South Africa expands diplomatic influence through BRICS bloc membership

In spite of the domestic challenges the government must navigate, South Africa maintains a robust diplomatic presence. Its transition from apartheid to democracy resulted in a significant readjustment of its foreign relations in 1994, which saw it join the South African Development Community, the Organisation of African Unity – replaced by the African Union (AU) in 2002 – and the Movement of NonAligned Nations, as well as staging a return to the Commonwealth and the UN General Assembly after decades of suspension.

South Africa has also joined the G77 group, and has since been admitted to the G20. The country also recognises the authority of the International Criminal Court (ICC), although it has expressed concern regarding the application of the court’s rule to some African issues. It currently is re-evaluating its membership – in part due to the media scrum that resulted in 2015 from having allowed Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir, who is wanted by the ICC for crimes against humanity, to have entered and subsequently left the country during an AU summit.

Trade Effects

South-South ties have become an increasing focus for the government, particularly in light of South Africa’s relationship with China, the country’s single biggest trading partner. The relationship has taken on new prominence as a result of South Africa’s 2011 entry into the Brazil-Russia-India-China (BRIC) bloc of major emerging markets, subsequently renamed BRICS to include South Africa.

While in many ways the grouping of countries is an odd one, given their divergent economic, political and diplomatic traits – as well as China’s dominance of the group in terms of GDP and trade – there have been some tangible benefits for South Africa.

Trade is one of the most obvious ones: since joining the bloc in December 2010, South Africa has benefitted from rising trade volumes. According to data from the Department of Trade and Industry, intra-BRICS trade increased 11-fold during the period 2002-12, from $28bn to $310bn. Similarly, in 2012 intra-BRICS trade accounted for 20% of total BRICS trade, up from 13% in 2008. Trade between South Africa and BRICS member states increased rapidly in 2011, after declining in the wake of the international economic downturn. Bilateral trade between China and South Africa grew by 32% in 2011, for example, while trade between South Africa and India grew by 25% and trade with Brazil was up by 20%.

Exports account for most of this growth. Minerals and manufactured products make up the majority of South Africa’s exports, while imports consist mainly of manufactured goods, such as vehicles and vehicle parts, petroleum products and electronics.

Joint Initiatives

While the increase in trade has been a boon for the domestic manufacturing sector, which, despite the new activity, has been shedding jobs in recent years, South Africa has continued to run a trade deficit with BRICS bloc nations since becoming a member of the group.

There are other benefits, however: soft institutionalism, for example. The fifth BRICS summit – organised on the theme “BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Development, Integration and Industrialisation” – was held in Durban in late March 2013. The summit resulted in a handful of joint initiatives put forward by South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma and his fellow BRICS heads of state, culminating in the eThekwini (Durban) Declaration and Action Plan. Broadly speaking, this document endorsed the idea that developing countries require more support from developed ones, not to mention improved representation in multinational financial, diplomatic and development entities, such as the UN, the World Bank and the IMF. More concretely, the summit resulted in a new BRICS development bank, known as the New Development Bank, with an initial capital of some $100bn, which will focus on financing projects in member states.

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