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Picture: 123RF/frizio
Picture: 123RF/frizio

The conclusion of the 15th Brics summit in Johannesburg is a potentially exciting development for SA and Africa. The carefully choreographed statements of the five member states — Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA — hailed the event as a celebration of South-South co-operation and a shared commitment to a multipolar world order. However, the reality is more complex.

Much of the discourse around the summit concerned the question of expansion of Brics. Before the summit it was announced that 23 countries had applied for membership, and a total of 40 had expressed interest in joining. Ultimately, as President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in his concluding statement, six of the 23 will be invited to join from January 2024: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The reason these six countries were chosen was somewhat opaque. Ramaphosa said the Brics members had agreed on consistent “principles, standards, criteria and procedures” for expansion, but those criteria were not revealed during the summit. However, Anil Sooklal, the SA sherpa for Brics, later said the summit attempted to expand in such a way as to give it broader geographic representation, and the criteria included that the countries should be from the Global South and have large populations.

Two African states will be invited: Egypt and Ethiopia. It seems counterintuitive that Nigeria, Africa's biggest economy and an oil producer, and Algeria, which is politically close to most current Brics members and is a major oil producer, were excluded. While Ethiopia is a surprise — especially since it is living with an uneasy truce after a two-year civil war — its inclusion can be explained by the fact that it is the fastest-growing economy on the continent and the headquarters of the AU.

Argentina’s inclusion, despite its ravaged economy and huge debt, seems to be mainly because its bid was supported by Brazil, China and India. Significantly, the inclusion of three major oil producers — Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE — means the bloc could become a major actor in global energy. From January the Brics+ bloc will include six of the world’s top 10 oil producers, which together account for 40% of global oil production.

In the lead-up to the summit many commentators suggested the expansion would see Brics evolve into an “anti-Western” or “anti-US” alliance. However, the choice of new members emphasises the stance taken especially by Brazil, India and SA that the bloc does not intend to play such a role. Iran is the only new entrant with an explicitly anti-Western foreign policy; the others have either mixed or friendly relations with the US. This could even position the bloc as a bridge as tensions between the US and China increase over the next few years.

While the summit was clear on Brics expansion, it was less decisive on another important issue: global finance. Before the summit speculation was rife that it would announce measures to weaken the dollar as the global reserve currency. However, while dedollarisation was raised at the summit no decisions were taken. Instead, Ramaphosa’s statement said the matter had been deferred to 2024 and the bloc will use the interval to “consider the issue of local currencies, payment instruments and platforms”. If Brics+ does decide to pursue a dedollarisation programme in future, the addition of major oil exporting members will put it in a stronger position to develop a robust intra-Brics trade that uses local currencies to settle payments.

There remain many unresolved questions about the functioning of an enlarged Brics. Will it continue to make decisions by consensus and, if so, how will it balance the interests of its expanded membership? How will new members be integrated into the two main Brics economic institutions, the Contingent Reserve Arrangement and the New Development Bank? Will the bloc maintain its current model of governance, which emphasises equal shareholding, or will it adopt a tiered system in which the four founding members and SA hold a privileged position? And will the new Brics begin to play a stronger political and diplomatic role as a bloc than previously?

For SA there are several issues that arise from this development. While Ramaphosa has been praised for his chairing of the summit, it is still unclear whether this will translate into long-term benefits for the country. To a large extent it depends on whether SA can effectively address its domestic problems, particularly economic issues. If it does, SA could greatly benefit from Brics enlargement. If not, there might be a danger that its influence will be diluted by the presence of other, larger economies in the bloc.

• The authors are with the Mapungubwe Institute.

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