JANIS VAN DER WESTHUIZEN: Is Brics expansion SA’s Pandora’s box?
Since SA enjoys status disproportionate to its small economy and geographical and demographic size, it also stands to lose most from expanded club membership
Given that more than 12 countries are keen to join the Brics bloc, SA as host of this year’s Brics Summit faces the daunting challenge of drafting admission criteria for expanding its membership. However, expansion may trigger numerous complexities.
First, figuring out who qualifies for membership will require substantive reflection about how Brics practically want to achieve redistribution of power in global governance processes. Many of Brics’ critics contend that it is merely a GDP club with few common values and even less geographical overlap.
While many see Brics as a counterpoint to Western hegemony, many Brics proponents reject such a view. Yet developing expansion criteria will invariably require far deeper reflection about Brics identity.
Is it primarily a means for the creation of alternative economic and financial mechanisms, or does it see itself as evolving into a much larger political and economic group? Does it aspire to become a second Non-Aligned Movement Or more of an ad hoc lobby group for the Global South within the G20?
Research on the success of coalitions in international negotiations is clear: small, tightly co-ordinated coalitions with a narrow and clearly defined issue focus are more effective than broad coalitions engaged with multiple issue areas.
Second, of all the Brics members, SA’s position is the most vulnerable. With the smallest economy in the group, its accession was justified on the basis of it being “Africa’s representative”, both within Brics and as a member of the G20. Expansion of Brics membership will require a difficult trade-off between SA’s national interest against its pan-African leadership aspirations.
How would Pretoria continue to project its role as “the voice of Africa” if this could also be done by Nigeria, Senegal, Kenya or Ethiopia as new Brics members? That SA, a regular invitee to past G7 summits, will be replaced by the AU at the 2023 Hiroshima summit speaks to the degree to which Pretoria is no longer considered the only “gateway” to the continent.
Third, while informal clubs such as the G20, G7 or Brics are effective in terms of their flexibility (rotational hosts) and lower costs (no permanent secretariat), there are also trade-offs. Because club membership is exclusive, membership accrues status. However, limited membership also means less legitimacy. Since SA enjoys status disproportionate to its small economy and geographical and demographic size, it also stands to lose most from expanded club membership.
Could these effects be mitigated, and if so, how? One option could be to award the constitutive, original core members exclusive privileges. Yet justifying SA’s “special status” on the basis of it simply being a founding member, may appear eerily similar to Global South complaints about the way in which the UN Security Council continues to privilege the post-1945 distribution of power.
Another option may be to ensure that SA is “differentially integrated” to Brics’ future institutional and procedural processes. For example, should some kind of quasi-secretariat for Brics be developed, it should best be located in SA (think Brussels in relation to the EU).
The bottom line is that while expansion of the Brics potentially increases the bloc's voice, without strategic thinking it could also gradually silence SA’s voice.
• Prof van der Westhuizen teaches in the political science department at the University of Stellenbosch. He writes in his personal capacity.
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