The victory by Jair Bolsonaro in the recent Brazilian presidential election should provoke a rethink by South Africa's leadership over its deep commitment to BRICS. And here's why.
'I sent the club a wire stating: "PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON'T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT PEOPLE LIKE ME AS A MEMBER".'
– Groucho Marx to the Friars Club in Hollywood
On 28 October, Brazil's political future took an astonishingly rightward lurch with the resounding victory of Jair Bolsonaro, congressman, former army officer, right-wing populist, and the Brazilian-flavoured version of so much of the destructive populisms espoused by such leaders as Viktor Orban
, Rodrigo Duterte, those people running Italy, and, of course, Donald Trump.
Bolsonaro takes office at the beginning of 2019 and, given his campaign platform, he seems determined to hit the road running as he attacks corruption and crime, as well as all the other ills he railed against in his victory over the hapless Workers Party candidate Fernando Haddad.
Now, let's wind the clock back to nearly two decades ago. Back in 2001, a go-go sovereign bonds salesmen based in London, Jim O'Neill (now Sir James, just by the way), conceived of a particularly clever way to flog his product – emerging market bonds – to investors looking to take a chance for some really great rates of return, in exchange for some risk in the emerging markets arena. No risk, no gain. Clever guy.
Taking a look at a list of high growth emerging markets, he selected China, Russia, India, and Brazil on which to focus his attentions. Then he played with some anagrams and so he eventually came up with BRIC. Boom. Va-va Voom! Solid sound, that one. Building blocks and real substance. That was clearly rather better than CRIB or any other anagramatic choice O'Neill might have pushed on the waiting world. Much more melifluous, and much easier to remember, too.
With this word in hand, he proceeded to build the case to the international commercial investor community that these four, especially, were countries whose economies were growing rapidly. They were building economies that were increasingly open; they were societies which were increasingly free, and this was a group of countries whose governments seemed to be increasingly transparent and rules-based.
In effect, O'Neill's argument was the evergreen sales pitch: Get in now before everybody else figures it out. With that gold gilt-edged sales pitch, he successfully argued that clever investors could make some real money by getting in on the boom in BRIC government paper, on the ground floor while the getting was good, as those economies grew and grew and grew – thereby increasing the value of those bonds exponentially.
Eventually, the four governments concerned also saw this was a rather good thing for their own international promotional purposes – there are fads for government as well as with investments. And so, in 2009, the four countries began their yearly leaders' consultations, gradually building gaudier and flashier summits, adding a whole roster of subsidiary meetings and consultative working groups designed to draft documents long on grandeur and short on substance.
(Yes, there is the bank, but it has been funded by equal share investments from each member and it remains unclear why it was needed, given the very low real rates for borrowing in global capital markets.)
According to some BRIC enthusiasts, a key, original aim had been the establishment of a more equitable, democratic, and multipolar world order, although gaining foreign investment and an itch to be a counterweight to the perceptions of Western dominance in international financial circles were also part of the plan in the minds of some.
This business with all that enthusiasm for a more equitable, more democratic, multipolar world could be one thing when you had people like Jiang Zemin, Dimitri Medvedev, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and Manmohan Singh sitting around the big table.
It may be a rather different thing, however, if the head table now brings together Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, and now, Jair Bolsonaro. In that group, the odd man out, now, would seem to be South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa, what with his universally acknowledged support for democratic ideals.
(South Africa was finally allowed to join this club, courtesy of a sponsorship by those clever Chinese, towards the end of 2010; even if on purely economic measures, a case for South Africa's inclusion was, and is, a weak one. The Chinese may have had more subtle motives for serving as mentor-sponsor.)
The truth is that the truly big Kahuna of BRICS is obviously China. But BRICS is not the real main event for the Middle Kingdom. Aside from their ongoing efforts to build a dominating military position in the South China Sea, their most vigorous energies diplomatically are going into their Belt and Road Initiative and the Shanghai Consultation Conference (SCC). The Belt and Road effort is an international one that involves a wide spread of low interest loans, grants, trade agreements, and commercial and subsidised investments in infrastructure in countries across Central Asia and around the Indian Ocean littoral in Africa. This overlaps and reinforces the co-operative elements of the SCC in terms of building a comprehensively powerful international position. (Just don't fall behind on the repayments – ask Sri Lanka how that has been working out these days.)
India is busy building new strategic relationships (with the US and even Japan) to consolidate its own position vis-a-vis China. And as for Russia, while they have been trying to reconstruct a strategic relationship with China, their major strategic efforts are increasingly focused on building economic connections and relations for its energy exports with Europe, and in balancing or bettering Nato's own defence capabilities in Europe.
Brazil, under Bolsonaro, meanwhile, will almost certainly look to the kind of economic nationalism model now popular with a certain economic nationalist-style North American compadre. However, none of this would really seem to be speaking to any BRICS-style unity of spirit and action. Moreover, this doesn't even speak to competition between various partner members over similar exports. Finally, of course, this has now also become a club where democratic values and ideals are firmly in the eclipse, other than in South Africa.
That, of course, should be a tip-off. It should mean South Africa could begin to look much more critically at where its real national interests and values may lie. This in a country that needs major infusions of foreign direct investment that will feed job-generating growth, lest its economy suffer even further than it is already (and with baleful consequences for political stability). As a consequence, South Africa should look much harder to markets where it can export products beyond basic commodities, rather than resting on some Procrustean bed of group solidarity.
Maybe there is no need to drop the "S" in BRICS, but it is also true that bureaucratic energies are not infinite. Some years ago, the complicated negotiations for a proposed SACU-US free trade agreement collapsed under fears it would consume too much bureaucratic and intellectual energy on the part of South Africa, as well as the much smaller bureaucracies in the country's SACU partners, for limited gains.
Given their real, relatively low-scale investment by the other BRICS members in the group's members, beyond those periodic, formulaic incantations, and the flow of Chinese investment that really doesn't need the cover of BRICS solidarity anyway, South Africa could profitably invest more of its time and energy elsewhere.
This would include: much more time and energy reaching out to the vast, growing market of the rest of the continent; to its actual lead trade partner – the EU; and even to the US which takes a significant share of the country's higher value-added exports under the provisions of the African Growth and Opportunity Act.
Such efforts would, comprehensively carried out, become a real pro-growth foreign economic diplomacy agenda – and it would help loosen that clever straitjacket of a bond seller's imagination. DM