Why Africa And South Africa Could Be Lost In The BRICSBy: Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari
THE Eurozone crisis and the current depressed economic outlook in the United States, which both resulted from the 2007 financial crisis, have created space for a more politically assertive South, including deepening economic cooperation between emerging powers, broadly within the region.
First, these new and old forms of political and economic cooperation arguably reached a zenith with the displacement of traditional Western powers through the consolidation and institutionalisation of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) since 2011. Second, the creation of the G20 at summit level in 2008 through a French proposal, also gives credence to global power shifts in international affairs. Third, and decidedly so, the more than a decade old, dead-locked conversation about the reform of the United Nations Security Council also attest to growing voices clamouring for the democratisation of international relations and its leading institutions, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
While many of the policy and academic debates had focussed thus far on the reform of these institutions, the BRICS conversation has taken on a life of its own. More importantly, it provides an exit out of the global institutional reform deadlock through the creation of a parallel power block, and alternative forms of policy entrepreneurship and economic growth paths.
Arguably, the BRICS frenzy is different from the one envisaged in the seminal paper Building Better Global Economic BRICs of 2001 by Jim O’ Neil, the Chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. In its initial form, the BRICs did not have any institutional meaning, but O’ Neil merely sought to conceptually articulate new economic growth points and shifts in global economic relations, with specific reference to Brazil, Russia, India and China. However, its informal economic and political institutionalisation led to the geographical demand for African representation, with South Africa having requested, and received a formal invitation to join the BRICs in December 2010.
Crucially, the body has now created different institutional legs with features of a quasi-international organisation and alliance, including a cross-cutting agenda of common positions on threats and opportunities, a mooted BRICS Development Bank, an academic think tank and exchanges among the youth between member countries. Importantly for Africa, South Africa will host the fifth BRICS summit on 27 March next year in Durban.
While the BRICS bazaar to be convened in Durban next year provides opportunities for South Africa to align and integrate rather than ingratiate? this broad church and tower of babel within its African agenda, three essential questions remain unanswered with regard to the texture and tone of this body in international affairs. Crucially, what does this body mean for Africa? What type of policy-entrepreneurship defines the BRICS?
In the main, the political and economic framing of the BRICS is largely oppositional and this makes the tonality of the body exceedingly reactive by seeking to offer an alternative to the normative western dominated world-view of international affairs. Yet, some of the norms that inform BRICS opposition to a Western-dominated world-view have been accepted as indispensable in the African architecture that has been codified through the Constitutive Act of the African Union.
These norms include democracy and human rights as vital pillars in the new Africa that should emerge. Therefore, it remains to be seen how the imagined Africa-BRICS partnership that South Africa seeks to pursue within the body could successfully include a peace and security agenda without emphasis on the normative framework that serves as a sine qua non condition for peace and security in Africa.
Second, it is an open conundrum as to how South Africa could successfully engineer a different BRICS-Africa agenda outside the existing bilateral relationships between the BRICs and African states. For obvious reasons, which include different values and normative frameworks, Russia, China, Brazil and India prefer pursuing bilateral relationships with African states as these platforms provide the type of engagement that could best serve their national interests.
Concretely, what is the best fit for a BRICS-Africa partnership? And how useful will this partnership be in light of already existing bilateral cooperation between these powers and the African Union?
Third, and perhaps crucially, the oppositional existence of the BRICS is defined by the demand for more equality in international affairs and human prosperity. While the second aspect is laudable, the notion of equality is exceedingly misplaced within the context of the BRICS. Economic importance, and consequentially political weight in international affairs are the lowest common denominators in the BRICS.
In light of this argument, the BRICS accentuates existing global power-inequalities through the creation of a new axis of power. Consider this: what this grouping offers is more of the same and mere diversity in power relations, without deconstructing power as the central locus in international affairs.
As Africa’s unofficial spokesperson in the BRICS, South Africa will have to walk a tightrope, balancing and constructing its own national interest in and through the BRICS, while negotiating and delivering on its African Agenda. Therefore, the challenge for South Africa and Africa is not to get lost in the BRICS.
* Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari is Head of the South African Foreign Policy and African Drivers Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, based at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.