Another BRICS in the wall: Interview with Maite Nkoana-Mashabane
- Ryland Fisher
- South Africa
- 26 Mar 2013 (South Africa)
One of the biggest events in South Africa this week is the BRICS Summit happening in Durban, bringing together leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa in what is becoming a powerful development world forum. RYLAND FISHER caught up with South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, at her office in Pretoria – to find out why it is important for South Africa to belong to BRICS, and how our country and the continent will benefit.
Do you have a sense that the debate about whether we should or should not be part of BRICS is over, that people have moved on, or is there still a bit of that around?
I think the majority of South Africans have moved on. They now know that we are punching within our weight, because BRICS is not just about the sizes of the populations or the economies.
We are in BRICS because they needed this continental reach. They found us to be a country that historically has run an independent foreign policy, that champions the interests not only of our country but of our continent, and in world affairs we champion international rule of law, democracy and human rights. Human rights are not limited to but also include political, economic and environmental rights.
As far as economic issues are concerned, South Africa runs the most diverse economy on the continent. The Finance Minister has just announced a budget that has very few equals.
The continent of Africa is endowed with mineral wealth, but what is special about South Africa is that our mineral wealth has been confirmed by economics from Citibank, among others, to be worth 2,5 trillion US dollars, that is extractable and can be processed. This is unequalled because it has been verified.
South Africa also champions the cause for Africa, be it political, economic, trade and also from an infrastructure perspective. South Africa, in global terms, boasts the finest expertise in financial services.
There are many pluses that confirm our membership of BRICS. We believe that the few who are still dragging their feet should quicken their steps because we are now members of BRICS and this is the time to look at how we can take advantage of this.
South Africa is obviously seen as a very small economy compared to the other economies in BRICS. How do you avoid being bullied by the bigger economies or is that not an issue?
Since we joined BRICS, we have seen changes. When we applied to join BRICS, the overall trade deficit between us and other members of this forum was about 57 billion US dollars. In the short time since we have been members of BRICS, it has come down from 57 billion to 24 billion US dollars.
Many of these economies, including those who were our traditional partners, were looking at Africa’s, and particularly South Africa’s, mineral wealth as a place where they should just come and extract.
If you look at the things that have been unanimously agreed to, such as the BRICS/Africa Partnership for Development and Industrialisation, this talks clearly to how we prioritise integration of our infrastructure build in South Africa and broadly on our continent. Our president has been appointed by all heads of state to champion what we call PICI (the Presidential Infrastructure Champion Initiative) on our continent.
This will help integrate faster the economies on our continent. But this means business for those who have the means and who can invest, and we see them as the ones who are moving into Africa at the fastest pace. Africa has now become the second-fastest growing economic region in the world today. We are very much of that very exciting situation.
But we have also been championing beneficiation of our mineral resources and now African leaders are talking about that in unison.
For us, beneficiation should bring industrialisation, but it also helps to respond to the five key priority areas. These are growing our economy, broadly bringing about beneficiation and industrialisation which should also offer dependable, sustainable and decent jobs.
That is why we are also emphasising development in our country, through (Higher Education) Minister (Blade) Nzimande we are also talking about upping the ante on the learning from other countries and upscaling the skills development of artisans to be able to take advantage of this drive for beneficiation and industrialisation.
It appears that there is quite a bit going on, but how do ordinary people get to hear about it and how do they get to benefit from it?
Ordinary people will continue to hear about it as we move on. By the way, BRICS is very new. This is the fifth summit – and the summit is every year – but you can feel the impact is reverberating all over the world. That’s positive.
The first vision document for BRICS was adopted when we joined at the third summit in China in 2011. This document outlined the vision of what BRICS stands for.
As South Africans, how do we make sure that people know more about BRICS? We are the incoming chair of BRICS for the next 12 months. As we adopt the EThekwini Declaration, we will also be outlining a year-long action plan on a series of projects that we will be running in partnership with other BRICS member states here in South Africa and in other countries.
