BRICS Development Strategies: Exploring the Meaning of BRICS ‘Community’ and ‘Collective Action’ in the Context of BRICS State Led Cooperation in South Africa
Lisa Thompson 0
Pamela Tsolekile de Wet 0
0 African Centre for Citizenship and Democracy at the School of Government, University of the Western Cape , Cape Town , South Africa
The BRICS partnership has been portrayed in mainstream social media as an inter-state initiative that could challenge the geo-political hegemony of the Western bloc. Thus, far relatively little has been said about the prospect of extending the partnership to the level of ordinary citizens and how this might be achieved. A declared goal of BRICS, articulated in 2016, is that of ''building responsive, inclusive collective solutions to core themes with a particular focus on institution-building, implementing past commitments and exploring innovative solutions to common issues''. This paper provides a preliminary assessment of the idea of ''BRICS from below'' might entail in policy terms by looking at how BRICS pronouncements have led to collective solutions, especially to economic development as it affects the local level, using South Africa as the case study site. The paper concludes that it appears the realities of the forms of engagement still resonate with more traditional forms of state led alliance building that are aimed less at transformation than at coordinating 'national self-interest'.
BRICS from below; Collective action; Institution building; Inclusive participation; BRICS collective development strategies
This paper was originally presented at the International Symposium on Development and Governance in
the BRICS, 24–25 September 2016, Fudan University, Shanghai.
We gratefully acknowledge that the research for this paper is funded by the National Institute for
Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS).
Pamela Tsolekile de Wet
Since the formation of the BRIC alliance in 2001, later to become the BRICS when
South Africa joined belatedly in 2012, there has been a great deal of media and
academic speculation on the geopolitical and development influence of the grouping
in the global political economy. Key aspects of the possible strength of the alliance
have focused on whether BRICS is changing the balance of power of the Post-Cold
war world towards a more multipolar, or multi-centric world system where the
United States and the European Union’s dominance are tempered both by other
power bloc(s) (there are also different configurations of BRICS, such as
BASICBRICS minus Russia; IBSA—India, Brazil South Africa; and MINT—Mexico,
Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey). The possibilities of a differently configured world
system may, it is debated, herald the opening up of policy debates internationally,
especially at the level of the United Nations. The opening up and shifts of global
power may support the cause of the broader alliance of states in the global South to
address the issues of global economic inequality that continue to be debated at the
UN. This is certainly the message which the BRICS alliance has sought to convey in
their policy rhetoric. The subsequent academic and media debate holds central the
recognition that the global South are disadvantaged by the transition from colonial
and post-colonial economic exploitation of the South (and simultaneous Northern
disregard for the historically unequal global economic playing field) into TINA
(there is no alternative) neoliberal economic development decades. Although there
is debate about the exact content of neoliberal economic development and the
Washington consensus, the ideology of trade liberalization is still dominant in the
UN. This is reflected in the UN development agencies and lending institutions, the
World Bank and International Monetary Fund, IMF, despite the institutional
attempts to repackage global development as more democratic and participatory. To
add empirical weight to the debate, analysts of the UN system have, over the last
decade and a half, examined the ways in which BRIC and latterly BRICS have
adapted their individual and collective bargaining strategies. At issue of course is
whether BRICS states have asserted collective influence within various UN
institutions, including the Security Council, General Assembly, World Trade
Organisation (WTO) and in various South dominated negotiating alliances, such as
UNCTAD and the G77 (Weinlich 2014; Thakar 2014).
Following on the analysis of the myths and realities of global power shifts, the
paper poses two questions in the context of South Africa, what impact does BRICS
investment have on development at the local level, and how do ordinary people in
every day spaces understand the partnership? By examining these two questions, the
paper aims to explore if there is a localized understanding of BRICS that extends
beyond state-driven initiatives. In addressing the two questions, the paper aims to
tentatively explore the extent to which ‘community’ is understood in anything more
than a rhetorical sense in relation to constructing a social media imaginary of
transnational solidarity between the BRICS states. How far have the academic and
policy analysis of BRICS on the one hand, and the reality of BRICS cooperation on
the other, given any practical indications of the conception of community moving
away from the traditional realist state centric understanding? Could BRICS mean
more than alliances of power within which allied states are able to assert national
self-interest collectively? In relation to development, is there any real recognition of
a more nuanced understanding of community as multi-layered and linked
transnationally by poverty and inequality enforced by the global political economy?
