The debate on BRICS is polarized between pro and anti-BRICS elements represented in the South African government and left-leaning civil society activists and academics. It is uncertain South Africa’s new partners in BRIC will treat the country differently
The African National Congress doesn’t enjoy being attacked from the Left. Attacks from the Right can, of course, be breezily dismissed as racist/neo-colonialist/imperialist/liberal, you name it. The ANC dictionary overflows with ready-made ripostes to the Right.
But it is rather devoid of easy ripostes to the Left. This was evident at a recent public debate organised by the development NGO ActionAid on South Africa’s hosting of the BRICS summit in Durban later this month.
THE DEBATE ON BRICS
The theme was ‘BRICS: Paradigm Shift or more of the same?’ and ActionAids’ South Africa director Fatima Shabodien framed the debate by asking if BRICS offered a ‘fundamental shift in ideology’ or just more of the same ‘neo-liberal’ economic ideology, but now with the new big emerging powers – namely South Africa’s BRICS partners Brazil, Russia, India and China – as the key actors rather than the old Western powers.
Patrick Bond, a senior professor in the school of built environment and development studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, answered the question in no uncertain terms, berating the government for not just abetting but for ‘actively collaborating’ with the new ‘sub-imperialist’ powers of Brazil, Russia, India and China by helping them to ‘carve up Africa.’
ARE CHINA AND RHODES ALLIES IN AFRICA ?
‘This is 1885 all over again,’ Bond declaimed, accusing the BRICS countries of mounting a ‘second Scramble for Africa’ in their haste to extract the continent’s natural resources. China’s major construction of infrastructure on the continent – much lauded by South Africa and other African governments as well as development economists – became, in Bond’s perspective, just an instrument of Beijing’s neo-colonialist enterprise.
It was all about getting minerals from mines to ports to be shipped to China, he declared, adding that the new Chinese President Xi Jinping, who will attend this month’s Durban summit, ‘would be perfectly comfortable’ with the arch-colonialist Cecil John Rhodes’s view of Africa.
He and Shabodien asked some familiar questions, which have emanated from no particular ideological direction, such as: if South Africa’s BRICS partners are such good friends, why have China and Russia not supported our bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council; why did the BRICS countries not back Africa’s candidate to be boss of the World Bank; and why did China pressure South Africa to deny a visa to the Dalai Lama?
Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Ebrahim Ebrahim, representing the government, seemed rather nonplussed by Bond’s attack, although he could hardly not have expected it, as Bond is a familiar exponent of old-style communism.
TOWARDS A MULTIPOLAR WORLD?
He offered the standard government line, that the emergence of the BRICS represented a fundamental shift in global economic power away from the West and towards a new multipolar – or ‘plurilateral’ – world. South Africa’s role in BRICS should be seen, essentially, as helping to shift the world in that direction. But that didn’t answer the question posed by Shabodien, whether BRICS offered a ‘fundamental shift in ideology’ or just a rearrangement of the players in the old game?
Ebrahim took some refuge in South Africa’s ‘sous-sherpa’ for BRICS, Anil Sooklal, the deputy director-general for the Middle East and Asia, to reply to some of the questions. Sooklal seemed taken aback by Bond’s frontal assault from the Left, suggesting it was arrogant. It recalled the attitude both of the ‘apartheid lecturers’ at the segregated Indian university he had had to attend in the old South Africa and of EU academics ‘who have answers to everything.’ Bond had done a ‘disservice to academia,’ he added.
Sooklal was probably on the right line in recalling his university days, as he probably ought, from a purely rhetorical perspective, to have dismissed Bond’s attack as student politics. For certainly Bond was firing a blunderbuss at all of what the Left regards as the ANC’s sell-out to international capital and neo-liberalism etc, rather than just at BRICS.
Yet the one nagging question posed by him and Shabodien remained: what does BRICS really offer South Africa that is different, other than the satisfaction of poking the West in the eye?
Sooklal touched on that when he said the definition of infrastructure articulated by Bond was much too narrow, and that BRICS had in mind a far broader definition – addressing poverty, underdevelopment and unemployment – in its policy of investing in infrastructure.
That evidently referred to South Africa’s belief that the BRICS partners will fashion their investment in South Africa – and the rest of the continent – to process and thus add value to raw materials, creating local jobs and greater local growth, rather than just extracting the stuff and shipping it out.
ZUMA CHALLENGES THE WEST WITH CHINA
President Jacob Zuma put it more directly in an interview with the Financial Times this week when he warned Western companies that they would have to stop treating Africa as a former colony or Africa ‘will go to new partners who are going to treat them differently.’
He particularly accused Western mining companies of only extracting ore and not fostering support industries, such as diamond-polishing, in the host nations. He nonetheless added that Africa was aware that its new friends such as China might do the same.
Zuma was articulating what his government presumably regards as the essential difference between Xi Jinping and Cecil John Rhodes. And it is revealing that for him it did not seem yet to be an entirely closed question.
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* Peter Fabricius is Foreign Service editor of Independent newspapers.