In 2023 South Africa is chairing the BRICS grouping and has declared that it intends to work towards closer BRICS-Africa partnership. As a member of the BRICS core South Africa has been among the most active proponents of advancing BRICS as an open platform that reaches out to Africa and the rest of the developing world via the BRICS+ format. Today it is impossible to imagine a BRICS grouping on the international arena without South Africa and Africa being one of its key regional agendas. In fact, Africa is much more than just a regional track in BRICS development strategy – Africa holds the key to BRICS pursuing its true global mission.
The question of what the true mission of BRICS is today is still an open one – is it about creating a “club of heavy-weights” or rather a wide platform that can include not just the giants of the developing world, but also the mid-sized and small economies of the Global South? In other words, is BRICS to evolve in the direction of an exclusive and introvert club or an open inclusive platform that offers a range of modalities of economic cooperation? Many experts view the BRICS future evolution through the prism of size – hence the discussions about further expansion in the block including the largest developing countries from the G20. But the inclusion of South Africa as a member BRICS marks a departure from this prioritization of weight and size (there are a number of developing economies that are larger than South Africa in terms of GDP) towards inclusiveness and representation of all of the main regions of the Global South. It is precisely the integration of South Africa into BRICS that makes it possible to transform this platform from an elitist club of heavy-weights into a block that prioritizes diversity and outreach to the wider development community.
This development towards greater inclusiveness and the integration of an African economy into the platform is what sets the BRICS apart from the G7 – a grouping that brings together the largest developed economies. While the G7 has also embarked on outreach formats with the participation of developing economies, it remains in essence an elitist club whose core is limited only to advanced economies with the largest GDP size, with no clear prospect of including developing countries into the core. In the case of BRICS, not only has the core already expanded to include South Africa, there are also active discussions on the possibility of the BRICS core to incorporate more African economies. The inclusion of South Africa marked a departure (in some ways an innovation) from the track charted by the developed world in building alliances that are meant to serve as a basis for global governance.
Perhaps then it is not by chance that it was precisely during South Africa’s chairmanship in BRICS that the outreach format received crucial impulses – first during the outreach meetings at the 2013 BRICS summit in Durban and then during the 2018 summit, when South Africa successfully hosted the BRICS+ meetings that for the first time ushered in the participation of countries representing the regional blocks and groupings from the developing world. I would venture to make the claim in this respect that of all the BRICS economies, South Africa is perhaps one of the least Realpolitik (narrowly focused on national interests) and the most committed to advancing the broader “beyond its borders” agenda of Africa’s regional development, the development of the Global South and a more balanced development for the global community. After the contributions delivered by South Africa to the outreach formats during its chairmanship in the BRICS, this year’s summit may present yet another legacy for the evolution of the BRICS block in the direction of greater openness and inclusiveness – either via discussions on the inclusion of new members into the core or the formation of a platform that brings together the regional arrangements in which BRICS countries are members.
What all this means is that South Africa and Africa more broadly are the key gateways for BRICS to scale up its outreach to the rest of the developing world. Building a platform for regional arrangements that brings together regional blocks of the developing world may be an innovation and a lasting contribution not only to BRICS development per se, but also to the creation of a new, regional layer of global governance. Africa is in a strong position to spearhead such efforts as it already leads the Global South in building a pan-continental free trade area – the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), while the African Union is arguably one of the most active and effective pan-continental/regional blocks that is likely to receive full-fledged membership in the G20.
The formation of a platform for regional arrangements could revitalize BRICS development in a number of ways. The creation of a platform for regional organizations in which BRICS countries are members – including the likes of the AU, ASEAN, SCO and CELAC – could broaden the outreach of BRICS+ to cover the vast majority of the Global South. A regional platform that brings together the regional financing arrangements of BRICS+ countries (including the EFSD, FLAR and BRICS CRA) could become the basis for a more effective BRICS Contingency Reserve Arrangement (CRA) – until now as pointed out by Marco Fernandes, “the lack of strong leadership since its inauguration in 2015 and the absence of a solid strategy from the five member countries has prevented the CRA from taking off1”. Most importantly, a platform for regional trading arrangements – such as the AfCFTA as well as MERCOSUR and the Eurasian Economic Union – could serve as the basis for bolstering trade integration within the BRICS+ format. As has been the case with BRICS CRA, trade integration stayed on the back-burner of BRICS agenda, but with the greater advances made by BRICS members in their respective regional trade blocks it may be possible now to pursue the “integration of integrations” route.
All of the above contributions coming from South Africa may serve not only the purposes of adding scale and forging solidarity within the wider circle of BRICS-plus – in economic terms it may provide BRICS with the much needed boost to mutual trade and a strong growth impulse coming from some of the fastest growing regions in the world such as Africa. As stated by Jeffrey Sachs, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ Advocate for Sustainable Development Goals: “Africa can and will rise to growth of 7 percent or more per year consistently in the coming decades. What we’ll see … is a real acceleration of Africa’s sustainable development so that Africa will be the fast-growing part of the world economy. Africa is the place to invest.2”
In the end, within BRICS it is the South African “S” that gives it the sense of plurality. BRICS needs Africa in order for the block to follow the route of greater openness, inclusiveness and growth. For its part Africa via BRICS+ can deliver a tangible contribution to building a more equitable and fair global governance. This is after all, precisely the “win-win” scenario that could serve not only BRICS and Africa, but also the Global South and the whole international economy.
Author’s note: first published in BRICS+ Analytics