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BRICS: 15th Summit was a watershed moment

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Picture: Itumeleng English / African News Agency (ANA) – The BRICS Summit was held at the Sandton Convention Centre held in Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa.

By David Monyae

The extravaganza of the 15th BRICS Summit has come and gone. The rendezvous in “Africa’s richest square mile”, Sandton, north of Johannesburg, was quite a diplomatic spectacle which brought together 60 developing countries from across the Global South, and was graced by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The summit was a watershed moment as it saw the expansion of the bloc through the admission of six new full members, namely Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

This particular summit, by far the biggest and perhaps the most consequential of previous BRICS summits, has divided opinion with BRICS pessimists on the one side and BRICS optimists on the other. The pessimists are worried, rightly so, about the weak democratic and human rights credentials of some of the BRICS members old and new, including China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia. They argue that the inclusion of these countries points to a future global order in which human rights and democracy will be marginalised on the global agenda.

Others have pointed out that the tensions between the BRICS members – namely China and India, Egypt and Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia and Iran – are likely to undermine the group’s effectiveness and coherence. Critics have also stressed that the expansion of BRICS will make it difficult for the group to take decisive positions on global issues, since it now has to accommodate the interests of 11 countries whose consent is required before a decision is taken.

Yet others have dismissed the BRICS expansion as a reflection of China’s global ambitions and its quest to expand its influence in the Global South, in the context of increased tensions with the West over its economic policies and its support for Russia in the Ukraine conflict.

The South African government has also come in for heavy criticism, with some quipping that South Africa proved it is a cheap date over its handling of the gatherings. Others noted that the BRICS Summit displayed the contradictions of South Africa’s foreign policy, pointing to the centrality of human rights and democracy in its foreign policy and its eagerness to work with countries known for their lack of respect for human rights within the BRICS platform.

While the arguments of the BRICS pessimists are not devoid of merit, I believe, like many in the optimists’ camp, we should cut BRICS and the South African government some slack. The summit marked a significant milestone for the BRICS group, which has grown in leaps and bounds in the past 15 years.

After 15 years of existence, the group’s influence on the global stage is growing, not waning. This is not only demonstrated by the addition of the six new members, but also by the fact that the new members had to be picked from 23 aspiring candidates who had submitted formal applications for membership.

Moreover, more than 40 countries had expressed interest in joining the bloc. Some of the new members, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have been staunch US allies and for them to buy into the vision of BRICS is testament to its credibility. With the new members, BRICS will now control 30% of global GDP and represent 46% of the global population – about 54% of the population in the developing countries – and 43% of all global oil production. This gives BRICS not only some measure of legitimacy but significant geostrategic and geo-economic advantages to be able to wield real influence on global issues such as international trade, climate change, development finance and the international financial system.

This is a group of countries whose growth and development potential have been severely constrained under the Western-dominated international system. Their principal common interest lies in the reform of the international system that refers to a cluster of global governance institutions including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the UN Security Council that continue to reinforce Western dominance at the expense of the rest.

While there may be differences in details over how to reform these institutions, the overarching goal is clear enough to foster coherence and achieve consensus among the BRICS countries.

Although BRICS still lacks a permanent secretariat to coordinate its activities and implement its decisions, the group is moving towards more institutionalisation as it has evolved in the past decade-and-a-half. The system of the rotation of the BRICS chair is well-defined and the duties of the chair are clearly outlined to avoid any misunderstandings. In the absence of a permanent secretariat, the group is co-ordinated by BRICS ambassadors or Sherpas in each country.

There are new structures such as the BRICS New Development Bank, which is headquartered in Shanghai, and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) that are responsible for issuing development loans and attending to economic crises, respectively.

Other structures that have emerged under the BRICS umbrella include the Business Council, the Parliamentary Forum, the Think Tanks Council, Women’s Business Alliance, and the Academic Forum. Although the influence of these structures in decision-making is still minimal, their presence points to a future where BRICS will not be an exclusively government affair. As such, the group is gradually becoming more complex and sophisticated, which will help build the capacity to implement its decisions, coordinate its activities, improve mutual understanding, and resolve differences among the bloc’s members.

Critics have pointed out that South Africa’s moral standing is blighted by its association with countries with a questionable human rights and democracy record, implying that Pretoria should only have relations with countries perceived as democratic and respecting human rights. I think this criticism is a bit unfair.

South Africa does not have the gravitas to embark on a global human rights and democracy crusade. BRICS is a group of countries with diverse political and value systems whose interests converge on important issues in areas like the reform of global institutions and economic development. South Africa is in BRICS to maximise its interests, as it should. This is not to argue that human rights are not important, but there are other platforms such as the UN Human Rights Council competent enough to address the issue of human rights. Moreover, I do not think South Africa’s involvement in BRICS means it has chosen China and Russia over the West, as some have argued.

While there have been countries in the group that seem bent on advancing an anti-West agenda, South Africa has, to its credit, emphasised practical cooperation while being careful not to burn bridges with the West.

South Africa should interact with the outside world based on its national interests without aligning itself to a particular geopolitical camp.

*David Monyae is an Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Science, and Director of the Africa-China Studies Centre at the University of Johannesburg.