The wealthiest square mile in Africa is hosting a big international summit this week with a mixture of pride, relief, and a hint of unease.
Sandton – a glitzy banking district on the outskirts of South Africa’s increasingly dilapidated city of Johannesburg – is the venue for the latest meeting of the Brics group, an ambitious but amorphous bloc of countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), united by a desire to challenge perceived Western dominance in global affairs. Dozens of other nations are queuing up to join.
The current wave of relief felt here in South Africa in relation to Brics can be explained by President Vladimir Putin’s recent decision to stay away from the summit.
Had he insisted on coming, South Africa would have finally had to clarify its position on whether it would carry out its international obligation to arrest Russia’s leader for alleged war crimes in Ukraine.
Spared that awkward challenge, South African officials are now revelling in their role as host – proudly filling journalists’ inboxes with a flood of emails about Brics breakfast meetings, trade fairs, township dialogues and the like.
This unusual degree of official enthusiasm serves, to some observers, to underline quite how far and fast this country appears to be steering away from the West, not just towards a more multi-polar world, but firmly into China and, to a lesser extent, Russia’s orbit.
At a recent pre-summit meeting of Brics foreign ministers in Cape Town, a Russian journalist leant over to me in a news conference and declared: “You can keep your human rights paradise [in the West]. We are remaking the world.”
Brics may still be in its infancy, but it is generating – at least in some quarters – a genuine and disruptive sense of energy and excitement.
A colleague who attended a foreign policy workshop organised by South Africa’s government told me of an overwhelming consensus there that China was the future, and the West was in decline.
Which is where South Africa’s unease comes into the equation.
The country’s President Cyril Ramaphosa – a wealthy businessman – will be acutely aware of the fact that the local economy, hit hard by Covid and grappling with the world’s highest levels of unemployment and inequality, desperately needs more foreign investment if it is to escape a spiralling crisis.
Russia is certainly not the answer. Its trading relationship with South Africa is almost non-existent.
China is an increasingly important player but is, nonetheless, overshadowed here by longstanding trade with, and investment from, the European Union (EU) and the US.
So why would South Africa jeopardise those key Western relationships – already strained – at a time of profound economic uncertainty?
The answer, at least in part, appears to lie within the country’s increasingly weary and erratic governing party.
After three decades in power, the African National Congress (ANC) is struggling to rid itself of infighting, corruption and administrative chaos.
Confronted with the war in Ukraine, for instance, South Africa’s government has offered a muddled grab-bag of responses – first condemning the invasion, then pointedly refusing to condemn it, then blaming Nato, praising Mr Putin, offering itself as a peace broker, hosting Russian naval exercises, rushing to explain itself to Washington, and casually repeating Kremlin talking points.
Then there is the still lingering mystery of whether South Africa supplied arms to Russia last year – as alleged by the US.
There is little doubt that President Ramaphosa is deeply uneasy about Russia’s invasion and anxious to portray himself as a wise and neutral advocate for a more multi-polar world.
But many in his government and party routinely undermine that stance – often citing nostalgia for Moscow’s support during the anti-apartheid struggle and a more general suspicion of US foreign policy.
The haphazard messaging has managed to irritate all sides in the conflict and succeeded only in making South Africa appear weak and indecisive.
Nelson Mandela’s “rainbow nation” is certainly struggling right now – with some even warning that it could soon become a “failed state”.
But this week’s Brics summit will, by contrast, provide the Kremlin with a useful platform to showcase its own, far more strategic and effective diplomacy.
Recent headlines from the continent may have been dominated by the coup in Niger, and the potential for Russia’s thuggish, opportunistic, Wagner Group mercenaries to exploit the chaos for their own benefit, as they have already done in Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR).
But at least as significant is the success with which Moscow, through its hard-travelling Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and through canny media messaging, has managed to present itself – after decades with almost no presence on the continent – as a credible alternative to “colonial” Western influence in Africa.
In countries wrestling with poverty, the impact of climate change, increasingly youthful populations, and growing unemployment, frustration with the status quo has left many people open to new alternatives.
Which begs the question – what have Western nations been doing to challenge Russia?
It is, of course, dangerous to make generalisations about this continent, and both wrong and offensive to suggest African governments are merely pawns in a reviving Cold War.
But where is the Western version of Brics? The UK has a “minister for Africa” – but almost no-one has ever bothered to stay in the job for more than a year.
A preoccupation with development projects, strict conditions and cherry-picked foreign invitations for favoured African leaders, has fuelled the claim that France, the UK and other former colonial powers are still treating the continent as a tiresome crisis to be managed, rather than a partner to be supported.
This may be unfair. After all, Western nations have, for decades, devoted significant energy and cash towards supporting health services, businesses and governments across the continent.
But the role of Western armies – French troops and American drones in particular – in places like Niger and Somalia, has provoked strong backlashes.
Which may help to explain why Brics’s alternative vision is gaining traction on this continent, and why the bloc will be making its case, loudly and confidently, in the conference halls of Sandton this week.