICS alliance.

In the near term, as the war in Ukraine grinds on in its second year, the international situation could become even more polarised if the West seeks to isolate Russia further from the world at large.

This could have implications for BRICS alliance members in terms of trading with Russia and cooperation in other areas.

A call for the EU, by one of its own senior officials, to curb refined fuel imports from India made out of crude oil originating from Russia is the latest development in pulling the rope tighter.

BRICS could be placed on firmer footing through negotiations

No wonder our president is involved in an initiative with other African countries to stop the war in Ukraine by holding discussions with the leaders on the two sides.

Of course, the primary motive for this move is to end the killings and needless destruction of property there.

Nevertheless, if the initiative does anything to resolve the conflict, it would enhance Africa's reputation but also put the BRICS organisation on a much firmer footing where it is seen as rivalling the importance of the G7 and NATO in global affairs.

Thus, I am not saying for one moment that South Africa should resign from BRICS because of the challenges it faces as a member.

A good reason for remaining in the institution is the alliance does represent the next generation of countries that could dominate the world economy in the second half of this century.

Because of their much larger populations, both India and China could overtake America to become the largest economies in the world by 2050.

The West will, from then on, just have to accept being second best, even though they will still be richer in terms of income per head than most other countries in the world.

It has happened throughout the history of humankind that nations - like companies - come and go in importance, and this century is no different to any other one.

Tipping point

You will have gathered that, despite all the complications related to the war in Ukraine I have described earlier in the article, I think it is a major long-term advantage for South Africa to be part of BRICS.

There are many other countries in South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia that want to join the alliance in due course.

The next summit meeting is to be held in South Africa in August.

We all know about the controversy surrounding Vladimir Putin's participation in this meeting, but it should nevertheless go ahead here with or without his presence.

BRICS definitely has its place in the new world order and - once the war in Ukraine is over - will hopefully operate in tandem with the G7 to resolve existential issues like climate change.

Meanwhile, we must get as quickly as possible to the truth of what happened in December when the Lady R docked in Simon's Town.

It is a number one priority to know whether or not weapons destined for Russia were loaded onto the ship and who was responsible if they were.

In conclusion, this event really is a tipping point in our history and we must face it head-on to retain some measure of international trust and goodwill.

Useful resources:
Mind of a Fox
We are foxy, game-playing strategists and the authors of two number 1 best selling books in South Africa: "The Mind of a Fox - Scenario Planning in Action", and "Games Foxes Play - Planning for Extraordinary Times".
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