While the rhetoric of BRICS pronouncements hint at a broader conception, the
realities of the forms of engagement still resonate with more traditional forms of
alliance building that are aimed less at transformation than at coordinating national
self-interest (Weinlich 2014; Purugganan 2014). In unpacking BRICS as both a
construct and a form of engagement, we must perforce begin at the beginning, with
a brief discussion of BRICS as a development alliance in the global political
2 BRICS, An Alternative Development Community in the Global System?
BRICS as an alliance is also referred to as the BRICS community in official
discourse. The establishment of the grouping has led to the creation of formal
structures and processes for engagement, including annual summits of Heads of
State and/or government. More recently, after criticism on the lack of representation
of civil society actors, civil BRICS has been added as an additional structured
formal meeting space annually, including government selected transnational civil
society organisations and transnational development organisations. The first civil
BRICS took place in Ufa, Russia, in 2015. Within the frame of these formally
created, state dominated spaces, general pronouncements are made on a yearly basis
on themes related to collective development, and joint investment and financing of
development. The recent establishment of the BRICS Development Bank, punted as
an alternative lending source to the IMF, has also been heralded as further evidence
of the rising status of BRICS in the world economic system.
The 2016 heads of state summit in Goa, chaired by India, had as one of its
themes, ‘‘building responsive, inclusive collective solutions to core themes with a
particular focus on institution-building, implementing past commitments and
exploring innovative solutions to common issues’’. Problematic to the achievement
of this exemplary goal is the history of BRICS. As Thakar (2014: 1792–1793) point
out, ‘‘(t)he grouping is not the product of diplomatic negotiations based on shared
political values or common economic interests… all five retain deep and specific
ties with the pivotal Northern countries in the general context of complex
interdependence vis-a-vis the global economy… the relevance of BRICS will
depend not simply on the growth trajectories of individual group members, but also
on the extent to which, in global discourse and decisions, they can individually and
collectively represent the interests, worldviews, and policy priorities of the mass of
In a preliminary overview of the academic analysis of BRICS relevance, the
focus on the power politics of BRICS heads of state/government in various UN and
other global institutions underlines the predominantly state-centric focus on what
BRICS stands for on the global stage. BRICS poses as another power bloc to temper
the hegemony of the US and Western Europe in global decision-making and agenda
setting, led by China, the economic heavyweight of the five countries. Yet analysts
highlight that while BRICS have certainly engaged on behalf of less developed
countries (LDCs) in, for example, the World Trade Organisation (WTO)
negotiations, Weinlich (2014), Thakar (2014) and Purugganan (2014) also point out that
they have tended to act less as ideational agenda setters. Weinlich (2014: 1835–6)
argues that in relation to the south–south cooperation (SSC) unit established in 2012
within the UN, Brazil, China, India and South Africa have chosen not exercise their
collective power within the organization and have chosen to ‘‘underline their
commonalities with poorer developing countries’’. The result of which is, ‘‘(b)y
setting themselves so starkly apart, the four countries do not fully acknowledge that
they are also involved in the governance and oversight of the rest of the UNs
development operations on a formally equitable basis’’. In also aligning themselves
with the G77, ‘‘… the four remain firmly on the side of the global South and do not
use their dual roles as recipients and providers of development assistance to define a
new perspective’’. Thakar (2014: 1805) is more optimistic, pointing out that the
BRICS states have been successful at ‘norm spoilership’, defeating proposals they
dislike and blocking the previously dominant US in winning coalitions to achieve its
preferred outcomes in multilateral forums’’. Nonetheless, despite BRICS ability to
block the US, Weiss and Abdenur (2014) and Thakar (2014: 1804) concur that there
is a lack of normative and ideational identity amongst the five states, and that the
idea of BRICS as a community of states is more about state-centric alliance building
than the transformation of global international institutions. Critics such as Patrick
Bond highlight that even the much hyped BRICS New Development Bank (NDB)
established in 2016 with its headquarters in Shanghai, in its structure and intent,
does not currently pose the development alternative to the IMF and World Bank that
was initially the focus of much media attention as the reason for its establishment.
