As it assumes the chair of BRICS in 2023 to host the 15th summit, South Africa prepares for a critical role.
The world has suffered repeated waves of chaos and uncertainty since the year 2020 when Covid-19 was declared a pandemic. The war in Ukraine has sparked an energy crisis in Europe and triggered inflationary trends globally. The continuing turmoil in the world’s rich democracies like the UK and the US has further added to the uncertainties of our present. The future doesn’t look steady or safe under the current world order.
For the vast majority of humanity, who live in developing countries, a slowdown means further misery and a delayed improvement in the quality of life. Globalisation, as it was created, can no longer be relied upon to bring growth and development to the poorest. The new phase of globalisation means that flow of capital and technology can no longer be from the global north to the global south. It is time for the global south to realise that it must come together to increase trade, investment and collaboration within itself.
It is here that South Africa must play a critical role. As a dynamic economy of the vast African continent and vibrant member of BRICS, it has the responsibility of leading the way for collaborative growth.
South Africa became a member of BRICS—the prominent grouping of emerging economies—in December 2010 and hosted the fifth BRICS summit, the first one on the African continent, in 2013. The main agenda for South Africa to join the bloc was to strengthen South-South relations and boost trade by facilitating better access to markets of the member countries, promoting mutual trade practices, attracting investments and creating a business-friendly environment. Particularly for South Africa, the critical drivers for its BRICS participation had been the triple challenges resulting from its apartheid legacy of poverty, inequality, and unemployment.
The already slow economic growth of South Africa was further affected by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. At present, the country’s economy is recovering but at a sluggish pace with growth estimated at 1.9% in 2022. In these challenging times, South Africa’s membership in BRICS has proven to be particularly beneficial. The New Development Bank (NDB), established by BRICS countries, approved a USD 2 billion Covid-19 Emergency Program Loan to the Government of the Republic of South Africa to support the country’s economic recovery from the pandemic. The bank was initially formed to mobilize resources for infrastructure and sustainable development projects in BRICS, emerging economies and other developing countries. It was formed to complement the existing efforts of multilateral and regional financial institutions for global growth and development.
During the BRICS summit this year, Leslie Maasdorp, vice president and chief financial officer of the New Development Bank said in an interview, “Lack of economic growth is at the centre of our problems in South Africa. For the last decade, we haven’t grown. We are hovering around 1% and will continue to hover there unless we solve the energy problem. What is required now, though, is execution.”
In a statement before the 14th BRICS summit this year, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa mentioned, “The collaboration among BRICS members in the area of health and in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, in particular, has placed South Africa in a better position to respond effectively to the current and future health emergencies.”.” BRICS also extended great support to the India-South Africa proposal to waive certain provisions of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement with regard to prevention, containment, and treatment of Covid-19. The proposal was submitted on October 2020.
In terms of trade relations, the 2010 United Nations (UN) Conference on Trade and Development World Investment Report had put South Africa in the top 20 priority economies for foreign direct investment in the world. According to recent reports, in 2021, over 17% of South Africa’s exports were destined for other BRICS countries, while over 29% of its total imports came from these countries. Hence, BRICS countries today have not only become significant trading partners, but the association is strengthening apace. The total South African trade with these countries has reached R702 billion in 2021,up from R487 billion in 2017.
South Africa also continues to attract substantial diversified investment from the BRICS countries. While the government is working towards mobilising finances from different sources to fund its ambitious infrastructure building and sustainable development projects, the New Development Bank (BRICS Bank) has also been playing an important role by extending financial as well as project preparation support. South Africa has already received $5.4 billion, currently worth around R86 billion, from the Bank to improve service delivery in critical areas.
Tourism is one of the key contributors to the country’s growth. However, as a result of travel restrictions during the pandemic, South Africa had to bear critical losses in its tourism industry. Tourists from other BRICS countries accounted for 65% of all arrivals in South Africa in 2018, indicating that these markets are set to make important contributions to the recovery of this sector. With its eVisa programme, South Africa aims to make travel and tourism easier and less expensive, especially for visitors from India and China. In a recent report, South African Tourism said that it is eyeing 64% year-on-year growth in arrivals from India in 2022..
As BRICS aims at extending solutions to global problems and designing a new paradigm for international relations, it is a crucial platform for SA to enhance the African agenda and emphasise the continent’s overall development by leveraging its BRICS membership. As part of G20 and the Group of 5 (G5—the five emerging nations), South Africa uses its BRICS membership to push for a developmental position on multilateral forums, including on pressing issues such as climate change and agricultural trade. South Africa is the only African nation in G20 and is responsible for representing the entire continent. South Africa’s membership has enhanced the political component of BRICS deliberations and has also received support from BRICS partners for African peace, security, and development issues, a notable feature on the agenda of the UN Security Council (UNSC).
According to Ziaad Suleman—Chair of the South Africa BRICS Business Council Digital Economy Work Group on how the BRICS agenda has changed over the years with the advancement in digitization—60% of the population of Africa is under the age of 25. Hence, digitization is another key focus for the country. He believes that cloud technology and other digital education are remarkable opportunities for them.
The remarkable Smart Africa initiative is an important example of how countries within the continent have come together for common good. The collection of 30 countries and several global corporations are working for a single digital market in the African continent. South Africa is leading an effort on deepening the use of Artificial Intelligence and its deployment for development efforts.
As South Africa prepares to chair the incoming BRICS 2023, the ministers of these countries recently held a meeting as a run-up to the summit. They discussed the preparations for South Africa’s Chairship, the agenda for BRICS in 2023 and pledged to extend their full support to the country for the holding of the XVBRICS summit.
South Africa is well placed geographically within the BRICS. At the confluence of the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic Ocean, South Africa is an ideal bridge between the Americas and Eurasia. With its increasing responsibilities within BRICS, it also is the bridge for boosting economic growth between the African continent and the world.
Pranjal Sharma is a geo-economic analyst and author based in New Delhi.