In 2001 Jim O’Neill, a Goldman Sachs economist created the acronym “BRIC” to refer to the Federative Republic of Brazil, the Russian Federation, the Republic of India, and the People’s Republic of China. These countries were predicted to have a significant impact on the global economy. In 2010 South Africa joined and it became “BRICS”. Founded on shared values, historical bonds of solidarity, and friendship, it has remained a closed circle since South Africa’s integration. The grouping is sometimes described as odd with South Africa seen as a weaker link, however over the years the bloc has become a political threat. Although it champions the interests of the broader global South and promotes a form of cooperation built on the principles of mutual respect, sovereign equality, inclusiveness, consensus, and strengthened collaboration, it is constantly being faced with countless critics and doubters. In the past summits (5th – 2013 and 10th – 2018) hosted by South Africa, the theme around ‘Africa’ received huge criticism. It was argued that the BRICS had been ambitious in pushing Africa as an additional agenda item. There was a question as to whether South Africa was posing as an African representative in such forums and if so if BRICS was mature enough to handle such issues. Years later, South Africa as host of the 15th – 2023 summit still finds itself enwrapped in the theme of ‘Africa’. Analysts reckon it follows South Africa’s relationship and history with the continent, particularly from Thabo Mbeki’s administration which ran with the ‘Africa first’ foreign policy approach. With the growing presence of BRICS countries in trade, investment, and infrastructure development relations with African countries, it has raised concern amongst Western power structures. Moreover, the BRICS membership interest by surrounding states has added to the concerns of the West.
The global political and socio-economic landscapes continue to shift especially post-COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war is also no contributory exception. BRICS intends to focus on strengthening multilateralism, including working towards real reform of global governance institutions, sharing a commitment to restructuring a more equitable, fair representative global political, economic, and financial system, and strengthening the meaningful participation of women in peace processes. Despite this, however, BRICS is caught up in inevitable reconfigurations regarding its priorities, partnerships, and membership. This invites questions about the partnership’s future and relationship with Africa. There is an increasing interest from some countries in Africa who are seeking to join BRICS as members. What then are the criteria for membership into BRICS? New members are likely to influence the character of BRICS. What would this possibly look like?
Understanding the BRICS
The rise of great powers often influences the global economy in significant ways. With a collective global GDP of approximately 31.5%, it has towered the G7’s GDP share. It is expected to contribute about 50% by 2030 however, with the potential membership expansion, the goal may be brought forward. Since the onset, the chairmanship has been annually rotated amongst the bloc’s members following the order of the acronym. In 2017 under the chairmanship of China, the idea of BRICS+ was put into practice. The BRICS+ concept is understood as the expansion and transformation of BRICS into an inclusive platform that interacts and cooperates with any state, bloc, or region of the global economy. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his administration in 2017 declared the widening of the friend circle of the BRICS. He proposed to, “turn it into the most influential platform for south-south cooperation in the world”. This was the dream that was shared by Russia which in the following year revealed its support for the BRICS+ configuration. Despite this, however, the conceptualization of BRICS+ was put on hold following Brazil opting out of conducting BRICS+ meetings until last year.
In 2022 China revived the expansion idea by bringing chairs of the largest regional groups such as the African Union (AU) under Senegal and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) under Argentina. This vision has in the present engendered multiple membership applications attracting a wide array of applicants across the globe. With a deepened need for multilateral cooperation and mutualistic benefits, the 2023 summit presents the promise of integration with other countries. But what are the membership criteria? There has been a misconception of BRICS being an Anti-West bloc that is in competition with the G7. This has been rejected by Anil Sooklal, South Africa’s ambassador to BRICS. Instead, he affirms the bloc seeks to, “advance the agenda of the Global South and to build a more inclusive, representative, just, fair global architecture.” This is a shared sentiment by the Foreign Minister of South Africa, Naledi Pandor who recapitulated the importance of South Africa’s trading partners in the West as essential to the country’s economic growth. Becoming pro-Russian or anti-West was never the goal, she insisted. The bloc’s dream is simply one of global integration and interconnectedness particularly in the Global South. While this may pose anxieties for the West, particularly in the likely integration of Africa and other Global South regions, an idea frowned upon and challenged by imperial thought, it is inevitable. With the focus being on Africa once again under the theme, “BRICS and Africa: Partnering for Mutually Acceptable Growth, Sustainable Development and Inclusive Multilateralism” it hints at a propitious future. According to Minister Naledi Pandor, the theme informs major priorities which center around:
“Inclusive global economic recovery and sustainable development, strengthening mutually beneficial partnerships with Africa and Global South in a multipolar world, deepening and strengthening progressive multilateralism and delivering meaningful global governance reform as well as addressing the marginalization of women in peace processes and fostering an environment of peace and development.”
Given the shifting global geopolitical landscape and the political complexities facing the continent, the question as to how Africa is to maximize its opportunities emanating from its engagement with BRICS countries remains. Although BRICS member countries are experiencing domestic political headwinds, there is an increasing interest from some countries in Africa who are seeking to join BRICS as members. How would their membership reconfigure the character of BRICS? A common saying, “birds of the same feather flock together” could be thrown around in understanding partnerships. What would these ‘feathers’ look like? Despite BRICS not being a free trade bloc, it boasts of tapping into mutual trade benefits amongst member partnerships and memberships with other regional blocs. It also boasts of having established a policy bank, the New Development Bank (NDB) which provides alternative loan mechanisms from the World Bank and IMF structures. This comes after the realization of these systems being US-centric and subverting attitude towards loan lenders. Under the bloc’s vision of multipolarity, just, economically empowered, and fair institutions seem to be the running themes within the bloc. How would this look like in a BRICS+ reality? Who and what characteristics would be considered?
Fortune-telling the future
Amongst the long list of applicants, Iran, Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates among the 40 or so countries had expressed interest. One thing is certain, falling under the Global South region or understanding would be the determinant for membership. Moreover, interests in economic and development growth also would draw interest in the partnership. While a state’s potential resource trading holds high value, the social capital or socioeconomic networks or regional influence also aid membership potential. Despite potential merits, however, the political formations and relationships also need to be taken into consideration to avoid complete internal destruction within the group. While it is an opportunity to extend convivial networks and reform the global sociopolitical fabric it also risks destabilizing the bloc. Considering the core vision of the group, expansion may mean entertaining a multi-organ structure that would help to subdivide potential members into sub-bloc groupings that focus on different vision objectives of the bloc to avoid detrimental friction and encourage state development. Narrowing into the African continent’s strategic positioning in terms of its own development agenda, the BRICS interest in promoting economic growth and development post-COVID-19 seamlessly mirrors its interests. With the vast resource potential and African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), Africa seems to be a potentially strong partnership contender, a reality frowned upon by the West.
In conclusion, the partnership has grown in scope and depth over the years. It not only invites state officials’ involvement but also that of civilians. As a prevailing force, the impact and influence of BRICS in the global economy is one to be reckoned with. While the potential of conflict looms in the shadows with unhappy counterparts in the West, the Global South particularly Africa deserves a chance to claim its voice and thoughts on global issues. Through BRICS backing the continent may be able to.
Thelma Nyarhi is a researcher at the Democracy Development Program (DDP). Dr. Paul Kariuki is the Executive Director at the DDP. They both write in their personal capacities.