The NDB and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) purportedly allow for
alternative financing to the IMF. Yet Bond (2016: 613) points out that the CRA is in
fact linked to the IMF, ‘‘… the CRA actually empowers the IMF because, if a
member is in need of more than 30% of its borrowing quota, it must first go to the
IMF for a structural adjustment loan and conditionality before accessing more from
Critics argue that in terms of the BRICS involvement in Africa, the neo-colonial
and/or sub-imperial designs of the most powerful BRICS states, in order of
economic investment and influence, China, India, Brazil and Russia, are sustained
by reinventing (or reinforcing) South Africa as the ‘gateway’ and African ally, to
further the ongoing resource pillage of the continent (Yejoo 2013; Bond 2016). This
line of reasoning makes sense when the relative size, economic power and growth
trajectories of the BRIC countries are compared to South Africa.
The trajectory of BRICS on the global stage is unmistakably state-centric,
perhaps partially reinforced by the BRICS statements and assertions of identity as a
community of states based on their commitment to sovereignty and
noninterference. This sits at odds with BRICS developmental pronouncements on
collective action to solve developmental problems, linked to a vision of
socioeconomic growth leaving no village untouched (Thakar 2014: 1804). The dominant
policy discourse on BRICS then, is very much focused on BRICS as an old
fashioned community of states, both in terms of identity and direction.
Over and above the practical and policy issues that arise from analyzing BRICS
as a state based collectivity in the global political economy is the issue of the way in
which this reinforces imageries of agency on the global stage that are state-centric.
Despite what the IMF and World Bank add by way of repacking neo-liberalism as
democratic development, this is devoid of any real content in fleshing out citizen
agency, as the state is foremost, in policy terms endorsed ‘‘… as a pre-given
container within which globalization unfolds’’ (Brenner 1999: 59 in Kostovicova
and Glasius 2011: 3). This state-centric conception of agency ignores the local
struggles of ordinary people for livelihoods and a voice in the technocratic business
of development where citizens are reduced to the commodity called human
resources. At best, official development rhetoric gives a nod to organized civil
society, non-governmental organisations and transnational social movements
(TSMOs) and civil society organisations, either nationally or internationally based.
Yet, the inclusion of civil society actors into the discourse of multilateralism is still
determined by the rules of the dominant state actors on the global stage. This stage
is not fundamentally altered in terms of developmental ideology through BRICS in
any case, except as Bond (2016: 611) argues, as sub-imperial powers, that exploit
the territories around them as spheres of influence to ensure capital accumulation.
The BRICS states continue to affirm, ‘‘… the importance of strengthening future
partnerships guided by principles of openness, solidarity, equality, mutual
understanding, inclusiveness, and mutually beneficial co-operation’’ (Eye Witness
News 4-09-2016). Despite the hype about alternative development models led by
BRICS, the information on BRICS cooperation below enforces how the top heavy
style of state-centered policy discourse and practice surrounding BRICS precludes
anything but a very superficial, sanitized, inclusion of civil society. This does not
mean of course that BRICS societies will leave these framings of cooperation
unchallenged, and already there is an emerging counter-discourse of BRICS from
below to socio-economic rights infringements in BRICS countries and surrounding
regions in the name of development (Human Rights Watch 2011; Bond 2016). This
has led to a social movement organized alternative to BRICS (and sanitised civil
BRICS). The first meeting of this counter movement took place in Goa in October
2016. This meeting space has been dubbed ‘the people’s summit’ to discuss themes
of mutual interest to BRICS civil society actors. This BRICS from below resistance
to the state BRICS discourse forms a potentially powerful counter-narrative, but
falls beyond the scope of this article.
