SA must weigh costs and benefits of its Brics membership

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The hosting of the Brics summit by South Africa this month gives the country a great opportunity to assess its standing in the world.

So much has been said about the political miracle that brought about democracy 19 years ago, but the economic miracle that is supposed to free millions of South Africans from poverty and hunger remains elusive.

When the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa meet in Durban in two weeks, one hopes to see some serious soul searching on the part of South Africa, to weigh the costs and benefits – if any – of this club of “leading” emerging market economies.

But if the apparent apathy among South Africans about the country hosting this summit is anything to go by, very few people expect the summit to result in anything tangible to change the way South Africa perceives opportunities presented by its association with the Brics grouping.

The failure to unlock opportunities presented by the democracy dividend, and turn South Africa into a more dynamic, thriving and resilient economy – that works for all – is at the heart of what is wrong with the path that the country currently finds itself on.

During a conversation with a leading business figure this past week, an observation was made about what a great job South Africa does at hosting big events, and the Brics summit will be no exception. We are going to put our best foot forward.

But beyond that, will the Durban summit also be remembered as having provided an opportunity for the country to place itself on a more sustainable path? Probably not.

There does not appear to be much confidence that the country will use the summit to reflect on where it is and where it wants to go, in terms of unlocking economic opportunities that must surely accrue as a result of its association with countries whose economic heft is poised to fuel the world’s economy this century and beyond.

When referring to the Brics as representing leading emerging markets one is forced to put “leading” in inverted commas because questions about South Africa’s eligibility to be a Brics member persist. In terms of scale and dynamism, there is a strong argument to be made that countries more deserving of a Brics stature are the likes of Turkey and Indonesia.

Although South Africa is by far the most advanced economy on the African continent, the size of the country’s gross domestic product pales into insignificance when pitted against those of its fellow Brics members, especially China.

As such, it is easy to contend that the Brics bloc most probably represents a grouping of convenience.

South Africa’s Brics membership is helpful in one obvious respect – and that is with regards to legitimising the Brics as a forum that also consists of a key player on the African continent or a would-be champion for what is increasingly being seen as a continent on the ascendancy.

The problem though is that South Africa finds itself at a crossroads and there are troubling signs about its underlying prospects if events like Marikana mean anything.

This past week’s issue of The Economist, the highly influential UK-based magazine, published a front cover 14-page special report entitled “Aspiring Africa”. Its correspondent, apparently, visited 23 countries to research the report and was not once asked for a bribe – inconceivable only 10 years ago, it said.

The report, by a magazine that called Africa “a hopeless continent” in May 2000, is a resounding acknowledgement of the strides that Africa is making to chart a new, hopeful course.

The report warns, however, that the transformation is incomplete. It adds that “if there is one country that exemplifies the challenges awaiting Africa as it becomes richer and more developed it is South Africa”.

“It has the biggest economy and the most developed democracy among the larger African countries. However, it is also among the most unequal,” the magazine notes, adding that South Africa has failed to move up the economic development ladder. “Industrialisation has stalled.” Well, it does not take a genius to realise that South Africa needs a new path, especially if it wants to sustain its place in the big leagues like the Brics.

And when South Africa is used as a cautionary tale for the rest of Africa, that says our state of affairs warrants some serious introspection by all.


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