The rapper Ewok captured the spirit of progressive social forces in South Africa with his condemnation of [BRICS] elite politics at a March 2013 protest outside the Durban International Convention Centre, South Africa: “You dropping BRICS from above? We’re throwing bricks from below!”
For the second time, the leaders of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) summit will take place in South Africa, this time at Johannesburg’s Sandton Convention Centre from 25-27 July. The bloc has great potential to change the world in positive ways. But under increasingly desperate capitalist rule in each country, this potential simply cannot be realised, and evidence has accumulated of much more harm than good.
The best example of intra-BRICS collaboration combining top-down and bottom-up politics was when 15 years ago, Treatment Action Campaign activists won free AIDS medicines (once costing US $10 000 per year) for four million South Africans (hence raising life expectancy from 52 to 64) thanks partly to a Brazilian state precedent and Indian generic pharmaceutical support.
Progressive BRICS are crumbling
But that was then – now the BRICS are mainly corrupt and undemocratic under Michel Temer, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping and Cyril Ramaphosa. Thanks to the ruling parties’ policies, the five countries are more unequal, patriarchal, homophobic, racist and polluting.
There is no space here to explore systematic policy critiques of BRICS countries, which range across feminist, environmentalist, generational (especially youth), class and race lines. Brutal versions of neoliberal ideology prevail in all five BRICS, aside from Brazil during Workers Party rule, which ended in a 2016 coup by the corrupt politician Temer – against which no other BRICS country came to prior President Dilma Rousseff’s assistance in spite of appeals by the Movement of Landless Workers.
Inequality subsequently rose in each of the BRICS. Even in Brazil, “After falling for years, inequality and poverty increased during the [2015-16] crisis,” according to a May 2018 International Monetary Fund (IMF) study. To make matters worse, the main theme of the 2018 conference is the so-called “4th Industrial Revolution” (emphasising robots, cyber-technology and Artificial Intelligence). Unemployment, state-corporate surveillance, repression and social engineering will worsen.
The sub-imperial position
One central problem is that the BRICS elites fit too snugly within – not against – Western imperialism, especially the most destructive multilateral agencies: the G20, United Nations Security Council, Bretton Woods Institutions (IMF and World Bank), World Trade Organisation (WTO) and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). There, the BRICS pursue “reforms”:
G20 – in the most powerful network, where South Africa is the only African member and hence is often used as a Northern/BRICS ally against the interests of the continent, the BRICS are promoting pro-corporate mega-projects and “extractivism” against African people and environments (via the German Conservative Party’s “Compact with Africa” in 2017, which offers new investment guarantees to G20 corporations partly at African expense);
UN Security Council – ensuring that the three weaker BRICS (Brazil, India and South Africa) are never allowed to acquire full-vote, full-veto permanent membership in the UNSC, since that would dilute the power of Moscow and Beijing (given that the bloc is extremely divided in geopolitical terms, with Delhi and Brasilia extremely close to Washington, and Pretoria generally considered unreliable);
IMF – demanding and winning ownership “quota” restructurings (2010-15) that disempower most poor countries by lowering their voting share (e.g. Nigeria by 41 percent), and extending the term of corrupt (convicted) former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde as IMF leader, without any change in the neoliberal Washington Consensus philosophy that wrecks African economies, societies and environments;
WTO – ending poor countries’ food sovereignty at the 2015 Nairobi summit (chaired by a Brazilian) by agreeing with Washington and Brussels to make pro-consumer/farmer agricultural subsidies a free-trade violation, at a time Xi Jinping is rebooting pro-corporate trade (given that Trump appears to be self-sabotaging Free Trade Agreements); and
UNFCCC – agreeing in the Durban (2011) and Paris (2015) summits to permit the North’s and BRICS’ on-going destruction of the climate, thanks to the deals’ non-binding, unambitious emissions cut targets (in spite of Global South and climate justice calls for binding, accountable and effective mechanisms); reinstatement of carbon trading (the “privatisation of the air”, a false solution); omission of the military, shipping and air transport sectors; and cancellation of their own North/BRICS’ climate debt to the victims of extreme weather, droughts, floods and other conditions that are already doing extensive damage to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable regions.
Supposed BRICS “alternatives” to Western power include the New Development Bank (NDB), Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA), a potential credit ratings agency, and BRICS corporations’ Foreign Direct Investment. These are not genuine alternatives. In reality they amplify imperialist processes. These specifically empower the World Bank and IMF (through mutually-reinforcing deals), and also confirm on-going world reliance on the US$. (The US$ is the currency unit used in 70 percent of NDB loans so far, and in all CRA financing – even when project expenditure should occur with local currency.)
