From left, Brazil’s President Michel Temer, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Africa’s  former president Jacob Zuma and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pose for a group photo during the Brics Summit in Xiamen, south-eastern China, last year.  Picture: Wu Hong/AP/African News Agency (ANA)
From left, Brazil’s President Michel Temer, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pose for a group photo during the Brics Summit in Xiamen, south-eastern China, last year. Picture: Wu Hong/AP/African News Agency (ANA)

Allaying fears over SA's link to Brics

By Philani Mthembu Time of article published Mar 1, 2018

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The year 2018 will be one of South Africa’s busiest on the diplomatic calendar since democratisation in 1994. While it offers many possibilities and opportunities for newly sworn-in President Cyril Ramaphosa and his administration, it will also test the state’s strategic thinking when it comes to using its international partnerships to achieve domestic and regional priorities.

While South Africa maintains a large diplomatic presence in the world, question marks remain on whether the country’s foreign policy brings about tangible benefits for the broader society. This question is especially pertinent in tough economic and political times. South Africa finds itself chairing the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) business communities, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Indian Ocean Rim Association and recently put through its bid for a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council for 2019-20.

These multiple responsibilities place an obligation on the foreign policy community to craft a coherent and consistent strategy in line with the country’s domestic and regional priorities. While the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) remains the central focal point for South Africa’s international relations, sub-national spheres of government such as cities and provinces have become increasingly important foreign policy actors, while the role of Parliament remains crucial in ensuring oversight. Non-state entities such as think tanks, research centres, the private sector, NGOs and broader civil society also cannot be ignored. The task of the state will thus be to ensure a coherent whole of government approach underpinned by a clear grand strategy on international relations.

The state will have to demonstrate an ability to co-ordinate within and outside of government to make use of the available human resources involved in thinking through and implementing South Africa’s foreign policy.

During the State of the Nation address debate on February 19, (then) Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor laid out the foreign policy priorities of the Ramaphosa administration. She made mention of the implementation of the Tripartite Free Trade Area, which combined the markets of 26 countries and more than 600million Africans as a key priority, while noting the importance of negotiating the Continental Free Trade Agreement to secure value as a block for African interests in the global political and economic landscape.

Pandor noted that during its chairship of Brics, South Africa would prioritise the promotion of value-added trade and intra-Brics investment into productive sectors, while pointing out that under its chairship of SADC it would prioritise implementing the SADC industrialisation strategy and developing an infrastructure road map.

Given the focus of the Brics New Development Bank in funding sustainable infrastructure, the country will have to explain to its African partners to what extent the Africa Regional Centre of the bank headquartered in Joburg would contribute to filling the infrastructure gap in the region. This will remain a focal point given the expectation on the continent that projects funded would not only be located in South Africa, but have a regional focus.

Pandor called on the country to address the notion that it did not share the benefits of Brics sufficiently, nor those derived from its G20 membership.

While some have argued that the country’s Brics membership constitutes a turn towards the East (read China) and a shunning of relations with partners in the North (read EU and the US), Pandor sought to dispel this line of argument. She stated that “as we work to further strengthen the Brics partnership, we will certainly not neglect other valued and established partnerships such as the one with the EU, which continues to be an important trading, investment, development co-operation and dialogue partner for South Africa.” Her balancing act is more in line with the empirical reality of South Africa’s international engagements, where more than 70% of the country’s foreign direct investment continues to come from the EU.

This line of reasoning also takes into consideration the reality that the EU remains the biggest source of funding for regional economic communities and the AU. Perhaps this signals a more pragmatic approach that balances the country’s engagement with global reformers in the Brics and established powers in the global North.

In this approach, Brics is not romanticised as heralding an overturning of the global system, but instead plays a role in the country’s overall grand strategy and positioning in global politics.

Given the contemporary geopolitical landscape, characterised by continued unipolarity of the US in the military realm, and multipolarity in the economic sphere, this may be a more welcome approach to foreign policy given that the country does not face any real pressure to choose between North and South.

The real pressure thus lies in crafting a pragmatic foreign policy, yet one still defined by a stronger normative underpinning drawing from the country’s domestic values.

Whether one is a Brics optimist or sceptic, the reality is that South Africa is a member of the Brics grouping, and its 2018 presidency will usher in the beginning of the second decade of the Brics partnership. While some will remain sceptical of the country’s role in Brics, the only way to allay the anxieties of sceptics will be to demonstrate a type of diplomacy that sees Brics membership not as an end goal in itself, but as part of a web of international engagements synchronised with delivering on South Africa’s domestic and regional priorities.

Philani Mthembu is executive director, Institute for Global Dialogue.

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