Brics Youth: Everything about us without us?

The leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will meet in Johannesburg from July 25 to 27 for the 10th Brics Summit (Reuters)

The leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will meet in Johannesburg from July 25 to 27 for the 10th Brics Summit (Reuters)

The leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will meet in Johannesburg from July 25 to 27 for the 10th Brics Summit. Prior to the summit a number of other Brics dialogues will take place, including the Business Council, Academic Forum, Civil Brics and Brics Youth.

Brics Youth was set up in 2013 to put youth voices on the Brics agenda and to promote and popularise Brics among young people between the ages of 15 and 34 in each country.

At the time, in March 2013, then-president Jacob Zuma promised the Durban Brics Summit would “contribute immensely to satisfying the employment and development needs of our young population” and that youth employment would be “central to our engagements and discussions with the grouping”. But the fight against South African youth unemployment has been lost.

Five years later, does South Africa’s hosting of the Brics Youth participatory processes show any indication of improving prospects for youth in Brics countries and South African youth in particular?

Raymond Matlala plays a leading role in Brics Youth South Africa through his nongovernmental organisation South Africa Youth International Diplomacy, the G20 Youth Forum and the Euro-Brics Youth Platform, and he led a recent process formulating Brics Youth recommendations for a civil society meeting called pre-Civil Brics.

In an interview last month, he admitted that the immediate concern facing Brics Youth is its lack of sufficient representivity when it takes positions on behalf of millions of young people. This means that a disconnect may exist between the positions and strategies undertaken by Brics Youth and those taken by more representative or legitimate youth movements.

Representivity is entrusted to the National Youth Development Agency, a controversial statutory body set up by Parliament in 2008. Each Brics state has its own equivalent government youth agency that selects delegates. There is no formal elective process, which immediately raises questions about the intended political function of the structure.

Matlala, who attended the 2017 Brics Youth Summit in Beijing, agrees that Brics Youth has a problem.

“Brics Youth is regarded as an official platform where the decisions taken are binding to all member countries. We are still advocating for a permanent structure,” he said in the interview. “We don’t reach the majority of young people, particularly those in rural and peri-urban areas. This information honestly reaches mostly young people in universities.”

READ MORE: At Brics think tank, scholars get drunk on their own rhetoric

If representatives are handpicked by government agencies, their independence of perspective and legitimacy is questionable. With authoritarianism on the rise in Russia and India — and China being even more totalitarian — and with the closing of democratic spaces in Brazil since the 2016 coup, the other Brics countries provide even less opportunity for these types of initiatives to present independent views.

Matlala acknowledges that Brics Youth lacks a constituency, but insists they can put the concerns of youth on the Brics agenda.

“There are a few policies that as young people in the Brics countries we all agree on. One is on collaboration in education and to advocate for free, equal and quality education among all the Brics member states. We also agree strongly on the issue of climate change, of reducing the carbon footprint,” Matlala said. “We say: ‘As the Brics countries, what are you as leaders doing on this front?’ We then challenge our leaders on these particular issues, on education, on youth unemployment, on the climate.”

Matlala added: “You also know that there is the New Development Bank now. In this year’s recommendation we will say: ‘We need a certain percentage in the Development Bank in developmental projects that are mainly focused on young people.’ We also need diversity in the bank. When you look at the current committee there are no young people and also no women there. In this year’s recommendation we are going to say that we want women and young people to be in those structures. Not just old people and men. The bank says that the funds are reserved for infrastructure development. So when you talk about infrastructure development, you have to talk about issues of land.”

Matlala’s comments here reveal the potential for Brics Youth to position itself as a progressive tendency within the bloc. However, the official documents drawn up at the various Brics Youth forums are far more diplomatic.

Brics Youth demands in 2018 are packaged for state-level consumption in the form of mild “policy recommendations” that mostly concern petit bourgeois interests such as knowledge sharing for youth entrepreneurship, university exchanges and easing visa requirements between the five nations.

On the other hand, they do demand gender and age diversity in structures such as the New Development Bank, but without a strategy to ensure change in the material conditions of poor youth in Brics countries.

In South Africa, the bank has disappointed youth in South Durban given that its only borrower so far, Transnet, will be expanding the port with a $200-million loan in a manner that entails environmental damage and job destruction, given the rapid automation processes in shipping and container handling.

