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African continent the ‘butterfly’ in global politics

A vendor counts out rand banknotes while working in an African craft market in Johannesburg. Africa needs to focus on developing its own economy and building its own institutions. Picture: Bloomberg

A vendor counts out rand banknotes while working in an African craft market in Johannesburg. Africa needs to focus on developing its own economy and building its own institutions. Picture: Bloomberg

Published Aug 30, 2023


Siyabonga Hadebe

Pretoria - The 15th BRICS summit ended on August 24, 2023, and six new countries were admitted to the fold.

After long periods of speculation about “disagreements” about welcoming new members, the outgoing BRICS chair Cyril Ramaphosa laid the issue to bed. From 1 January 2024, BRICS will add Argentina, Ethiopia, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Local and foreign media hailed this development as the strengthening of a “multipolar world order”.

Without many people being aware, the vocabulary of international politics is loaded with terminologies and phrases whose meanings are not quite known. These concepts are frequently used to the point that their supposed meanings appear normal, whereas their purpose has always been “to impose a liberal globalised civilisation on the world today”.

Among others, the rivalry between the West and the Soviet Union gave rise to what was falsely referred to as the “Cold War”, a term that rings untrue in the contexts of Africa, Latin America and Asia where its impact was far from cold.

Experts fervently talk about moving from a unipolar to a multipolar world and the BRICS expansion is interpreted using this fissured polarity lens. There is confusing excitement that the inclusion of the new members will create a multipolar world, and that BRICS will serve as a counterweight to Western hegemony.

While many people in peripheral places (Africa included) yearn to break free from the influence of their former colonisers, the bipolar versus multipolar characterisation does not accurately reflect the complexities of their situation.

An important point that needs attention is that African scholars, politicians and the media frequently and recklessly use this phraseology without considering the implications..

Appetite for creating an enemy in every situation is the reality in Brussels, London and Washington. Such an approach is ill-suited for Africa due to its position in the world. Considering Africa’s history of marginalisation and exploitation as well as its enduring experiences with external groups, attempting to frame the situation as a dichotomy oversimplifies the complex reality it faces.

Africa’s historically limited involvement in the global arena is often overlooked as the continent is “playing second or third feudal age”. To depict Africa’s position in global politics, Francis Onditi employs the metaphor of a “butterfly” – where the West, and increasingly Asia, resemble the “thorax” (centre), while African states symbolise the “wings” situated on the periphery.

Africa’s disturbing binary perspective is informed by the Western creation of the world, an abstract concept. For centuries, the West saw itself as the centre of the world, GMT Zero.

Westerner’s “standard of civilisation” continues to be used to justify the domination of other people in different parts of the world. Europeans argued that these places were not “civilised” enough to be self-governing and that they needed to be brought into the “civilised world” by force.

The challenge for Africa is that it needs to be aware that new powers also have a penchant for framing themselves in the image of the old powers. Andrew Linklater talks about “secondary imperialism in the ‘civilised’ society of states”.

When appealing to African countries, Moscow falsely claims that it stands apart from European colonisers. In this regard, Russia presents itself as a proponent of anti-imperialism and claims to be the sole major power that refrained from establishing colonies on the continent.

Russia’s attempts to colonise Africa were unsuccessful, as seen in its endeavours to establish a coal station for its steamships following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and to exploit local resources. At the same time, China has also been criticised for behaving like a secondary or third “civilised” force within its territory, Asia and beyond.

The question that arises from the obsession with the multipolar world is, what is the excitement all about since Africa is not even one of the “polars” in the envisaged arrangement? Adams Oloo argues that “Africa remains an underdog in international politics”. Africa is ensnared in a geopolitical bind and to boost its relevance, it is beholden to a belief that it must either align with former colonial powers or opt to forge connections with rising players like China and Russia.

Indeed, everyone who comes to Africa has a “gift” and wants to be celebrated. For example, China announced an R167m donation to help curb blackouts in South Africa. Also, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June said South Africa was in danger of losing its benefits under AGOA, Washington’s trade programme. The “powers” deal with African countries in a paternalistic manner as if they were incapable children, and nobody can blame them.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that the emergence of economic powerhouses has presumably made it rather impossible “to demarcate large geographical zones as centre and periphery, North and South”. Whether this observation is valid or not, the asymmetrical relationship between advanced capitalist and Third World countries, including the BRICS economies, remains.

The modifications to the current global hierarchy of states are necessitated by an emerging transnational capitalist class that is found in both advanced capitalist countries and emerging economies. This group benefits from the emergent “civilising missions” and their activities at the expense of the subaltern classes or the “transnational oppressed classes”.

Therefore, the touted multipolarity will produce secondary or third “civilised” forces alongside the rapidly growing transnational oppressed classes. With BRICS, or effectively the Russo-China conglomeration, it can be deduced that the world is entering a complicated era of third “civilised” forces.

A new group of “civilised” societies will emerge that will seek to emulate the imperial model. As the leading states within BRICS, China and Russia “could be harbouring self-interests relating to cultural, historical and ideological assimilation within the set”. However, this unfolding drama does not end with these two countries as BRICS expands to include more countries.

Some of these countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE are increasingly acquiring land in Africa for a variety of reasons. For example, Liberia is set to concede 10% of its territory to allow the UAE to meet its climate commitments. This agreement will be made public during COP28.

The current pattern of economic globalisation is driven by a new imperial social formation that comprises corporations, globalising state and inter-state bureaucrats and politicians, globalising professionals as well as merchants and the media. For example, China’s ICBC has a 20% stake in the Standard Bank Group.

The end of the US dominance is unlikely to result in the upgrading of the rights of subalterns or transnational oppressed classes.

Africa needs to find its own way forward. Africa must not rely on BRICS (read China and other emerging powers) or any other external power to deal with its issues. It needs to focus on developing its own economy and building its own institutions.

This is a hopeful message, and it is one that Africa should take to heart.

* Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economic, political and global matters.

** * The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.

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