What South Africa Wants From Its BRICS Membership

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Prof Narnia Bohler-Muller highlights what is most important to South Africa in its interactions with and within BRICS, namely its African agenda, commitment to multilateralism, and world peace

The success of the sixth BRICS Leadership Summit in Fortaleza, Brazil, has proven once again that this powerful new player on the world stage is here to stay. The establishment of the New Development Bank (NDB) (to be housed in Shanghai, China, with a regional office in Johannesburg, South Africa) and the Contingency Reserve Arrangement (CRA) has received the most media attention. Now that the foundation has been built, BRICS will continue to focus on common interests – the overarching objectives of ‘peace, security, development and cooperation” (para 4 of the Fortaleza Declaration) – despite clear differences existing between member States.

Similar to the five previous declarations, the Fortaleza Declaration focussed on four main ‘themes’:

1. Global economy and finance, including the establishment of the NDB, CRA and a continued call for the democratic reform of global financial institutions, especially the International Monetary Fund (IMF);

2. Peace and security, including the reform of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) so that it becomes more representative and effective;

3. International crime and cyber-security, including a call for legal regulation and cooperation to prevent cybercrimes and the infringement of privacy;

4. Climate change and sustainable development, including a commitment to the post-2015 development agenda.

The BRICS leaders also emphasised knowledge sharing and cooperation in the fields of education, health and cultural exchange. Furthermore, there was recognition of the work of the BRICS Business Council (BBC) and the BRICS Think Tanks Council (BTTC), and the need for an extended research agenda. The five research ‘pillars’ proposed by the BTTC to develop a long-term strategy for BRICS were accepted, namely:

(a) Promoting cooperation for economic growth and development;

(b) Maintaining peace and security;

(c) Promoting social justice, sustainable development and quality of life;

(d) Reforming the global political and economic governance architecture; and

(e) Attaining progress through knowledge and innovation sharing.

Despite much speculation in the Western media about BRICS wanting to ‘take over the world’, the group has from the outset expressed commitment to the centrality of the UN and adherence to the rule of international law, and has at no stage expressed the wish to replace the World Bank and the IMF, but rather to reform these bodies so as to better represent the interests of emerging markets and developing countries (EMDC).

Africa at the Centre

“…[O]ur foreign policy posture moves from a premise that there is an inextricable link between our future and that of Africa – for the greater good of our continent” (NDP Vision 2030)

The question as to what South Africa wants from its membership of BRICS should be understood within the context of its foreign policy as a whole, as this paints a more complete picture of how South Africa positions itself in the world and on the global stage. According to the White Paper of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), South Africa’s foreign policy priorities are:

• According central importance to its immediate African neighbourhood and the wider continent;

• Working with countries of the South to address shared challenges of underdevelopment;

• Promoting global equity and social justice;

• Working with countries of the North to develop a true and effective partnership for a better world; and

• Strengthening the multilateral system.

In addition, the National Development Plan, Vision 2030 (NDP, 2011) argues that the formulation of foreign policy in a developmental and capable state should be informed by principles that both reflect and support South Africa’s national interests. As such, the three main concerns emerging from the NDP are that South Africa needs to grow its economy, reduce poverty and improve the quality of life for South Africans.

Chapter seven of the NDP entitled ‘Positioning South Africa in the World’ states that in order to achieve its objectives; South Africa must honestly re-evaluate its regional and global positioning to ensure that foreign policy objectives help South Africa to achieve its constitutional vision of a better life for all.

In both DIRCO’s White Paper and the NDP Vision 2030, South Africa is viewed as a leading champion of the ‘African Agenda’ that aims at ending the marginalisation of the continent. Besides all the other foreign policy priorities listed above, one way of doing this is to use BRICS as a platform to raise the African voice within institutions of global and political governance. This was achieved to some extent in eThekwini in 2013, when African leaders met with the leaders of BRICS countries, facilitated by South Africa as the host of the fifth Summit. The theme of the Summit was also focussed on the centrality of Africa: BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Development, Integration and Industrialisation. Brazil followed suit this year by facilitating meetings with Latin American leaders.