The remainder of the article turns to analysis of how BRICS rhetoric on
collective development policies translates into action, with examples drawn from
BRICS investment trends in South Africa. The final section of the paper evaluates
views from below towards BRICS based on some very preliminary interviews
undertaken in urban township (slum) areas of Cape Town.
3 BRICS in South Africa: Investment and Development Trends and the Promise of Mutually Beneficial Cooperation
A brief overview of the BRICS heads of state declarations at the summits shows
little to analyse in terms of BRICS collective development policies. To examine the
impact of BRICS collaboration, there is more to go on when examining bilateral
agreements, memorandums of understanding (MOUs) and action plans with South
It is also immediately obvious that the flows of investment and trade between
BRICS are unequal, particularly in relation to South Africa. Furthermore, while
India, Brazil and Russia also have bilateral relations with South Africa, these are
overshadowed by China. All financial and development assistance is framed in the
language of win–win agreements, in the interests of growth and development, thus
addressing BRICS issues of poverty, inequality and unemployment. Yejoo (2013:
1–14) discusses how China’s bilateral investment, trade and development
assistance, especially Special Economic Zones (SEZs, discussed below) conforms
with the notion of soft power as developed by international relations theorist, Nye
(2006) who describes it as power exercised through persuasion and attraction, rather
than coercion, or force. While soft power is understood here as exercised by the
state through foreign policy, Yejoo (2013) points out that the main target of soft
power is not government, but the population. In this sense, soft power is associated
with positive influence, winning hearts and minds (presumably through the job
creation component) and thus ensuring a more positive image of China in Africa
than merely an extractor of resources.
India follows closely behind China, in state led efforts to exercise soft power.
With historical links to South Africa that include to South African government
figures, as of 2015, South Africa’s bilaterally settled Indian communities integrated
into South African society at all levels, the links facilitate bilateral agreements,
investment and trade at all levels. In 2015, trade ties stood at R94 billion, and
although short of the projected 2010 figure of R150 billion set in New Delhi as part
of the India–South Africa business forum, the figures are nonetheless not
insubstantial.1 Most of the export trade to India remains in the area of natural
resources: gold, coal, iron and steel, inorganic chemicals and ores. Elizabeth
Thabethe, Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry, states ‘‘…without doubt the key
to unlocking our developmental ambitions will emanate from mutually beneficial
trade. This would require our respective business communities earnestly considering
projects with a strong focus on beneficiation as opposed to merely commodity
trading’’.2 This recognition of the extractivist nature and unequal balance of trade is
downplayed by President Zuma, who in 2016, again referring the common problems
the countries face, ‘… the common challenge of turning the legacy of
underdevelopment and poverty into sustained growth and socio-economic improvement’’3
Like China, India is investing in Africa and South Africa, mostly through the
extraction of natural resources. Vedanta for example, India’s most powerful natural
resources company, has approximately US$4 billion worth of investments in Africa,
and has recently invested US$ 400 million in its Gamsberg zinc project in the
Northern Cape. Two MOUs have been signed with South African companies in July
2016, ‘‘…for the development and supply of equipment and technology transfers for
improving the safety and productivity of underground mines at the underground
mines of Vedanta’s subsidiary, Hindustan Zinc Ltd (HZL).4
Russia and Brazil’s investments in Africa and bilateral agreements and
investments in South Africa lag behind India and China by a significant margin.
In the case of Brazil, although trade with Africa has risen sharply, by 2013 it had
expanded to US$28 billion compared to $US4.3 billion in 2000. Again, the sharp
increase in trade, investment and development aid support is driven by natural
resources extractive industries and the motivation to ensure ‘‘maritime control and
influence over the South Atlantic’’.5 Perhaps one of the most visible extensions of
soft power into Africa, is Brazil’s disbursement of funds to underwrite African
projects through the BNDES, Brazil’s national development bank. In 2007, it
disbursed US$2.9 billion and in 2013 a BNDES office opened in South Africa,
‘‘underlining the importance Brazil attaches to its partnerships there’’.
Russia is at the back of the queue in terms of extending soft power through
investments, loans and trade with Africa, including bilateral agreements with
African countries, and in South Africa. While Russia’s extension of bilateral
agreements, trade and investment have increased, foreign trade turnover for 2015
with sub-Saharan Africa totaled US$3.3 billion. Again, much of the trade is
extractive, and is described by Irina Abramova (expert on Russia-Africa relations)
‘as an effective tool for solving the problems of Russian industry to ensure scarce
and financially the least expensive types of mineral raw material reserves….’’.6
However, total investment in Africa and South Africa by India, Russia and Brazil
cannot compare with India and China. China’s use of policy banks, where the
Chinese government and banks assume the risk of large-scale infrastructure projects
in Africa is said to be key to their investment success.7 At state level, Russia is
attempting to catch up and reverse the description of Russian–African relation given
by John Endres, CEO of Good Governance South Africa, ‘‘…the most conspicuous
aspect of Russia’s involvement in Africa is its absence’’.8 Russia is following on the
bandwagon of MOUs and Agreements with African countries are on the rise.9
The impact on society, then, is chiefly framed as flowing from mutually
beneficial economic relations that address poverty through the alleviation of
unemployment, and that address inequality through strong growth trajectories that
generate employment. South Africa’s significant unemployment figures, currently
26,7%, have been the source of economic concern for some time now, combined
with skewed migration and urbanization trends to the most economically
prosperous/popular cities such as Cape Town, Tshwane, eThekwini, Johannesburg
and Mangaung (StatsSA 2016: 210). For this reason, the establishment of six
Special Economic Zones (SEZs), with the announcement of a further two to be
established as of 2016, is significant. China’s success in creating and supporting
SEZs, particularly Shenzhen in Guangdong Province (along with two others, Zhuhai
and Shantou) in the 1970s, led, over the next three decades, to a substantial
contribution to China’s GDP (22%), FDI (46%) and about 60% of exports as well as
creating 30 million jobs (Brautigam and Xiaoyang 2011, 2012; Yejoo 2013: 14).
China has contributed to the establishment of SEZs in a number of African
countries, notably in Southern Africa, Zambia, Mozambique and Mauritius. While
South Africa’s six existing IDZs, recently repacked as SEZs ‘‘… have languished in
the doldrums… things are picking up again… all manner of niche markets exist that
can be investigated…’’ according to Minister of Trade and Industry, Mike Davies
(IDC Media Room 03-06-2015). The renewed focus by the Department of Trade
and Industry (DTI) and the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) on the SEZs
in South Africa has taken place over the last 2 years.
Although SEZs are open to all domestic and foreign investors and are currently
not dominated by Chinese investment in South Africa, SEZs are featuring
dominantly in the internal government discourse on economic development.
According to the Minister of Trade and Industry, Dr. Rob Davies, SEZs will be ‘‘…
accelerating economic growth and development in designated regions of the
country. The key measures for the performance of the programme include
increasing foreign and domestic investments, increasing value-added exports,
creating jobs, building industrial clusters and regional industrial hubs’’ (SA News
15-06-2016). SEZs are also seen as a major programmatic tool for boosting
industrialization and manufacturing as described in government’s Industrial Policy
Action Plan (IPAP).
