This year is South Africa’s turn to host the BRICS presidency. The statements thus far have focused on synergy and continuity of previous BRICS summit joint statements and declarations, but pivoted upon taking active steps towards a national and international developmental agenda. In addition, South Africa has identified four new key priorities for its presidency in 2018 by establishing a vaccine research platform, a forum centred on gender and women, a working group on peacekeeping, and further linkages between economic partnerships and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Having joined the partnership in 2010, South Africa’s membership has been questioned critically due to a weaker economic position contra the BRIC complement; however, others have lauded South Africa’s ability to punch above its weight. As South Africa undertakes the chairing duties and prepares for the summit, scheduled for 25 – 27 July 2018 in Johannesburg, it is important to explore which stakeholders contribute to the formal discussion on BRICS and the challenges and opportunities they may face in 2018.
The first of three levels contributing to the discussion, Track I diplomacy, consists of the official governmental engagement between the BRICS partners. At national government level, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) liaises with Parliament, the Presidency and various technical departments in making links to achieve their foreign policy. The BRICS partnership holds strategic importance for South Africa’s international relations, as emerging powers are changing the geopolitical landscape and existing power structures. This membership makes a significant contribution to South Africa’s soft power potential and strengthened bilateral and multilateral ties, which have contributed to increased co-operation in trade, finance, development and other sectors. The BRICS’ interest in the rest of Africa also allows alternative forms of finance to reach the continent. While the BRICS have been criticised for focusing their trade on commodities, exporting cheap retail objects to Africa and replicating neo-colonial models of cooperation, the diverse forms of development and peace and security assistance have also presented alternative options of growth and empowerment for the continent. For many South Africans it is still difficult to discern why South Africa is part of this partnership and why it may benefit. Government departments and official agencies will indeed step up their public communications for a period, yet it is important to keep the citizenry informed at all times.
Track II diplomacy includes officially designated or government-affiliated institutions such as the BRICS Think Tanks Council (SABTT) and the BRICS Business Council (SABBC), which were both institutionalised in 2013. The pre and post-summit SABTT discussions will be drawn from a theme of inclusivity, whereby research will be focused on four areas: 1) economic prosperity and inclusive growth; 2) prioritising our productive, creative, and scientific powers; 3) conflict resolution, peace and social justice; and 4) revisiting the global commons by strengthening responsible forms of strategic cooperation and sustainable development. These research areas are central to the South African context; however, communicating academic research to a wider audience that includes government, businesses, civil society and citizens may remain a challenge. Similarly, businesses in the BRICS countries also have an important role to play in strengthening the partnership and facilitating trade and investment links between the governments. At present, there are a number of working groups on the topics of infrastructure, deregulation, agribusiness, financial services, energy and the green economy, skills, manufacturing and aviation; which were created to support businesses to navigate markets and gain a better understanding of the various dynamics in the BRICS countries.
The third track of diplomacy, Track III, includes interaction with civil society organisations and people-to-people engagement, which represents the largest South African stakeholder, the citizens. Civil society organisations were first invited to the 2015 BRICS summit, held in Ufa, Russia. This diplomacy track is still in the processes of moving towards institutionalisation and thus engagements are held on an ad hoc basis. Civil Society allows more citizens to engage on core societal and developmental issues, as well as receive more information regarding BRICS and how individuals may benefit or become involved. The bigger challenge that the South African civil society contingent is experiencing is access to sufficient funding to support their activities in communicating the BRICS agenda, in addition to carrying out their responsibilities. National government departments, such as DIRCO have been quick to support ad hoc meetings; however, more work needs to be covered consistently in order to support the Civil BRICS movement.
Based on the interaction in the various tracks of diplomacy, it is possible to see both a bottom-up and top-down approach to South Africa’s agenda setting. Actors are able to draw clear linkages between national priorities, found in documents similar to the Constitution, the National Development Plan 2030 and various emerging trends, and foreign policy commitments. Although DIRCO has explained that it envisions BRICS having a direct impact on South African domestic priorities, glaring economic and social disparities still exist, which call to question the attentions paid to these partnerships. The upcoming summit is being anticipated as a prestigious event in South Africa’s diplomatic calendar, which may garner national success if a synergised communication strategy includes all stake holders.
Arina Muresan is a researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the IGD or UNISA.