Meanwhile, immediate youth concerns such as access to land, free education, decent work and combating climate change are significantly watered down in Brics Youth documentation.

In South Africa, youth demands for free education, decent work, gender equity, environmental protection, healthcare, housing, affordable municipal services and land redistribution have been placed firmly on the national agenda over the past two decades, after hundreds of service delivery protests drew society’s attention to unaffordable or inaccessible water, sanitation and electricity.

Progress has been achieved, not by a top-down approach from government, nor from having government’s ear in various elite political forums, but thanks to daily struggles waged by thousands of young people in communities, in workplaces and at universities — struggles that have consistently been met with the full might of the state.

The #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall struggles are victories also linked to oppressed people’s broader identity, to the need to transform neocolonial capitalist power relations, and to the interests of casualised outsourced university workers who won insourcing in 2015 thanks to student support — none of which appear in Brics Youth programming.

The Brics Youth strategy of putting forward watered-down policy recommendations reflects a theoretically naive understanding of how progressive change is achieved. If the South African delegates in Brics Youth sincerely believe in the need to address the type of issues that Matlala raises, then they would do well to draw lessons on political strategy from those young people organising on the ground.

The greater concern, however, is that the Brics Youth programme may represent a mere tick-box exercise that can be used by the Brics leadership to claim that they have “engaged all role players”.

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

Most recently, box-ticking took the form of an event promoting Brics and Brics Youth that was held at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) on May 18. The Brics Youth Dialogue was co-hosted by the ANC Youth League and the South African Student Congress Organisation-led student representative council in conjunction with the department of energy and the department of international relations.

Yet disillusioned comments of student leaders after the event reflect the empty nature of the participatory process: “Dialogue was more a monologue for those people [Brics representatives] to tell us [students] that they are hosting the summit in South Africa. I am not sure we really raised our thoughts and ideas because the session did not allow much.”

Another student leader put it more bluntly: “Brics represents the true reflection of capitalism in Africa. It is a tactic to steal state resources. What have we achieved since the inception of the alliance? Where is the evidence? These people are just playing with South African people. The worst scenario is that, hypothetically, even if we were to benefit from trading with Brics countries, show me South Africans who have shops in Russia or China, but look around South Africa, on every corner is a Chinese enterprise. It is already causing lots of rigidity with locals. Wake up, Africa.”

Whereas in past decades, youth would leave school with some hope of employment at labour-intensive manufacturing employers in the major cities, since the mid-1990s many industries were closed because of the import of either capital-intensive machinery or, more commonly, cheaper East Asian products.

Xenophobia among the youth is also a danger, given that there are many African township retail shops run by immigrants from the African continent and Asia, whose pricing advantage from bulk buying undercuts the local spaza shops. The potential for generating international solidarity with Chinese and Indian communities, given cut-throat township capitalism, is dim.

The opinions of the Brics Youth Dialogue participants demonstrate the issues that arise from the Brics role in promoting collective development in South Africa. The dialogue doesn’t really help to inform students or to involve them.

These forms of Brics engagement appear to be very ritualistic. There was no real content because there is no dialogue, only the sharing of mostly irrelevant information. As one student leader put it: “Brics representatives [are] not speaking the same language as young people. For South African youth we are only concerned about job security, skills development … The Brics Youth is not useful to [our] struggle.”

The Brics Youth Energy Dialogue and Brics Youth as participatory mechanisms do not seem to be able to capture the voices of youth in Brics countries. Reflecting the bias, a June 22 Brics Youth event, also to be held at UWC, is advertised as having a “business casual” dress code. No other Brics Youth activities in South Africa are discernible on Twitter in the run-up to the Brics heads-of-state summit.

Despite the catchy Brics Youth slogan “nothing about us, without us” and President Cyril Ramaphosa conceding that “our most grave and pressing challenge is youth unemployment” in his February State of the Nation address, it is an inescapable reality that Brics Youth is set up and run by government, and reflects government priorities — not the priorities and activism of the youth.

If the Brics Youth network develops a radical public image in order to secure its position as a progressive tendency within the bloc, yet continues to make mild-mannered policy proposals and support intellectually empty youth dialogues, it will simply fulfil the function of a political buffer between the collective leadership of the Brics and young people in member countries.

Njabulo Maphumulo is a postgraduate government student at the University of the Western Cape and Lynford Dor works at the Casual Workers Advice Office in Johannesburg

Njabulo Maphumulo

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