Francis Anthony Govia
A nation just a decade and half from Apartheid, South Africa looks further afield to form alliances and not to its African neighbors. It is building an image as an actor on the global stage.
The nation hosted a successful FIFA World Cup in the summer – a first on the African continent. Now its ambitions are directed at the economy. President Jacob Zuma announced last week during his state visit to China that talks are underway for South Africa to become part of the BRIC group of nations – the group of fast growing emerging economies — which include Brazil, Russia, India and China. One should note the timing of Zuma’s visit to Asia, and the priority he placed on that agenda, for within that same week 19 African nations that comprise the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) were holding policy meeting and a Heads of State Summit aimed at fostering stronger ties within the region, and conspicuously missing among the membership of COMESA was no other than the nation of South Africa.
This point was not going unmentioned. “South Africa is missing a golden opportunity to drive regional economic integration in Africa”, said the Secretary General of COMESA, Mr. Sindiso Ngwenya, just ahead of the group’s 28th Policy Organ meetings and the 14th Heads of State and Government Summit that is concluding this week in Mbabane, Swaziland. Mr. Ngwenya said he believed regional integration and increased trade could help the African region out of poverty. The Summit which runs from August 31st-September 1st was preceded by other Policy Organ meetings at technical, senior officials and Ministerial level, including a Business Forum which began on August 18th.
During the same period, Zuma was making an announcement about South Africa’s ambitions. Xinhuanet reported that Mr. Zuma told a gathering of the media that the nation has proposed its interest in joining the group consisting of four of the leaders of the developing world – or BRIC. “We believe they will take a favorable decision,” Zuma said. “We think that the BRIC expresses a very important grouping in a changing world today.”
Brazil, Russia, India and China encompass over 25 percent of the world’s land coverage and 40 percent of the world’s population as well as a combined gross domestic product (PPP) of $15,435 trillion.
South Africa’s “participation in BRIC would mean that an entire [African] continent that has a population of over 1 billion people is represented”, Zuma said.
What President Zuma did not implicitly say to the media is just as important. His administration’s energies and plans were to emphasize and foster trade ties inter-regionally (with nations such as China) as opposed to intraregional trade with its close neighbors. For South Africans, COMESA may not have the opportunities that BRIC offers. COMESA boasts 19 regional nations, a population of little more than 389 million and an annual trade amounting to $230 billion. An attractive a market as it is, the region’s intraregional trade lags at a paltry $15.2 billion. Zuma wants South Africa to be in BRIC; to gain immediate status for his nation in a trading block that is expected to dictate the terms of trade globally well beyond the 21st Century.
Within COMESA, South Africa would have to take the lead in a regional integration movement that has to forge an identity and carve out a space apart from stronger trading blocks. BRIC is already moving center stage. Nations within the group are already competing favorably against those that comprise the former G7 group of industrial nations and will likely set the terms for reciprocal trade among nations well beyond this century. To South African leaders, the nations that are part of COMESA are still viewed in the hemisphere as a source of raw materials, and not booming economies, and that is a label from which they hope to detach their nation.
Obviously South Africa’s thrust is commendable. The people who govern it expect and brook no limitations for its future. Their aspirations suggest that South Africans are willing to be challenged within the larger pond of the BRIC group, and indeed the world.
Within the BRIC group of nations, China commands status as the world’s second largest economy, and a GDP of near $10 trillion. At the low end of the group, Brazil’s GNP is over $2 trillion. South Africa’s GDP is approximately a quarter of Brazil’s.
South Africa will have to marshal its forces to match the growth of the other nations within the BRIC group, and it would likely have to forge trade alliances (at least on the bilateral level) with it neighbors to obtain raw materials necessary to spur that growth.
Still two of the members of BRIC – Russia and China – have given hopeful responses to South Africa’s entry into the group. Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev said that “participation of the Republic of South Africa in the discussion of various issues that are on the BRIC agenda would be extremely productive, given the fact that BRIC is a new group of fast growing economies and the RSA belongs to this category.”
Medvedev said that Russia was “prepared to develop various forms of cooperation with our South African partners, including in the BRIC format,” with a caveat: “The views and approaches of other [BRIC] members should of course be taken into consideration.” Read it here.
Beijing also stated that it understands the desire of some developing countries to join the BRIC grouping and “treats this with an open-minded attitude.” Read it here. Beijing and Pretoria have signed new bilateral agreements aimed at balancing trade between the countries and increasing investment in South Africa’s manufacturing industry and cooperation in renewable energy. But can South Africa build a strategic alliance with the BRIC group of nations and ascend to that body without first forming a stronger alliance for trade and economic development with the very African states it neglected last week? That may be what it believes.
Francis Anthony Govia received a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations at Boston University where he studied U.S. National Security and Foreign Policy with teachers who inspired him, such as General Fred F. Woerner (Ret.), Ambassador Stephen R. Lyne (Ret.), and Joseph Fewsmith. He received a law degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is a contributor to Activist Post.