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My quibble with the sub- characterization of the BRICS is that it implies they act on behalf of one or another major or full-fledged imperialist power, whereas they are mainly acting out of their own self-interest, albeit in contexts where they are not the strongest powers.

Well Fred, what, in this sense, is an "imperialist power"? A country, and indeed one led by a con-man president such as Donald J Trump?

And from the standpoint of the BRICS, what is "their" self-interest? Who's 'they'? If the leading capitalist blocs (neoliberal, financial and export mining in my South African case) controlling a state are perfectly happy to endorse BRICS as sub-imperial within a world system from which they derive maximum profits and hide their wealth (as was the case until the 'Zupta' power bloc went out of control on corruption around five years ago), then sub-impi is what we can call it.

So isn't it more satisfying, politically and intellectually, to consider the broader imperial project of accumulation through global corporate power relations, and assess each conjunctural situation on its own merits?

a German journal, out today


Weltmächte im Wartestand?


WeltTrends 136 Februar 2018

South Africa suffers political-economic poisoning from its BRICS membership

By Patrick Bond

The emergence of an alliance between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa in 2010 signaled enormous potential for a new political arrangement to challenge Western hegemony. The reality, however, has disappointed constituencies, especially in the most unequal and troubled of the five countries, South Africa, where leaderships talks left but walks right.


Jacob Zuma will likely exit the South African presidency earlier than the next national elections, due within fifteen months. He will leave, presumably, with certain guarantees against prosecution for large-scale corruption. He also must give sufficient time to his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, to erase the electorate’s memory of the so-called ‘Zupta’ networks combining Zuma’s cronies with the three Gupta brothers, who are Indian immigrants. Their ‘state capture’ strategy since Zuma took power in 2009 included a luxurious family wedding in 2013 that notoriously violated immigration and airport security regulations; the costs were paid from agricultural support meant for black farmers in the Free State province. Nearly €1 billion per year was lost to Zupta looting, according to the former finance minister Pravin Gordhan.[1] (To be sure, that is a small fraction of the €15 billion lost annually to overcharging on state procurement contracts by what is the world’s most corrupt business elite, Johannesburg’s, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers polling.)[2]

Just before the December holiday break, Ramaphosa’s party presidential acceptance speech at the African National Congress (ANC) convention followed a tight election with former African Union chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who if victorious was widely expected to pardon her ex-husband Jacob. Ramaphosa graciously thanked Zuma for promoting the 2012 National Development Plan (NDP) and providing four million South Africans with free AIDS medicines. Indeed, the latter accomplishment helped raise life expectancy by 12 years from the early 2000s trough of 52. But the Treatment Action Campaign’s world-historic battle against Big Pharmacorp profiteering and President Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS denialism had already been won largely without Zuma’s visible assistance back in 2004.

Ramaphosa himself will proudly enforce the NDP in coming years, as he was its co-author. Lacking climate-change consciousness, the NDP’s top priority infrastructure commitment is a €55 billion rail line, mainly to export 18 billion tons of coal, entailing 50 major projects of which 14 have already begun.[3] The rail agency, Transnet, has a €4.2 billion credit from China to finance Chinese-made locomotives that are sufficiently strong to carry 3 kilometre-long coal trains, though corruption is already a major problem with the acquisitions.[4] Zuma’s desired €100 billion purchase of eight nuclear energy reactors from Rosatom is now highly unlikely thanks to Pretoria’s worsening debt crisis, so that really leaves just one accomplishment as his legacy: annual networking with leaders in Beijing, Brasilia, Delhi and Moscow.

BRICS reforms?

Conventional wisdom, as expressed by foreign policy scholar Oscar van Heerden in late 2017, is that Zuma “ensured our ascendency into the BRICS Geo-Strategic grouping, made up of Brazil, Russia, India and China: the emerging economies in the world. This is important because in the pursuit of a more equitable and fairer world order, this grouping provides a counterweight to the dominant Western powers. BRICS provides access to better trade relations as well as better global security arrangements.”[5]

But conventional wisdom needs a reality check, for the BRICS have amplified unfair and inequitable world order processes, especially when pursuing global finance, climate and trade governance:

·         The International Monetary Fund’s 2010-15 board restructuring left four of the BRICS much more powerful (e.g. China by 37%) but most African countries with a much lower voting share (e.g. Nigeria’s fell by 41% and South Africa’s by 21%). BRICS directors thrice (in 2011, 2015 and 2016) agreed with Western counterparts to endorse leadership by IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, even though she was prosecuted – and in 2016 declared guilty of negligence – in a €400 million criminal corruption case dating to her years as French finance minister. Moreover, the BRICS €84 billion Contingent Reserve Arrangement strengthens the IMF by compelling borrowers to first get an IMF loan before accessing 70% of their quota contributions during times of financial emergencies, while leadership of the BRICS New Development Bank – which has no civil society oversight – brag of co-financing and staff sharing arrangements with the World Bank.[6]

·         The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement left Africa without any ‘climate debt’ options against the West and BRICS, since legal claims for signatories’ liability are prohibited. The Paris emissions cuts commitments are too small and in any case non-binding. Military, maritime and air transport emissions are not covered, while carbon markets are endorsed. Thus climate catastrophe is inevitable, mainly to the benefit of high-carbon industries in the rich and middle-income countries.[7]

·         The 2015 Nairobi World Trade Organisation summit essentially ended agricultural subsidies and hence food sovereignty thanks to crucial alliances made with Washington and Brussels negotiators, from Brasilia and New Delhi representatives.[8]

BRICS elites were vital allies of the West in each recent site of global malgovernance. However, the short-term victories that benefit their neoliberal, pollution-intensive corporations and parastatal agencies come at a difficult time. The allegedly ‘better trade arrangements’ in the BRICS era, in reality, accompanied a major relative decline in trade measured in relation to GDP.

