BRICS From Above, Seen Critically From Below

The Durban rapper Ewok captured the spirit of progressive social forces in South Africa with his condemnation of elite politics at a March 2013 protest outside the Durban International Convention Centre: “You dropping BRICS from above? We’re throwing bricks from below!”

For the second time, the leaders of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-SA (BRICS) summit in South Africa, this time at Johannesburg’s Sandton Convention Centre from July 25-27. The bloc has great potential to change the world in positive ways. But under increasingly desperate capitalist rule in each country, this potential simply cannot be realised, and evidence has accumulated of much more harm than good

The best example of intra-BRICS collaboration combining top-down and bottom-up politics was when fifteen years ago, Treatment Action Campaign activists wonfree AIDS medicines (once costing $10 000/year) for several million South Africans (hence raising life expectancy from 52 to 64) thanks partly to a Brazilian state precedent and Indian generic pharmaceutical support.

Progressive BRICS crumbling

But that was then – now the BRICS are mainly corrupt and undemocratic under Michel Temer, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping and Cyril Ramaphosa. Thanks to the ruling parties’ policies, the five countries are more unequal, patriarchal, homophobic, racist and polluting.

There is not space here to explore systematic policy critiques of BRICS countries, which range across feminist, environmentalist, generational (especially youth), class and race lines. Brutal versions of neoliberal ideology prevail in all five BRICS, aside from Brazil during Workers Party rule, which ended in a 2016 coup by the corrupt politician Temer – against which no other BRICS country came to prior President Dilma Rousseff’s assistance in spite of appeals by the Movement of Landless Workers.

Inequality subsequently rose in each of the BRICS. Even in Brazil, “After falling for years, inequality and poverty increased during the [2015-16] crisis,” according to a May 2018 International Monetary Fund (IMF) study. To make matters worse, the main theme of the 2018 conference is the so-called “4thIndustrial Revolution” (emphasising robots, cybertechnology and Artificial Intelligence). Unemployment, state-corporate surveillance, repression and social engineering will worsen.

There are, naturally, many in the ‘Brics from the middle’ camp – academics, civil society and labour – who contest the critique. Their perspective, though, often ignores rather than rebuts the brics-from-below critics.

The subimperial position

One central problem is that the BRICS elites fit too snugly within – not against – Western imperialism, especially the most destructive multilateral agencies: the G20, UN Security Council, Bretton Woods Institutions (IMF and World Bank), World Trade Organisation (WTO) and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). There, the BRICS supposedly pursue ‘reforms’:

+ G20– in the most powerful network, where SA is the only African member and hence is often used as a Northern/BRICS ally against the interests of the continent, the BRICS are promoting pro-corporate mega-projects and ‘extractivism’ against African people and environments (via the German conservative party’s ‘Compact with Africa’ in 2017, which offers new investment guarantees to G20 corporations partly at African expense);

+ UN Security Council– ensuring that the three weaker BRICS (Brazil, India and South Africa) are never allowed to acquire full-vote, full-veto permanent membershipin the UNSC, since that would dilute the power of Moscow and Beijing (given that the bloc is extremely divided in geopolitical terms, with Delhi and Brasilia extremely close to Washington, and Pretoria generally considered unreliable);

+ International Monetary Fund (IMF)– demanding and winning ownership ‘quota’ restructurings(2010-15) that disempower most poor countries by lowering their voting share(e.g. Nigeria by 41 percent), and extending the term of corrupt (convicted) former French finance minister Christine Lagarde as IMF leader, without any change in the neoliberal Washington Consensus philosophythat wrecks African economies, societies and environments;

+ WTO – ending poor countries’ food sovereigntyat the 2015 Nairobi summit (chaired by a Brazilian) by agreeing with Washington and Brussels to make pro-consumer/farmer agricultural subsidies a free-trade violation, at a time Xi Jinping is rebooting pro-corporate trade (given that Trump appears to be self-sabotaging Free Trade Agreements); and

+ UNFCCC – agreeing in the Durban (2011) and Paris (2015) summits to permit the North’s and BRICS’ ongoing destruction of the climate, thanks to the deals’non-binding, unambitious emissions cut targets(in spite of Global South and climate justice calls for binding, accountable and effective mechanisms); reinstatement of carbon trading(the ‘privatisation of the air,’ a false solution); omission of the military, shipping and air transport sectors; and cancellation of their own North/BRICS’ climate debtto the victims of extreme weather, droughts, floods and other conditions that are already doing extensive damage to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable regions.

