The Rise of the BRICS in Africa

Development Policy,Inclusive Politics29 Aug 2013Padraig Carmody

A little over a decade ago Africa was being spoken of in the media as the ‘lost’ or ‘hopeless’ continent. Now it has some of the fastest growing economies in the world, largely because of the impact of the BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. What is the broader meaning of the rise of these Southern powers for Africa and what problems and potentialities for development does this conjuncture create?

In the early 1990s Francis Fukayama foresaw the ‘end of history’ as liberal democracy and ‘free’ market capitalism spread around the world. However two decades on something very different is occurring. There is a new macro-geopolitical region under construction – a ‘South Space’ – defined by post-coloniality, hardening and reconfiguring sovereignty and intensifying material flows of aid, trade, investment and people. This new South Space is being driven by the BRICS coordination mechanism and other new forms of multi and bilateralism. However there is a paradox at the heart of the ‘horizontal cooperation’ promoted by the BRICS in that relations between China, in particular, and most African countries are marked by deepening power inequality.

The individual BRICS have different economic structures which generate different foreign policy imperatives. For example China is a major natural resource importer, where Russia is a major exporter of energy and minerals. Brazil is seeking to grow its natural resource multinationals, while attempting to achieve autonomy from the United States by differentiating its international relationships and shaping the global political economy to its advantage. Brazil is arguably attempting to externalize its model of domestic class compromise to Africa, by promoting the growth of its multinationals and rolling out aid and technical cooperation programmes. However these initiatives are not associated with the rights of citizenship and consequently result in land dispossession for some in Africa.

The rise of the BRICS is changing the nature of globalization on the continent. For example, the influence of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Africa is declining, and the China Import-Export Bank is now the biggest provider of new loans on the continent. As African trade and investment rise, localities in Africa are becoming more intertwined with others elsewhere, in the BRICS in particular. This deepening process of translocalization results in different development outcomes on the continent, structured by power.

The individual BRICS also have different power attributes and assets. China is able to bring many different material and ideational power resources to bear in its dealings with the continent. South Africa is also able to project substantial power across borders in Africa (geo-governance) by virtue of its proximity and the extent of its economic engagements. There is arguably an incipient merger of Chinese and South African geo-governance on the continent, as China and Chinese companies use that country as an entry point and regional command and control centre. South Africa on the other hand is able to use Chinese patronage to increase its regional and global influence. It was China that promoted South Africa’s accession to the BRICS grouping.

The influence of the BRICS in Africa looks set to grow for a variety of reasons, including their continued relatively rapid economic growth. The BRICS bring a number of power advantages to their dealings with Africa: in particular the shared history of colonial invasion and subjugation, success in poverty reduction, generally fast growing markets and substantial foreign exchange reserves, which can sometimes be used to fund infrastructure projects.

The BRICS powers’ emphasis on ‘non-interference’ in domestic affairs means that they are status quo powers in Africa. This strengthens incumbent regimes. From 2008 to mid-2012, ten of the thirteen leaders of countries who died in office were in Africa. The more rapid economic growth which the BRICS have facilitated in Africa through resource demand, investment, and infrastructure construction may reinvigorate the dialectics of capitalist development on the continent, as growing middle and working classes grow in political influence over the longer term and might be able to hold states to greater account. However for the moment, despite sometimes oversold claims of ‘Africa rising’, the overall structure of political economy on the continent – economic extraversion and political authoritarianism look set to remain largely in place.