On South Africa Becoming a BRIC: Don't Get a Brick Thrown at You

By Saliem Fakir · 12 Jan 2011

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Picture: Steve Crane
Picture: Steve Crane

On the international scene South Africa plays diplomacy for high stakes. Often in the name of Africa and for itself, but this may receive some heckles from those who know that the game of diplomacy is mostly about enlightened self-interest, as the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables more than capably demonstrate.

South Africa’s joining of the BRICS group (as it will henceforth be known since the announcement of South Africa’s membership to the group on Christmas eve last year), involves some insertion and stretching that the country’s inclusion will be good for the entire African continent. The origins of the BRICS relationships can be traced to historical ties of mutual support that the South African liberation movement enjoyed with the ruling forces in India, China and Russia -- at least, during the anti-apartheid struggle years.

Since these ties go back a long way, they have played an important role in South Africa’s acceptance within the BRICS group -- this, despite Africa’s largest economy being an economic minnow. But South Africa also had some work to do to get there. 

South Africa has used its weight in vital peace-making roles and humanitarian assistance in key hotspots on the continent as a way of building its international profile. For this it has received applause.

These networks, built over time, are vital to the BRICS countries, as they grow their involvement on the continent. In this respect, South Africa may serve as a useful sounding board on strategy and dealing with conflicts in the region.

The second area, which South Africa has used to build credibility, is the reliance on its image of being the ‘good example’ for the rest of Africa because of its liberal political environment and democracy.

Its tutelage role for democracy has often been egged on by some parts of the international community, but not without some irritation on the continent itself. Onlookers fall between those with envy and those with genuine admiration. 

South Africa’s credence has also given it a certain moral authority to speak on issues concerning Africa. Whether the country deserves this or has this right to do so is another matter.

However, on the economic front and delivering development for Africa, there may be a different story to tell.

The South African state’s diplomatic agenda may not be very well aligned with that of South African private capital looking for greater profits on the continent.

These commercial inroads have not always been welcomed, but the demand for goods, new sources of finance and lack of capacity within various African economies has made many African countries vulnerable to new economic suitors even though they may drive hard bargains.

But, as South African corporations have come to know, profits are not only for their taking. They are also facing stiff competition with state enterprises and large multinationals from other BRICS countries, never mind the continued presence of corporations from old powers. How these tensions will be dealt with within the BRICS group is still to be seen.

Even then, the positioning of South Africa within BRICS to leverage its own stakes in Africa will not go without contest from other aspiring African countries. External rivalry that comes with resources from non-African countries will only stir the hornet’s nest and serve to juice the internal competition.

Contenders are already multiplying. Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Egypt, Senegal and Algeria are all vying for similar stakes. Their aspirations may belie the ability to achieve stronger political leadership and economic roles soon, but nevertheless they will not simply disappear either despite South Africa being in a better position to exploit the gap at present.

On the economic front there may well be other realities to confront. Some predict that Nigeria is more than likely to surpass South Africa’s GDP in a decade or so.

Others will challenge the usual trope or perception that South Africa alone can be the sole gateway to Africa. Senegal is contending for that role in West Africa, as well as certain North African countries within the ambit of the Mediterranean region linking Africa and Europe, and then there’s also Kenya in East Africa and Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

On the question of whether South Africa can be a role model and promoter of Africa’s social and economic development you may find murmurs of discord with such a proposition. South Africa’s own internal development agenda is a very long mile to be walked.

Human Development Index and gini-coefficient indicators show some African countries doing better than South Africa. This is certainly true for education. Despite the nominal improvement in matric results this year, South Africa regularly records appalling school results and particularly poor science scores.

This being said, the BRICS countries are also odd bedfellows in their own respect.

While China demonstrates the great ability to show economic success and take a considerable number of its poor out of poverty, the Communist Party has a strong hold on political life. Economic freedom is exchanged for party authoritarianism.

Russia’s politics is best described as an oligarchy run by a mix of mafia like tactics and secret service men. 

And, while India is the largest democracy in the world, it is closely aligned to the US on military and security policy in the Asia region. This has always drawn China’s caution and suspicion.

Then there is the irony of all ironies: India and China have strong ties and trade relations with the military dictatorship in Myanmar, which has constantly violated human rights.

Brazil for its part, sees its future closely tied with Latin America, but is reluctant to go the populist Bolivarian route that Chavez is championing in Latin America. The discovery of vast new oil reserves off the Brazilian coast has only emboldened Brazil’s internationalism and desire for market expansion.

Given the big difference in GDP between South Africa and the other BRICS countries (by a factor of four or five), South Africa has a better fit with Mexico, Turkey, Malaysia and South Korea than it does with the BRICS countries on the basis of GDP measures alone (then too, even their economies are two or three times bigger than our own).

Besides all the usual political banter there is seemingly no compelling reason why South Africa is expected to benefit more than it’s already gained by being a member of the G20.

Firstly, economic benefit arguments do not wash, as South Africa already has strong bilateral economic and trade ties with each of the BRICS countries and the financial flows vary from each. 

Certainly, China’s play is far wider than South Africa. It has interests in the whole of Africa and South Africa is but one player. Its flow of investment and trade is primarily for key resources such as oil and strategic minerals. In this respect, Angola and Sudan are bigger beneficiaries of Chinese investment than South Africa.

Secondly, when it comes to global governance it seems the G20 is probably becoming far more influential than the BRICS, despite its diluted efforts. Recent G20 meetings have been more in the nature of talk rather than any real attempt to tackle global governance issues. Nonetheless, the G20 looks more likely to be turned into a proper decision-making body than the BRICS group.

Thirdly, South Africa is not exactly “on a limb” when it comes to having special exchanges and sharing views with the BRICS countries. South Africa has an observer seat on the UN Security Council on which Brazil, India, China and Russia also sit. It has special bilateral commissions with each of the BRICS countries and shares a trilateral commission with Brazil, and India through the IBSA forum. Notwithstanding the fact that all other BRICS countries are also members of the G20.

So, what explains all this BRICS enthusiasm?

There can be only two reasons: 1) South Africa’s own pretence of exceptionalism within the African continent makes it vulnerable to big league mentality or simply it wants to reinforce its pre-eminence and entrench greater political influence on the continent; and 2) South Africa’s own activities in key parts of the African region makes it a trusted partner and always useful when the BRICS countries carve their economic pie in the region, in which case, they have an African ally to tag along.

But there are potential downsides. The BRICS countries themselves are not without political and economic rivalry even though the BRICS formation may confer a semblance of congeniality.

South Africa may find itself caught up in their political and economic conflicts as rivalries play themselves out in their own regions and within the international system.

Each of the emerging economies has different diplomatic approaches, as well as economic and development strategies when working with Africa. Some of these may not be consistent with South Africa’s human rights culture. Moreover, South Africa is unlikely to influence a common approach to economic development for Africa in line with New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) goals, as discussions in the BRICS group are not binding agreements.

Some of these development related conflicts involve the reluctance to use local labour on infrastructure projects, the dumping of cheap goods that affect domestic industries, displacement of communities because of land grabs and conflicts over the extraction of energy resources.

South Africa may be caught in a moral dilemma over these issues. Indeed, like it did with the Dalai Lama and the conflict in Myanmar. It can’t pretend to be the beacon of democracy in Africa as well as potentially complicit in undermining it elsewhere.

Conflicts over social, economic and human rights in our own backyard may unleash a backlash against any of the violating BRICS countries ending up alienating and isolating South Africa on the continent.

The next BRICS summit, where for the first time South Africa will participate as a member of the group, is scheduled for April in Beijing. However, having formalised our participation within the BRICS group, we should treat every step with some caution as we may lose friends and embolden enemies.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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