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Foreign Policy

South Africa’s “Distinctiveness” in BRICS

Apr 25, 2011
  • Zhang Chun

    Senior Fellow, Shanghai Institutes for Int'l Studies

South Africa is distinctive in understanding its importance, stance and policy in respect of BRICS. South Africa has to agree with the majority of African countries and the African Union. South Africa should not be deemed as a single nation as of India, Brazil or Russia in analyzing its policy stance regarding BRICS. It should be viewed in an African context.

This author has recently visited South African Institute of International Affairs as a visiting scholar and has identified remarkable difference between Chinese elites and scholars and their South African counterparts in their attitudes to BRICS. Chinese media have used the term “distinctive” to figure out South Africa regarding the BRICS Summit, while the term “distinctive” is quite different in the SA discourse. The first distinctiveness is recognized by both China and South Africa, i.e., South Africa is important in BRICS geopolitically rather than economically. However, the Chinese likes to see South Africa as the largest economy in Africa and as on behalf not only of itself but also of the African continent as a whole. But South Africans understand the distinctiveness differently in that none of other BRICS members is on behalf of a whole region as South Africa. Following this logic, South Africa has to keep agreement with the majority of African countries and the African Union. South Africa should not be deemed as a single nation in analyzing its policy positions regarding BRICS as the case of India, Brazil or Russia. It should be taken in an African perspective.

Of course, that “distinctiveness” is even disputed within South Africa. To put it simply, if South Africa “embraces” the entire Africa, why participates in BRICS? Julius Sello Malema, President of the African National Congress Youth League, represents the perspective. He puts the questions last week: what is BRICS? South Africa “embraces” the entire Africa, why participates in BRICS?
Since African National Congress Youth League is the cradle of the future elites of South Africa, and Mendela himself had been the president of the Youth League, Malema’s opinion might exert an important impact on South Africa’s role and stance in BRICS.

The following two distinctions are discussed not as much, if not mis-expected, in China. 

The second distinctiveness lies in South Africa’s economic expectation on participation in BRICS. Although the SA economic importance is less than other BRICS members, SA pins great expectation on the participation. To SA officials and scholars, there are at least three benefits to the participation: 1, The participation can promote SA economy because it will considerably enhance trade and investment between SA and other members. Some even think that it will promote SA defense industry. 2, It will promote the African economy as a whole. This is obvious as well as contentious, “will that lead to the “new” trilateral cooperation of the so-called “SA+other BRICS members+other Africans?” The trilateral cooperation is extremely sensitive to other Africans. 3, There is the issue of “overseas investment” by SA enterprises. The SA officials and scholars pointed out, SA investment and trade in Africa far overpasses China and India, with little potential left behind. Thus, the SA investment and trade in China and India is prospective. The question is how to cut the cake. President Zuma has brought 50 companies to the Sanya Summit, but no one knows the names of the companies as it is a secret in SA.

The third distinctiveness might be a disappointment to the Chinese: SA has so far not yet regarded BRICS as a politically very useful platform. SA officials and scholars all opine that since the BRICS is a new bloc and SA a new member, the learning curve will take a long time and the BRICS cannot be viewed as a platform to advance the reform of the international system, let alone as a league. Therefore, they are hardly optimistic on the coordination and collaboration of the BRICS in the international affairs, especially on the issues of the reform of international currency system, commodity price fluctuation, climate change, sustainable development and so on. On the contrary, they are all of the view that if there is a platform of South-South cooperation, it must be the India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue(IBSA).

Admittedly, as those distinctions derive most from the watch by this author in South Africa, it might be misleading and might not be that bleak. To a larger extent, SA is full of expectation on playing a greater role in participation in BRICS. To most South Africans’ view, the participation itself indicates that SA wants to make positive and complementary contribution to the reform of the existing international system through the platform, given the existing platform is surfice to solve the outstanding problems of the international system. Although the “learning curve” will take time, SA officials and scholars are all full of expectation on the SA hosting of the fifth BRICS summit in two years. Just as a SA scholar has put it, South Africans like raising proposals and programs, and they will certainly raise fairly good programs to promote concerted efforts of the BRICS countries by that time.

Zhang Chun is research fellow of Center for West Asia and Africa Studies, SIIS

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