A Win for MK in South Africa will Not Necessarily be OK for the BRICS+ Group of Countries

A win for the uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) Party, the upstart political party currently polling at roughly eight percent of which former President Jacob Zuma is the face, is a win for Russia. Ergo, it is a win for the BRICS+ grouping of countries. According to this line of thinking, greater support for the MK party in South Africa’s upcoming national elections that are to be held on 29 May 2024 would increase the prospect of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), for which electoral support is widely predicted will fall below 50 percent for the first time since the advent of democracy in 1994, having to enter into a coalition with it to form a national government. Entering into a coalition government with the ANC would, by virtue of Mr Zuma’s reputedly close personal relations with President Putin and the strong diplomatic ties forged between their countries during his previous administration, lead the new administration to seek closer ties with Russia. It could be reasonably presumed that this cooperation would extend to the nuclear sphere where, if reports are to be believed, the previous administration under Mr Zuma was close to finalising a deal with Russia for the expansion of South Africa’s nuclear capacity before it was scuppered by a legal challenge brought by civil society organisations Earthlife Africa and the Southern African Faith Communities Environmental Institute in 2017. Should the new government revive this deal, albeit at a reduced scale, it would not only count as a win for Russia and SA, the two parties directly involved in this transaction, but strengthen the broader BRICS+ alliance given the rapidly shifting global geopolitical landscape and developments in the global energy market. Or so the story goes.

For SA, the most obvious benefit would be the backing of a reliable partner with which to increase its long-term energy supply by expanding its nuclear power capacity, an energy policy option which President Zuma still maintains would have averted the rolling electricity blackouts (known as loadshedding in SA) which have been crippling the economy in recent years had his administration’s plans not been thwarted in this regard. On the diplomatic front, partnering with Russia on a flagship infrastructure project would enable the country to repair any damage that could have been done to its relationship with Russia because of the saga surrounding President Putin’s attendance at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg last year. For SA strategists, mending and deepening this relationship is likely to be considered prove essential to helping advance its long-term foreign policy goals such as securing a permanent seat on a reformed UN Security Council.

For Russia, clinching a nuclear deal with South Africa, Africa’s most diversified economy, would vindicate its strategy of leveraging energy resources as part of its foreign policy toolkit; a tactic the Russian government has made a cornerstone of its diplomatic efforts to break free of the isolation which the West has sought to impose on it in the wake of its annexation of Crimea and a central part of its attempts to woo developing nations that have been affected by the knock-on effects (e.g. higher wheat prices) caused by its invasion of Ukraine in 2022. As an ancillary benefit, the endorsement of Russian technology this deal would signal would strengthen Russian nuclear technology suppliers’ position in the nuclear energy market vis-à-vis their competitors in the West; a powerful advantage given raised global interest levels in nuclear power fuelled by the urgency of the current search for less carbon intensive forms of energy generation than traditional fossil fuels and warnings of the voracious energy needs of the expanding Artificial Intelligence industry. Crucially, even if the MK party did not perform as well as predicted at national level but only performed strongly in President Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), the second most populous province in SA, a strong provincial showing might be sufficient to induce influential pro-nuclear politicians from the KZN branch of the ruling party to follow through with the controversial proposal to build a nuclear power station in eThekwini municipality in KZN with Russian backing. In any event, given the long-term financial, scientific and technological relationships nuclear collaboration engenders, bonds would be deepened between two countries within the BRICS groups of nations whilst South Africa’s choice of Russian nuclear technology would strengthen Russia’s diplomatic hand and thereby enable it to draw other developing countries that plan to embark upon nuclear programmes, especially African countries, into its orbit. By extension, the Russia-SA nuclear deal would benefit the BRICS+ group as a whole.

