South Africa has just been elected to serve a second two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.  This is a welcome development, and provides South Africa – and the Continent – with another opportunity to demonstrate Africa’s capacity to take part in global decision making; and to shape discussion and choices at the highest level.  It also provides South Africa with an opportunity to make up for the perceived shortcomings of its last stint on the Council.

Many observers found the Rainbow Nation’s democratic origins to be at odds with some of their statements and votes.  Criticism of South Africa’s refusal to allow Zimbabwe to be debated in detail at the Council still rankles – both within the country and globally.  But there was a good reason for this – Zimbabwe was apparently being handled as an African issue at the time.  Three years on and it will be harder for South Africa to make the same claim with very much credibility.  This will leave Pretoria’s political strategists with a problem.  There are much bigger prizes to be won whilst serving on the Security Council.  The prizes are especially clear when one sees who else will be on the Council – at least during 2011.

Including permanent and non-permanent members 2011 offers the prospect of a BRICS Security Council.  Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will all be on the Council together.  This offers a real prospect for issues that matter to the BRICS countries to be debated – and perhaps resolved.  Perhaps we might finally see real reform of the Security Council during this time.  Certainly the western permanent members will find it very hard to argue against a well made case, backed by the countries – and the economies – in which they all want to invest.  But the challenge to the BRICS countries will be to keep their demands in proportion – and within the bounds of political possibility.  Too much band standing for the sake of scoring political points with other African leaders will quickly backfire on South Africa.  Better to use well founded principle to back up their Security Council action.  They have experience of this – the vote on human rights in Burma is a case in point.  South Africa had good cause to vote against – but it handled the politic and the PR very poorly.  These days, “good” service on the Security Council is a lot more transparent and demanding.  Pretoria will need to bring their own population along, and provide wise counsel with the other BRICS.