The strong showing from African countries was expected, but it was not the usual suspects of previous eras. Picture: GCIS

Pretoria - President Cyril Ramaphosa's inauguration was like none other seen since 1994. Instead of being a select elite crowd attending with all the pomp and ceremony of the Union Buildings as in years gone by, this time the president was with the people - tens of thousands of them all in one stadium. 

The event still had all the grandeur of the occasion with the flags, red carpets and jets flying overhead, but with a distinct difference - the common touch. 

Symbolically the choice of venue could have been seen as an attempt to bridge South Africa’s gaping wealth divide that tends to separate the haves from the have-nots.

As a Foreign Editor it was particularly interesting to observe which foreign dignitaries graced the occasion with their presence. The strong showing from African countries was expected, but it was not the usual suspects of previous eras - Robert Mugabe, Joseph Kabila, and the like.

All the SADC Heads of State were in attendance, in a genuinely robust display of regional solidarity. The SADC states have shown remarkable regional solidarity in recent years on local issues and in terms of international solidarity whether on Western Sahara, Palestine, or even Venezuela. It is the SADC states which also lobbied hardest for Ramaphosa to exercise a leadership role on the continent as AU Chair next year.

Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde was also in attendance as the Chair of the Regional Economic Community of IGAD, representing a country that has been set on a new trajectory of tolerance, plurality and dialogue. 

President Felix Tshisekedi was also a welcome break from the Kabila monopoly on power, even though he is yet to chart a new road map towards people-centred development in his country. 

Nigeria, as the other continental heavyweight, was represented by the highly respected Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who is also a professor and senior advocate.

Perhaps most interesting were those chosen to represent the BRICS countries. Russia was represented by the Minister of Natural Resources Dmitry Kobylkin, who also happens to be the co-chair of the bilateral commission on trade and economy. This choice seems to underscore the importance Russia attaches to trade, particularly in natural resources between the two countries.

China was represented by the vice chairperson of the Standing Committee of the National Peoples’ Congress, Hao Mingjin, who is an important figure in the Chinese political lexicon - the equivalent of a vice-president. In terms of BRICS representation, China sent the most senior government representative out of the four countries.

Brazil was represented by the powerful Minister of Defence Fernando Azevedo e-Silva, who is perhaps the closest in the Brazilian cabinet to President Jair Bolsonaro, who is chairing BRICS this year. It was an interesting choice of ministers given that Bolsonaro has been accused of the militarisation of Brazilian politics, and has stacked his cabinet with military generals. But the fact that the Defence Minister was sent to represent Brazil shows that Bolsonaro chose one of his closest allies to represent him at the inauguration.   

India, which has recently been in the final stretch of their protracted electoral process, did not send a cabinet minister, but was represented by the newly arrived High Commissioner Jaideep Sarkar. Dynamics in India this week were at fever pitch with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi claiming a landslide victory on Thursday, cementing him as a formidable Hindu nationalist leader. Had the timing been different, India would have likely sent a minister.

All in all there were 34 VIPs, with all the heads of state coming from Africa - very much reflecting the reality that Africa lies at the heart of South Africa’s international relations.