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Johannesburg - Without doubt, next week’s Brics summit in Durban is the high point on our government’s foreign policy calendar.
International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane ranks it among her and her government’s highest foreign policy achievements that the Bric bloc - Brazil, Russia, India and China - admitted South Africa as its fifth member in December 2010 and welcomed President Jacob Zuma at his first Brics summit in April 2011 in Sanya, China.
The government is doing roadshows in all the provinces to explain to South Africans why it is a good thing that the country is part of Brics.
The minister has made it clear that as foreign policy successes go, it ranks with getting Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma elected as chairwoman of the AU Commission last year.
Nkoana-Mashabane never made a secret of South Africa’s eagerness to join Brics.
She stated openly that her government was loudly “knocking on the door”. Now that the door has been opened, though, what lies within?
Has it been, or will it still prove to be, worth the effort?
Most observers believe it will be good for South Africa - and already has been - that we, by far the smallest of the Brics, have tied our wagon to these star countries because they will carry us upwards as they continue their astonishing rise, economically and politically.
The combined economies of the Brics countries are forecast to overtake, by 2027, the combined economies of the G7 group of what were traditionally the world’s richest nations.
Brics fans point mainly to the rising levels of commerce between South Africa and the other Brics countries.
But not everyone agrees with the wisdom of South Africa’s strategic decision to ride the Chinese Tiger - not to mention the Indian Elephant, the Russian Bear and the Brazilian Jaguar.
Some believe just the opposite - that because it is so dwarfed by the other Brics, South Africa will be overwhelmed by them.
Development economist Patrick Bond spoke for much of the Left when he berated the government for simply replacing Western corporations plundering Africa’s natural resources with a new group of what he called “sub-imperialist” powers, the Brics.
Last week at a Business Unity SA breakfast with Nkoana-Mashabane, construction engineer Richard Vries showed how South Africa’s small size can matter for business when he described the immense competition South African construction companies face in Africa from the huge construction companies of some of its Brics partners.
South Africa was not competing for construction contracts on a level playing field, he implied, because Chinese companies, for instance, got so much help from their government - in cheap loans, for example - and could use such cheap labour that our construction companies didn’t really stand a chance.
He asked for government help in correcting some of the unfair disadvantages, but Nkoana-Mashabane was unimpressed, berating him and other speakers for focusing too much on the challenges of being in Brics and not enough on the immense opportunities.
Her message was, in effect: “The government has done its part by getting you into Brics - now private companies must take advantage by rapidly expanding their business with and in them.”
But is it that easy when no one can argue that the Chinese government throws its huge weight behind its companies in Africa?
In fact, those companies are largely just extensions of the government.
The minister - and at an earlier seminar her deputy, Ebrahim Ebrahim - implied that South Africans had a patriotic duty to fully support the government’s decision to join Brics.
That is a top-down approach where instead the government should be demonstrating the benefits of Brics, not simply insisting on them, some analysts say.
Zuma and Nkoana-Mashabane have said South Africa had three main reasons for joining Brics - to advance its own national interest, mainly economically; to boost its African agenda by harnessing the huge capital of the Brics giants for African development, mainly in building infrastructure; and to correct the dominance by the West in global government.
Brics remains a work in progress and perhaps greater unity of purpose still has to emerge in practice, not just in theory.