South Africa’s BRICS Partnership: Policy of progressive internationism bears fruit

 

By Ms Faith Muthambi (Minister of Communications, RSA)

Like all any country, South Africa’s foreign policy is crafted within the context of its history, and its current political and socio-economic imperatives. In this regard, there is no doubt that the country’s economic and social challenges can be traced to its colonial history of being “incorporated into the world economy as a producer, an exporter of primary products, principally mining commodities…. And that political economy resulted in drawing large numbers of low-skilled people into basic pick-and-shovel work in the mining industry.”

Given its internationalist links, the disruption of the apartheid colonial and exploitative economy would necessarily involve global collaboration.

The ruling party argues that its foreign policy is centred on progressive internationalism. Progressive internationalism entails “opposition to the perpetuation of the legacy of global imperialism manifest in the global power asymmetry, the dominance of the global North over the South and the world, structural global inequality and poverty.” Subscription to this perspective in international relations is understandable given the party’s background as a liberation movement.

Accordingly, the ANC government locates its involvement in global affairs as part of the struggle for “a just, equitable, non-racial, non-patriarchal, diverse, democratic and equal world system.”

As fate would have it, the 1994 breakthrough coincided with the seemingly irrevocable shift in global power from the West to the East – epitomized by the decline of the US economic dominance on the one hand, and the rise of China and other emerging powers on the other.

For its part, the 2008 financial crisis has also served as a rude reminder of the non-sustainability of the Washington consensus model. In response to the crises, powerful countries have resorted to the age-old strategy of economic protectionism. Their approach stands in glaring contrast to encouraging the developing countries to open their markets.

Fortunately, and whether by design or strange coincidence, emerging economies have registered economic growth rates that are higher than those of their counterparts in the developing world.

This presents both opportunities and challenges at the same time. It demands flexibility in one’s foreign policy. For South Africa, a flexible policy would mean ‘building of alliances and solidarity with progressive forces in the South and North fighting for similar objectives in world affairs.’ This translates to investing in foreign partnerships that responds to one’s interests and dispensing with those that are harmful. It is about ensuring that “our institutions, including diplomatic services, are geared towards strengthening our position in spite of negative trends and to harness opportunities arising from positive changes such as growing South-South cooperation.”

In essence, the question is “what does the idea of national interest entail in conditions where global and local realities, principles, values and institutions are interconnected? In this context, how do we reconcile ‘national’ interest with the pursuit of pan-Africanism and a progressive internationalist movement?”

This is where South Africa’s partnership with Brazil, Russia, India, and China become relevant. The importance of South Africa’s membership cannot be overstated. For one, this is a formidable forum representing more than half the world’s population. South Africa can use the forum to push the agenda of the emerging markets and developing countries in the global multilateral forums. In this regard, South Africa is no longer alone in calling for reform of international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the United Nations Security Council.

Given its size, the forum represents a veritable market for all goods and services and for various forms of cultural exchanges to the benefit of its members. The recent BRICS Summit in Goa India spoke to issues that are of interest to South Africa’s developmental agenda. The Goa Declaration came up with several commitments. Some of which include the forum’s commitment to the agenda of institution building. The forum also committed itself to turning the promise of establishing a BRICS Credit Rating Agency into a reality. The establishment of BRICS Rating Agency will provide the necessary counter-veiling force in the world’s financial architecture. Instead of one size fits all, it is expected that the BRICS rating agencies would be informed by consideration of the material realities that speak to the developing countries and/or emerging markets. President Zuma’s approach in this regard is nuanced, and advisedly so. For President Zuma, the BRICS Rating Agencies should complement South Africa’s own monitoring and evaluation systems.

The setting up of BRICS Agriculture Research Centre, another commitment, is also timely. Food security is a challenge in the continent that mired in territorial conflicts and internecine violence.

The setting up of BRICS Railway Research Network will be of benefit to the continent. It fits with South Africa and Africa’s commitment to address the backlog in infrastructure – infrastructure is cited as one of the binding constraints that hinders economic development and intra-trade in the continent. In this regard, the utilization of the New Development Bank to finance infrastructure is laudable.

 

Finally, the BRICS forum’s focus on Micro Small Medium Enterprises is opportune. This adds impetus to South Africa as it tries to reposition the role of Small & Medium Enterprises in the economy. With the Micro Small Medium Enterprises constituting about 40% of the BRICS economies, there are lessons for South Africa to learn from.

The emphasis on the establishment of institutions is to be expected. Any new formation must be underpinned by the establishment of functioning institutions. These are institutions that should carry out BRICS’ mandate in between its high level conference meetings.

But South Africa does not approach this task blindly or naively. It is alive to the fact that it is relatively less industrialized than its BRICS partners. It thus requires to maintain policy space to address development issues that are unique to its socio-economic reality.

It is also alive to the fact that some of the big players, China, Russia and Brazil have displayed a tendency to side with positions adopted by developed countries.

Under the ANC government South Africa will continue to use its membership to advance a foreign that factors its own socio-economic interests. The policy will also be undergirded by a vision of a just, equitable, non-racial, democratic and equal world system. It will not squander the soft power it has amassed through its varied membership of multiple affiliations.

  • Ms Faith Muthambi is the Minister of Communications in the Republic of South Africa.