Back in this big city, one is plunged into the truly amazing trivia of British domestic politics – I found it hard to return to contemplate the dreary intrigues of the Coalition government or the japes and wheezes of Boris Johnson, our lovable (?) Mayor of London. More profitable, perhaps, to muse on the broad range of international politics.
One could dwell depressingly on the continuing lurches in the sad story of the Euro – the latest is the Cyprus episode, where it seems that a measure of desperation has begun setting in when bank accounts have to be raided in order to fund the latest ‘bail-out’. More interesting is the latest summit of the five-nation BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) which has recently ended in Johannesburg. This was the first time that South Africa has hosted the grouping of what are sometimes called emerging powers, although some, to me, have already emerged. The five countries constitute nearly 50 percent of world GDP, and over one-third of global population. Although facing their own pains of growth and rapid transition into major global power status, they still seem in a favourable condition compared with the economic doom and gloom prevailing in the countries of what one still calls ‘the West’. It is estimated that by 2027 BRICS economies will have overtaken those of the G7 (USA, UK, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, and Canada).
The term BRIC (for the Big Four) was coined by a smart manager at Goldman Sachs called Jim O’Neill in a 2001 paper seeking to encapsulate the shift in the balance of world economic power, around the same time as Farid Zakaria was talking of ‘the rise of the rest’. The ‘S’ (in the shape of South Africa) was added two years after the BRIC group had begun to hold summits – the first was in Russia in 2007. O’Neill doubted whether South Africa qualified both in terms of GDP or population, but it was felt for political reasons that they needed an African member. South Africa seemed to them the obvious candidate, much as it had managed to insert itself into the G20 at its first summit in London in the same year, when the world was beginning to feel the full force of the current economic crisis. Other countries such as Turkey, Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia were also well qualified for the grouping, and Nigeria (three times the population of South Africa) could also have been well positioned if there had to be an African country. But these cards sometimes fall arbitrarily.
The main BRICS agenda is the need for added weight in the eventual restructuring of the global economic architecture, devised in 1945 and increasingly seen as obsolescent and too US-dominated. The Johannesburg summit took a few steps forward in this respect with the decision to go ahead with the formation of a development bank with a planned capital of $50bn that would not be subjected to the restrictions and dysfunctionality of the World Bank. Although many details are left to be resolved, this gave the BRICS movement a boost: and South Africa has applied to be the seat of the bank.
The choreography of the summit, however, was somewhat disrupted by news that came through on the eve of the meeting that as many as 14 South African soldiers had been killed in the fighting for the take-over of Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, by the rebel group known as Seleka (unity). The troops had been sent late last year as part of an African effort to support President Francois Bozizé. Although there were troops from other central African countries such as Chad, Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville, their presence had not been endorsed by the African Union (AU). The South Africans were there under a defence agreement signed in 2007, and 30 troops had been there for some time, but when the Bozizé regime seemed under threat in December, President Zuma despatched a further 200.
According to a report in the French daily Le Monde, the deaths had succeeded in ‘fragilising South Africa’s diplomacy in Africa’ in which the BRICS summit (attended by China’s new leader, Vladimir Putin, Manmohan Singh, and Dilma Roussef) was intended to play a key role. It was perhaps unwise of President Zuma to stigmatise the rebels in CAR as ‘bandits’ when they are now to form a government with which the South Africans may eventually have to deal. The policy resembles the ‘heads of state trade union’ of the former OAU, which it was hoped that the African Union’s more sophisticated approach to political power and democracy would transcend. There has certainly been puzzlement in South Africa, and not just in the opposition, as to what they were doing in Bangui, dabbling in the business of a near-failed state, and there has been speculation as to possible interests in CAR’s minerals. South Africa’s African policy has sometimes been sound, sometimes erratic. This affair looks like the latter.