When doing the sums, do the BRICS add up?

PHAKAMISA MAYABA / On the back of its latest summit, BRICS has been a fashionable acronym to throw around the metaverse, reawakening a dormant call that has remained under the rug since the dissipation of the Fallist Movement circa 2015 – decolonisation.

It even resurrected a rather spirited former president Jacob Zuma, who just a few weeks prior evaded the slammer by the skin of … actually, by the stroke of his successor’s pen. At a lecture, uBaba flamboyantly reminded everybody that it’s largely thanks to him that South Africa has been aboard an organisation with some global clout since 2010.

South Africa, along with various developing and so-called ‘pariah’ states, for centuries gasping under the shrewd stranglehold hold of Western colonial, economic and military muscle, were banding together to chart a new path towards genuine self-actualisation.

Talk of reforming the global financial architecture and exploring “alternatives” to the dollar reverberated loud enough out of the Sandton Convention Centre for much of the world’s glare to fall on a resilient country at the base of the Mother Continent. To accord the gathering enough weight as to make flattering utterances of a new global order, but also to probe whether the signatories – Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa and the six others due to be admitted next year – were not punching above their weight; that this wasn’t just another talk shop.

To be fair, it’s been a long time coming — this schtick of once-colonised vassals permanently liberating themselves from their erstwhile colonial betters. As far back as the formative years of African independence, stock phrases like “African solutions to African problems” served as a rallying cry to inspire a continent that would no longer heel to global strongmen. Yet, some 80 years on, like Langston Hughes’s raisin in the sun, the dream stood deferred.

Africa, its bottomless reserves of minerals notwithstanding, was generally still a beleaguered, lumbering s**thole effectively ruled by proxy. The US dollar remained king; Africa’s impoverished nations, caps in hand, continued to grovel for aid and loans – at exorbitant interest rates – from the West. Her raw minerals were being shipped off elsewhere only to be sold back as final products, effectively rendering Africa only nominally independent as it continued to pander to the whims of its former colonisers.

Even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, the West accorded “scant respect to food security and health imperatives of the Global South … some of the elements responsible for the growing disenchantment with the prevailing international system”.

With such things in mind, at the recent come-together, Brics appeared insistent on changing this narrative. The new direction could hardly be hidden as the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, a warmongering despot in the eyes of the West, actively partook in the deliberations, albeit remotely. Welcoming Iran, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates – countries that one would hardly associate with democracy – into the fold demonstrated a fundamental shift in the preparedness of this bloc to put member interests ahead of issues like human rights. China, despite its own well-documented record of flouting human rights, has been an economic bedfellow of South Africa for years.

Chairing the summit, President Cyril Ramaphosa said; “Through stronger investment and trade relations with other countries, we are able to grow our economy, create more opportunities for new businesses, and reduce unemployment.”

The numbers, however, paint an entirely different picture. Since South Africa first joined Brics in 2010, the country has experienced glaring economic decline. As Ray Hartley and Greg Mills have written on Daily Maverick, our GDP – the prime measure of national output – has actually declined from $417.4-billion in 2010 to $406.9-billion in 2023. And this is without adjusting for inflation.

They also note that the rand has gone from R7.90 against the dollar in 2010 to around R19.22. Unemployment, at 24% in 2010, now stands at around 32.6%. They also insist that colluding with countries that are notoriously corrupt doesn’t do any favours for a government that promises to clamp down on graft.

Moreover, challenging the domination of the dollar – or de-dollarisation – could see this bloc trading in different currencies in coming years, which would be a cause for concern in the West. However, finance minister Enoch Godongwana has ruled out the creation of a new trading currency in the foreseeable future.

For the Fallist Movement, which has largely become forgotten since the Rhodes/Fees Must Fall years, this seemed to be a vindication of their grievances. Apart from mobilising for the removal of Cecil John Rhodes’s statue at the University of Cape Town, their core aspirations included rallying for a decolonised curriculum, a move that found favour with the Left, most notably the Economic Freedom Fighters. For impatient, disillusioned youngsters, social media platforms have been a boon for their marginalised voices.

‘Podcast and Chill with MacG’, a show often derided as a crass platform for misogynists, and which owes its impressive popularity largely to celebrity interviews, recently had the prominent journalist Samkele Maseko unpacking what Brics is all about to the show’s youthful audience. A slew of foreign and local podcasters have followed suit. There has even been an impressive rap verse written on the subject.

Despite all the attention, most analysts agree that it will take time before any meaningful gains or losses will reveal themselves. If Iran and the UAE do join the bloc in January next year, Brics would effectively be in control of at least 40% of the world’s oil reserves. There are talks of getting other mineral-rich African countries aboard, which would further boost its mineral control. On this score, there is a push to ensure that there is development in technology to ensure that minerals are processed into final products in the countries of origin.

When it comes to Russia, the ANC secretary-general, Fikile Mbalula, has lamented the seeming double standards of the West in seeking to try Putin for war crimes while America’s George W. Bush and Britain’s Tony Blair, who invaded Iraq back in 2001, are free to roam around scot-free. Also, for years, the America of Ronald Reagan would not condemn the apartheid government when the rest of the world had long turned its back on the regime.

Perhaps it is with this in mind that South Africa has welcomed the acceptance of both Iran and the UAE as members of BRICS, despite records of gross human rights violations in those countries. Still, if you are thinking that this is the sure-footed panacea for our domestic troubles such as crime, inequality and unemployment, the prevalent counsel is — please, don’t get carried away.

* This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Phakamisa Mayaba’s website, eParkeni.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap