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The theme does not mean much if given a cursory reading for it seems like pie in the sky for the four countries to suggest that they can give the world a new source of leadership towards elusive global stability, security and prosperity.
It is remarkable that China recently overtook Japan to become the biggest economy after the United States and Brazil overtook the United Kingdom, a former world colonial empire and major global power, in world economic rankings.
However, the theme is meant to make a more symbolic statement, that is: Brics countries are aware that with growing power in their hands come increased responsibility for global commons.
They realise that they do not need extensive hard power to assert their global power status collectively, as, unlike in the post-World War 2 period, today’s global power politics is fashioned in the minds of public citizens and in the bargaining ability at the negotiation table.
This much the global power, especially the Anglo-Saxon wing, are very aware of. They are preparing for the consequences of this. No wonder the United States recently offered to support India in its bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. It has also put forward a person of American-Asian extraction as its candidate for the presidency of the World Bank, conscious of the outcry about ethnically based selection criteria for the heads of Bretton Woods Institution.
It is only the public in Brics countries, especially in South Africa, and Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sach’s economist who first coined the term Bric 10 years ago, who do not fully understand this.
These critics and O’Neill are still discussing why South Africa should not have been part of Bric. Both seem to have a gripe that in constituting the group, these countries have not followed the golden rules and conditions set out by O’Neill. In other words, critics assume that Brics that met in India are the Brics that O’Neill had in mind.
The mainstream South African media, sceptical and guilty about South Africa’s international successes as usual, went to the extent of looking to O’Neill for comment on why it is wrong for South Africa to be a member of Bric. They overlooked our own professors Mike Muller, Chris Malikane and Francis Kornegay.
O’Neill fell into the trap, but he changed his mind within days. His apologetic think piece in the Mail and Guardian last Friday sought to show just how much he loved South Africa.
But unlike politicians he did not say that he was misquoted, for he probably was not. Now he says he thinks South Africa should be in Bric on condition that it represents or can lead Africa’s economic renaissance.
O’Neill probably realised that his earlier argument was questionable on a number of grounds. The first was that it was based on self-glory, defending his Bric term. Secondly, it assumed that hard-power currency, in the form of the size of the economy measured by contributions to global gross domestic product and population size, was the only appropriate measure for membership to Bric or for significance in global affairs generally.
But, as it is beginning to come out with both the Sanya and New Delhi summits expressing themselves strongly on the slow pace of institutions of global reform and with the Brics own agenda for global development beginning to appear, global significance lies in legitimate distribution of power to decide the global agenda. This is soft power. It is power derived from prestige, legitimacy, representivity, symbolism and persuasion.
Now Brics have decided to establish a development bank that will be a major alternative to the Bretton Wood Institutions if it happens. They have adopted policy positions on health, especially the creation of drug manufacturing industries and co-operation on health technology. Other areas of social policy look set to follow.
Just how these grand decisions will be implemented is anyone’s guess. But it matters that Brics are out sending signals to the world about their interest in setting the agenda for the world. The West is in decline, but not as quickly as some hope, nor is the East rising that quickly.
It is not clear if people’s wellbeing is a key consideration yet. But it ought to be the primary reference of global stability and prosperity.
• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.