Even more tragically, the BRICS have not offered any way for the world to defend against US President Donald Trump’s threats to our planet. To be sure, Russia has very dangerous new missiles, which Putin claims can evade all known defence systems and blow up the United States within a half hour of being launched. Also, Xi’s new naval aircraft carrier will defend its South China Sea fake “islands” far away from its shores. But world civilisation has entered a lethal stage with geopolitical, nuclear, conventional military, climate and economic dangers.
A global movement against Trump began on the very day of his inauguration in January 2017, and occasionally takes the form of protests at US embassies. BRICS elites could support this through sanctions, but instead engage in periodic re-legitimisation of Washington’s proto-fascist regime – especially Modi, Temer and Xi. Although anti-Trump rhetoric is occasionally articulated and potential trade wars loom, the BRICS are nevertheless falling into line with his commands when it comes to the pro-corporate character of multilateral institutions.
One of the main threats to Middle East peace and global justice is the Trump-Israel axis that bulldozes over the most fundamental rights of Palestinian people and promotes hatred, racism, walls and wars across the continents. While people are building a new global anti-apartheid movement calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions, BRICS policies promote corporate impunity, undermine democracy and adapt to imperialist agendas against Palestine. India imports 50 percent of all Israeli weapons exports while Brazil ranks among the top six markets for Israeli weapons. Much of it foments repression against their own people and surveillance policies. China and India are today among Israel’s main trade and investment partners. Chinese and Indian companies collude with Israelis on “Big Data” – which translates into more surveillance of societies. And none of the BRICS countries bans products of corporations complicit with Israeli settlements in Palestine, as should be done under international law since production on illegally occupied land is considered an international crime.
BRICS elites subvert citizenries’ democratic instincts
BRICS elites are crushing their own societies’ instincts for democracy and justice. On-going examples are Temer’s frame-up arrest of Workers Party leader Lula da Silva in Brazil in May, preventing his (otherwise certain) victory in October presidential elections; Putin’s disqualification of Alexai Navalny’s liberal candidacy in April’s Russian “election”; Modi’s proto-fascistic religiously-bigoted leadership; Xi’s Chinese Communist Party dictatorship (and now his potential for decade+ personal rule); and in South Africa, the “Ramazupta” governance problem.
South African political rulers still reveal corrupt leadership within the Presidency and Deputy Presidency, the African National Congress (ANC)’s Luthuli House and various provinces. ANC leaders are ruthless, with intra-ANC murders continuing in many jurisdictions. In 2012, Ramaphosa emailed in a request for the police to take “concomitant action” in a “pointed” way against workers on strike at his Lonmin platinum mine at Marikana, and so within 24 hours, 34 were massacred – with no one yet punished. He had consistently redirected money he should have paid the workers into Lonmin’s Bermuda tax haven, and notwithstanding a mandate to build 5500 houses for workers at Marikana backed by the World Bank, he built just three. BRICS leaders are guilty of illicit financial flows, having been exposed in 2016 “Panama Papers” and 2017 “Paradise Papers” leaks.
When the BRICS countries’ elites do business in Africa, their ethics reflect some of the most anti-democratic and predatory practices that we have seen since the Berlin conference of 1885 and the likes of Cecil Rhodes and King Leopold. Similar to Western corporate behaviour in corrupting local leaders, Africa suffers malevolent BRICS state, parastatal and corporate interventions in local politics.
For example, the Brazilian firm Odebrecht made more than R600 million (US $ 50million) in known bribes of Angolan and Mozambican rulers.
Rosatom did nuclear deals with corrupt political regimes in Pretoria, Kampala, Lusaka, Accra, Nairobi, Abuja, Windhoek and Cairo.
The Gupta brothers’ “state capture” of wide swathes of South Africa’s political, bureaucratic and corporate management was supported by one of Delhi’s state-owned banks, with no extradition from India likely.
Beijing compelled Pretoria to reject the Dalai Lama’s visa applications to South Africa on three occasions, put decisive pressure on Zuma to change finance ministers in 2015, and pre-approved the Zimbabwe army’s coup against Robert Mugabe late last year.
Pretoria repeatedly dismissed the democratic will of neighbouring countries, instead nurturing dictatorships in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and the Central African Republic.
BRICS firms operating in Africa have become voracious, especially since the commodity super-cycle peaked in 2011 and more extreme extraction (and social protests) are evident. It is hard to argue that there is any worse predatory corporate presence in Africa than the BRICS. For example,
From Brazil, both Odebrecht and the world’s second-largest mining company, Rio-based Vale, have faced regular protests over mass displacement at construction projects and coal-mining operations in Tete, Mozambique, as has the Brazilian government (dating to Workers Party rule) over its ProSavana corporate-agriculture land-grab.
