Introducing Brics From Above, And Brics-From-Below

In Durban, South Africa, five heads of state meet on March 26-27 2013 at the International Convention Centre, to assure the rest of Africa that their countries’ corporations are better investors in infrastructure, mining, oil and agriculture than the traditional European and US multinationals. The Brazil-Russia-India-China-SA (Brics) summit also makes space for 16 heads of state from Africa, including notorious tyrants. A new $50 billion ‘Brics Bank’ will probably be launched. There will be more talk about monetary alternatives to the US dollar.

Three narratives have emerged about Brics. The first is promotional and mainly comes from government and allied intellectuals; the second perspective is wait-and-see patience; and the third is highly critical, from forces who meet as ‘brics-from-below.’ All can be found in the following pages.

The first narrative is represented through the most intellectually-engaged speech about Brics we have found by any local politician: Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s foreign minister. At a gathering of the 5th Brics Academic Forum on March 10, she requested robust, critical engagement, and by reading the ‘Recommendations’ of that group’s meeting at the Durban University of Technology, you can assess whether she can be satisfied.

We think not. Historians will judge whether, indeed, Brics ‘have given African nations the ability to start to escape the clutches of neo-colonial dependence on foreign aid, and the policies and “advice” of Western-controlled finance institutions’ – as claimed by Pretoria’s minister of higher education Blade Nzimande at the same meeting.

(Historians may judge this line of argument to be ‘Pretorian’ in thinking, with the term defined on one internet site this way: ‘characteristic of or similar to the corruptible soldiers in the Praetorian Guard with respect to corruption or political venality; “a large Praetorian bureaucracy filled with ambitious and often sycophantic people makes work and makes trouble” – Arthur M.Schlesinger Jr.)

Also from Pretoria, the Human Sciences Research Council will host the temporary Brics ‘think tank,’ drawn from researchers at sites like the SA Institute for International Affairs at Jan Smuts House (long considered an Anglo American Corporation braintrust), and we worry that if the Academic Forum’s Recommendations are the basis for judgment so far, then Naomi Klein’s definition of this sort of institution may apply here: ‘people who are paid to think, by people who make tanks.’

So as you can already tell, the debate over Brics is getting quite sharp, as witnessed both by Nkoana-Mashabane’s use of Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth to attack those of us who question Brics, and by the personal invective unveiled in a story by Peter Fabricius of the Star newspaper. He was reporting on a February 28 debate in Johannesburg involving the SA deputy foreign minister, ActionAid-South Africa’s director Fatima Shabodien (whose speech replete with pointed questions is reproduced below), and myself – followed by my reply to Fabricius documenting the local ruling party’s ‘sell-out to international capital.’

Again from the critical end of the spectrum, Anna Ochkina of Moscow’s Institute for Globalisation and Social Movement Studies (not a think-tank by the Klein criterion) argues that there is merely a ‘spectre of alliance.’ However, Vladimir Shubin provides a vigorous counter-argument.

The critics note how badly divided the Brics bloc is at several crucial junctures, and indeed the one major unifying initiative in Durban aside from a Brics Bank announcement, is the highly dubious ‘Africa gateway’ grab by South Africa. As I report (in ‘From Nepad to Brics, SA’s toll at the “gateway to Africa”‘), this is not likely to end well, if the last decade’s experience is any guide.

After all, as Tomaso Ferrando argues in great detail, the land grabbing underway by Brazil, India, China and South Africa is a shocking update, reminiscent of Berlin’s ‘Scramble for Africa’ conference in 1885, of colonial landgrabs. These are now replaying through Bilateral Investment Treaties and other legalistic attacks by Brics members and corporations. Victims are peasants and others reliant on land, water and related resources, as well as food consumers, as Obang Metho from Ethiopia testifies.

Moreover, if the strength of commitment to Africa’s basic survival is measured in part by the way the Brics have helped to cook the climate – given an anticipated 200 million unnecessary African deaths this century due to floods, storms, droughts, famines and vastly increased disease burdens (carried especially by women) – then the gateway metaphor transforms into a rather hellish entryway, as I argue in another article. Friends of the Earth International illustrates the corporate connections with a case study of Vale, followed by Bobby Peek considering winners and losers from Brics’ Mozambique investments.

The Brics Bank is another site of contestation, and Carlos Tautz provides a warning of dangerous financing from above, while Susanne Soederburg reviews crises caused by predatory lending against those below.

It doesn’t have to be this way, according to University of California sociologist Chris Chase-Dunn, who believes Brics are not necessarily ‘sub-imperialist’; nor Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros who call for a revivial of Non-Aligned strategies; nor University of Delhi political scientist Achin Vanaik. They see trajectories from the Brics semiperiphery that can move in counter-hegemonic directions, though Vanaik leans across the fenceline into Brics-sceptic territory. Another more mainstream voice who is doubtful that the Brics can overcome their ‘useful idiot’ role is the prolific Sao Paulo geopolitical commentator Oliver Stuenkel. 

These searching essays require a final argument to help specify, well what exactly is this idea ‘sub-imperialism,’ and can it travel across space and time from its early use in Brazil nearly a half-century ago? Or is Nkoana-Mashabane correct that this is simply outmoded, lazy intellectualism? You decide.




