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At a Johannesburg BRICS Think Tank, Scholars Get Drunk on Their Own Rhetoric

A ‘think tank’ is sometimes a group of people paid to think, by the people who control the tanks (as Naomi Klein once remarked). Here in Johannesburg, one of South Africa’s highest-profile intellectual vehicles appears to be a victim of drunken driving by scholars from whom we otherwise expect much stronger political navigation skills.

In the luxurious central business district of Sandton, a large gathering of state-funded intellectuals (staying at the 5-star Intercontinental Hotel) is conferencing in heart-warmingly hedonistic style, replete with national Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa songs and dances.

The May 28-31 BRICS Academic Forum and SA BRICS Think Tank meeting at the Sandton Convention Centre must be South African scholars’ most expensive event of the year, in spite of the theme, “Envisioning Inclusive Development through a Socially Responsive Economy.”

The mandate from Higher Education and Training Minister Naledi Pandoor’s opening speech was framed with unabashed talk-left ideology, regardless of obvious walk-right realities. She asked academics to

“develop a collaborative set of interventions that advances the agenda of the bloc. The BRICS formation is one that is based on a progressive view of how the world should develop; and the world is in need of progressive ideas, of ideas that come from issues of social justice and inclusion.”

But to advance that agenda entails active avoidance of major class contradictions within and between the BRICS, and between the BRICS and Africa, especially host South Africa’s rampant corporate and state corruption. The point, according to BRICS facilitator Anil Sooklal, Deputy Director-General of Pretoria’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), is state-business-intellectual ‘synergy’:

“We found that the Think Tank and Academic Forum is working in one compartment, and our business [sector] was working in another compartment, and government in another compartment. So we took the initiative to bring them all together.”

As the gathering this week illustrates, being embedded within a state-corporate power and funding system – at a time South Africa’s National Research Foundation is cutting back drastically on scholars’ research subsidies – risks transmission of the worst disease intellectuals can catch: failure of analytical nerve.

For the BRICS Academic Forum is occurring in a Johannesburg neighbourhood where, regular PricewaterhouseCoopers studies show, “eight out of ten senior managers commit economic crime,” within a country that PwC regularly rates as having the world’s most corrupt bourgeoisie. (Paris and Nairobi usually compete for silver and bronze status.)

BRICS-from-above rots from the public-private head

 Two months from now, BRICS political rulers Michel Temer (Brazil), Vladimir Putin (Russia), Narendra Modi (India) and Xi Jinping (China) will join host president Cyril Ramaphosa, also at the Sandton Convention Centre. Each of their governments exudes an overwhelming stench of malfeasance.

Last November, to take just one example, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ “Paradise Papers” revealed secretive tax haven activities by these presidents or their close associates. While Temer and Putin may be most profoundly exposed, Ramaphosa himself has been implicated by investigative journalists in massive illicit financial flows via his mining houses Lonmin and Shanduka, and cellphone giant MTN which he chaired.

The local BRICS Business Council will convene simultaneously in late July, led by controversial “Fourth Industrial Revolution” proponent Iqbal Survé, who succeeded disgraced Eskom boss Brian Molefe as Council head last year. Survé’s Independent newspaper chain carries non-stop cheery news about the BRICS, especially his Council leadership.

Three of the four other Council members are Transnet’s Siyabonga Gama, Aspen Pharmaceutical’s Stavros Nicolaou and Mediterranean Shipping Company’s Sello Rasethaba. All acquired prolific wealth amidst very serious charges of tender fraud (Survé, Gama and Rasethaba), price fixing (Nicolaou), Gupta-denialism (Gama), spying on anti-corruption whistle-blowers (Gama), and even sexual harassment in the course of BRICS-related travel duties (Rasethaba).

The Business Council was founded in March 2013, when the BRICS heads-of-state summit came to Durban. As its enthusiastic chair, Molefe pronounced, “Our overarching goal as the SA BRICS Business Council is, therefore, to bring tangible projects to fruition more quickly and to strengthen the interface between the governments and private sectors of the BRICS economies.”

Before losing his job running Eskom in 2016 due to the notorious Gupta brothers’ bribery scandals, in which he became one of the country’s reviled officials, Molefe was chief executive of Transnet. During the 2013 BRICS summit, he signed a high-profile $5 billion loan from the China Development Bank to pay for Durban port improvements and new locomotives.

However, as investigative journalists at Amabhungane reported, “Transnet bought seven of the world’s most expensive port cranes because its Chinese state-owned supplier [Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries] inflated the price to pay off the Guptas,” and then the South China Rail supplier of locomotives gave 21% kickbacks to the Guptas worth more than $400 million.

This rancid state-corporate nexus can be termed “BRICS from above.” In contrast, there are four active networks we might call “BRICS from the middle.” For although many (not all) intellectuals in Sandton this week seek ideological pro-BRICS synergy with the big boys, the BRICS Academic Forum members actually fit rather more comfortably within the upward-gazing BRICS Trade Union Forum, BRICS Youth and a ‘Civil BRICS’ network driven by NGOs.

All retain a generally positive attitude about promoting the BRICS bloc. None dare mention the specific stains of corruption spreading all around them. And all were told by DIRCO in no uncertain terms that their messaging must be provided in the form of polite policy ‘asks,’ spelled out at least a month before the BRICS summit. That way their ideas can be integrated into the formal agenda, with no distracting counter-summits or protests in late July to compete for the media’s and society’s attention.

(Dissent is left to traditional brics-from-below gatherings which since 2013 in Durban have offered constructive critique – e.g. in Hong Kong in 2017 and Goa in 2016 – and which in 2018 will be hosted by the United Front-Johannesburg under the slogan, “Break the BRICS.” Indeed there is thus in academia a close parallel between what Brazilian gender activist Laura Trajber Weisbich describes as a conflict between uncritical ‘civilised’ and critical ‘popular’ spaces when engaging the BRICS.)

Against mental colonialism

To be sure, unbridled pro-BRICS dishonesty is simply impossible in this extreme context, and some of the intellectuals gathered in Sandton are quite critical of existing regimes. SA BRICS Think Tank chair Ari Sitas, a University of Cape Town sociologist, even cited a Russian interview with Brazilian philosopher-lawyer Roberto Mangabeira Unger:

“Our whole tendency is to accept the general blueprint of the market economy imported from the North Atlantic world and then to compromise it or qualify it with elements of state capitalism, political authoritarianism and compensatory social democracy – that is what we do. It is a set of compromises, qualifications and evasions, rather than strong national projects. We lack these projects.”

Unger continued with an autocritique that should make the Sandton set squirm:

“Not only we have political and plutocratic elites that subordinate national interests to the self-serving objectives, but in the midst of all our bluster about national self-searching we are all tainted by mental colonialism. What is shocking to see in these countries is that the intelligentsia and the political elites are to a very large extent servile, they are submissive to the intellectual fashions and alternatives that are imported from the Academy of the North Atlantic countries.”

For a while, at least prior to 2015, such fashions included the idea that a united BRICS would offer a genuine challenge to imperial power. But by mid-2017 when the Chinese hosted similar gatherings of academics and civil society, there were such intense geopolitical and economic conflicts between Beijing and New Delhi that Modi nearly boycotted the BRICS heads-of-state summit, as he had done the Belt & Road Initiative conference four months’ earlier.

Perhaps serving as a precedent for the Sandton meeting, a Quanzhou seminar of BRICS intellectuals last August, at the time tensions were hottest, “paid little attention to the ongoing India-China military stand-off” on the Bhutan border, remarked Observer Research Foundation chairperson Sudheendra Kulkarni: “Obviously, the Chinese hosts did not want a divisive bilateral issue to get any kind of focus in the midst of deliberations at a BRICS seminar.”

Reflecting servility to local power, many of South Africa’s state-funded intellectuals and commentators remain pro-BRICS, albeit in often schizophrenic ways. At the extreme end of this spectrum, the most actively ‘anti-imperialist’ voices are those of Gayton McKenzie – whose BRICS chapter in the book Kill Zuma by Any Means Necessary last December loyally provided the Zuma narrative – as well as Black First Land First led by Andile Mngxitama and Black Opinion ezine.

According to these (pro-Gupta) analysts, Cyril Ramaphosa is a Western-oriented saboteur of BRICS – in a way similar to current Brazilian president Temer’s congressional coup and prison sentence, respectively, against his two Workers Party predecessors, Dilma Rousseff (2016) and Lula (2018). These claims are unpersuasive, typically lacking concrete evidence – aside from McKenzie’s request to anyone disagreeing with his often wild allegations, that they sue him in court where he will provide proof. No one has done so.

Indeed, the Mail & Guardian recently quoted an unnamed DIRCO official, suggesting that Ramaphosa “is warming up to the West, almost recalibrating our relations to focus on the West because those are his friends, at the expense of BRICS… It’s almost like Zuma had put all his eggs in that [BRICS] basket.”

A similar tale was spun by Zuma himself in 2017 – I was poisoned and almost died just because South Africa joined BRICS under my leadership” – but there has been no hard evidence beyond McKenzie’s mysterious assassination-attempt gossip about MaNtuli (Zuma’s fourth wife) and her seducer at Durban’s Musgrave Mall, the alleged CIA agent Bill Harvey.

Arguments by the McKenzie-Mngxitama conspiratorial crew find Sandton scholarly allies, who also assert that the BRICS are actively undermining Washington’s power over global finance and geopolitics. The BRICS Academic Forum program profiled an abstract by University of Zululand historian Maxwell Shamase claiming:

“BRICS calls for the democratisation of the interstate system and opposes Western and US dominance of global governance… Most scholars do indeed agree that BRICS have rejected the dominant political economy paradigms of the liberal order, including a market-oriented regulatory system, fiscal austerity and comprehensive liberalisation of trade.”

(Sadly, it turns out that the confident words above were not originally Shamase’s, they were borrowed verbatim without attribution from a Delhi think thank, the Observer Research Foundation. But this was not an instance of South-South solidaristic resonance, they were actually penned in 2015 by idealistic Finnish PhD student Marko Juutinen and his colleague Jyrki Käkönen. And yet, as it became increasingly obvious that BRICS did not actually reject the dominant neoliberal world order, Juutinen reversed himself last September: “the BRICS on one hand seek to promote some form of pluralism in the international arena, and on the other do not seem to offer an alternative.”)

Residual anti-imperial fantasy

In another example of dubious Sandton scholarship, one of South Africa’s most insightful tech analysts, Rasagan Maharajh from Tshwane University of Technology, has gone on record advocating a BRICS alternative to the Western-controlled internet, albeit with not a single mention of Beijing’s extreme surveillance, censorship, active net repression and official Orwellian ‘social credit’ attempts at citizens’ behaviour modification – the latter carried out by Tencent, in which the Sandton scholars have made large investments (as have all of us with JSE pension portfolios, via Naspers).

In the same spirit, regarding climate change, Maharajh wrote in the BRICS Academic Review (a new journal launched in Sandton this week),

“the BRICS are resolute in their efforts to continue to meet this commitment [to the Paris Climate Accord]… and have all indicated plans to moderate their own developmental expansions and curb their respective emissions.”

But Maharajh must be excluding from consideration the extreme carbon-addicted features of South Africa’s National Development Plan:

+ the $60 billion Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission (PICC) first priority mega-project, which aims to export 18 billion tons of coal from Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal;

+ the $20 billion PICC second priority mega-project, a Durban port-petrochemical expansion, to which the BRICS NDB this week committed $200 million;

+ the $35+ billion Medupi/Kusile coal-fired (and also public-private corruption-riddled) power plants;

+ new Operation Phakisa ‘Blue Economy’ offshore oil/gas drilling being carried out by ExxonMobil, Eni, Statoil and Sasol;

+ the state’s massive new fracking plans (probably in excess of $8 billion);

+ worsening suburban sprawl due to the developer-driven search for cheap land for low-cost faraway housing; or

+ higher levels of high-emissions meat consumption plus higher pesticide and fertiliser use.

Also in the Academic Review, Maharajh claims that endorsement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is the basis for the BRICS’ “principles of constituting an alternative to the multilateral edifices of global capitalism.” (Given that Xi is the world’s highest-profile proponent of corporate-driven free trade, this is less outlandish than only one other commentary I’ve seen: a 2014 article in which the BRICS were renamed by the desperate Third Worldist adventurer Andre Vltchek: “Broad Revolutionary Internationalist Causeway towards Socialism.”)

