Brics: Unmasking SA’s supposed ‘non-alignment’ and neutrality

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This article was first published by BizNews on 5 September 2023 

Despite repeatedly claiming that South Africa is committed to non-alignment and neutrality, the government has consistently made it very clear that it wants to choose sides; something it really should not be doing.

Its track record of terrible decision-making with regards to foreign affairs could lose South Africans countless jobs and opportunities, as we risk losing access to preferential trade agreements with the United States when AGOA (the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act) expires and isn’t renewed.

Rather than reinforcing ties with Brics, giving aid to Russia, or buddying up to China, South Africa should be committed to true global neutrality, and stop supporting blatant attempts to divide the world between East and West.

Why are we in Brics?

Ahead of the 15th Brics summit, President Cyril Ramaphosa made assurances that South Africa would not be drawn into a contest between global powers. But our foreign policy and actions have said otherwise.
But what is Brics but an alliance of foreign powers closing ranks to oppose a competing global power? Brics is not an innocent trade bloc. It is an instrument of the economic will of its largest members.

China has used Brics to penetrate foreign markets, causing massive trade imbalances and influencing local politics through bribery and petty display of foreign aid that do little to actually assuage local crises.

Russia has used Brics to remain economically relevant despite facing sanctions and a collapsing economy due to an ill-advised war of conquest.

India and Brazil have no real business being in Brics. They are large economies with sought after trade goods and large workforces that could elevate both of them to prosperity if the right policies are followed.

That leaves South Africa. Why are we in Brics? None of our most profitable trade partners are in Brics. China and India appear to be some of our largest trade partners, but only because we import many goods from them.

We lose more money trading with China and India than we gain. This is not to say that trading with these two countries is a bad thing and that we should cut off trade with them. Definitely not. We need imported goods. Otherwise, we wouldn’t purchase them. But, shouldn’t we be focusing on improving relations with profitable trade partners?

As of this year, South Africa recorded a trade deficit of 4.9billion from its trade with Brics partners. Conversely, in 2023, South Africa’s balance of trade with the United States was $991million in our favour. This is not to mention our other profitable trade partners in Europe.

We profit from trade with the West. Yet, we are closing ranks and forming a trade block with nations which don’t want our goods and just want to sell their imported goods to us.

Brics is not neutral

Brics is not an innocent, neutral power. It contains two major global powers that have vocally put themselves in competition with the United States and its allies.

On top of this, Brics is attempting to move away from the use of the US dollar in global trade – either through facilitating trade through local currencies, or by creating a single Brics currency. Both ideas are foolish.

Using local currencies will become a costly and inconvenient affair. Single currencies being used between many economic agents just makes trade simpler. The use of the US dollar for global trade helps all nations in the same way that a single currency helps facilitate trade within a country.

Additionally, the cost and danger of a Brics currency should not be underestimated. One country will inevitably dominate this currency. And while the proliferation of the US dollar reduces the risk of dominance through its currency, this will not be the same with a fledgling currency. And even if this doesn’t happen, why invest so much money in what amounts to a vanity project when we can just leverage the US dollar? Most of the world uses it. We use it. Don’t waste time and money changing things that don’t need to be changed. 

South Africa is not neutral

South Africa’s membership in Brics doesn’t make sense, as argued above. But even without our allegiance to Brics, South Africa’s behaviour has revealed that we’re anything but neutral. From conducting military exercises with, and possibly even sending weapons to, Russia, to our abysmal UN voting record – it is clear that South Africa is playing its own Cold War where the Soviets and United States are still at each other’s throats.

Rather than embracing pragmatic foreign policy and free trade, South Africa would rather back foreign powers that give us nothing but petty bribes.

True neutrality would be to abandon allegiances to these hostile powers, and rather open trade relations with everyone.

But, on the other hand, neutrality may actually be a foolish notion. Neutrality is a misnomer in a world full of conflict. Rather than paying lip service to neutrality while siding with the wrong partners, South Africa should be doing what is best for it – and siding with our profitable trade partners and the nations that reflect our values. Something we are not doing now.

The Brics summit will end, and South Africa will have ingratiated itself ever more with sycophants and manipulators. And we will all be the worse for it. Let’s just hope that the United States takes pity on us and keeps us in Agoa. I must admit, we don’t deserve it. 

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The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.

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