These partnerships will also bring in civil society – I hear that there is a complaint about the involvement of civil society – but we have launched, among others, a BRICS think tank.
This was part of the build-up to make ordinary South African citizens and citizens from other BRICS countries take ownership of this initiative. Yes, initiatives come through government but in democracies, they also have to be owned by the people.
We don’t want to depend on thinkers from elsewhere about where we should go next. We want our own academia, our own thinkers, our own civil society, our own people to people contact, to determine what BRICS is going to be about in future.
Is there enough time for the think tank and others to make proper input into BRICS?
This is the beginning, but we have to start somewhere. BRICS is a forum that was started four and half years ago. It is still in its initial stages, but we like the excitement and the challenges that come with it.
I have alluded to the economic benefits of us belonging to BRICS. Africa is no longer referred to as the Dark Continent; it is now referred to as the world of opportunity because others who used to take us for granted are seeing that BRICS countries are beginning to invest more, to trade more with the continent.
We find BRICS countries are very interested in investing in our infrastructure build. When we say we want industrialisation through beneficiation in our country, they adopt the theme.
For the first time in the history of BRICS, they have agreed to have a BRICS Africa retreat, where they will be listening to the aspirations of African leaders on what they want to see happening. South Africa’s foreign policy makes us champion Africa’s interests, wherever we are found.
Who is coming to represent the continent in this retreat?
There will be eight members of the PICI (the Presidential Infrastructure Champion Initiative) on the continent. Some of them also double as members of the steering committee of Nepad.
The third layer will be about 20 heads of state who are chairpersons of the regional economic corporations on the continent. They will also be there, from Cape to Cairo, representing the regional blocs on the continent.
But the agenda is very focused. It deals with the key issues that African leaders under the AU are focusing on.
For ordinary South Africans, it means another alternative voice on how we can turn around our economic fortunes in this era of global economic crisis.
We will continue to interact with our traditional partners. South Africa champions South-South cooperation and North-South dialogue.
We still consider Western Europe and America as important partners, but we are now looking at alternative ways to continue growing our economy and making sure that ordinary South Africans will have bread on their tables, because of these initiatives that we are getting involved in.
How big is the summit?
Somebody was saying to me why didn’t we invite everybody and maybe there is confusion about NGOs.
The Conference of Partners on Climate Change, for example, is a UN body and had 192 countries, all member states attending.
This is a forum on five countries and, obviously, it is not everyone who gets invited. This is also still very, very new.
We intend to broaden the base and involve all sectors of our society and I want to emphasise that it was with South Africa’s contribution that we now have a vision document for a BRICS that looks at issues such as the maintenance of international rule of law, respecting territorial integrity, the independence of foreign policies without having policies imposed from outside. We are nurturing peace, security and development in its very nascent stages.
We are already talking about NGOs and academia having a voice, we are talking about how we can guide business to make sure that they don’t have their plans going this way while the realities in our countries are going in another direction.
Even in our fifth year, we are already thinking about the possibility of a BRICS-led development bank because the other development banks have not necessarily responded to the challenges of the developing world.
We are also envisaging as one of the key outcomes the currency swops so that we don’t have to depend on one particular currency to trade with each other. We can use our own currencies to do that.
We are also talking about a financial resources pool, so that we could have a kitty where we could put in a certain amount of money between the five BRICS countries to deal with contingency plans. If things could go haywire in one country, we should find ourselves ready to intervene.
These are all new ideas which I think are positive and progressive. They should all be adopted and form part of the eThekwini Declaration.
So who becomes the chairperson of BRICS, you or the president?
The president will become the chairperson of BRICS because it is a summit of heads of state. I facilitate as the minister of international relations. The structure is that you have the president or prime minister, as in the case of India, then you have international relations or foreign ministers, and then you have other sectoral ministers also, depending on the theme that the host country would have identified. Below them you will have the people who will facilitate and draft resolutions, and they are called Sherpas. Our DG is the main Sherpa on the BRICS forum. He is supported by his deputy DG and others.
In Cabinet, we have an inter-ministerial committee, which came through the wisdom of our president. I chair that committee of about 17 ministers who are contributing to the theme that we will be focusing on at this two-day meeting.
How would you judge the success or otherwise of the summit?
The success or otherwise of the summit is judged by the envisaged outcomes. I think the issues that I have already listed: the finalisation of the discussion on the BRICS-led development bank; the launch of a BRICS academic/think tank/civil society forum; the launch of the BRICS business council; the currency pool of the BRICS countries plus the currency swop for trade.
Lastly, the historic BRICS leaders and African leaders retreat. These are the key envisaged outcomes and I think we are almost there. This will not only promote South Africa and the continent’s interests but it will also promote the developing countries’ voice.
The eThekwini Declaration is a key document that builds on the previous declarations and implementation thereof. The Declaration, which is still a draft until it is adopted by all the leaders, will be backed up by an action plan which we will implement in the 12 months during our tenure as the chair of BRICS.
But we already have identifiable projects which are unfolding as we move towards this BRICS summit.
Part of your job is to promote a positive image of South Africa abroad. Has this become more difficult in the light of the recent high-profile violent incidents in South Africa? How does one deal with that?
With the successes that we have achieved internationally, South Africa’s international stature has grown very high. But the minute you are up there, it will mean that you will also bring attention to yourself. People want to know on a daily basis what is happening in this country that had made history by achieving so much success after a period of just two years after going back to the Security Council.
This country that is just 20 years old is now a member of all the important international forums, from the G20 to now the newly-formed BRICS. This country has turned the fortunes of this continent.
For the first time in more than 50 years, we now have a woman chairing the African Union. South Africa ran a very successful Climate Change Framework Convention conference (COP17) which came up with the Durban platform of action which helped to save the Kyoto Protocol. The list is endless.
Because we champion human rights, inclusive of all other rights, we should be judged on what we do about these cases and incidents of crime that are reported, more than on whether the cases are reported or not.
It does not mean that because so many cases are reported, that nothing is going on in other countries.
Other countries also have issues around a few elements in the police who commit this kind of unfortunate incident, but it is how we deal with it when we come across it.
It is the responsibility of all leaders, religious or non-religious, to speak about on issues of incest and the rape of young children. All stakeholders should stand up and speak with one voice. Don’t look the other way. We must make sure that while our communities are beginning to trust the system and reporting the cases, that we are seen to be doing justice and speeding it up.
What is happening is that people are listening to what South Africans say about ourselves rather than what the international community says about us. Everywhere I go this is the message I get. There is no disrespect for South Africa’s international status, but they keep quoting us, South Africans about what we say about ourselves.
South Africa has the highest number of embassies, the highest concentration of diplomats, after Washington – and they actually send their most senior diplomats here – and that is an indication of countries voting with their feet. They see the need to be here.
I know that you are in charge of international relations and the term ‘international relations’ seems to mean that you should not be concerned with what is happening at home. But I understand that everything is interlinked.
I champion what South Africa stands for, I champion national policies. Foreign policy implementation is actually an expression of domestic policy, so there is a linkage. There is no way that I can champion South Africa abroad without understanding what my country is about.
For the year South Africa will be chairing BRICS, what would you see as your biggest objective?
The biggest objective would be the implementation of the action plan which will be adopted at the summit. Key among those will be are we moving forward with the launching of the bank, and whether the business council is making progress. We should ask whether the stakeholders forum which brings think tanks, are reaching out to other smaller institutions and organisations so that South Africans take leadership in engaging with other countries.
It is when the African leaders sit down and say: “Yes, South Africa hosted BRICS and we are making progress in bringing BRICS countries to invest in our infrastructure build in South Africa but also broadly on the continent.” We must be seen to be championing not only infrastructure build but also the integration of our economies.
Photo: South Africa's Foreign Minister and President of the (COP 17) Maite Nkoana-Mashabane speaks at the opening session of the United Nations Climate Change (COP18) in Doha November 26, 2012. REUTERS/Mohammed Dabbous