Russia’s potentially disastrous Rosatom nuclear reactor deals across Africa are noted above, but so too are Russian mining houses moving into Zimbabwe’s platinum and gold fields in dubious ways.
Indian companies in Africa have been especially exploitative, led by Vedanta chief executive Anil Agarwal – caught bragging to investors of having bought the continent’s largest copper mine for just US $25 million after fibbing to Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa and each year returning US $500 million to US $1 billion in revenues. ArcelorMittal’s Lakshmi Mittal’s major African steel operation, South Africa’s former state-owned ISCOR, was accused by even Pretoria’s trade minister of milking the operations. Jindal’s super-exploitative arrangements in Mozambique and South Africa are regularly criticised.
Chinese firms – both state-owned and private – have been convincingly accused of major financial, human rights, labour and environmental abuses in Africa, perhaps most spectacularly in the case of Sam Pa whose operations included mining diamonds in eastern Zimbabwe along with the Chinese military firm Anjin. In 2016, even President Robert Mugabe alleged that of US $15 billion in revenues, only US $2 billion were accounted for, in mines mainly controlled by the local military and Chinese companies.
South African businesses have a record of looting the rest of the continent dating to Cecil Rhodes’ (19th century) British South Africa Company, the Oppenheimer mining empire, and current President Ramaphosa’s pre-2012 chairing of Africa’s largest cell-phone company, MTN. The latter was exposed – along with two other companies he led, Lonmin and Shanduka – in 2014-17 for having offshore accounts in Bermuda and Mauritius used to illicitly remove funds from Africa. South Africa’s corporate elites regularly rank as the most corrupt on earth in the biannual PricewaterhouseCoopers Economic Crimes Survey – especially in money-laundering, bribery and corruption, procurement fraud, asset misappropriation and cybercrime – with one recent report showing that “eight out of ten senior managers commit economic crime.”
BRICS spies survey our societies and promote a “4th Industrial Revolution”
Through high-technology surveillance, censorship and digital repression strategies, BRICS countries are at the cutting edge of cyberwar against their citizenries. For example, South African investors are implicated in China’s totalitarian control of that country’s Internet, which prevents the Chinese people from interacting with most of the rest of the world on major social media platforms. Also, in August 2015 alone, there were 15 000 arrests – including progressive clicktivists – for so-called “cyber crimes.” Last year, The Feminist Voice in China was booted off the country’s Twitter-equivalent after merely posting an anti-Trump article from The Guardian.
Unfortunately, the largest South African firm listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange – Naspers – holds a massive (R1.7 trillion—about US $142 million) investment in Tencent (China’s Facebook equivalent), which is used by Beijing for Orwellian “social credit” monitoring to prevent social activism against Beijing and local targets of genuine grievances, whether governments and corporations.
In the same spirit of profiting handsomely from intra-BRICS repression, a South African arms dealer – Ivor Ichikowitz – sold high-tech repressive machinery to the Brazilian government so as to help its local municipalities repress 2013-14 protests that began because of unreasonable public transport price increases and World Cup excesses. Already, collaboration between BRICS spy agencies is well underway.
And in 2016, UN officials from Moscow, Delhi, Beijing and Pretoria voted against the main resolution on protection of human rights and privacy on the Internet, a resolution co-authored by Brazil and co-sponsored by 70 other countries. (Even by far the world’s most predatory surveillance regime, the United States under Barack Obama, was shamed into supporting the resolution.)
In Pretoria, the Domestic Branch of the State Security Agency (formerly National Intelligence Agency) regularly monitors citizens’ communication, just as does the US National Security Agency, with occasional embarrassing public incidents of spy-versus-spy or spy-versus-politicians, such as at the 2015 State of the Nation address when communications were jammed. Last August, there were revelations about the State Security Agency tapping of in excess of 150 000 South African cellphone accounts.
In the ruling party’s Luthuli House, a “black ops war room” in 2016 generated fake news and bogus Twitter accounts against the ANC’s political opponents during a disastrous election campaign (it lost four of the five largest metro areas), before being exposed after failing to pay an IT consultant, who took the ANC to court.
This unregulated high tech power of surveillance, censorship and repression becomes especially important because of the ultra-destructive 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR). Experts admit that 4IR Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics and cyber-security such as blockchain technology could wipe out half the world’s current jobs. Leading ex-South African practitioner Elon Musk warns that AI could destroy humanity within the coming few decades.
Yet dissemination of 4IR into Africa appears to be a very high priority of the BRICS’ so-called “Sherpas” (a term we would want to respect the Nepalese people’s desires to banish from such discussions). It is also a major project of BRICS Business Council chair Iqbal Survé, who has been relentlessly pushing 4IR rhetoric in his Independent group newspaper chain, in part through the proposed R50 billion (about US $4.2 billion) Sagarmatha Johannesburg Stock Exchange listing.
