/ 24 August 2023

Brics: Global south is flexing its muscles

Brics Xi Jinping (1)
Tension rising: Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the Brics Summit at Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg on 24 August. Photo: OJ Koloti/Gallo Images

For much of the first half of this year the news cycle in South Africa was dominated by the question of whether President Vladimir Putin of Russia would attend this week’s Brics Summit in Sandton in person. 

There was feverish speculation about whether the South African government would arrest him, as per the unilateral warrant of arrest handed out by the International Criminal Court earlier this year.

Not nearly as much energy went into discussing what membership of Brics means for South Africa or on ways to improve Brics to live up to the ideals that guided its founding. 

These ideals included developing a more equitable world that places more emphasis on multilateralism and reforming the international financial system, which has been rigged in favour of the Western countries for centuries. 

More recently, there also has been growing commitment to securing African and Latin American representation on the UN Security Council.

Brics was generally presented in very negative terms and it, and the countries that have now joined the group, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, were portrayed as a gang of authoritarians whose main purpose is to do away with the “rules-based global order” and compete with the US and the G7 for influence. 

Amid the increasingly febrile atmosphere, few commentators dared point out that the “rules-based global order” did not apply to the criminal actions of the West, including its destruction of Iraq and Libya. 

There was also a general silence with regard to the fact that the regular assertion that we should side with the “democracies” ignored the fact that the internal democracy of the Western powers does not apply to their approach to international relations. 

The economic might and global significance of the Brics members on issues of trade, which would be significantly increased if new members joined, was given scant attention. This was unfortunate. 

Of course, we do not want to lose our access to the US market, but gaining further access to the Chinese market would be a huge boon to our economy, and there are all kinds of possible benefits for us in areas such as energy, technology and aviation.  

South Africa has been portrayed as a country that shouldn’t aspire to more than knowing which side its bread is buttered on, mind its Ps and Qs and not participate in a grouping that dares to challenge and seek an alternative to Western domination of the planet. 

Some have even argued that South Africa is playing a dangerous game by wanting to maintain relations with the Brics countries as well as the West. They conveniently ignore the fact that India has done precisely this, and is praised for its dexterity and welcomed in Western capitals, while continuing to openly trade with Russia.

This is the mentality President Xi Jinping of China spoke of when he addressed the Summit on 23 August: “The Cold War mentality is still haunting our world and the geopolitical tension is getting tense.” 

The idea that countries must be with one group or another is all too familiar from the first Cold War. 

There is considerable irony in the fact that the people who deny that a new Cold War is brewing are the very ones who argue that countries such as South Africa are “playing with fire” by wanting to have foreign and economic relations with whomever they choose, without being dictated to by people in Western capitals, and their local allies in the media and elsewhere.

China’s plans to expand its relations with the African continent, and South Africa in particular, are seen as a direct challenge to Washington. 

No matter how many times China has reiterated that it is not competing with the US-led West, but rather wants to be allowed to develop on its own, in the way it chooses, its growing global power is seen as a threat to US hegemony. 

There has been rapidly escalating paranoia and war talk in the West.

All this is unfortunate for countries in the global south that want to engage with, and learn from, the world as a whole. 

That includes China and there is much interest in learning more about the policies that enabled it to bring its people out of extreme poverty and to build such a highly capable state. Moreover the assistance that China has given to a number of African countries has led to improvements in the lives of many people on the continent. 

The Brics expansion to include Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has increased its clout and bargaining power. The global south needs a grouping that is committed to its development and that will not use its financial muscle to bully other countries or use the international financial system to wage economic warfare, as the US does.

While the nitty-gritties of a Brics currency are yet to be worked out, there is real promise of progress towards some sort of global south payment system, which would be a huge advance. Among other benefits it would advance own-currency trading, which is already happening among some Brics countries.

The countries in the expanded Brics make up almost half of the world’s population — and the youngest populations on Earth. This is a welcome counterweight to the G7 that represents less than 10% of the world’s population and has ageing people and infrastructure. 

The G7 has used its economic muscle, and the power accrued from its imperial past, to run roughshod over the rest of the world making decisions on behalf of the majority and implementing policies that continue the political and economic subjugation of the global south.

We should not be cowed by those who keep lecturing us about the need to be good boys and girls and dutifully obey our old colonial masters in perpetuity. We should embrace the new path opened up by an increasingly powerful and more assertive global south that has so many possibilities for our economy, businesses and our growth path.

We should be encouraging our leaders to sign a free trade agreement for Brics members that will allow for improved ease of conducting business and travel between the countries. 

This could be taken further by expanding this agreement to include all countries of the global south, even the ones that might not yet be members of Brics. 

Countries that are not members of Brics are already members of the New Development Bank, the Brics Bank, so there is no reason why it is not possible for the entire global south to become one big free trade area. 

Protectionism is not going to get our countries out of poverty. 

We need more development and better co-operation and co-ordination between our countries. 

We must insist on being able to think for ourselves, and to make our decisions, in the interests of our future — that of Africa and the global south as a whole.

Nontobeko Hlela is an independent commentator on international relations and geopolitical issues.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.