Decoding BRICS: Unity, rivalry, and South Africa’s diplomatic gambit – Katzenellenbogen

South Africa’s significant investment in the BRICS Summit held in Sandton highlights its diplomatic and financial commitment to the alliance of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. This strategic gathering amplifies South Africa’s global presence despite domestic challenges, as leaders discuss issues like an alternative reserve currency and expansion of the group. While BRICS shares anti-imperialist sentiments, its diverse member interests and potential domination by China and Russia could impact its cohesion. The quest for unity amidst geopolitical rivalries and economic agendas shapes the enigmatic nature of BRICS.

Sign up for your early morning brew of the BizNews Insider to keep you up to speed with the content that matters. The newsletter will land in your inbox at 5:30am weekdays. Register here.


What is BRICS Really About?

By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen*

South Africa has made a massive financial and diplomatic investment in the BRICS Summit being held in Sandton this week. The grouping which brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa has become a cornerstone in Pretoria’s foreign policy and affects its claim to neutrality.

The leaders of Brazil, India, and China are in Sandton for the Summit, and together with Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, who will be on videolink, will meet today. About 30 African heads of state, as well as other leaders who may want to join the group, are also in town.

Hosting and chairing the Summit allows South Africa to be seen, heard and gain diplomatic prestige in certain parts of the world. At a time of power cuts and poor economic growth, diplomatic prestige is all the more sought-after.

The high importance of  BRICS and the Summit to Pretoria is underscored by its pointing to BRICS solidarity as one of the planks in its foreign policy, and its justification for voting to defend Russia in the United Nations. For South Africa,  BRICS represents the big themes it so favours – an alternative pole to the West, a search for a new world order, and an attempt to build new ties with like-minded anti-colonial nations.

An insight into what South Africa thinks the grouping is all about was gained from a recent speech to a BRICS Youth Summit by Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Minister in the Presidency for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities. She said it was expected the summit would be “anti-imperialist”.

“The history of BRICS is fundamentally a history of resistance against colonial conquest and imperial abuse,” she said.

The role of BRICS is to stand up to the “Hegemonic West” which imposes, “developmental models that, in the main, succeeded in reproducing fundamental disparities between and within nations.” This ‘hegemony’ is represented by  the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and International Monetary Fund, and what is needed is multipolarity to break with the past as well as an “Alternative Banking and Financing Architecture for the Global South”, she declared.

But what is BRICS really all about?

That is difficult to answer, and that is the problem with BRICS. We know the grouping is anti-colonial and anti-Western. But that really does not give us an idea about its interest and goals, and what keeps it together.

The quick answer is that it means different things to the members, and provides a convenient talk shop.

The disparate interests and goals might well account for why the only achievement of BRICS since it was set up 17 years ago is a BRICS development bank to finance projects.

BRICS makes up about 25 percent of global GDP and 40 percent of the world’s population. By contrast, the G7, the leading industrial nations, account for about 27 percent of global GDP and ten percent of the world’s population. And if BRICS were to expand, it would be even larger as an economic grouping, which includes key emerging markets.  As much as this may be used to indicate potential market size and lure many into ambitious thinking for a new bloc, there are problems.

Economic size alone does not make for common interests.

China makes up 70 percent of the combined GDP of BRICS, and as an increasingly assertive Asian and global power, is bound to use that power in the body. Given the sheer size of the Chinese and Russian agenda, the two could end up dominating BRICS, which could ultimately lead to its splitting apart or a descent into irrelevance.

 Would all the members really like to see the Western order undone? Brazil, India, and South Africa want a reform of the United Nations to allow them to have permanent seats on the Security Council. But do the technocrats in these countries want a change in the way the World Bank and International Monetary Fund make their loans? 

In recent decades, at least, China and India have immensely benefited from their exports to Western markets.  All BRICS members voluntarily choose to belong to the World Bank and IMF.

The two big issues at the BRICS summit this week are the expansion in the membership of the grouping and the creation of an alternative reserve currency to the dollar. There are divisions on these matters.

The Goldman Sachs economist, Jim O’Neil, who came up with the term BRIC to refer to four fast-growing countries he predicted would in time overtake G7 economies, is disparaging of the body’s future. The idea of a BRICS currency is “ridiculous” he recently told the Financial Times.


A currency is a non-starter unless it is a politically driven project. It would be Chinese-dominated and probably in little demand, even among BRICS.

China and Russia are keen to expand the grouping as they face increasing isolation by the West. South Africa is also keen to expand the grouping, probably because it thinks a larger body will allow BRICS to be more influential. But India and Brazil are cautious about expansion and have said that applicants should meet criteria to join. The reluctance of Brazil and India to expand is probably driven by their fear that their power in the group would be diluted.  They also might fear that China would be able to dominate smaller member countries.

China and Russia might have better defined interests than the other members. These two countries are increasingly close and would like to see BRICS as a grouping that helps them stand up to Western sanctions and attempts at isolation. The US has imposed sanctions against a number of Chinese companies, including Huawei, the technology giant, and is ensuring that critical manufacturing is moved to countries that are allies. And Russia faces comprehensive sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine.

If Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, all under various forms of sanctions, join, this could make BRICS into a group to fight sanctions. At the same time, it could mean that BRICS would become a club of convenience for autocrats?

Rivalry, particularly between China and India, could be the grouping’s undoing. China and India are rivals for power and influence in Asia and across the world. They have an ongoing border dispute, and India is highly concerned about China’s rise as a global power and about being surrounded by Beijing’s allies. 

The rise of China is one reason why India has forged increasingly close economic and military ties with the United States. India’s ties with the US are deepening and it is unlikely to risk these.  India is certain to downgrade its participation in BRICS if it sees China as over-bearing in the group. Brazil might then follow suit. 

Where would that leave South Africa?

That would certainly make it more difficult for South Africa to even claim non-alignment.

Read also:

*Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist.

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission