Once upon a time, a wily Manchester-born, Sheffield and Surrey-educated economist named Jim O’Neill, started a WhatsApp group. Having made a name for himself, including earning his PhD by studying cartels such as Opec, O’Neill figured that traditional powers like the US, Europe and Japan were no longer the invincible posse they used to be. They would be replaced by dynamic emerging markets, Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC).
The year was 2001, before Facebook - now the parent company of WhatsApp. Not even Blackberry Messenger or Mxit existed.
Nevertheless, O’Neill might have formulated the most primordial WhatsApp group when he coined the acronym BRIC.
The Goldman Sachs economist gave the world still reeling from 911 something to ponder. O’Neill advised the G7 to find ways to incorporate the “BRICs”, saying “over the next 10 years, the weight of the BRICs and especially China in world GDP will grow, raising important issues about the global economic impact of fiscal and monetary policy in the BRICs”.
It meant we in the developed world needed to befriend these emerging markets, so we could influence them and make money out of them.
Africa was not on O’Neill’s radar at the time, because he read publications like The Economist, to whom this was - in their headline wording - “the hopeless continent”. How curious that the WhatsApp group was meeting in Africa this week, Sandton and Maropeng, to be precise!
The host of the WhatsApp group? President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose business empire - Shanduka - was born in the same year as the BRIC acronym, 2001.
That was when this trade unionist-turned-negotiator produced the BEE Commission Report. While he was authoring the report, he was also founding Shanduka, now part of Pembani, led by Phuthuma Nhleko.
BRIC countries, or rather its influencers, somehow added a tiny appendage called South Africa a few years ago. O’Neill has left Goldman Sachs; but not before creating another WhatsApp group, MIKT - Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea and Turkey. MIKT mutated to MINT, with Nigeria replacing South Korea, but it looks like some members left the group.
Africa entered the global economic discourse as an afterthought, when the rulers of the world woke up to its significance.
This was because their multinational corporations exhausted their markets in the developed world. It was also because the BRIC countries - the ones G7 had been warned to watch by soothsayers like O’Neill - were having a field day in Africa.
By the time London, New York, Paris, Tokyo, et al recognised the big deal Africa was, BRIC countries had forged near-unbreakable relations with African countries.
Built unlike the G7’s economic-hit-man style of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation, the BRIC countries had dug in their claws beyond belief.
For instance, China-Africa trade rose from $10 billion in 2001 to more than $150bn in 2011, when in its famous volte face, The Economist ditched “hopeless continent” for “Africa rising”.
Try as hard as they did, western multinationals were barely holding on where China was mopping up everything in its sights.
Nokia, Siemens and Motorola mobile phones buckled under pressure from the likes of Chinese models like Huawei. Construction and capital equipment traditionally sourced from Europe and the US started being more of a Chinese affair.
The west cried: “China is colonising Africa yet again”; Afro-optimists like me asked: “Just when did you realise colonialism was evil?”
President Ramaphosa broke with the past this week, inviting fellow African leaders to this edition of the BRICS summit.
Hopefully, that is because he is actively pursuing a pan-African agenda at BRICS - and telling the Chinese, the Russians, the Brazilians and the Indians to stop their divisive bilateral dealings with individual African countries, so that South Africa’s membership of the bloc can truly facilitate intra-Africa trade and collective bargaining.
Anything less, and South Africa will be that member of the WhatsApp group who never posts anything, draws the least reaction when they do and will certainly never usurp that powerful Group Administrator-status.
* Kgomoeswana is the author of Africa is Open for Business, a media commentator and public speaker on African business affairs, and a columnist for Destiny Man - Twitter Handle: @VictorAfrica
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.