Less grandiose and far more critical in his BRICS Academic Review contribution is the progressive economist Seeraj Mohamed. However, even he spreads the fairy dust: “BRICS countries should continue to push for reform that gives increased voice, democracy and accountability to the International Financial Institutions.”

This line of argument, while incorrect, is widely repeated, e.g. by Sooklal’s DIRCO colleague Dave Malcomson when last year he addressed an Institute for Global Dialogue workshop:

“South Africa’s engagement in BRICS may also assist in achieving the reform of: global political and financial architecture; the UN, particularly the UNSC, to deliver representivity, promote collaborative responses to global challenges, and make the UNSC more effective; and the IMF and World Bank – in particular to expand representation for Sub-Saharan Africa… BRICS will continue to serve as a vanguard of the process of realignment in the new global order in cooperation with its partners in the Global South for the collective promotion of the interests of the Global South.”

In reality, the BRICS have been doing exactly the opposite. In the UN, three of the BRICS – Brazil, India and South Africa – have repeatedly asked for permanent Security Council seats, but as is often lamented (even by Thabo Mbeki), the fear of diluting their votes to unreliable and often pro-Washington regimes prevents China and Russia from supporting any of them.

As for alleged Bretton Woods voting reform in Africa’s interest, consider how the December 2015 BRIC countries’ increase in IMF shares – China up by 37%, Brazil 23%, India 11% and Russia 8% – occurred at the expense of Nigeria and Venezuela which both lost 41% of their votes, and even South Africa lost 21%, with a dozen more in between. (And as for accountability, the five BRICS IMF directors joined the West’s in endorsing a second term for Managing Director Christine Lagarde, in spite of ongoing French prosecution for her €400 million corruption during her prior job in Paris as finance minister, a vote which was reaffirmed a few hours after she was convicted of negligence on the charges.)

It is important to cite the likes of Maharajh and Mohamed here – because they are usually very sensible, comradely analysts (i.e., they’re among the best thinkers, not the most hackish), which suggests that because of their urgency to promote the BRICS, those in the academic consultancy zone twist and turn from interpreting what is in reality a ‘subimperial’ relationship with the West, into an anti-imperial fantasy.

BRICS-Western class snuggle, not struggle

The BRICS record of amplifying Western control of globo-gov institutions is already prolific, including in world finance, trade and climate politics. As formerly pro-BRICS analyst Vijay Prashad recently wrote,

“the BRICS bloc – given the nature of its ruling classes, and particularly with the right now in ascendency in Brazil and in India – has no ideological alternative to imperialism… In fact, the new institutions of the BRICS will be yoked to the International Monetary Fund and the dollar – not willing to create a new platform for trade and development apart from the Northern order.”

The IMF is actually strengthened by the BRICS Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA), an alleged ‘alternative’ which in reality forces borrowers to obtain a structural adjustment loan programme before receiving the bulk of their BRICS CRA loans in the event of the kind of foreign debt repayment crisis Pretoria is likely to face within a year (as are Argentina and Turkey now). Likewise, the BRICS New Development Bank adopted a five-year strategy which includes staff sharing, “joint projects and knowledge exchanges with the World Bank… to make the most of their decades of experience.”

As for trade, the (Brazilian-headed) World Trade Organisation’s December 2015 Nairobi summit gained crucial last-minute support from Brazilian and Indian leaders, to destroy food sovereignty as part of the long-awaited U.S.-E.U. agricultural deal. Prashad complains, “Eagerness for Western markets continues to dominate the growth agenda of the BRICS states. The immense needs of their own populations do not drive their policy orientations.”

And as a third case, the UN’s December 2015 Paris Climate Agreement contains no binding provisions (unlike the 1997 Kyoto Protocol). This was due to a private deal driven by Barack Obama to make emissions cuts voluntary. It was agreed – to the consternation of the rest of the world – by four BRICS leaders (Zuma, Lula, Wen Jiabao and Manmohan Singh) with Obama at the 2009 Copenhagen summit.