Although appealing in its simplicity, this neat conclusion and the straightforward logic it employs might not be entirely valid as it overlooks several important social and political dynamics that prevail in South African society and fails to factor into account opportunities to undermine the BRICS+ group of countries by exploiting potential divisions within this group these internal South African dynamics could create. In support of this assertion, consider the peculiar racial dynamics that pertain in the province of KZN, President Zuma’s home province and the province where estimated support for the MK Party is estimated to be highest. With an overwhelming black African majority of roughly 85 percentthat is predominantly Zulu, the same ethnic group to which President Zuma belongs, this province also contains significant populations of minority groups. In the context of SA, members of minority groups refer to citizens who were classified as Coloured, Indian and White under Apartheid. Specifically, this province contains an approximately 1,1 million strong Indian community which makes up just less than 10 percent of the province’s population. With roots dating back to the British Colonial era, the relationship between members of this community and those of the Zulu majority can be classified as tense and distrustful. Although largely peaceful most of the time, this pervasive racial tension has sometimes degenerated into inter-communal violence. The most recent episode happened during the unrest that engulfed the province and parts of SA’s economic heartland of Gauteng in July 2021 following President Zuma’s incarceration because he flouted a summons to appear before the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector including Organs of State (popularly known as the ‘Zondo Commission’ for short in SA after the judge who chaired it) which was tasked with investigating allegations of corruption involving high-level political figures and senior civil servants. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the lingering animosity traced to reportedly racially-motivated incidents such as the alleged Phoenix Massacre that took place during these events has not entirely dissipated. Arguably, this racial tension is likely to be exacerbated by longstanding grievances, fostered in part by prominent supporters of Mr Zuma, that Mr Zuma has been persecuted (in legal and political terms that is) because he is Zulu and popular beliefs that the launch of the MK Party is an ethnocentric undertaking that capitalises on Zulu disgruntlement that there are no Zulu leaders in the highest decision-making body of the ruling ANC despite Zulus constituting the single largest ethnic group in SA.

This background suggests that racial tensions in this politically volatile province that holds the dubious distinction of being the province where the greatest number of political murders and assassinations have been committed in the New South Africa are likely to be more fraught than usual in the runup to the elections and the period immediately thereafter. As fate would have it, this period coincides with the months-long Indian election period. Spread over three months, these elections are widely seen as a referendum on the brand of Hindu nationalism espoused by Mr Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Keenly aware of the popular appeal of this ideology and the electoral edge it has given his party over its more secular rivals, Mr Modi’s administration has shown itself to be more than willing to pander to these sentiments to shore up its political fortunes. This willingness can be seen in the manner in which it appears to project itself as a protector of Indianness in general and Indians in the diaspora. By way of example, readers are referred to the stance which the Indian government adopted toward British authorities in response to reports of clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Leicester in the United Kingdom during September 2022 and the swift actions it tookduring the aforementioned week-long violence which engulfed parts of SA in July 2021. Notably, in both these instances, these international stories were taken up by key partisan Indian media outlets whose favourable coverage has reportedly been a major factor in the ascent of Mr Modi’s BJP nationally and in ensuring its grip on power. Based on this precedent, it could be reasonably foreseen that Mr Modi’s administration will believe that it has no choice but to respond forcefully to any perceived threats to Indians abroad lest it cause his party’s campaign to lose momentum in the ongoing domestic elections, especially in contested states where voting is yet to begin or be completed e.g.Odisha.

Those who wish to see the BRICS+ alliance weakened, or even collapse, would be quick to recognize the intense strain a strong electoral showing by the MK party in SA’s upcoming elections could put this alliance under if it increases racial tensions between Africans and Indians in that country. More pointedly, considering simmering tensions between China and India due to ongoing border disputes in the Himalayas, closer economic and military ties between China and India’s implacable foe Pakistan and Indian fears of Chinese encirclement, Western (principally US) strategists would view this scenario as ideal given the US’ overarching strategic goal of cultivating India as a regional bulwark against China, its principal rival for global hegemony. Indeed, with negotiations for a comprehensive mutual defence pact between the US and newly-admitted BRICS+ member Saudi Arabia reportedly already at an advanced stage, US strategists might view instability in SA as an ideal catalyst to deepen military ties with India and help facilitate its planned India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), a project aimed primarily at countering Chinese influence in the Middle East region.

Seen from this perspective, few who are antagonistic to BRICS or would like to see the destruction of this alliance would be unhappy if the MK party performs as well as pollsters predict it would during this month’s elections. For this reason, one urges greater scepticism of the assumption that the ‘MK party is good for BRICS’ which seems to have gained much traction in domestic political commentary circles and amongst ordinary members of the public. Along similar lines, rumours that President Zuma received funding from Russian Military Intelligence to establish the MK Party, a story that has come to be accepted as highly probable, if not true, among large sections of the South African public ought to be treated with greater caution. Last but not least, it might behove the average South African voter to be more circumspect when weighing up various possible domestic and international scenarios before deciding upon which party to vote for.

Dr Gerard Boyce is an Economist and Senior Lecturer in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Howard College) in Durban, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.