As South Africa prepares to host the 10th summit of BRICS from 25-27 July for the second time, its role since joining the grouping in 2011 invites reflection. It has often been remarked that South Africa’s aggressive pursuit of membership in BRICS has not been matched by any clarity of thought about what it wished to achieve for the country or how its strategic interests would be advanced or find expression in BRICS, beyond the celebratory back-slapping of adding its name to the acronym.

South Africa’s White Paper on foreign policy (May 2011) had the sub-title, “Building a Better World”, and was underpinned by the humanist principles of Ubuntu (humanity) and Batho Pele (putting people first). There was an explicit emphasis on pan-Africanism and South-South solidarity as anchors of its international engagements, with a profound normative focus on championing human rights, democracy, reconciliation; and eradicating poverty and underdevelopment.

However, the White Paper’s people-oriented promise was betrayed by a depreciation of South Africa’s moral currency and diplomatic stature in international affairs under former President Jacob Zuma. There was a drift away from the normative ethos of its external engagements towards forms of crude instrumentalism, diplomatic ceremonialism, and unprincipled pragmatism. These were compounded by Zuma’s predatory and patrimonial style of politics at home whose taproot deeply penetrated the body politic through factionalism, corruption, abuse of public resources, and lack of accountability.

Under President Ramaphosa, South Africa now has an opportunity to once more play an influential and consequential leadership role on the global stage that is normatively defined and ethically driven, and thereby help to repair the damage of the Zuma years. Up to now, its precise role in BRICS has been rather ambivalent and confusing, made even more worrisome against the backdrop of an increasingly fractious and uncertain global order, and a mercurial US President Trump. A cosmopolitan globalisation that once was supposed to provide prosperity for all has increasingly given way to the realist tribalisation of international relations where the powerful get what they desire and the weak suffer what they must. However, against these extremes and in terms of the prescripts of Ubuntu and Batho Pele, we are also “unavoidably side by side” (as Immanuel Kant reminds us) while our mutual vulnerabilities and degrees of interconnectedness as humans have vastly increased.

As a categorical imperative, South Africa must therefore help to shape the strategic and substantive interface between BRICS and Africa in the first instance since its moral infrastructure in foreign policy since 1994 has been an Afro-centric one. This will require a redefinition of South Africa’s ‘Africa Agenda’ that takes into account some changing strategic realities concerning the continent’s integration and development priorities.  In this regard, there are three considerations. 

The first relates to the broad integration template of Agenda 2063 that will propel ‘The Africa We Want’. Agenda 2063 represents a transformative vision and a policy framework to achieve “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena”.

A critical element of Agenda 2063 is giving life to new and productive activities and shifting from traditional rent-seeking and extractive sectors to more value-enhancing activities that are capable of engendering nascent forms of industrialisation based on Africa’s comparative advantages in manufacturing, services, and agriculture. The imperative for an enhanced BRICS role in Africa’s structural transformation should be informed by the reality that resource extraction has reached a point of diminishing returns and is limiting Africa’s long-term growth and development prospects.

The second consideration which supports Agenda 2063 is the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area early this month, an initiative where BRICS should find mutually beneficial synergies. South Africa has joined 50 countries that have signed onto what is now the largest free trade area in the world, with a population of 1.2 billion people and a GDP of $3.4trillion. It creates a single African market for goods and services, facilitated by the free movement of people, capital, and investment that will unlock great opportunities for scale production, market access, and resource usage. 

Given the neo-mercantilist impulses of the EU and US in Africa, BRICS’ challenge is how they locate themselves to take advantage of the anticipated increase in intra-African trade of more than 50%, which could even be higher if the significant non-tariff hurdles could be addressed. We should also not ignore Africa’s supply-side constraints, especially in trade-related infrastructure as well as knowledge, financial, and technology transfers. Here China and South Africa have made significant contributions which BRICS could usefully build upon. 

The third is a recent development in the form of the Africa Economic Platform (AEP), which is expected to be the African equivalent of the Davos-based World Economic Forum. Formed in 2014 under the auspices of the African Union and based on broad African and international stakeholder engagement, the AEP serves as the organisational and financing vehicle for 10-year programmes arising from Agenda 2063. There is an acknowledgement that the success of such programmes will not be realised through Africa’s perennial reliance on external sources of funding and hence the overwhelming imperative for Africa to finance its own growth and development through mobilising domestic resources while inviting global partnerships. As a potential partner, BRICS could be integral to the success of the AEP. 

The spirit of Ubuntu and Batho Pele must infuse South Africa’s recalibrated Africa agenda such that its membership in BRICS becomes demonstrably more meaningful for Africa. It must unambiguously address its frayed image and eroded identity in Africa by defining new normative parameters based on solidarity, cooperation, responsibility, and empathy. 

It’s said that the owl of Minerva flies at dusk; let’s hope South Africa can guide the correct perspectives for BRICS in Africa.

Garth le Pere is Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria

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