Brasil's President Jair Bolsonaro, Russia's Vladimir Putin, China's Xi Jinping, South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa, and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi pose for a family photo at the BRICS summit in Brasilia, Brazil. Picture: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters
At the recently held BRICS Summit in Brasilia, Brazil, the five “vibrant nations”pledged their “fundamental commitment to sovereignty, mutual respect and equality and to the shared goal of building a peaceful, stable and prosperous world”.

That the meeting happened was predictable but not with unquestioned certainty because the host, President Jair Bolsonaro’s 2018 campaign for the presidency was laced with rhetoric at variance with the stated tenets of BRICS. Bolsonaro even attacked China and went a step further to visit Taiwan, stating his antipathy to being friendly with communist regimes.

The weight of office and China’s heft as Brazil’s most important trade partner since 2009 meant that Bolsonaro, now president, allowed the Sino-Brazilian status quo to remain unabated.

In the BRICS 2019 Declaration the members “reiterate our commitment to the Paris Agreement adopted under the principles of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.”

This is, indeed, a diplomatic victory for China, most especially, because Bolsonaro previously branded the Paris Agreement suffocating. Under his leadership Brazil has gone from being a champion of environmental protection to being a threat. Whether the BRICS Declaration will temper his gnawing away at the Amazon is up in the air.

South Africa, as the only African member of BRICS carries a heavy responsibility. But it went to Brasilia as a weakened party, undermined by sluggish economic growth and alarming unemployment levels.

It is politic that the declaration described the members as vibrant nations rather than economies - because from 2014, Russia’s and Brazil’s economies have tanked and South Africa’s has been declining.

Despite South Africa’s economic slump, it still is the voice of Africa.

One of its responsibilities is to champion the leveraging of Africa, using the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, in its dealings with non-African partners.

BRICS will ring hollow and South Africa’s lustre will erode in African affairs if they do not bolster intra-African synergy which is at the heart of the trade agreement. Next year, South Africa will assume the AU chairmanship, foisting on it tasks that should fundamentally shape the continent’s trajectory.

The continent's infrastructure deficit is an impediment to economic growth. As AU chair, South Africa will have to use the ideals of Agenda 2063 and the Continental Free Trade Area goals to to look for ways through which the New Development Bank, a BRICS’s structure, could help Africa.

Thus, while South Africa should maintain its commitment to BRICS, its primary brief is captive to Africa’s ideals. Brazil, through its dexterous dealing with China and the US, somehow presents to South Africa what it should do for its internal conditions but also for the continent.

Thankfully, South Africa will not be stamping its authority on a slumbering continent; in fact, the economic weakness of South Africa, Nigeria and Angola tells an opposite story of the success of smaller African economies - Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana and Rwanda - named by the World Bank as “four of the fastest growing economies in the world in 2019".

South Africa’s assessment as AU chair might rest on how well it will harness the boundless potential of smaller but vibrant African economies. For this it will need to promote and contribute to stability across the continent and liaise with the New Development Bank to fix Africa’s infrastructure deficit. As long as its membership at international forums is not used to lift fellow African countries, South Africa’s international exceptionalism will be described, probably justifiably so, as mere tokenism and window dressing.

* Monyae is the director for the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.