Supposed BRICS ‘alternatives’to Western power include the New Development Bank (NDB), Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA), a potential credit ratings agency, and BRICS corporations’ Foreign Direct Investment. These are not genuine alternatives. In reality they amplify imperialist processes. These specifically empower the World Bank and IMF (through mutually-reinforcing deals), and also confirm ongoing world reliance on the US$. (The $ is the currency unit used in 70 percent of NDB loans so far, and in all CRA financing – even when project expenditure should occur with local currency.)

Even more tragically, the BRICS have not offered any way for the world to defend against U.S. President Donald Trump’s threats to our planet. To be sure, Russia has very dangerous new missiles which Putin claims can evade all known defence systems and blow up the United States within a half hour of being launched. Also, Xi’s new naval aircraft carrier will defend its South China Sea fake ‘islands’ far away from its shores. But world civilisation has entered a lethal stage with geopolitical, nuclear, conventional military, climate and economic dangers.

A global movement against Trump began on the very day of his inauguration in January 2017, and occasionally takes the form of protests at U.S. embassies. BRICS elites could support this through sanctions, but instead engage in periodic relegitimisation of Washington’s proto-fascist regime – especially Modi, Temer and Xi. Although anti-Trump rhetoric is occasionally articulated and potential trade wars loom, the BRICS are nevertheless falling into line with his commands when it comes to the pro-corporate character of multilateral institutions.

One of the main threats to Middle East peace and global justice is the Trump-Israel axis that bulldozes over the most fundamental rights of Palestinian people and promotes hatred, racism, walls and wars across the continents. While people are building a new global anti-apartheid movement calling for boycotts, divestment and sanctions, BRICS policies promote corporate impunity, undermine democracy and adapt to imperialist agendas against Palestine. India imports 50 percent of all Israeli weapons exports while Brazil ranks among the top six markets for Israeli weapons. Much of it foments repression against their own people and surveillance policies.

China and India are today among Israel’s main trade and investment partners, and there remains a strong impetus for South African corporations to increase trade with the Zionist-Apartheid state, or for SA firms to mind Africa hand-in-glove with notorious Israelis like Dan Gertler. Chinese, Russian and Indian companies collude with Israelis on ‘Big Data’ – which translates into more surveillance of societies. Russia is getting cosy with Israel as witnessed in Benjamin Netanyahu’s guest appearance in Red Square with Putin on May 9th (commemorating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany), heralding growing ties and potential converging interests in gas and oil exploration off the Levantine-Israel-Gaza coast. China trades heavily with Israel. None of the BRICS countries bans products of corporations complicit with Israeli settlements in Palestine, as should be done under international law since production on illegally occupied land is considered an international crime.

BRICS elites subvert citizenries’ democratic instincts

BRICS elites are crushing their own societies’ instincts for democracy and justice.Ongoing examples are Temer’s frame-up arrest of Workers Party leader Lula da Silva in Brazil in May, preventing his (otherwise certain) victory in October presidential elections; Putin’s disqualification of Alexai Navalny’s liberal candidacy in April’s Russian “election”; Modi’s proto-fascistic religiously-bigoted leadership; Xi’s Chinese Communist Party dictatorship (and now his potential for decade+ personal rule); and here in South Africa, the ‘Ramazupta’ governance problem.

South African political rulers still reveal corrupt leadership within the Presidency and Deputy Presidency, the ANC’s Luthuli House and various provinces. ANC leaders are ruthless, with intra-ANC murders continuing in many jurisdictions. In 2012, Ramaphosa emailed in a request for the police to take “concomitant action” in a “pointed” way against workers on strike at his Lonmin platinum mine at Marikana, and so within 24 hours, 34 were massacred – with no one yet punished. He had consistently redirected money he should have paid the workers into Lonmin’s Bermuda tax haven, and notwithstanding a mandate to build 5500 houses for workers at Marikana backed by the World Bank, he built just three. BRICS leaders are guilty of Illicit Financial Flows, having been exposed in 2016 ‘Panama Papers’ and 2017 ‘Paradise Papers’ leaks.

When the BRICS countries’ elites do business in Africa, their ethics reflect some of the most anti-democratic and predatory practices that we have seen since the Berlin conference of 1885 and the likes of Cecil Rhodes and King Leopold. Similar to Western corporate behaviour in corrupting local leaders, Africa suffers malevolent BRICS state, parastatal and corporate interventions in local politics. For example,

+ The Brazilian firm Odebrecht made R600+ million in known bribes of Angolan and Mozambican rulers.

+ Rosatom did nuclear deals with corrupt political regimes in Pretoria, Kampala, Lusaka, Accra, Nairobi, Abuja, Windhoek and Cairo.

+ The Gupta brothers’ state capture of wide swathes of South Africa’s political, bureaucratic and corporate management was supported by one of Delhi’s state-owned banks, with no extradition from India likely.

+ Beijing compelled Pretoria to reject the Dalai Lama’s visa applications to South Africa on three occasions, put decisive pressure on Zuma to change finance ministers in 2015, and pre-approved the Zimbabwe army’s coup against Robert Mugabe late last year.

+ Pretoria repeatedly dismissed the democratic will of neighbouring countries, instead nurturing dictatorships in the DRC, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and the Central African Republic.

BRICS firms operating in Africa have become voracious, especially since the commodity super-cycle peaked in 2011 and more extreme extraction (and social protests) are evident. It is hard to argue that there is any worse predatory corporate presence in Africa than the BRICS:

+ From Brazil, both Odebrecht and the world’s second-largest mining company, Rio-based Vale, have faced regular protests over mass displacement at construction projects and coal-mining operations in Tete, Mozambique, as has the Brazilian government (dating to Workers Party rule) over its ProSavana corporate-agriculture land-grab.

+ Russia’s potentially disastrous Rosatom nuclear reactor deals across Africa are noted above, but so too are Russian mining houses moving into Zimbabwe’s platinum and gold fields in dubious ways.

+ Indian companies in Africa have been especially exploitative, led by Vedanta chief executive Anil Agarwal – caught bragging to investors of having bought the continent’s largest copper mine for just $25 million after fibbing to Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa and each year returning $500 million to $1 billion in revenues. ArcelorMittal’s Lakshmi Mittal’s major African steel operation, South Africa’s former state-owned ISCOR, was accused by even Pretoria’s trade minister of milking the operations. Jindal’s super-exploitative arrangements in Mozambique and South Africa are regularly criticised.

+ Chinese firms – both state-owned and private – have been convincingly accused of major financial, human rights, labour and environmental abuses in Africa, perhaps most spectacularly in the case of Sam Pa whose operations included mining diamonds in eastern Zimbabwe along with the Chinese military firm Anjin. In 2016, even President Robert Mugabe alleged that of $15 billion in revenues, only $2 billion were accounted for, in mines mainly controlled by the local military and Chinese companies.

+ South African businesses have a record of looting the rest of the continent dating to Cecil Rhodes’ (19thcentury) British South Africa Company, the Oppenheimer mining empire, and current President Ramaphosa’s pre-2012 chairing of Africa’s largest cell-phone company, MTN. The latter was exposed – along with two other companies he led, Lonmin and Shanduka – in 2014-17 for having offshore accounts in Bermuda and Mauritius used to illicitly remove funds from Africa. South Africa’s corporate elites regularly rank as the most corrupt on earth in the biannual PwC Economic Crimes Survey – especially in money-laundering, bribery and corruption, procurement fraud, asset misappropriation and cybercrime – with one recent report showing that “eight out of ten senior managers commit economic crime.”

Corrupting states, societies and economies

Finally, when it comes to relations with South Africa, the BRICS countries and companies stink of corruption. It’s not just the Rosatom nuclear deal, so devotedly pursued by Zuma and thankfully dropped by Ramaphosa (we hope).

In addition, the chair of the SA branch of the BRICS Business Council, Survé, grew wealthy through his firm Sekunjalo, which was accused by the SA state public protector in 2013 of R800 million in “improper” tendering (for marine fisheries), after which he fired the Cape Times editor for putting this information on the newspaper’s front page.

Survé took over the Business Council chair from a man even more discredited from shady deals done at the BRICS 2013 summit: Brian Molefe. As Transnet’s chief executive, Molefe borrowed $5 billion (in US$) from the China Development Bank, mainly used to buy locomotives from China South Rail – alongside massive bribery directed into the Gupta empire.

Another BRICS NDB loan to Transnet was arranged in May 2018, for $200 million to expand the port-petrochemical complex, without any community consultation, even though Transnet’s leadership was increasingly implicated in Gupta-era corruption investigations entirely visible to NDB staff at the time.

In 2016, Molefe was replaced as head of Eskom (and as chair of the BRICS Business Council) after he again arranged a $5 billion loan from the same bank (plus $200 million from the BRICS New Development Bank for a link to privatised solar supplies which Molefe then decided he didn’t want). At the same time Molefe was helping the Guptas penetrate Eskom, he visited the so-called Saxonwold Shebeen (the Gupta’s Johannesburg mansion) dozens of times.

His replacement at Transnet, also involved in numerous corrupt relationships, is Siyabonga Gama, who is also one of five members of the BRICS Business Council. Another is Stavros Nicolaou, who was Aspen Pharmaceutical’s exports director when Italy’s government found Aspen guilty of price gauging life-saving cancer medicines, fining it more than $5 million.

Communities fight back

The BRICS are among the societies with the greatest contradictions and repression – but also the most active resistance. Anger is rising whether in Brazil over the Lula jailing; or Russia because the main opposition candidate was prevented from contesting the recent election; or India due to the ruling party’s tolerance for gender and ethnic violence as well as monetary repression; China due to workplace, land and environmental grievances; or here due to myriad problems.

Indeed, the main research institute studying this anger, at the University of Johannesburg, recently identified “a rising trend in frequency of community protests and a tendency towards those protests being disorderly.”

In our own region, resistance is taking many forms, because across Africa and the world, it is not only western imperialism but also BRICS subimperialism that is putting extreme pressure on communities, environments, labour forces, youth, the elderly and everyone. And resistance is sometimes very passionate:

+ In Mozambique, there are regular community protests against Brazilian land-grabbing in Tete Province (against Vale coal mining) and Nampula (against ProSavana).

+ In SA, social protests against Zuma prevented his acquisition of eight Russian Rosatom nuclear reactors for $100 bn.

+ In Zambia, community protesters regularly criticise the Vedanta operation at Konkola, which is wrecking the local environment in addition to looting national resources.

+ In Zimbabwe, not only the Marange community – where 2000 protested renewed mining in May – every single citizen was adversely affected by Chinese and Zimbabwean military looting of $15 billion worth of what Robert Mugabe in 2016 calculated as missing diamond revenue.

+ Across Africa there are periodic protests against South African corporations – e.g. MTN in Nigeria – which peaked in April 2015 when a variety of company and embassy offices witnessed demonstrations against that year’s xenophobia.

From the standpoint of activists working for social, economic and environmental justice from below, BRICS elites are their opponents, for:

+ adopting reactionary policies;

+ assimilating into imperialist agenciesto the detriment of the world’s most vulnerable;

+ offering only bogus ‘alternative’ institutions;

+ suppressing democracy;

+ allowing their firms’ unlimited corporate irresponsibility;

+ imposing extreme forms of surveillance, censorship and digital repression, including expansion of the ultra-destructive 4th Industrial Revolution; and

+ engaging in prolific

But in each case, people are standing up to resist. Activities from July 23-25, including a Teach-In and “Break the BRICS” march on Sandton will give greater voice to these communities, unions, women’s and youth groups, ecologists and many other social movements.

Patrick Bond is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He can be reached at: