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Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sergei Lavrov is welcomed by South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor ahead of their meeting at the OR Tambo Building in Pretoria on Jan. 23.PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP/Getty Images

South Africa will join Russia in pushing for a “redesigned global order” in which a greater role is played by non-Western organizations such as the BRICS partnership, South Africa’s foreign minister says.

Naledi Pandor made the comment on Monday as she met Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at the beginning of his latest tour of African capitals. Russia and South Africa are two of the five members of BRICS, along with China, India and Brazil.

The war in Ukraine has revitalized Moscow’s campaign for new organizations to compete with Western-dominated blocs such as the Group of Seven. There is growing talk that BRICS could expand within the next year to include possible new entrants such as Nigeria, Egypt, Venezuela, Iran, Argentina or Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this month, Ms. Pandor said there was “very, very significant demand” for membership in BRICS. A decision on expansion is likely to be made this year, during South Africa’s term as chair of the group, she said.

Russia more isolated than ever at G20 as Lavrov attempts to stave off declaration criticizing the war in Ukraine

The BRICS countries are already discussing the possibility of challenging the global dominance of the U.S. dollar by using other currencies in their trading relations, Ms. Pandor said.

On Monday, as she sat with Mr. Lavrov, she continued to promote the BRICS role. “BRICS should play a pro-active role in emerging processes to ensure it is part of a redesigned global order,” Ms. Pandor said.

“The current global geopolitical tensions clearly signal the need to create institutional mechanisms that will have the stature, form and global trust to promote global peace and security,” she said.

Mr. Lavrov said he discussed BRICS in detail with Ms. Pandor in their meeting. “We all agree that this structure is an example of truly multilateral and multipolar diplomacy, based on a search for a balance of interests,” he said.

Steven Gruzd, head of the Russia-Africa research program at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said the BRICS group has “found a new lease on life” as a result of the Ukraine conflict.

“There’s a strong affinity in the group that the world should not have one superpower, and that one superpower should not be the U.S. – there must be multipolarity, there must be other centres of power,” Mr. Gruzd told The Globe and Mail.

“I think BRICS is reinventing itself, and it’s finding traction, and indeed it’s setting itself up as a kind of rival of the G7.”

Moscow is clearly launching a major push for African support this year. After visiting four African countries last July, Mr. Lavrov is visiting four more this month and another four next month. His current tour includes Angola, Botswana and Eswatini, and the tour next month is expected to include Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Mauritania.

China’s foreign minister, meanwhile, visited five African countries this month, and two senior U.S. officials are in the midst of their own separate visits to six African countries this week. The global powers know that they have a better chance of winning United Nations votes and demonstrating that they are not isolated on the world stage if they can win the support of African countries.

“There is a battle for hearts and minds, and definitely an intensification,” Mr. Gruzd said.

“The stakes are high, and the game is on. Africa has become a destination. Africa has 54 votes in the UN General Assembly.”

On the first day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, the South African government demanded an immediate Russian withdrawal. It warned that the Russian military action would cause “human suffering and destruction” and huge damage to the global economy. But since then, South Africa has refused to repeat this criticism, instead choosing to abstain in UN votes, while calling for dialogue and negotiations.

On Monday, when asked whether she had repeated any of her original criticism to the Russian foreign minister, Ms. Pandor said she would seem “quite simplistic and infantile” if she did so – “given the massive transfer of arms” to Ukraine from its allies.

She said her talks with Mr. Lavrov were “wonderful” and she described South Africa as a friend of Russia with a strengthening relationship. Mr. Lavrov, for his part, had only praise for South Africa and its stand on global issues.

A small group of protesters, waving Ukrainian flags, demonstrated outside the government building where the meeting took place.

In another sign of South Africa’s expanding links with Russia, the two countries – along with China – have announced plans for naval exercises in South Africa next month, with Russian warships involved. The South African defence force said the naval drills will bolster “the already flourishing relations” among Russia, China and South Africa.

Cornelius Monama, spokesperson for the South African defence ministry, said on Monday that the naval exercises do not imply that South Africa is abandoning its neutrality on the Russia-Ukraine war.

But observers noted that South Africa agreed to host the exercises on dates that include the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “It’s thumbing its nose at the West,” Mr. Gruzd said.

The planned exercises have already sparked controversy. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, asked about the naval exercises on Monday, said: “The United States has concerns about any country exercising with Russia while Russia wages a brutal war against Ukraine.”

Russia’s state news agency TASS announced on Monday that a Russian warship armed with the latest hypersonic cruise weapons will participate in the exercises in South Africa next month. The missiles are nine times faster than the speed of sound and have a range of more than 1,000 kilometres.

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