Unpacking South Africa’s BRICS in Africa equation

Photo (c) GCIS
Photo: Delegates listen during the BRICS Leaders Africa Dialogue Forum held in Durban.

In a move that has generated much excitement, South Africa has invited representatives from various African continental institutions, including regional economic blocs to the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) Summit (26-27 March 2013).

 BRICS leaders will meet them to discuss Africa’s infrastructure development priorities under the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) framework. This is in line with the Summit theme, “BRICS and Africa – partnership for development, integration and industrialisation”.

South Africa has positioned its BRICS membership on three pillars: national interest; regional integration; and infrastructure development. It is the regional integration and infrastructure development pillars that hold the most promise for Africa. These pillars are partly motivated by the realisation that South Africa’s economic growth is also tied to the continent’s fortunes. Africa, and particularly the SADC region, is a key market for South Africa, especially for its manufacturing exports and services companies.

In the BRICS rankings, South Africa is currently the third largest trading partner for Africa. However, South Africa is in competition with other BRIC countries for the African market, and regional integration could help to enhance South Africa’s position on the continent by promoting intra-regional trade. Infrastructure development, on the other hand, serves as a foundation for deeper restructuring of economies by addressing supply side constraints and thus also has the potential to boost intra-African trade and integration. Both these two pillars are continental imperatives endorsed by the African Union. Key to the success of these is the active buy-in and participation of the rest of Africa and this includes the creation of an enabling environment for trade and investment. South Africa is also actively pushing for the establishment of the mooted BRICS development bank as a potential source of investment for infrastructure development in the continent, and has even offered to host the institution.

Critics of the involvement of Africa at this year’s BRICS Summit have alluded to the fact that South Africa’s membership of the BRICS is as an individual country and not as a representative of the continent. They argue that there is no space to be discussing African priorities when the BRICS have their own ambitious internal agenda.  There is also the question of whether South Africa will always be able to rationalise its core strategic interests with those of Africa in forums where it is the only African member.

Such criticism is not without merit but it has to be viewed in context. Since the days of former president Thabo Mbeki’s administration, South Africa has championed the African agenda and played a leadership role on the continent. The country was pivotal in establishing NEPAD, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), and the African Renaissance Fund. It spearheaded efforts for the launch of the African Union (AU) in 2002. While President Jacob Zuma has largely left foreign policy analysts guessing on a number of occasions, there has not been a significant departure from Mbeki’s Africa-first approach. South Africa has continued to be active in convening and helping shape the African development discourse, both within the continent and globally. Even now it seeks to do this from the frontlines rather than leading from behind. This has been evident, for instance, in South Africa’s race for the African Union Commission chair.

It has been argued that the other BRIC countries are leaders in their own right by virtue of their economic power, population strength and growing political influence and that they do not take it upon themselves to shoulder the burdens of their region in the same way that South Africa does. South Africa seems to have a perception of its obligation to the African continent that goes beyond national self-interest and seeks to make good on its commitment to promoting Africa’s economic development.

South Africa’s approach to the BRICS Summit is therefore logical in this context. Nevertheless, the real question is whether South Africa can be expected to deliver any tangible benefits for Africa through its BRICS membership. During the global economic crisis, the BRICS as an alternative market for African exports have been instrumental in changing Africa’s growth trajectory. BRICS-Africa trade has increased tenfold since 2002, with an estimated current value of US$340bn.  There needs to be a strategy for leveraging this growing relationship.

South Africa is potentially providing a platform and leading the dialogue with the emerging economies on Africa’s development imperatives. This becomes particularly important when one considers the activities of BRICS members such as China, India and Brazil on the African continent and the need to reframe the trading relations away from the traditional commodity-export route. Africa should not continue to be a commodity supplier for the industrial development of other countries.

It is not all roses however. While South Africa has sought buy-in from regional blocs and the AU and NEPAD through this engagement after the BRICS summit, bilateral relations still remain important. South Africa’s leadership role is not accepted by all African countries, particularly the other regional anchors such as Nigeria. Bilateral engagement with key states such as Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Ethiopia and Egypt is vital to South Africa’s continental initiatives and their success. Establishing an outreach platform through the BRICS should be a complement to bilateral engagement with key African countries.

Much has been said about Africa’s engagement with emerging economies and one of the constant themes has been that Africa needs to have a joint strategy for engaging with these new global powerhouses. The BRICS Summit potentially provides an opportunity to reframe the African development discourse with emerging economies. Building stronger bridges with its African counterparts, and using the BRICS to advance Africa’s agenda, would lend substance to South Africa’s membership of the BRICS Forum. It will also keep alive the country’s awareness of its African identity.

SAIIA has produced a new online resource called “The BRICS and the New World Order: A Beginner’s Guide” at www.gegafrica.org.