OPINION: Brics can punch above its weight
From Wednesday, the heads of state from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (Brics) gathering in Johannesburg need to listen to people’s voices if the Brics summit is to have any significant meaning.
China’s President Xi Jinping once said that Brics countries are like five fingers, each with their own strength, but when they come together, they are a fist that can punch. This representation of a fist will be a punch without any true force if Brics people are not its main driving force.
This was the central idea of Civil Brics that was held last month, when civil society organisations (CSOs) came together to discuss their priorities for Brics leaders ahead of the summit. One of civil society’s main requests to South Africa in this year’s summit is that the country establishes a special track for civil society, called Civil Brics – otherwise known as Track 3 – a platform that embraces Brics’ people-to-people solidarity, learning and solutions, based on local realities from the ground. Such an inclusive process would also allow for Brics to make further progress towards the sustainable development goals’ framework of “leaving no one behind”.
After 2014, when South Africa served as summit chair for the association, the country’s civil society put forward a proposal of Civil Brics as an established track, and that it must be an autonomous and self-determining CSO platform in which civil society manages its agenda, thematic priorities and participants, with leadership by community-based organisations, members of affected communities and social movements.
A key outcome from last month’s Civil Brics meeting was an agreement on a final set of policy recommendations that was submitted to the department of international relations and cooperation. These covered a number of thematic areas such as inclusive economic development; gender and inequality; food security; agriculture and land; peace and security; youth; and the New Development Bank (NDB). The bank is meant to support the most visible projects of Brics, and has big implications for the African continent following the launch of the NDB African Regional Centre in Johannesburg last year.
A decade since its creation, Brics has moved from an economic agenda to one that also considers political and social aspects, and has since considered a people-to-people exchange as part of its outreach.
By promoting greater inclusion, Brics has the opportunity to transform itself to a more people-centred platform, endorsing Civil Brics under South Africa’s chairmanship.
The association has already faced severe criticism for promoting corrupt practices in the state-corporate nexus, highlighted by opponents such as the Brics From Below movement and the Break the Brics campaign.
These movements claim that despite the anti-imperialist rhetoric, Brics leaders seek greater power for themselves and not the collective. In this regard, they claim that the association will only perpetuate policies that benefit the elites in an unsustainable manner.
Civil society is not uniform and this campaign reflects the diversity and plurality of opinions that exist around Brics. Indeed, there is cause for concern, such as the lack of public consultation and transparency of Brics-funded projects, which include the recent investment by Transnet into the NDB.
If Brics is to avoid allegations of elitism, it must do more to promote a more meaningful engagement with civil society. Civicus, which tracks threats to civil society, reports a brutal crackdown on civil society globally since 2012, “as the state and its agents have unleashed a brutal and insidious assault on civil society, human rights groups, independent media and anyone that opposes the state”. This extends to control over social media.
In this regard, South Africa’s leadership is fostering a greater civil society dialogue through Civil Brics, which is critical when civil society space is shrinking across the globe.
South Africa has strong global recognition for its liberal Constitution, freedom of speech and vibrant democracy.
South Africa can be a shining light if it succeeds in establishing an independent Track 3 mechanism during the summit. Such a commitment would enable a pathway towards building a stronger future Brics by putting people front and centre of the agenda.
Greater people-to-people engagement through Civil Brics as well as strengthening other important Brics platforms on youth, gender and labour are fundamental steps for the association to take in being able to punch above its weight.
- Buenaventura is BRICSAMIT strategy manager and project lead of South-South Cooperation at Oxfam SA
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