Investigative journalists uncovered illicit relations between Survé and the R2 trillion (US $166.67billion) Public Investment Corporation and halted the deal, but it is likely Survé will gain capital from allies to move his personal for-profit 4IR agenda forward, at the same time he and other BRICS elites try to confuse society with pro-4IR rhetoric.
Corrupting our states, societies and economies
Finally, when it comes to relations with South Africa, the BRICS countries and companies stink of corruption. It is not just the Rosatom nuclear deal, so devotedly pursued by Zuma and thankfully dropped by Ramaphosa (we hope).
In addition, the chair of the South Africa branch of the BRICS Business Council, Survé, grew wealthy through his firm Sekunjalo, which was accused by the South African state public protector in 2013 of R800 million (US $66.6 million) in “improper” tendering (for marine fisheries), after which he fired the Cape Times editor for putting this information on the newspaper’s front page.
Survé took over the Business Council chair from a man even more discredited from shady deals done at the BRICS 2013 summit: Brian Molefe. As Transnet’s chief executive, Molefe borrowed US $5 billion from the China Development Bank, mainly used to buy locomotives from China South Rail – alongside massive bribery directed into the Gupta empire.
Another BRICS New Development Bank loan to Transnet was arranged in May 2018, for US $200 million to expand the port-petrochemical complex, without any community consultation, even though Transnet’s leadership was increasingly implicated in Gupta-era corruption investigations.
In 2016, Molefe was replaced as head of Eskom (and as chair of the BRICS Business Council) after he again arranged a US $5 billion loan from the same bank (plus US $200 million from the BRICS New Development Bank for a link to privatised solar supplies which Molefe then decided he didn’t want).
At the same time Molefe was helping the Guptas penetrate Eskom, he visited the so-called Saxonwold Shebeen (the Gupta’s Johannesburg mansion) dozens of times. Two other BRICS Business Council members are Transnet head Siyabonga Gama (with his long history of corruption charges), and Stavros Nicolaou, who was formerly Aspen Pharmaceutical’s exports director when Italy’s government found Aspen guilty of price gauging life-saving cancer medicines, with a fine of R65 million (US $5.4million).
Communities fight back
The BRICS are among the societies with the greatest contradictions and repression – but also the most active resistance. Anger is rising whether in Brazil over the Lula jailing; or Russia because the main opposition candidate was prevented from taking part in the recent election; or India due to the ruling party’s tolerance for gender and ethnic violence as well as monetary repression; China due to workplace, land and environmental grievances; or South Africa thanks to a variety of problems.
Indeed, the main research institute studying this anger, at the University of Johannesburg, recently identified “a rising trend in frequency of community protests and a tendency towards those protests being disorderly.”
South African community protests
Source: University of Johannesburg Centre for Social Change
In our own region, resistance is taking many forms, because across Africa and the world, it is not only western imperialism but also BRICS sub-imperialism that is putting extreme pressure on communities, environments, labour forces, youth, the elderly and everyone. And resistance is sometimes very passionate:
In Mozambique, there are regular community protests against Brazilian land-grabbing in Tete Province (against Vale coal mining) and Nampula (against ProSavana).
In South Africa, social protests against Jacob Zuma prevented his US $100 billion acquisition of eight Russian Rosatom nuclear reactors.
In Zambia, community protesters regularly criticise the Vedanta operation at Konkola, which is wrecking the local environment in addition to looting national resources.
In Zimbabwe, not only the Marange community – where 2000 protested renewed mining in May – every single citizen was adversely affected by Chinese and Zimbabwean military looting of US $15 billion worth of what Robert Mugabe in 2016 calculated as missing diamond revenue.
Across Africa there are periodic protests against South African corporations – e.g. MTN in Nigeria –, which peaked in April 2015, when a variety of company and embassy offices witnessed demonstrations against that year’s xenophobia.
From the standpoint of activists working from below, BRICS elites have adopted reactionary economic, social and environmental policies; have assimilated into imperialist agencies to the detriment of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable; have offered only bogus “alternative” institutions; have suppressed democracy; allow their firms’ unlimited corporate irresponsibility; impose extreme forms of surveillance, censorship and digital repression, including expansion of the ultra-destructive 4IR; and engage in runaway corruption. But in each case, people are standing up to resist.
Activities to “Break the BRICS” will give greater voice to these communities, trade unions, women’s and youth groups, ecologists and many other social movements. For information on Johannesburg meetings from 22-27 July, contact: [email protected]
* The BREAK the BRICS Coalition is a group of activists opposing the BRICS’sub-imperialism in Africa.