However, if South Africa is to place the interests of Africa first – and if this is seen to be in its national interests –then one should not lose sight of the potential for exploitation of Africa’s people and her abundant natural resources for economic gain. In order to prevent a new ‘scramble for Africa’, South Africa must encourage closer relations between BRICS and the African Union (AU), so that there is a uniform approach to trade and investment on the continent. This would, in addition, legitimise South Africa’s claim to be the ‘Gateway to Africa’ and a bridge between Africa and BRICS (a mandate that was never agreed upon by other African counties). If governed and managed well by Africans themselves, relations with BRICS could be a good opportunity for sustainable development and inclusive growth in the continent, in order to address poverty and inequality.

Strengthening Multilateralism

Another area that South Africa is particularly committed to is creating a more equitable global order. The ‘Diplomacy of Ubuntu’ encouraged by DIRCO has as its central tenet the African philosophy of interconnected humanity. In its first official policy statement on international relations in December 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) as the ruling party placed an emphasis on the importance of multilateralism, which is a position from which the South African government has not deviated.

“The pace and scope of global change has improved the prospects for multilateralism. Increasing economic interdependency, the fragility of the planet’s eco-system and the rapid increase in technology have underlined the necessity to approach many international questions from a common perspective: judicious multilateral diplomacy will enhance South Africa’s international standing.”

South Africa views BRICS as an important forum through which to lobby for the reform of global institutions of economic and political governance that would be of national interest as well as of benefit to Africa. As a member of BRICS, South Africa will continue to pursue effective reform of international institutions through multilateral diplomacy. This includes seeking democratic reform and greater effectiveness of the UNSC, IMF, and WB in order to better represent the interests of marginalised nations. In this regard, there is some dissonance within BRICS on a number of issues that has delayed or prevented effective reform of the global architecture. Consensus needs to be reached, for instance, on the nature and comprehensiveness of the UNSC reforms as South Africa strives to become a permanent member and supports stronger ties between the UNSC and the AU Peace and Security Council.

Contributing to Global Peace and Security

Due to this focus on multilateral diplomacy and the belief in a common humanity, South Africa joins the other BRICS member states in encouraging the peaceful resolution of international and civil conflicts. Although the BRICS member states are not of ‘one mind’ over all matters relating to peace and security, there are some significant commonalities when it comes to encouraging comprehensive dialogue to resolve conflicts. The recognition of the centrality of the UN and the emphasis on the rule of law are cornerstones of the BRICS approach to global peace and security. There does seem to be some consistency in this approach, with agreement around finding peaceful political solutions in compliance with the UN Charter. Paragraph 28 of the Fortaleza Declaration contains interesting wording around fostering dialogue and cooperation, taking note of the necessity to ‘promote protect and fulfil human rights in a non-selective, non-politicised and constructive manner, and without double standards’.

The Fortaleza Declaration contains a number of statements dealing directly with peace and security concerns (notably the only place in the document where gender is explicitly mentioned), including:

• Peace building and peacekeeping initiatives in Africa, with concern expressed over conflicts in Nigeria (para 31); Mali (para 32); South Sudan (para 33); Central African Republic (para 34); and Democratic Republic of Congo (para 35);

• The conflict in Syria (para 37);

• The Arab-Israeli conflict (para 38);

• Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (para 39);

• The exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes (para 40);

• Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy (para 41);

• Provision of development assistance to Afghanistan (para 42);

• The situation in Iraq (para 43);

• The situation in Ukraine (para 44).

A common denominator in all these statements is a call for adherence to international law, constructive and comprehensive dialogue, and the respect for state sovereignty. These are positions that South Africa supports, although disagreements do exist around the application of the ‘right to protect’ (R2P) doctrine in international law.

It remains to be seen whether BRICS will live up to its potential as a forerunner of a new ‘Global Order’ where power is more evenly distributed, and where interdependence becomes a mark of strength in international relations. As mentioned, South African foreign policy emphasises the importance of relationship building in the spirit of Ubuntu, an African philosophy that recognises the interconnectivity of humanity and the importance of community. The DIRCO White Paper (2011) posits that South African international relations are informed by the history of colonialism and the liberation struggle, as well as by the hard-won values of dignity, equality and freedom. As a result, its foreign policy is informed by a commitment to multilateralism, making BRICS a good option for furthering this agenda of peace, security, development and cooperation.

The question remains, however, what does BRICS want from South Africa?

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Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller

Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller is the Deputy Executive Director of the Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery (DGSD) research programme at the Human Science Research Council (HSRC), South Africa.

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