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SA assumes BRICS leadership role amid domestic challenges

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Picture: AFP – China’s President Xi Jinping, left, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during the 11th BRICS Summit on November 14, 2019, in Brasília, Brazil. South Africa has assumed the rotating chairpersonship of the group this month for the second time and will host the 15th BRICS Summit later this year, says the writer.

By David Monyae

South Africa assumed the rotating chairpersonship of the BRICS grouping on January 1.

It is the second time the country will occupy the chair’s seat, having played the same role in 2018 since joining the group in 2010.

As the chairperson, South Africa will host the 15th BRICS Summit later this year. South Africa will also lead the BRICS High-Level Dialogue and numerous other events that make up the calendar.

Moreover, the chairperson is granted the privilege of determining the agenda of the summit.

South Africa’s chairpersonship comes at a time when the world is facing a lot of uncertainty, with a struggling global economy, the raging Russia-Ukraine war, worsening climate change and rising geopolitical tension among the major powers.

Over the years, BRICS has increasingly become a prominent actor in global affairs, with the potential to shape the future of the global order.

Accounting for more than 26 percent of the world’s gross domestic product and more than 40 percent of the world’s population, BRICS does indeed have the economic and political muscle to influence the trajectory of the global order.

As such, the BRICS chairpersonship is an opportunity for South Africa to stir the bloc along its foreign policy vision. South Africa’s leadership coincides with important changes that are taking place within the group itself. These include plans to expand the group by adding new members.

Countries such as Iran, Argentina, Turkey and Senegal have expressed their interest in joining the group.

Key group members such as China have welcomed the expansion of the group, arguing that it would enhance the group’s strategic foothold and thus boost its global influence. Adding new members to the group would make it more inclusive and representative of the Global South it claims to speak for. It is important that the group carefully considers the countries it is willing to admit, based on what value it will bring.

As the chair of the group, South Africa’s voice will have considerable weight in how it handles the expansion issue. More interestingly, it remains to be seen whether, as the only African representative in BRICS, South Africa will push for the admission of another African country.

A central element of the BRICS founding mandate was to promote South-South co-operation through establishing vibrant and robust trade, investment, scientific and cultural networks between developing countries. This was a way of reducing the dominance of the North-South orientation of the international order in which Global South countries were exploited and dominated by the Global North.

In its 2020-2025 strategy, the BRICS group detailed ways of enhancing South-South relations. The implementation of the strategy will probably become a priority for South Africa as the BRICS chair.

Moreover, as the African voice in the BRICS bloc, South Africa will use its chairpersonship to push for the reform of global institutions such as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organisation.

Africa has, for a long time, demanded representation in the UNSC but its demands have fallen on deaf ears. The Continent has also been one of the fiercest critics of the structure of the IMF, arguing that it is at odds with Africa’s economic development priorities.

Hence, South Africa’s chairpersonship will probably stir the BRICS group towards the reform of institutions that underpin the global order the group was established to transform in the first place. Issues around sustainable development will become more prominent in the BRICS agenda in 2023. Sustainable development is one of the group’s key priorities outlined in the 2020-2025 strategy. It is a highly important issue in the light of the increasingly devastating effects of climate change over the past few years.

Scientists have expressed concern that the world might surpass the dreaded 1.5ºC rise in global temperatures if drastic action is not taken toward sustainable development. With 40 percent of the global population and 26 percent of the world’s land surface, BRICS is well placed to drive the world towards sustainable development and prevent a climate catastrophe.

More co-operation is needed in developing clean and green technologies in key sectors such as energy, transport and industry in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

However, it remains to be seen whether South Africa will have enough in its tank to run an effective chairpersonship of the BRICS.

Within the group, South Africa has the smallest economy and population. For example, China’s economy is more than 35 times bigger than that of South Africa. China’s overbearing influence might render South Africa’s chairpersonship a lame duck. Further, South Africa is experiencing significant domestic challenges of its own, not least the crippling energy crisis which has had a devastating impact on its economy.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s attention and energy will have to be divided between his duties as the South African president on the one hand and the BRICS chair on the other. The former will probably take precedence.

Prof David Monyae is Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Science and Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg