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BRICS expansion may lead to shrinking of SA’s influence

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Picture: GCIS President Cyril Ramaphosa at bi-lateral discussions with his Brazilian counterpart, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, on the sidelines of the New Global Financing Pact two-day Summit held in Paris, France this week. If this week’s reports are correct that French President Emmanuel Macron is pressuring Ramaphosa for an invitation to Sandton, and if Putin must stay home due to the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant, the Pretoria zigzag will confuse not only the citizenry but the world, says the writer.

By Patrick Bond

Notwithstanding chaos in global governance, as revealed in last week’s inconsequential Paris development finance and climate conference, worsening environmental crises and a weak attempt at multilateral revivalism joined by President Cyril Ramaphosa, unrealistic expectations of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) bloc are being dashed.

The BRICS appear certain to disappoint when they meet in Sandton on August 22-24, just as much as current Western-driven initiatives are failing to provide the debt cancellation and climate reparations urgently required, instead piling on more loans for countries like Zambia to pay interest on old loans.

And what appears to be a colonial/ Neo-colonial network aiming to relegitimise the Western Neo-liberal order was kicked off in last week’s statement – “A green transition that leaves no one behind” – by leaders from the US, EU, France, UK, Germany and Japan, joined by presidents of Barbados, Senegal and Kenya representing poor countries, with three notable sub-imperial powers signing on the UAE, Brazil and South Africa.

The declaration began auspiciously: “We are urgently working to deliver more for people and the planet.” This sentence would have been more accurately amended: “We are urgently working to deliver more inequality, poverty, oligopolistic corporate power, economic crisis, financial turbulence, plutocracy, pandemics accompanied by vaccine apartheid, patriarchy, racism, xenophobia and ecocide for people and the planet.”

Every failure in the multilateral institutions – especially the Bretton Woods financiers, World Trade Organisation and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – and every right-wing turn in the Western polities, matched by every Global South leader’s assimilation, portend an increasingly hellish future for the coming generations. Fissures are appearing even on military terrain, what with the intelligence leaders of 24 countries – led by the “five eyes” (US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) but surprisingly joined by China and India – gathering earlier this month for a “Shangri-La Dialogue” in Singapore.

Pro-Moscow interpreter Pepe Escobar interpreted, “US foreign policy needs essentially to deploy the whole arsenal of Hybrid War techniques to seduce, coerce or subdue six so-called ‘swing states’ in the geopolitical arena: Brazil, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Türkiye”. Days before that, the BRICS foreign ministers, who met in early June in Cape Town, were utterly deflating.

Once again, just as with the oft-hyped “Contingent Reserve Arrangement”, that could have been an alternative to the International Monetary Fund but wasn’t. They let down many societies desperate for international monetary and currency reform. Pretoria’s BRICS diplomat Anil Sooklal confirmed the bloc’s conservativism: “We have never spoken about de-dollarisation. What we have done, which is nothing new, we signed an agreement several years ago, an interbank agreement, paving the way to trade in our local currencies.”

But the latter is tough going as a result of enormous trade imbalances within BRICS, plus tough Chinese and Indian exchange that make trade-revenue repatriation difficult. Disappointments on these fronts can be traced to two durable Achilles heels that have long crippled the bloc’s potential ambitions: internecine rivalries and sub-imperial (not anti-imperial) economics that locks BRICS into Western-controlled circuits of capital.

Neither can be blamed directly on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – unjustified and brutal, even if the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) was, first, too carelessly approaching Russia’s borders (violating the early-1990s promises made to former Russian president Boris Yeltsin in Washington, London and Berlin), and second, led by Washington Neo-conservatives, playing manipulative political games in Ukraine (such as the $5 billion spent on the 2014 regime change).

But the “poly crisis” facing those responsible for “global governance” is certainly being amplified by Putin’s invasion and the resulting geopolitical churn. The intra-BRICS tension is most obvious, with the Sino-Indian conflicts still looming large, stretching far beyond Himalayan border turf wars that were fatal for dozens of soldiers who have literally thrown each other off mountain slopes into freezing rivers in recent years.

Subsequently, Chinese and Indian leaders have taken to banning each other’s corporations and even journalists. In 2017, these squabbles threatened Delhi’s participation at that year’s China-hosted BRICS summit and prevented Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi from joining President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, leading to intensely nationalist Sinophobia in India as a widespread mental virus. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue “Quad” military partnership between India and the US, the United Kingdom and Australia, against China is another contradiction.

And there is still consternation about whether the BRICS’ annual statements should include specific condemnation of what Islamophobic Delhi officials term “state terror” by Pakistan, a near-bankrupt country China remains reliant upon for infrastructure (road, rail and especially oil pipeline) routing to avoid potentially-blockable East Asian shipping lanes. The assimilation of Modi into Western power circuits – after he was banned from the US for years due to his role in spurring murderous Gujarat anti-Muslim riots in 2002 – was on display recently during his celebrated trip to the US.

Other indicators of westernising India are the ascent of three leaders: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, US Vice President Kamala Harris (daughter of Indian scientist Shyamala Gopalan), and former MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga as the new World Bank president. (Typical of such assimilation was the way Banga kicked off his predatory “financial inclusion” policies in South Africa during a 2013 visit to Soweto, where with top support, he partnered MasterCard with Cash Paymaster Services (CPS) to loot millions of poor South Africans’ social grants via dubious debit orders.

These were so brazen that Black Sash filed a civil suit, resulting in a trial and CPS’ disgrace and ultimate bankruptcy, but only in late 2020 after enormous damage was done.) Will South Africa’s BRICS weight shrink in Sandton? The BRICS’ annual heads-of-state gatherings have usually covered up conflicts between the world’s two most populous countries. But if this week’s reports are correct that French President Emmanuel Macron is pressuring Ramaphosa for an invitation to Sandton, and if Putin must stay home due to the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant, the Pretoria zigzag will confuse not only the citizenry but the world.

There is a logic here, insofar as BRICS+ expansion plans create a dialectic: diluted power to the existing five countries, especially the weakest (South Africa) on the one hand, and on the other, the urgency Beijing and Moscow have in political alliance building against Western aggression. That may mean the BRICS leaders reaching out to not only the likes of Iran, Syria, Nicaragua and Afghanistan – but also traditional US allies Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Türkiye, Thailand, Nigeria, Egypt, Mexico and Argentina.

The 19 typically listed as aspirant members also include Uruguay, Algeria, Senegal, Morocco, Kazakhstan and Bangladesh. Outliers whose leaders have reportedly expressed interest include Zimbabwe, Venezuela, Cuba and Belarus. If Delhi, Brasilia and Pretoria lose global influence due to a dilution of BRICS membership prestige, it would come just at the point when – in 2023, 2024 and 2025, respectively – each of the three will host the G20 annual meeting. That body, which since 2008 has fused imperial and sub-imperial interests to assure global financial stability, holds the key to the myriad of multilateral problem-solving opportunities now being referred to as poly-crisis.

But it is in Sandton that more decisive evidence of cul-de-sac uni-polar and multi-polar political agendas will appear, and where a far more preferable option – non-polar geopolitics from below – will become even more evident than in this week’s multilateral-revival failure.

Patrick Bond is Professor of Sociology and Director of the University of Johannesburg Centre for Social Change