Hence when Donald Trump rejected multilateral climate policy a year ago, there was no punishment, even though Joseph Stiglitz argued, “If Trump wants to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement, the rest of the world should impose a carbon-adjustment tax on US exports that do not comply with global standards.” A month later, Trump was at the Hamburg G20 summit having jovial meetings with BRICS leaders, whom he tweeted were helping him Make America Great Again.

An exemplar of imperial-subimperial collaboration, the Paris deal also prohibits poor countries from legally invoking the ‘climate debt’ owed by major emitters, of which China is now the most pollution-intensive in absolute terms and India is most responsible for rapid emissions increases. Paris negotiators ignored military, maritime and air transport emissions, and reintroduced carbon trading (also known as the privatisation of the air) as a bankers’ (supposed) solution to the climate catastrophe now unfolding. These features all suited not just the U.S. State Department’s global climate policy managers but also the BRICS elites, though they will certainly be fatal to hundreds of millions of Africans this century.

As for larger geopolitical concerns, the BRICS have made only defensive military gestures in their immediate vicinities. These include China on the Korean Peninsula and South China Sea, Russia in Eastern Europe and Syria, and India on the Pakistan and Bhutan borders. If Trump attacks Iran or Venezuela, as seems likely given his elevation of warmongers John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, Prashad concludes that “the BRICS project has no ability to counter the military dominance of the U.S. and NATO.” Instead of facing up to the bully in Washington and, for example by arranging a world climate sanctions movement, the BRICS are busy elsewhere, including Africa – and not necessarily to the benefits of its peoples, economies and environments.

Africa on the BRICS menu

Across the world – even if not yet articulated in South Africa – there’s growing doubt about the BRICS agenda by intellectuals who since the Durban summit of 2013 have lowered their expectations. Some follow the tradition of Brazil’s leading dependista theorist, Ruy Mauro Marini, who linked the internal and external characteristics of subimperial regimes. Prashad does so, too:

“The domestic policies adopted by the BRICS states can be described as neoliberal with southern characteristics – with a focus on sales of commodities, low wages to workers along with the recycled surplus turned over as credit to the North, even as the livelihood of their own citizens is jeopardised, and even as they have developed new markets in other, often more vulnerable, countries which were once part of the Third World bloc.”

When facing an imperial-subimperial combination, the vulnerable countries include most of Africa, and this is where the BRICS’ Sandton scholars have shirked perhaps their greatest responsibility: to unveil and criticise that neighbourhood’s predatory role on the continent – what with all the nearby headquarters of banks, mining houses, retail and wholesale empires, and cellphone companies that drain Africa of wealth.

Most BRICS have profitable business arms in Africa, including the likes of Brazil’s land-grabbing Vale coal mining and bribery-addicted Odebrecht construction, Moscow’s nuclear-toting Rosatom, India’s brutal Vedanta, Chinese corporations such as those that ran off with Zimbabwe’s diamonds, and Johannesburg’s own AngloGold Ashanti.

It is here, finally, where the pampered academics explicitly fail in their historic task of speaking truth to power. It is ironic that instead of the critical scholarly consideration needed from the Academic Forum, the principle of Western-BRICS imperial-subimperial aggression against poorer countries was instead explained earlier this year by a politician. Leading neoliberal Indian member of parliament Shashi Tharoor deserves the last word, one of warning to Africans aghast at the Sandton scholars’ failure of intellectual nerve:

“As countries acquire economic and military power, they start exercising their geopolitical muscle. The challenge for advocates of world order is to accommodate emerging powers… It is important to note that countries like China and India – unlike, say, Germany and Japan a century ago – are not seeking to overturn the world order. They seek to obtain redress within the broad framework rather than destabilize the framework itself. All that the ‘emerging powers’ want is a place at the high table. After all, countries realize that in the global system, you are either at the table or on the menu.”

More articles by:

Patrick Bond (pbond@mail.ngo.za) is professor of political economy at the University of the Witwatersrand School of Governance in Johannesburg. He is co-editor (with Ana Garcia) of BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique, published by Pluto (London), Haymarket (Chicago), Jacana (Joburg) and Aakar (Delhi).

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