Opinionista Ryland Fisher 2 April 2013

Lesson from the summit: Ask not what Brics can do for you…

BEE and gender equality are important, yes, but surely the key to wooing investment lies in focusing on the potential of South African businesses to add value to multi-billion dollar investments from Brazilian, Russian, Indian and Chinese businesses? It’s time for South Africa to shake off its inferiority complex, take on the mantle of being Africa’s representative and grasp the opportunities offered by Brics.

At the Brics summit last week, watching South African businesspeople and politicians interacting with their counterparts from Brazil, Russia, India and China, I realised once again how insular and insecure we are as a nation.

Yes, we are a small country in the company of the world’s biggest emerging economies, but that does not mean that we have to have a complex about it. We are important to the other Brics countries; otherwise they would not have allowed us to join this reasonably new organisation that will begin to flex its muscles more and more over the next few years.

Africa is an important growing and developing market for the East and the West, and South Africa currently has the strongest economy on the continent. We have the best infrastructure and fairly sophisticated financial systems.

So anybody who sees the potential in Africa would do well to engage South Africa, in a way as a representative of the African continent. It makes business sense and, if anything, the other Brics countries would not have engaged with us if it did not make business sense.

I know there are people who are sensitive about our role on the continent. We saw this with the initial resistance to Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s election as chairwoman of the African Union Commission.

In my travels on the continent, I have also encountered some bitterness about the way South African businesses seemed to have “colonised” some African countries.

But the point is that there is nothing wrong with growing your business and, if your business cannot grow inside your own country, then you should look at growing it outside of your borders.

What Brics offers is a wonderful opportunity to look at ways in which South African businesses can grow outside our borders. At the same time, they offer an opportunity to find an injection of money into South Africa from our partner countries.

I was very impressed by particularly the Indian and Chinese contributions in Durban last week. It was clear that they are prepared to put their money where their mouths are.

At the same time, I was not so impressed by some South African contributions. In one of the sessions, a black South African businessman asked the foreign panellists about their views on black economic empowerment, in my humble opinion clearly angling to potentially become a black partner to companies from these countries. A South African woman asked about how representative their boards were from a gender perspective, also possibly hoping to obtain a board seat with an Indian or Chinese company.

This was immediately after the Indian and Chinese businessmen had made contributions about their potential multi-billion dollar investments in South Africa.

I might be wrong and the questions about BEE and gender representation might have been asked without any ulterior motives.

But what I would have wanted to hear from the South African businesspeople was not just talk about BEE and gender equality, which are obviously important, but rather ways in which they could potentially add value to these multi-billion dollar investments.

I also thought that there was not enough talk about how we could potentially grow our businesses into our Brics partner countries, and not only about what they could do to invest in our country.

I don’t know if this is still a hang-up from the days when Africa always used to ask for handouts from the other continents, but we should not just look at how much India and China can invest in our country. We must also look at ways in which we can do business in those countries and have access to their vast markets.

There are still very few South African companies who are doing business in China, India, Russia or Brazil. Naspers is one company that comes to mind which has really aggressively entered the market in our Brics partner countries. And, by all accounts, it appears to be doing very well.

There are opportunities and it is up to us to identify those opportunities. However, we will never be able to do so while we remain so inward-looking. BEE and gender equality are important issues for us, but do we know the issues that are important in our partner countries?

We expect them to be sensitive to our issues, but how sensitive are we to the issues that matter to them?

South Africa, by virtue of its strong position in Africa, can become an even stronger member of Brics if it uses its position as a representative of the continent. For that to happen, it needs to get the buy-in of the other major countries on the continent.

There needs to be an acknowledgment that, while we are being represented on Brics, that does not mean that we will benefit alone as a country.

We have talked in the past about Africa’s time having come. Brics presents us with a great opportunity to make that a reality. DM

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"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine

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