“All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall,” is the immortal line in Pink Floyd’s song, The Wall. I am sure that whenever you think of the BRICS group of countries, you think of that Pink Floyd line - not because BRICS conjures up an image of fighting for the underdeveloped of the world, but rather that it seems like just another brick in the wall. No different to the other global bodies.
The average South African thinks of BRICS as just another talk shop. At the end of July, the country hosts the 10th BRICS summit. No one will be holding their breath, hoping BRICS will be adopting policies that are any different to the International Monetary Fund.
As a country - not just government, but also the media, academia and policy centres - have we developed policies we think South Africa should be proposing at forums such as BRICS? Expect the experts to throw bricks at BRICS. On the left side of the political spectrum, they will point to President Cyril Ramaphosa speaking at the Afrikanerbond and attending the G7 meeting as proof that the unfair status quo remains. The right wing will warn against being close to Russia and China, and antagonising the West.
The perennial complaint is that our government “talks left, while acting right”.
Do the BRICS countries owe us anything? None of them played any role in colonising Africa and weren’t in cahoots with the apartheid state. They are not a part of the global military industrial axis, as controlled by the Western powers. The G7 meeting in Canada was a G7 meeting, not a G8 one. Russia was not welcomed.
It’s wrong to create the expectation that an alternative economic system can be achieved by decree. Two hundred years after Karl Marx’s birth, we are no closer to creating a new economic system. To illustrate, the world trades in the US dollar. Why is the dollar more valuable or the currency of “choice”? Countries had moved away from what is referred to as the “gold standard”.
This standard was the basis of the monetary system. The amount of gold bullion that a country possessed determined the value of their currency and how much could be printed. This ensured no reckless printing of money by a government. When the gold standard was discarded, a currency’s value was determined by the output of a country’s economy.
Goods traded within and exported out of a country created a greater demand for the currency, therefore increasing the currency’s value.
This was the theory, but the gold standard was in reality replaced by the dollar. You can only really buy goods on international markets with the American dollar, ensuring that the dollar is always in demand and the American economy is essential to all countries.
Thus, the laws of economics do not apply to the US. They can print as much money as they want.
There have been attempts made for the Euro or the Chinese yen to be a significant alternative to the dollar, but the reality is that the dollar remains the primary international currency.
The centrality of the American dollar ensures the material control by the West of the global economy. There’s no real science behind confidence in a currency and country.
We must recognise that, essentially, sentimental feelings determine if a country is a good investment destination or not.
The Beijing Consensus has been touted as a viable alternative to the Washington Consensus. This little-known consensus cannot only be known in expert and elite circles to gain any traction.
The neo-liberal paradigm is presented as a fait accompli, pervasively entrenched by popular culture through Hollywood, reinforced by the values in our education and religious teachings.
It is more influential than economic policy institutions and governmental bodies. BRICS is criticised not because it is not doing enough to oppose neo-liberalism, but some believe it reinforces neo-liberalism.
For me, the operative question is: How do we ensure BRICS does what we want it to do? We cannot expect BRICS and its institutions to go toe-to-toe with the neo-liberal hegemony, however, it would not be untoward to expect BRICS institutions to operate differently to neo-liberal ones.
Thus far, BRICS partners seem to be on a first date and have not yet developed the trust to slow dance, cheek to cheek, and risk a little.
It would be foolish to believe that any institution can replace the need for strong rational argument and activism. All institutions are contested terrains, be it constitutionally-established ones like parliament or international ones such as BRICS.
Even if an institution had progressive objectives, that would be no guarantee that the decisions and programmes will be progressive.
In BRICS, we must note that the texture of ideology has changed, with a few political parties that were there at the inception being removed from power.
But here is the realpolitik. If the ruling parties were the same, the terrain would still be contested. Appeals to justice and fairness are never enough, requiring more gravitas than that.
Our government, in conjunction with the experts and talent within the country, should deploy thinkers and technocrats to BRICS. Technocrats and thinkers who are different and do not subscribe to the current neo-liberal paradigm.
It requires the experts, academics and the cleverest among us to come up with detailed alternative policies and procedures. We must present thought-out and detailed alternative policies to BRICS, not just good ideas.
We expect institutions such as BRICS to solve our problems, while we don’t sit down and try to better understand them, so as to discover what a possible collective solution could be.
Instead of shouting at BRICS, we should use the opportunity of the lead-up to the BRICS summit to discuss an alternative analysis of what is wrong and highlight people-centred and people-driven policies.
Then maybe we can make it a different set of BRICS in the wall.
* Williams is the Director for Africa Affairs at the National School of Government. These are his personal views.
The Sunday Independent