The Act does not make mention of whether trade unions are allowed to function
within SEZs, nor whether the national minimum wage will apply. Of the main
criticisms of SEZs, despite their ability to generate employment, is that at least
initially, the reason for the success of Shenzhen and other Chinese SEZs was the
low cost of labour, no unions and the different standards allowed in terms of
conditions of labour employment (Yejoo 2013). Yejoo points out that in relation to
the Chambishi SEZ in Zambia, Human Rights Watch and others have criticized
Chinese enterprises for paying the minimum global standard wage so as not to incur
legal action. While in China, new minimum wage legislation passed in 2008 was
directed specifically at unrest within SEZs arising from poor wages and employment
conditions, some have argued that China’s investments in Africa are to ensure
investment areas where labour and resources may be exploited more cheaply. There
are several flaws in this argument, in that in comparison to Asia, South Africa’s
labour is not as cheap and plentiful, nor, in peri-urban and rural areas, as well
educated. The success of the SEZs in China from the 1970s into the 21st century had
much to do with the investment in education and skills training (Yejoo 2013).
However, South Africa can still function as clearing house for manufactured goods
and as the neo-colonial springboard into Africa, critics argue (Purugganan 2014;
The impact of SEZs thus far in Africa is a mixed bag. As discussed earlier, many
contextual factors are involved in ensuring their success, and the replicability of
SEZ success in the Asian cases is far from clear (Brautigam and Xiaoyang
2011, 2012; Pretorius 2013). Critics point to the need for sufficient governance,
management and accountability, aside from raising the specificity of historical
circumstances involved in the success of the Asian Tigers and the flying geese
model. Aside from the issues already touched on, the cost of setting up the zones,
the planning as to where they are situated, and clear policy on how they are to be
managed, appear to be problematic in the African context, where there have been
both successes and failures. Even the DTI official documentation on the SEZs
acknowledges that a key issue is the ratio of investment to the cost of job creation in
the SEZs. The report states,
‘‘… excluding the indirect jobs resulting from construction activities and
multiplier effects, the average cost to Government of every direct job that has been
created to date is R1.2 million (ranging from R1.93 million in RBDIDZ (Richards
Bay SEZ) to R1.2 million in ELIDZ (Port Elizabeth SEZ) and R1.12 million in
Coega (which happens to be the most successful of the 6. At this stage, Government
investment in the IDZs has not been matched by a corresponding inflow of private
investment’’ (DTI, 2015/6 SEZ Performance Analysis Bulletin 2016: 6, emphasis
Yejoo (2013) points out that critics of SEZs have argued that if the same amount
of funding was pumped into promoting and upgrading skills enhancement strategies
to develop local livelihoods, more long-term and sustainable employment
opportunities could be created. Currently the figures on government investment relative to
the total number of jobs created does not show significant positive dividends,
although SEZs success is to be measured over decades (Brautigam and Xiaoyang
2011, 2012). More qualitative and quantitative data will be required to be able to
keep track of, and evaluate the positive and/or negative societal impacts of SEZs
over the long-term. Potential rights abuse in terms of employer–employee
relationships would also require monitoring. Comparative analyses may yield
valuable lessons into the pitfalls of SEZs in relation to their long-term societal
4 Impact of BRICS in Urban Areas, Some Preliminary Views from Below in Cape Town
How else does BRICS rhetoric on collective action for collective problems have an
effect on civil society, particularly the poor, in South Africa? South Africans, over
the last decade, have had to deal with the influx of foreign entrepreneurs from Africa
and elsewhere, recently, predominantly China. Very preliminary interviews with
residents in the township (slum areas) of Cape Town show mixed views to the influx
of foreign businesses, including Chinese businesses that have burgeoned in poor
urban areas. Respondents were asked to comment on their views of foreign
businesses in general, whether they knew of BRICS, whether they thought of
BRICS as a community that included them, and what they could see in their
everyday lives of foreign investment, including BRIC countries.10 Since
interviewees could comment on the questions in any order, the following section does not
address these systematically, but instead examines the perceptions aired that relate
to socio-economic impact.
