Are Brics civil society talkshops just ticking boxes and not making real ‘jam’?

A staff worker stands behind the national flags of Brazil, Russia, China, South Africa and India to tidy the flags before a group photo during the BRICS Summit in 2017. (REUTERS/Wu Hong/Pool)

A staff worker stands behind the national flags of Brazil, Russia, China, South Africa and India to tidy the flags before a group photo during the BRICS Summit in 2017. (REUTERS/Wu Hong/Pool)

As the heat increases around the 2018 summit of the Brazil, India, Russia, China and South Africa (Brics) grouping, to be held in Johannesburg in July, debate from the Brics Think Tank and from the left is coming to the boil over the value of the bloc’s participatory processes.

Patrick Bond’s critique of the Brics Think Tank and Academic Forum meetings, held at the end of May in the run-up to the summit, is that limited critical commentary on Brics’s state of corruption “reflect[s] servility to local power” (Mail & Guardian Online, May 30).

If Brics summit rhetoric is to be taken at face value, the grouping poses an alternative, counter-hegemonic South-South bloc in the global political economy. The radical critique of Brics argues that this is simply rhetorical window-dressing that masks further socioeconomic exploitation.

As quoted by Radio Islam’s website on May 31, Brics think-tank leader Ari Sitas argues that Bond’s critique amounts to an argument by contamination: “You know so-and-so smells bad, therefore this must stink.”

The view held by Sitas and most academics and activists who took part in the forum and the Brics civil society participation process (known as Civil Brics) is that progressive critique and policy strategies will help to effect transformation at summit level.

This is the diplomatic line followed by South Africa’s Brics “sherpa”, Anil Sooklal, who said at a recent seminar at the University of the Western Cape (UWC): “We have no choice; we are part of Brics.”

The sticking point between radicals outside these spaces and progressive civil society forces inside them relates to knowledge control and the co-option of academics and activists. Or are we alibis for the “bad smells” emanating from Brics’s poor governance and exploitative socioeconomic practices, making resistance from outside (what we might term “tree-shaking”) a more viable option to effect change? Or, through a Gramscian-inspired war of manoeuvre, are gains (“jam-making”) achievable through constructive engagement?

Civil Brics, also called people-to-people engagement, has been grafted on to the state-led processes to deal with the Brics Summit’s repeated promises to ensure inclusive collective development.

Navigating rhetoric and reality, this year Civil Brics has included a process of grassroots consultations to guide South Africa’s recommendations made to the summit.

Although a grassroots-based Civil Brics steering committee has been set up, the events are being organised by Oxfam and the Economic Justice Network. Despite Sooklal waxing lyrical about prioritising people-to-people engagement and International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu bragging to an Independent interviewer about drawing in grassroots activists, the department has made no funding available to Civil Brics in 2018. It was funded by the German Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

The Civil Brics contributions cover categories such as gender inequality, the New Development Bank, peace and security, inclusive economic development, youth, as well as the environment, land and energy.

The April pre-Civil Brics meeting was attended by activists and movements, as well as local and international nongovernmental organisations. Tellingly, it was not attended by the international relations department or the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS), despite their names being on the programme.

Participants were left with an impression of tokenistic, box-ticking participation.

As a result, the Civil Brics process has been criticised by the activists and social movements involved. The activists on the South African Civil Brics steering committee see the space as being primarily managed by the NGOs on behalf of the department, leaving them without a say in setting the agenda.

Until recently, the activists and movements co-ordinated by the steering committee have adopted a wait-and-see approach to the outcome of Civil Brics, even though they have found it hard to represent their constituencies in ways that will draw attention their concerns.

They have criticised the technical language used to make recommendations. One participant stated that “we need to use language which is understood by communities and not misinterpreted by them”.

The wait-and-see approach may instead serve to legitimate the Brics governments and corporations.

The question is: What visible gains by insiders — or jam-making — will occur at the heads of state summit in Sandton from July 25 to 27?

The precedents set over the past decade aren’t encouraging. Aside from the New Development Bank (and a contingent reserve arrangement that is merely an International Monetary Fund-related bailout fund), Brics has no other multilateral institutions with which to implement policy.

Many of the scholars and activists involved in Academic and Civil Brics recognise the limits to participation and critique offered by these processes. Inputs are collated into formal lists of sectoral recommendations, yet the Think Tank leaders emphasise sovereignty before co-operation.

This is endorsed by Sooklal, who stated at the Brics seminar at UWC that “none of the Brics countries will interfere in the domestic policies of Brics … If they don’t like their governance system, they can overthrow it.” These are disturbing sentiments, considering the lack of commitment to social justice and the authoritarian turn in governance in a number of the Brics states.

The Civil Brics steering committee members represent a broad constituency of social forces but, like the people they represent, they have limited resources. Their commitments to the Brics consultative processes, including those at provincial level, are offered voluntarily as part of their commitment to social justice,whereas many other academics and NGO staff are salaried staff.

It’s an old problem: whether assimilating social movements into Civil Brics yields anything in terms of social justice, or whether the agenda-setting Oxfam and Economic Justice Network will simply help activists to “polish the chains” of Brics inequality, rather than break them.

The grassroots Civil Brics steering committee members have voiced concerns about such co-optation and even about their freedom of expression, for their voices are often explicitly managed and controlled by “diplomatic protocol”.

Even more scandalous, then, is that the international relations department is not funding Civil Brics 2018.

Footing the Civil Brics bill has fallen to Oxfam and other organisations, with the help of a shoestring budget from the NIHSS. Many of the activists previously included may be excluded at the crunch time because of limited funds.

Will the Civil Brics “jam” for 2018 be mostly professionally made? Perhaps activists have served their purpose and the department’s box marked “Brics civil society participation” has been ticked? Even though activists may feel powerless, has diplomatic legitimation been achieved?

Similarly, with Academic Brics, 22 recommendations, including setting up a Brics women’s forum and a gender equality monitor, will be put before summit leaders. Will it be summit business as usual with lots of diplomatic fanfare, followed by items being consigned to the filing cabinet?

As insiders, we have to face up to the fact that we will be endorsing state fairy tales of alternative development if our critique and input do not lead to policy gains. Without these, involvement in these processes should be reconsidered by those who commit to speak truth to power. 

Bandile Mdlalose

Bandile Mdlalose

Bandile Mdlalose was the general secretary of the South African shackdwellers' movement Abahlali baseMjondolo. She is now the President of Community Justice Movement which operates in some informal settlements of Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal.
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  • Lisa Thompson

    Lisa Thompson

    Professor Lisa Thompson is part of the Brics academic and civil participatory processes and works for the African Centre for Citizenship and Democracy at the school of government at UWC.Thompson is also the Director of the African Centre for Citizenship and Democracy at the School of Government where she leads research projects on democracy and development in the global South. Thompson specialises in research that examines socio-economic issues pertaining to rights in the South. 
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