Opinionista Rev Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu 20 July 2018

BRICS: The makings of something interesting 

The BRICS grouping of countries had the makings of something interesting which could also mean a balancing out of the distribution of power in the world.

It has been very interesting to observe although mostly through the media, the evolution of BRICS from the time when Jim O’Neill, economist at Goldman Sachs, coined the term BRIC in 2001 after noticing the global growth of these countries between the year 2000 and 2008. I do not think that Mr O’Neill ever envisaged that his observation at the time would lead to the formation of a bloc of nations called BRICS.

South Africa was the last to enter and is the smallest of the countries with a population of about 50 million. Compared to the 143 million of Russia, the 1.2 billion of India, the 1.34 billion in China and the estimated 210 million in Brazil, South Africa seems dwarfed by the other member states which are rounded out by China and India. However, South Africa’s position in the South African Development Community and the African continent makes its presence in the BRICS group not an insignificant one. 

There are a plethora of reasons why countries enter into special agreements with other countries, some private and some known. This is the cause of the unease about what exactly BRICS is and what it is about. With all of these nuances about this formation, there is I believe in BRICS the makings of something interesting and if properly pursued it could also mean the balancing out of the distribution of power in the world.

A disruptive formation

The truth of the matter is that the formation of BRICS does not sit easily in the minds of those who desire that the world be ordered in a particular historical pattern. For example, the Commonwealth of Nations is, in all honesty, the remnant of the old colonial British Empire. Although today its mission is to support member governments to improve the well-being of all citizens in the Commonwealth, the fact remains that it exists because of the historical injustice of colonialism. 

The alignment of the world has been one that is influenced by the events of the two World Wars and the effects of the Cold War. There has always been, even after the Cold War, this tension between the Eastern and the Western powers (including the Nato counties). 

In addition, BRICS countries do not necessarily have a natural kind of friendship. The geographical, cultural and other familiarities do not really exist perfectly. For example, South Africa is part of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) because it is geographically in the south of the continent of Africa. South Africa is an African Union member state because it is an African country. It is even a member of the Commonwealth because it is a former British colony. With this backdrop of what some might view as a strange partnership, there is something exciting with the BRICS formation. What is exciting is precisely the fact that BRICS is so different.

People-to-people relations

Although there are three tracks of interaction within BRICS namely formal diplomatic engagement between national governments; engagement through the government-affiliated institution and civil society; and “people-to-people” engagement, it is the last that is perhaps most exciting. 

The first two are generally expected in any agreement between nations. But this attempt to have people-to-people relations as a key track means that there is a desire that this relationship between BRICS countries should also filter down to even the person who might think that this formation has nothing to do with him or her. 

From this very same track, there could emerge the attempt to broaden the knowledge and experience of persons through cultural programmes. There have already been exchange activities of performers, artists and many other such activities which can only be beneficial because they open the citizens of member states to different cultural experiences. The arts economy is often not adequately considered yet it has immense potential. Through platforms like BRICS, South African artists are able to make their entry into larger festivals and markets and therefore make some income for themselves. 

The other economic, yet fundamentally a people-to-people activity, is tourism. Some BRICS countries have begun to relax visa requirements. In 2010 Brazil and Russia introduced a visa waiver programme and the numbers of Brazilians visiting Russia doubled by 2013. A similar agreement between South Africa and Indiahas, according to Gateway House, the Indian Council on Global Relations, yielded good results. 

Lin Songtian the Ambassador of People’s Republic of China to South Africa, writing in the Pretoria News early this year to mark the 20th anniversary of full diplomatic relations between South Africa and China, notes that South Africa has the highest number of Chinese tourists to Africa. In 2017 alone there were approximately 100 000 Chinese tourists to South Africa. 

Just last year Tourism Update reported that there was a surge upwards to 21.7% of Indian leisure visitor numbers into South Africa. The 2017 migration report by Stats SA showed a positive growth of 12% of Brazilians visiting South Africa with about 32 368 arrivals reported. Russia has from April 1, 2017 removed a visa requirement for South Africans travelling to Russia and South Africa has done the same. This too has meant more visitors between both countries. Not only does this mean an increase in tourism-based employment but it also means more face to face time between citizens of the BRICS country states. 