Most interviewees commented more on Chinese businesses because of the very
visible influx of Chinese entrepreneurship in these areas in recent years (and in all
urban areas of South Africa). While generally, more cheaply available basic goods
are seen as a good thing, the refrain that foreign business and Chinese business in
particular, do not use local labour, emerged as a common theme, even in this small
sample. Interviewee Y comments ‘‘… I do not feel that they (Chinese) empower
people that they have employed… they do not employ local people… the money
they make does not benefit us’’.
One interviewee commented ‘‘… where can you get stuff that is not made in
China these days… even our good Woolies (Woolworths) has made in China… I
don’t have an issue with businesses from other parts… (of the world)’’
(Interviewee V, 2016-05-24). Interviewee N (2016-05-24) observes ‘‘… they
(Chinese business) have an influence in the areas we live in because they cater for
the poor… most of our people are struggling to put a plate of food on the table—
that’s their struggle every day… sometimes foreign people do not have respect for
the local people in our areas—(they think that) our people are lazy… this really
upsets me because it is not true… who built the roads, power stations and
infrastructure in South Africa?’’.
Others tend to see the influence of foreign and Chinese business more positively.
Interviewee K (2016-08-31) stated ‘‘shops are shops, we get foodstuff and other
goods we need from the local shops. Why should I be bothered whether it’s a
foreign or South African owned shop? Why are you asking questions that make
people xenophobic? If we negotiate as equal partners and use these opportunities
well, everybody will benefit, I believe in new beginnings, a fresh start’’. Interviewee
K (2016-08-31) adds, ‘‘whether they are Chinese owned or not isn’t an issue. What
matters is that they are offering a service that local people need and they are doing it
Interviewee R (2016-08-31) is also more optimistic, ‘‘… I have not given it much
thought… but I can talk about the local(ly) owned shop/rented shops by foreign
people. We have lots of spaza, shops, spaces that the local people… rented out to
foreign people… Chinese or Somalians get to rent the local shops because they are
prepared to pay high rentals. I have nothing against them as businesspeople’’. Yet,
10 50 open ended interviews were conducted in local shopping areas in urban slums of Cape Town
(where there is a prevalence of foreign and Chinese owned shops). Interviewees were randomly selected
and interviewed if they felt comfortable talking to the general questions. These were framed in an open
ended way, allowing for observation based opinion and for the interviewee to elaborate as s/he felt
appropriate. They were asked to comment based on what they had seen on the realities of living in the
slum area in question, or in relation to knowledge of BRICS, what they had read, seen or heard. The
interviews were conducted in isiXhosa and translated into English.
even while optimistic, Interviewee R was more critical of employment practices of
the foreign entrepreneurs most see in urban slum areas:
‘‘we buy from the Chinese, the Somalians and the Pakistanis, we do not
discriminate, but they do not buy from the local people who run business such as
salons, people who sell food, meat and other items… the foreign people make profit
from their money (but) it doesn’t circulate in the local community…they employ
other foreign people so that they can exploit them… try ask the ladies in the Chinese
shop how much they earn per month? I do not think they transfer those business
skills to their employees…. one last thing is that foreigners do not respect local
black people… there is a story going around that local black people are lazy’’.
Interviewee B (2016-08-31) has similar observations, ‘‘(t)he Chinese people and
some of the foreign traders always remind me of the Apartheid era in the way they
engage with employees and customers. They do not respect their customers…
(w)hen you are an employee you have no rights, because they are doing you a
favour, there are too many people needing jobs. The employer can shout at you in
front of the customers if you make a mistake’’. Interviewee L (2016-09-01) says ‘‘I
do not feel that they (Chinese businesses) empower the people they have employed,
everything is about them. They do not employ local people, if they do so they do it
in a repressive fashion’’. Interviewee T (2016-09-01) commented, ‘‘I ask myself
why are we embracing Chinese businesses when we know they have a history of
human rights violations. I think there is no sense in this and it is one sided…(t)hey
come and set up shops in SA and we never set up shops or businesses in China’’.
