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BRICS and Civil Society 2018: Social Justice versus the Diplomacy Game

The annual BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre attracted much hype and generally affirming media coverage. Part of the reason for relentless positivity towards the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) alliance is press coverage in the country’s leading newspaper chain arranged by Iqbal Survé.  As head of the Independent newspapers as well as the BRICS Business Council, his own picture appears regularly on his front pages, pronouncing on the enormous value of BRICS to South Africa.

Debate amongst academics and civil society has been intense, especially on whether engagement in official processes amounts to a legitimation of BRICS rulers. For critics, the governance credentials of China, India, Russia and Brazil are appalling, along with widespread corporate corruption, exploitative economic trade and investment strategies, and the world’s most severe pollution, including greenhouse gases.

Disappointingly, most of the pro-BRICS analysis is lukewarm at best and at worst sycophantic. Last week, Rev Lawrence Ndlovu’s Daily Maverick opinion piece refers to the “special friendship between BRICS nations”, leaving human rights violations papered over with the throwaway remark, “the sovereignty of each country should never be seen to be compromised.” This parrots South African BRICS Sherpa Anil Sooklal’s diplomatic patter over the last few months at various BRICS events held in the lead up to the Summit.

The theme for the BRICS Summit 2018, ‘BRICS in Africa: Collaboration for Inclusive Growth and Shared Prosperity in the 4th Industrial Revolution,’ is ostensibly grounded upon the BRICS alliance’s advertised central priorities: ‘the creation of an inclusive society and global partnerships that bring prosperity to all humankind’. This time, the presence of trade-warrior Donald Trump looming in the background has provided artificial credibility.

Overall, though, BRICS coverage continues to be characterised by a lack of critical reflection. For example, the 4thIndustrial Revolution’s emphasis on robotics and artificial intelligence is no panacea for the South African and African economies. Naive endorsement of this theme smacks more of trying to keep up with the global North than developing alternative collective development frameworks that meet ordinary people’s needs.

Nonetheless, summit declarations are supported by diplomatic affirmations. The five Consuls General recently agreed that BRICS is unique because of the equal nature of the partnership and inclusivity, ‘as shown in the outreach efforts of BRICS’ which this year witnessed various tyrants joining the other visiting heads of state.

The diplomatic artifice of equality and inclusivity does little to conceal the dominance of China in the trade and investment environments of the BRICS states, especially the use of the smallest BRICS state, South Africa, as a ‘gateway’ to Africa.

Even after a decade of summits and sweet-talk, there are hardly any BRICS institutional commitments, and no multilateral policy initiatives, aside from the New Development Bank. The $100 billion Contingent Reserve Arrangement is simply an IMF-related bailout fund, validated as hopefully not necessary unless one of the BRICS falls into a foreign debt crisis.

The myth of partnership cannot disguise the almost entirely bilaterally-negotiated trade and investment relations between the five states, skewed heavily towards Chinese state owned enterprise investments and loans in infrastructure and industry in the other four states.

Most of this investment is orientated to Chinese expansion of soft power through its Belt-and-Road initiative, which currently reaches as far as Kenya’s ports in Lamu and Mombasa. It is marketed as a potential geo-strategic trade route which may compensate for the punitive grip that the United States has on the global political economy. The initiative even comes along with its own propaganda, an advertising jingle for which it has received some justified media derision.

The contradictory positions on BRICS are collated in a recently released reader, BRICS PolitricksThese are broadly categorised as Brics from above (largely uncritical state or state aligned discourses), Brics from the middle (academic, labour and civil Brics that pragmatically engage) and Brics from below (critique of the other two levels of discourse based on concerns of grassroots social justice movements).

Activists and academics supportive of Brics from below met in Johannesburg last week at the counter-summit and Teach In, held at the Wits School of Governance (http://bricsfrombelow.org).

The counter-summit interrogated the ideological posturing of BRICS as an balancing force against the post-Cold War unipolar system. This included a robust engagement with perspectives emerging from within the BRICS Think Tank network, as well as the BRICS Business Council.

The counter summit also revisited social movement strategies, in particular, the Gramscian notion of the war of manoeuvre within state-created spaces of engagement. The strategy includes ongoing direct engagement in order to influence government to move towards a more authentic transformative social justice orientation.

Social justice gains (jam-making) can be measured in terms of policy outcomes through the processes of engagement. These can be complemented/supplemented by other strategies of resistance and pressure (tree shaking).  While both techniques have been used at BRICS Summits since 2013, neither strategy has yielded significant outcomes.

Reflecting the lack of influence, the slogan of this year’s BRICS from below rally, led by the United Front-Johannesburg, was “Break the BRICS” – for there is nothing in current BRICS policy frameworks that shows any concrete commitment to pro-poor policies. Protestors emphasise that BRICS leaders human rights and social justice records are questionable to say the least.

With one or two exceptions, this questionable human rights and social justice component of the BRICS alliance has received far too little attention, even at Academic and Civil BRICS level. It is worth mentioning that South Africa is perhaps the only state within the alliance where protestors and the social movements they support are not threatened, vilified and subject to state surveillance on an ongoing basis.

Amnesty International this week reaffirmed BRICS dismal human rights scorecard. Ramaphosa’s recent assurances that BRICS leaders are attending to human rights issues shows naivety at best, at worst, a deliberate denialism.

This strategy, break the BRICS, or ‘branch breaking’, a more confrontational protest based form of engagement, may be needed on a more ongoing basis to raise consciousness and counter BRICS empty rhetoric on human rights and development.

BRICS from below movements led by Earthlife, groundWork and South the Durban Community Environmental Alliance also protested on the 25thof July against the New Development Bank, its destructive loans to Transnet and Eskom,and its empty development promises.

Generally, BRICS states restrict citizens’ inputs to a rubber stamping form of participatory engagement that is essentially devoid of pro-poor policy outcomes. This form of participation is a form of societal demobilisation that relies on co-opting academics and INGOs to uphold the façade of an ideological alternative that simply doesn’t work.

Since the inclusion of Academic and Civil BRICS, the Summit meetings have shown virtually no policy uptake of their recommendations. This is acknowledged by organising INGOs such as Oxfam in publications such as a 2016 report on the first Civil BRICS held in 2015 in Ufa entitled Improving Governance through Engaging with Civil Society.

Over the last few days it has become increasingly clear that the 2018 Summit’s emphasis is on growth (note, not collective development) through increased trade, investment and financial co-operation, pursued, once again, mostly bilaterally. There is a heavy emphasis on the New Development Bank as the financial alternative to the World Bank (despite its agreed-upon co-financing, project preparation, even staff-sharing relations, and strong ideational links in terms of development policy strategy).

In this light, it is time for a reality check. The organisers of Academic and Civil BRICS may wish to take cognisance of the quote attributed to Albert Einstein, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different outcome”.

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