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GEOPOLITICS OP-ED

The pros and the cons of South Africa’s BRICS-driven foreign policy and trade focus

The pros and the cons of South Africa’s BRICS-driven foreign policy and trade focus
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (left) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greet at the Friends of BRICS Leaders dialogue during the 15th BRICS Summit in Johannesburg on 24 August 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Yeshiel Panchia)

The importance of BRICS to Pretoria lies primarily in the country’s desire to balance its relations with Western powers through collective lobbying by states within the group.

With general elections looming, South Africa’s political parties appear to be divided over the country’s foreign policy direction. The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has expressed concern over the admission of additional members to BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), stressing that the new countries appear to be authoritarian.  

The DA considers only three BRICS members to be democracies: South Africa, India and Brazil.

Similar to the DA, ActionSA openly disapproves of South Africa’s relations with BRICS countries. Its leader, Herman Mashaba, asked American lawmakers in June 2023 not to punish South Africa due to the ruling African National Congress (ANC) government’s decision to be on what he perceives to be the wrong side of history.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), on the other hand, has often expressed support for BRICS, with the party’s leader, Julius Malema, welcoming the addition of new members, seeing the group as born out of a need for cooperation rather than exploitation, which is how the EFF often characterises relations with the West.

With a BRICS summit scheduled for Kazan, Russia, in October 2024, it is important to take stock of Pretoria’s engagement with the grouping.

Similar to other BRICS members, post-apartheid South Africa has been historically sceptical about Western dominance of global security and economic governance institutions such as the UN Security Council, the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

While China is Pretoria’s largest trade partner at R17-billion, accounting for 11.9% of its exports and at R31-billion accounting for 20.3% of its imports in January 2024, South Africa continues to reinforce its ties with the European Union – of which Pretoria is one of a dozen global strategic partners, and the only African partner – as well as with other Western multilateral bodies and the United States.

The importance of BRICS to Pretoria lies primarily in the country’s desire to balance its relations with Western powers through collective lobbying by states within the group.

In this regard, three identifiable opportunities accompany South Africa’s membership of BRICS. First, the group’s focus on trade without interference in domestic affairs is part of the partnership terms. This allows its 10 members some independence in engaging in their trading objectives without the need for collective approval or judgement.

Second, an important aspect of South Africa’s BRICS membership is the opportunity to diversify trade between Pretoria and other member states and to focus on manufacturing goods for exports as opposed to exporting raw materials.

South Africa’s exports to countries within the bloc grew by 7.1% between 2016 and 2022, with China being the major contributor to this growth.

Moreover, 21% of Pretoria’s trade with the world was within the BRICS bloc, with China accounting for 67%, India 26.8%, Brazil 4.1% and Russia 1.6%.

This makes each BRICS member a significant trading partner for South Africa, as this increase in commerce represents significant growth in local industries as well, albeit tilted towards imports rather than exports.

BRICS+

Third, following South Africa’s entry into BRICS in 2010, other African countries also expressed interest in joining the group. During the 15th BRICS summit held in Johannesburg in August 2023, five new countries were officially accepted to join the bloc, which was then renamed BRICS+.

Among the new countries were Egypt and Ethiopia, as well as other developing countries including Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In addition, 20 other countries asked to join BRICS in 2022. Fourteen submitted formal applications, including Algeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gabon.

New members of BRICS could serve the purpose of diversifying trading partners for South Africa, which is interested in being less trade-reliant on China, the EU and the US. 

New members also provide Pretoria with more opportunities to engage diplomatically to push for the reform of institutions of global economic governance such as the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF.

South Africa has been vocal about its broad intention to use the bloc to advance Africa’s interests such as reform of global governance institutions, international trade and the work of the Group of 20.

However, there are no clear or detailed strategies for achieving this goal. 

The lack of specific objectives about Pretoria’s interest in promoting African interests in the bloc is apparent in the dealings of individual BRICS members with African states that do not necessarily prioritise the continent’s need for infrastructure, development, regional integration and industrialisation. Intra-African trade was a paltry 14% in 2023.

Although South Africa is assumed to be the bloc’s gateway to Africa, there is some scepticism as to whether other African countries recognise it as such.

A second weakness is the lack of concrete economic benefits for South Africa in terms of its BRICS membership, regardless of the growth in trade between members over the past 15 years. The increase in intra-BRICS trade is largely a result of the rapid economic growth of individual members that cannot be tied to any specific BRICS mechanism.

One driver of this growth has been Moscow’s increased trade with China and India following Western economic sanctions in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Moreover, South Africa’s trade with its BRICS partners is tilted towards China at 67% – making Beijing Pretoria’s top trading partner within and outside the bloc.

Finally, the interest-based international politics of BRICS members are also exacerbated by continued rivalries that hinder cooperation within the group.

Russia’s desire for a unified BRICS currency due to American sanctions following its invasion of Ukraine is also shared by some of the bloc’s other members such as Beijing and New Delhi. Pretoria, however, sees a unified currency as economically unfeasible.

This interest-based politics is also tied to the fact that the Global South consists of geographically dispersed member states that share limited history, cultures, and/or languages. This has contributed to the absence of collective decision-making and a lack of a coordinated BRICS secretariat. DM

Dr Samuel Igba is a post-doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.

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