Although the small sample of opinions of those interviewed are simply to get a
glimpse of the ordinary people most affected by the changing face of local business
in South Africa, it serves to illustrate the multiplicity of views from below, here,
among those considered relatively deprived. The comments raise similar
microlevel concerns on BRICS collaboration around who benefits in relation to
investment and the establishment of businesses (irrespective of size).
Similarly, questions asked about BRICS show several different perspectives.
Interviewee M (31-08-2016) states ‘‘BRICS as a bloc will serve Russia, China and
India. It will not in the long run serve the interests of South Africa and Brazil. It will
not stimulate development in South Africa… (t)here is no evidence that they have
the best interest of SA at heart’’. Interviewee Y (31-08-2016) a student, on the
question of whether BRICS encompasses a meaning of community beyond the level
of states, answered, ‘‘(i)t will take a long time for the country and the people on the
ground to see or feel that they are part of such an arrangement… (i)t would have
impact if trade agreements have a clause attached that includes education, skills
development, promoting skills development, promoting local employment and offer
bursaries and scholarships for students to study in China, Russia, India and Brazil….
(t)hey can achieve a lot if they engage in an equal partnership and engage in an
honest way… (they) can form a solid united front against the North’’.
Although very preliminary in research terms, these opinions nonetheless
illustrate a recognition of some of the broader developmental policy issues that
arise from BRICS state led policies as they impact at local level. Currently, in the
case of South Africa, BRICS impact seems more through bilateral agreements,
particularly with China, than through any other form of collective BRICS policy. At
this stage BRICS collective action is probably the most visible at the UN than in
terms of inter-state collaboration.
The first hand views of BRICS from below serve as a reminder of the potential, both
positive and negative, of the impact of state led policies aimed at cooperation as
these articulate with the societies of BRICS. With regard to the growth of BRICS
business investment both outside and within SEZs, while these are very much a
manifestation of BRICS from above, enacted into policy that affects BRICS from
below, ‘‘… the race to the bottom’ in terms of wages and treatment of employees
(especially in maintaining SEZs competitive advantage) may be where negative
impact on rights in South Africa and elsewhere in the region, lies (Pretorius 2013;
Brautigam and Xiaoyang 2011, 2012; Yejoo 2013).
Should the impact of SEZs at the expense of other forms of livelihoods creation
build negative patterns of collaboration (either bilateral or multilateral) over time,
BRICS from below is likely to encompass further manifestations of the breaking
down of the global binaries mentioned earlier, where the power of leaders and
unaccountable governance practices (both individual and/or collectively a result of
BRICS) will be met with (both uncivil and civil) acts of individual and collective
agency. These may bring about changes to the system that we as analysts have yet to
envisage. In a more improbable scenario, BRICS from below could also mean the
gradual inclusion of societies into ethically generated forms of employment that are
grown through BRICS led cooperation. Certainly the patterns of investment in
South Africa by China and to a lesser extent India and Russia, do not preclude
growth, or the growth of the formal labour sector, but growth seldom includes the
economically marginalized into formal labour markets, as discussed earlier. Thus,
whether this eventually creates a cooperative BRICS from below, or both types of
BRICS from below (resistance and cooptation/cooperation) over time will depend a
good deal on the ways in which bilateral agreements and broader BRICS policy
rhetoric aimed at ‘alternative development’, evolve. Certainly, at this stage of
BRICS development, notions of community embedded in BRICS rhetoric and
policy resonate strongly with more traditional forms of alliance building. As a
result, resistance from below is already evident and may more likely to grow over
the long term.
Professor Lisa Thompson is Director of the African Centre for Citizenship and Democracy (ACCEDE).
She specializes in the impact of development policies on the poor, examining how rights are claimed
through participation and activism. ACCEDE is located within the School of Government, University of
the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa.
Pamela Tsolekile de Wet is a Senior Researcher at ACCEDE. She specialize in the impact of
development policies on the poor, examining how rights are claimed through participation and activism.
ACCEDE is located within the School of Government, University of the Western Cape, Cape Town,
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