BRICS participation gives transitory satisfaction, but real choices needed - News24

President Cyril Ramaphosa and his government are no doubtless enjoying a rare moment of afterglow satisfaction.

Terence Corrigan

President Cyril Ramaphosa and his government are no doubtless enjoying a rare moment of afterglow satisfaction.  

The recent BRICS Summit went off successfully with the announcement of the accession of six new members. South Africa hosted a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping and avoided the complications of the in-person presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The president might have been especially flattered by the compliment paid to him by Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General, that his leadership "on the world stage is unmatched".

Ramaphosa appeared sage and statesmanlike. 

"The world is changing," he said, pointing to all manner of shifting global dynamics. This demanded big global changes, including "a fundamental reform of the institutions of global governance". This has been a long-standing South African position, and BRICS is the latest iteration of the country’s claim to "punch above its weight".

No neat description

Post-apartheid South Africa hoped to leverage its moral force and economic pre-eminence in Africa, with the ultimate prize (unattained) of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Later came the reconstitution of the Organisation of African Unity as the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Development, the "African Renaissance" agenda. This ultimately fell short of hopes as the commitment to good governance proved flexible at best – notably over the South African government's backing of ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe.   

BRICS gave South Africa a seat among formidable company and has arguably become the most prominent reference point in its foreign engagements. It's revealing that the BRICS Summit coincided with elections in Zimbabwe and largely overshadowed them. 

BRICS has captured the imagination not only of the ANC and government – it's the perennial alternative to South Africa's existing economic relationships, the all-purpose future "solution" – but also many other political actors and more than a few commentators.

Yet BRICS (or whatever the expanded body will be called) defies neat description. The acronym itself was originally coined (as BRIC) to describe the emerging market dynamos of twenty years ago. Brazil, Russia, India and China took this up and got together at a summit in 2009. South Africa (appending the S) was a later and fundamentally political addition. 

A bloc? Possibly, but in what sense? There are some mutual interests in reforming – or even overthrowing – global institutions, but equally severe differences over key issues. An alliance? A more muscular version of the Non-Aligned Movement? Implausible since Russia was one of yesteryear's alignments, and China is one of today’s (incidentally, the ANC has declared itself with China, so not much non-alignment there anyway). India and China have serious unresolved border issues that occasionally flare up into violence; India has actually been growing its cooperation with the United States over this matter. Watch Chinese encroachment on Russia's eastern reaches in future, too.  

A trade and investment deal? No. Some commentary speaks as though BRICS is a composite catchment area for capital flows, and South Africa will benefit by association. There is nothing in BRICS akin to the European Union or the hoped-for future of the African Free Trade Association. Trade and investment depend on the efforts and circumstances of the individual countries to attract it to their individual shores. There have even been severe problems among them, such as the dispute between Brazil and South Africa over chicken imports.

Consequences of government's choices 

Whatever weight and influence the BRICS group ("group” being as specific as can really be expressed) can bring to bear rests on the standing and influence of each individual member. Yes, the whole may be worth more than the sum of the parts, but the benefits or influence that any member will derive from BRICS will still rest firmly on what each is able to bring to the table.

South Africa was never comparable to the original BRIC. It lacks the population size, and its economy falls far short of the others: World Bank data for 2022 puts South Africa's GDP at $406bn, against $1 920bn for Brazil, $2 240bn for Russia, $3 385bn for India and a whopping $17 965bn for China. 

Like Brazil, South Africa could claim a certain continental stature. Acting for an inadequately represented Africa has been a part of the diplomatic offering that South Africa makes. But as some countries on the continent have made progress – however uneven – South Africa risks losing this advantage. At the very least, it can no longer claim to be the gateway to Africa.

In reality, South Africa has a faltering, low-growth economy, an increasingly frustrated population and a state that is unable even to perform many of its functions. It has compounded this by a confusing, uncertain and sometimes even investment-hostile policy environment. 

These are the consequences – direct and indirect – of choices the government has made. Ramaphosa and his administration carry equal blame for this as his predecessors: its commitment to the de-professionalisation of the civil service through cadre deployment, to the attack on property rights through Expropriation without Compensation, or to ramping up the costs and complexities of doing business through aggressive race-based labour and "empowerment policy".

All of this while declaiming the centrality of the state to South Africa's future. Ironically, it was left to a Chinese official to call for the relaxation of empowerment demands to resolve South Africa's debilitating energy crisis. This is worth heeding, for both China and India achieved economic take-off by being prepared to step back from the dead man's grip of ideology on their respective economies.

The world, as President Ramaphosa says, is indeed changing. Whether South Africa will be in a position to influence it depends less on whether it contributes a letter to an acronym than on whether it, too, can change. The signs are not encouraging. 

Terence Corrigan is projects and publications manager at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR)