Ready for takeoff

Updated: 2013-03-22 07:09

By Herman Wasserman (China Daily)

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Increased engagement with BRICS nations will boost African development

There is little doubt that South Africa as host country of the upcoming summit of the BRICS countries to be held in Durban March 26-27, will grasp the opportunity to project itself as an emerging economy and take pride in its association with this prestigious club.

Big international events like this provide a strategic platform to boost the country's international image, and the summit will be a shiny affair. It has already been reported that hosting the summit will cost the city's ratepayers an estimated 10 million rand ($1 million). These costs will include banners, flags and branding material to impress visitors to the city.

South African minister of international relations and cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, under whose tenure the country joined the BRICS group, feels that South Africa's membership of BRICS is a foundation not only for its own growth, but also for economic regeneration of the continent as a whole.

But despite what is an obvious opportunity for South Africa to bask in the glory of its partners in an economic alignment that signals major shifts in geopolitical power, its membership of the BRICS club, and the BRICS alignment itself, is not without controversy.

Critics have pointed to the fact that South Africa's economy is tiny in comparison with other BRICS partners, especially that of China.

Despite being the economic leader on the continent, some argue that nations like Mexico, South Korea, Turkey and Indonesia are more deserving of a place in the alignment than South Africa.

Furthermore, the huge internal inequalities in South Africa militate against a hasty celebration of its economic growth path and sustainability, and for some experts the BRICS summit will be unlikely to provide any tangible outcomes in this regard.

For Africa, however, the BRICS alignment may have far-reaching implications. Ian Taylor, an international relations expert and professor at St Andrews University in Scotland, says in a recent paper that the interaction of the BRICS countries with Africa is likely to be a "major aspect of the continent's international relations for the foreseeable future".

This interaction, Taylor warns, may free Africa from older, post-colonial relationships with Europe and the United States, but if appropriate development policies are not developed, the continent's dependency on external powers may just be diversified rather than improved.

Already we can see how this increased interaction between Africa and its different BRICS partners is playing out in the media sector. Recent studies of media content in South Africa have shown a preference for India and China when it comes to coverage of BRICS countries, with China dominating coverage.

Content analyses of media coverage over recent years have shown that the South African media has a cautiously optimistic attitude toward China's involvement. Although xenophobic and simplistic stories denouncing Chinese investment still appear, leading to debate, coverage on the whole is relatively balanced.

Findings from a recent questionnaire sent to senior journalists and editors at influential South African media suggest a similar cautiously optimistic view of the BRICS alignment. Most editors think that South Africa's inclusion in the BRICS alignment is a positive development, as it gives the country a seat at the "big table" of emerging powers.

Editors largely agree that while BRICS is not a partnership of equals, there are benefits for South Africa from membership. But there are also several points on which the editors disagree, such as whether the benefits for South Africa from its membership of the BRICS group will be primarily political or economic.

The debate about the role that South Africa will play in the BRICS seems to have only started. The upcoming summit in Durban will provide further impetus to this evolving debate.

The author is professor and deputy head of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily 03/22/2013 page11)