If the opinions expressed at a recent academic seminar held in the south of Brazil are any indication, there is considerable faith in BRICS as an expression of ‘South-South cooperation’ among governments, and even selected sections of academia and news commentary. However, while the increasing trade relations between the countries that comprise BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – do reflect greater levels of economic interaction between the less advanced economies, there is a risk of overlooking some of the key assumptions about South-South cooperation when this label is linked to BRICS. These include: the belief that trade between Southern states would be less exploitative than that between the South and the North; and, the belief that economic interactions between states of the South would be more responsive to the development needs of the South. Another key assumption arising from the time the ‘South-South cooperation’ slogan gained traction in the 1960s is that the less advanced economies could progress by de-linking from the advanced economies.
However, it is by no means assured that these assumptions will be borne out by the BRICS’ interactions. For one thing, all of the BRICS are implicated in the new ‘scramble for Africa’. Africa constitutes a key variable in the needs of rapidly growing economies such as those of the emerging states. It is in this context that BRICS’ relations with Africa must be seen, and indeed, that South Africa’s inclusion as a member of BRICS must be viewed. South Africa has positioned itself, rhetorically at least, as a ‘gateway’ to Africa. This stance must be problematized in the light of South Africa’s uncertainty over the conduct of its own private commercial interests in the continent, a position that may shortly be relieved, given the recent ANC policy conference’s commitment to developing a code of conduct for South African businesses operating in Africa. South Africa’s role as a ‘gateway’ should also be problematized in the light of what this role entails: facilitating the economic engagement, whether positive or negative, of external actors with the African continent. A third problem is presented by the evermore well-defined limits of South Africa’s influence in Africa: To which extent can the country act as a gateway when its leadership is uneasily accepted on the continent? The selection process of a Chair for the African Union Commission, for example, has brought to the surface some deep underlying tensions between South Africa and its African neighbours. The lack of support from Nigeria in particular, followed by some unfortunate consular incidents involving nationals of the two countries, proved a testing moment in South Africa’s Africa diplomacy. This, along with the country’s failure to present a strong showing in the UN debates over Resolution 1973 authorising a no-fly zone over Libya – created question-marks over South Africa’s ability to lead in Africa.
South Africa is the largest economy in Africa. Its relations with at least three of its BRIC counterparts are well-established and well-documented. South Africa formed an influential Dialogue Forum with India and Brazil in 2006, under the leadership of then-presidents Thabo Mbeki and Lula da Silva. It is also the foremost trading partner of China in Africa. For these reasons, and for its progressive foreign policy statements and the country’s key role in articulating an ‘African Agenda’ in the first decade of the twenty-first century, South Africa is often perceived as a lead state on the continent. Arguably, this weighed heavily in favour of the country’s inclusion in BRICs, moreso than any absolute indicators of strength or influence the country possesses. Yet, in contrast to the high profile that its inclusion brought South Africa, its membership of BRICs has highlighted a number of tensions and incongruities that pose a dilemma for the country’s foreign policymakers.
‘South-South cooperation’, meanwhile, took form from the end of the 1960s onward, and was inspired by dependencia perspectives advanced by South American scholars. It was evident in the desire of developing countries, recognising a subservient role in relation to the advanced industrialised economies, to de-link from these economies and forge stronger economic ties among themselves, which they assumed would be less exploitative and more relevant to their development. South-South cooperation has taken the form of capital flows and trade contacts, though these are only now beginning to eclipse the established contacts with traditional Northern economic partners. While trade partners like China leave no doubt that they can surpass traditional trade partners from the developed world in Africa, it is certainly still an open question whether this latest incarnation of South-South cooperation will be less exploitative and more relevant to development needs.
How can South Africa’s membership of BRICS enhance the South-South cooperation agenda of BRICS? In South Africa’s foreign policy documents, South-South cooperation is conceptualised through multilateralism and the committed membership of groupings such as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and G77 plus China, and more recent groupings such as the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Trilateral Dialogue Forum, the BASIC climate change coalition, consisting of Brazil, South Africa, India and China, and the G20 group of the world’s most influential economies. More specifically, as noted recently in a statement by the Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, “South Africa’s South-South cooperation strategy is anchored on the BRICS partnership mechanism with China, India, Brazil and Russia.” Further, “[South Africa’s] membership of BRICS has three objectives: to boost job creation and the domestic economy; to support African infrastructure development and industrialisation; and to partner with key players of the South on issues related to global governance and its reform.”1 South Africa, then, represents BRICS’ best opportunity to represent the interests of the least developed states on earth, those in Africa, including the specific interests related to trade, debt relief, investment and climate change. This was illustrated by the Joint Statement of the Sanya Summit of 2011 which included a commitment to NEPAD, and African infrastructure and industrialisation: a clear, new addition to the BRICS agenda.
In conclusion, South Africa’s addition to BRICS has complicated the grouping’s identity. While South Africa is a beneficiary of more extensive trading relations with countries of the developing world through BRICS (and hence of ‘South-South cooperation’), it also has the opportunity to enhance BRICS’ commitment to a deeper form of South-South cooperation: one that underlines the initial assumptions of the term as it developed in the 1960s. As the third democracy, South Africa has the opportunity, with Brazil and India, to make a contribution to the crafting of a rules-based multilateralism, and beyond this, a more pro-development BRICS agenda. However, this will entail fine-tuning its own Africa-centred foreign policy and achieving consistency – as far as possible – in defending this ideal. This would mean seeking African consensus on its UN Security Council positions, or factoring AU positions into its own Security Council positions. To capitalize on its BRICS membership, South Africa needs to adapt its own domestic and regional policies such that it really acts as a gateway to Southern Africa, and is not merely assumed or reputed to be one.
Dr Candice Moore is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Johannesburg.
The article was first published on 9 July 2012 by the IGD.
1 Statement by Deputy Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim at the Presidency Budget vote on South Africa’s Role in Creating a Better Africa and a Better World, 30 May 2012.