From 2008-16, global trade/GDP declined from 61% to 58%. But China’s trade/GDP rate fell from 53% to 36%; India’s from 53% to 40%; South Africa’s from 73% to 60%; Russia’s from 53% to 45%; and Brazil’s from 28% to 25%.[9] In the first two BRICS, the crash was a function of rebalancing through higher domestic consumption rather than export-led growth. But declining trade shares for South Africa, Russia and Brazil reflect peaking commodity prices just before the global financial meltdown that year, followed by subsequent recessions.

Geopolitical turmoil

Ironically, regarding ‘better global security arrangements,’ the world is much more dangerous since the BRICS took their present form in 2010: in Syria and the Gulf States, Ukraine, the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea. Even the Chinese-Indian border is rife with confrontations: mid-2017 fighting between the two giants nearly derailing the BRICS annual meeting. That followed Narendra Modi’s boycott of the Belt and Road Initiative summit last May, due to Beijing’s mega-project trespassing on what New Delhi considers its own Kashmir land now held by Pakistan. For Xi it is the crucial turf linking western China to the Arabian Sea’s Gwadar port. There is no resolution in sight.

As a geopolitical bloc, the BRICS’ public security interventions have occurred strictly within the context of the G20: first, to prevent Barack Obama from bombing Syria using pressure at the larger group’s September 2013 summit in St Petersburg, and then six months later in Amsterdam, supporting the Russian invasion (or ‘liberation’) of Crimea once the West made threats to expel Moscow from the G20 – just as the U.S. and Europe had thrown Vladimir Putin out of the G8, now G7. However, when Donald Trump came to last July’s G20 summit in Hamburg, the BRICS leaders were extremely polite notwithstanding widespread calls to introduce anti-U.S. sanctions due to Trump’s withdrawal from global climate commitments just a month earlier.

Fortunately, military and political security in the Southern African region has improved from prior eras. More than two million people were killed by white regimes and their proxies in frontline anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles during the 1970s-80s and there were more millions who died in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during the early 2000s’ period of extreme resource extraction. The two recent armed interventions by Pretoria in the region were to join United Nations peacekeeping troops in the DRC (2013-present) and aid the beleaguered authoritarian regime in the Central African Republic (2006-13). Both are considered political-military failures insofar as violence continues in both sites; and in the latter’s capital city Bangui, more than a dozen of Pretoria’s troops were killed in 2013 defending the Johannesburg firms pursuing lucrative contracts, just days before a BRICS “Gateway to Africa” summit in Durban, South Africa.[10]

As for local security, major upsurges of protest against injustice in each BRICS country have been met with crackdowns and extreme surveillance. The worst moment in South Africa was August 16, 2012, when three dozen mineworkers were massacred by police. They were “acting pointedly” at the explicit request (by email the day before) of the main local shareholder of the Lonmin platinum mining company, who demanded “concomitant action” against the “dastardly criminals” – i.e., 4000 mineworkers on a wildcat strike over miserable pay and living conditions. That shareholder was Cyril Ramaphosa.[11]

BRICS poison

In sum, conventional wisdom about the BRICS’ liberatory agenda remains dubious. And even at the level of personal security, two out of South Africa’s three top politicians are worried. Zuma himself regularly claims his near death from the toxic compound ricin in 2014, before rapidly acquiring treatment over two weeks in Russia, is BRICS related.[12] Last August, he told his rural home constituency ANC members in KwaZulu-Natal (the site of scores of political assassinations), “I was poisoned and almost died just because South Africa joined BRICS under my leadership.” Zuma repeated the claim three months later in a national television interview, implying a Western plot.[13]

Is Ramaphosa the antidote to Zuma’s toxic gaming of his BRICS accomplishments? Yes, according to the BRICS Post, whose South African correspondent called for an immediate leadership replacement. [14] The South Africa chapter of the BRICS Business Council, which is led by local newspaper magnate Iqbal Survé, offered surprising cynical headlines after Zuma’s speech to the ANC congress in December: “Vintage Zuma delivers a vengeful swansong, devoid of any responsibility” and “Ramaphosa prepares to confront South Africa’s bleak future.”[15]

Such headlines will continue if Zuma stays in power at least through the next BRICS summit, at Johannesburg’s Sandton Convention Centre in mid-2018. There he can expect not just cheers from followers who view BRICS relations with symbolic, nationalist pride. Just as loudly, protesters outside the Centre will call for an end to the vanity of BRICS, especially its politics of talking left and walking right.


(available upon request at pb...@mail.ngo.za ... too long for Louis' stingy 35k limit)
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