But if you are thinking about these matters from ‘below’ (or like me, within ‘brics-from-the-middle), you will intrinsically understand that the debate is only beginning. Given how much is at stake, critical civil society must scrutinise the claims, the processes and the outcomes of the Brics summit and its aftermath. Civil society critics point to four groups of problems in all the Brics:


  • socio-economic rights violations, including severe inequality, poverty, unemployment, disease, inadequate education and healthcare, costly basic services and housing, constraints on labour organising, and extreme levels of violence, especially against women (such as the high-profile rapes/murders of Delhi student Jyoti Singh Pandey last December 16, and in South Africa, of Anene Booysen on February 2 in Bredasdorp, Reeva Steenkamp on February 14 in Pretoria, and countless others);
  • political and civil rights violations, such as widespread police brutality, increased securitisation of our societies, militarisation and arms trading, prohibitions on protest, rising media repression and official secrecy, activist jailings and torture, debilitating patriarchy and homophobia, and even state-sanctioned massacres (including in Durban where the notorious Cato Manor police hit squad executed more than 50 suspects in recent years);
  • regional domination by Brics economies, including extraction of hinterland raw materials, and promotion of ‘Washington Consensus’ ideology which reduces poor countries’ policy space (for example, in the Brics 2012 donation of $75 billion to the International Monetary Fund with the mandate that the IMF be more ‘nasty,’ according to South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, or in the desire of China, Brazil and India to revitalise the World Trade Organisation to maximise their trading power against weaker neighbours); and
  • ‘maldevelopment’ based on elite-centric, consumerist, financialised, eco-destructive, climate-insensitive, nuclear-powered strategies which advance corporate and parastatal profits, but which create multiple crises within all the Brics (as witnessed during the Marikana Massacre carried out by police on behalf of Lonmin platinum corporation last August, and in South Durban where R225 billion ($25 bn) in white-elephant state infrastructure subsidies for chaotic port, freight and petrochemical industry expansion – and more labour-broking exploitation – are being vigorously resisted by victim communities).

Confusingly to some, Brics regimes carry out this agenda at the same time they offered radical, even occasionally ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric, accompanied by mainly trivial diplomatic actions. Yet the Brics alliance is incoherent, as shown in the elites’ debilitating disagreement over who would lead the IMF and World Bank in 2011-12. In the UN Security Council, Brics countries seek greater power for themselves, not the collective: repeated bids for permanent membership by India, Brazil and South Africa are opposed by Russia and China.

And recall the humiliation when Beijing told Pretoria’s Home Affairs Minister (now African Union chairperson) Nkozasana Dlamini-Zuma not to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama to attend Archbishop Tutu’s 80th birthday party in 2011, or attend a 2009 Tibet solidarity gathering. We seem to have lost foreign policy autonomy to Chinese whims.

Meanwhile, the African continent has been overwhelmed by Brics corporations. The rate of trade between Africa and the major emerging economies – especially China – rose from 5 to 20 percent of all commerce since 1994, when apartheid ended. Destructive though it often is, one of Pretoria’s leading objectives, according to deputy foreign minister Marius Fransman, is that ‘South Africa presents a gateway for investment on the continent, and over the next 10 years the African continent will need $480 billion for infrastructure development.’

‘Resource Curse’ maldevelopment often follows such infrastructure. This is also true, geopolitically, when it comes to facilitating Brics investments. In January 2013, for example, Pretoria deployed 400 troops to the Central African Republic during a coup attempt because ‘We have assets there that need protection,’ according to deputy foreign minister Ebrahim Ebrahim. Allegations by a former South African official are that these mineral interests include uranium arranged via corrupt heads-of-state collaboration, and has Ebrahim confirmed that Pretoria sent sophisticated arms to the brutal regime of François Bozizé.

Other extreme cases are the Democratic Republic of the Congo where Johannesburg-based mining capital (AngloGold Ashanti) paid off warlords in a region where five million people were killed mainly to get access to minerals such as the coltan we use in our cellphones, and Zimbabwe where Chinese firms and a military junta – along with SA businesses, Indian and Israeli traders, Dubai middlemen and other vultures – prop up President Robert Mugabe’s rule, together looting the country of billions of dollars worth of diamonds.

In 2010, 17 out of Africa’s top 20 companies were South African, even after extreme capital flight from Johannesburg a decade earlier, which saw Anglo American, De Beers, SA Breweries and Old Mutual relocate to London. Just as in Cecil John Rhodes’ day, the greed of South African business is backed by government officials, through the (failed) New Partnership for Africa’s Development – praised as ‘philosophically spot on’ by the Bush Administration – and useless African Peer Review Mechanism. More recently, SA’s National Development Plan sheepishly conceded a ‘perception [sic] of the country as a regional bully.’

In bullying Africa, the traditional SA, US, European, Australian and Canadian corporations have been joined by major firms from China, India and Brazil. Their looting has mainly built upon colonial infrastructural foundations – road, rail, pipeline and port expansion – connected to mines, plantations, petroleum and gas. Durban simply updates the investment strategy.

There is similar collusion with Washington when it comes to global finance: in July 2012, the Brics treasuries sent $75 billion in fresh capital to the IMF, which was seeking new funds for bailing out for banks exposed in Southern Europe. Like Africa’s experience since the early 1980s, the resulting austerity in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, Ireland and other failing European states does far more harm than good to both local and global economies. As for voting power within the IMF, the result of this Brics intervention was that China gained many more votes (for dollars rule at the IMF), while Africa actually lost a substantial fraction of its share.

For these reasons, will Durban 2013 be known as the logical successor to Africa’s initial carve-up: Berlin 1885?

Building a bottom-up civil society network to analyse, watchdog and represent silenced voices of dissent has never been more important. One part of this process involves an analysis of the pros and cons of Brics.

We hope you the reader can join the conversation because from Africa, too little has been said about Brics, given what is at stake. 

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