Civil society

One of the interesting observations is that there seems to be a desire to engage the BRICS forum by different groups. This is also a great success because there is often an indifference from the ground about the many agreements signed between countries. There can be no people-to-people relations without city-to-city relations and there can be no city-to-city relations without country-to-country relations. 

Most important in this relationship is the work being done by civil society in all the member countries. Civil society should be key in any agreement because it is through it that real proximity with communities through community leaders and activists can be maintained. At the level of engagement of civil society are the many non-governmental organisations, academic communities, monitoring and evaluation groups and many other such community-based groups. This could also be a platform for meeting and sharing experience and expertise. BRICS countries have a vast network of organisations which they are able to use for consultation and developing proximity with communities and that which is important to them. 

Granted, it is not always going to be easy to find an agreement on what issues raised by civil society should be prioritised and possibly there will be some difficulty to find explicitly what each member state should do because of differences in the political systems of governance. There will always be a tension, which is necessary, between governments and civil society. Although there is a special friendship between BRICS nations, the sovereignty of each country should never be seen to be compromised. That, however, should not impede the work that can be done by civil society organisations and forums between BRICS countries. For example, the Moja Research Institute is hosting a dialogue on Friday July 20, just a couple of days ahead of the BRICS meeting of heads of states. In one of its planned sessions is a discussion on civil society and peacebuilding. 

All the member states have a history of conflict and even resolution. This begins with the political will but also the role played by civil society in the attainment and building of peace. Peace accords have been signed by many governments but the groundwork, the day-to-day rebuilding and healing of communities is often left to civil society. That the Moja Research Institute wants to hold that conversation with civil society, community leaders and business leaders within the BRICS milieu goes to show that the possibilities of what BRICS could achieve. 

Foreign direct investment

The BRICS Business Council has nine working groups:

manufacturing

energy

infrastructure

financial services

skills development

deregulation

agribusiness

digital economy

green economy

It is a vast reciprocal undertaking which does not only see investment into the country but also exposes South African business to BRICS markets. China as a case in point has over a billion citizens, that is to say over a billion people market which South African business can tap into. South African products which are already exported to China range from wine to rooibos and fruit. South Africa last year became the first African country to export beef to China. In fact according to the Chinese Ambassador Lin Songtian in the same Pretoria News report (marking 20thAnniversary of full Diplomatic relations between South Africa and China) for 8 consecutive years, South Africa has been China’s trading partner in Africa.

In his address to captains of industry at the BRICS roundtable discussion in Richards Bay, Professor Anil Sooklal, who is South Africa’s BRICS ambassador and deputy general for Asia and the Middle East in the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, was convinced that the $100 billion target set by President Cyril Ramaphosa is very modest – and he is convinced that it can be reached within a year. The other side of foreign direct investment is that investors and companies must also be met with the right skills in order to participate in those investments and employment opportunities.

Skills development

BRICS countries combined provide education to over 40% of the world’s population spanning school entry to tertiary level education. The United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s “BRICS Building Education for the Future” report notes that many adults lack transferable skills because their average educational attainment does not go beyond a few years of lower secondary education. Women are still at a disadvantage in many rural pockets of the in BRICS countries and are therefore economically marginalised. This means that those who participate in the economy are still mostly low-income earners. This kind of income does not really win anyone out of poverty and allow them better future planning. This leads to a vicious cycle of working for survival and not building wealth. 

With these challenges, there have been many BRICS scholarships and exchange programmes like the BRICS Nation Program. There has been the establishment of the BRICS Network University in order to create the kind of skills that are needed by BRICS countries.

Although there are some who are apprehensive about the future of BRICS and what it can really achieve, there is always going to be good coming out of nations who attempt to find common ground and work with each other. Although there should not be a naivety about the complex maxims that countries have in entering into such agreements and friendships, co-operation outweighs working in singularity. BRICS has the capacity to be a forum through which growing countries and economies can be of solid assistance to each other. The trajectory of the world should be inclusiveness thereby attaining more knowledge about each other and creating forums for support. Even if – as some have said – BRICS fails, it would still have succeeded because these countries know each other better and are able to work better with each other. DM

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