Balancing BRICS

By Andrea Teagle    17-Apr-2013 21:51 UTC+02:00 1
Foreign Policy a Tricky Balance

Foreign Policy a Tricky Balance

The BRICS summit in Durban last month stirred much positive discussion on how South Africa stands to benefit from this elite group. However, now that the excitement of the summit has died down a little, it may be worthwhile to re-examine how BRICS fits into wider SA foreign policy – and what exactly that policy is.

The key outcome of the BRICS summit was a commitment to establishing a BRICS development bank, which may in many ways represents a translation of talk into tangible benefits to the member states. As the sole African voice within BRICS, as well as the most diverse and established economy on the continent, South Africa is strategically important to the BRICS group. There is no doubt that SA stands to benefit from interactions with BRICS countries – after all, the alliance represents the most powerful drivers in a shifting world economy. The challenge to South Africa is to balance BRICS within a broader strategy that aligns with domestic and developmental goals, placing clearly defined national interests at its center.

Ahead of the BRICS summit, I spoke to Michael Cosser, head of Capacity Enhancement at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) about South Africa’s position in BRICS.

“The aim for South Africa in BRICS is to improve the lot of our people,” said Cosser, who is also part of the recently established South African BRICS think-tank. His statement echoes Defence Minister NosiviweMapisa-Nqakula’s declaration that our foreign policy is centered on a ‘diplomacy of Ubuntu’.

What exactly does a foreign policy centered on ‘Ubuntu’ – meaning ‘humanity towards others’ – entail? Unfortunately, the 2011 foreign policy white paper is cloudy on the specifics. Presumably, however, such a policy would see South Africa defend national interests and values even at the risk of displeasing our BRICS partners or other African countries. It would seek economic expansion and global visibility to the extent that these work towards improving the welfare of South Africans first, and then people generally. However, how and whether the slogan of ‘ubuntu’ is being translated into actual policy has been called into question in light of recent foreign conduct. At the forefront of everyone’s minds is the deployment of troops to the CAR, which has still not been satisfactorily explained to the public.

And although our membership in BRICS is now widely viewed as a positive step in developing our economy, at the time of joining BRICS in 2010 many criticized the move as reflective of an escalating identity crisis in South Africa’s foreign policy. As Cosser pointed out, the BRICS grouping reflects a shared desire of the member countries to move upwards and away from economic dependence on western economies. Yet for South Africa, the shift does not necessarily represent a greater level of economic or policy independence.

Certainly it reflects tightening ties with China. While SA accounts for only a small part of China’s trade, China has been our biggest trading partner since 2009, accounting for 12.7% of our exports and 14.3% of imports in 2011. With China’s growing presence in SA, it makes sense that we would wish to maintain positive relations with the growing economic giant. But at what cost? Two years ago, the presidency came under fire when the Dalai Lama was refused entry into the country, apparently because this might cause displeasure to China. Recently, Nigerian central bank chief Lamido Sanusi’s warning that China’s presence in Africa might ultimately be tantamount to economic colonialism echoed similar concerns in South Africa.

However, despite what some have termed as Zuma’s romance with China, the government is aware of the need to develop ties in a way that actively benefits the South African workforce.

“South Africa is pushing for beneficiation.” Cosser explained, “On its side, China maintains that any relations should be mutually beneficial and that the development of the host nation’s economy, people and infrastructure should go hand in hand with supply. Neither country wants relations to be seen as purely a South African supply of raw materials”,he added.

And Zuma last week acknowledged that ‘”What we now seek to address jointly is to find the means towards a more equitable balance of trade,” after praising productive discussions between the two countries ahead of the summit. The establishment of the SA BRICS think tank, described by Cosser as a “policy body as well as a research body” is also a positive step in ensuring a well-defined SA strategy within BRICS.

Besides deliberating further on the proposed development bank – which will see the channeling of funding to infrastructure projects and act as a centre of analysis for development – the SA BRICS think tank will also address a range of other issues. The newly established BRICS Think Tanks Council – comprising the BRICS think tanks of each of the 5 member countries – hopes to finalise a BRICS long-term vision document this year. This vision document will inform the deliberations of the BRICS Leaders at subsequent BRICS Summits.

How South Africa conducts its foreign policy – in BRICS and outside of it – going forward will be crucial in maintaining the integrity of our nation and our credibility as an economy.[1]


[1]The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the BRICS think tank or representatives thereof.


  1. Skeptic says:

    Another project that will end up making the rich richer and the poor poorer. The Chinese are already all over South Africa selling their products but there are very few South Africans doing business in China. Chinese businesses will gradually destroy small South African businesses. China is taking over the world.

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