South Africa's President Jacob Zuma gestures during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos January 23, 2013. Image Credit: REUTERS

South Africa’s foreign policy contends that its national interests are better safeguarded by not just focusing on its own national interests, but broadly on the interests of its region and the continent.

The country, as a member of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) bloc, is playing an important role towards the shift and distribution of power internationally. This shift is expected to give rise to a multi-polar world order.

South Africa’s interaction with fellow BRICS states is premised on three levels of engagement: Firstly, national, where it advances its national interests. Secondly, regional, where it promotes regional integration and interaction with specific emphasis on the African Union mandate given to President Jacob Zuma to promote infrastructure development across the continent. And thirdly, on a global level, where it advocates a more inclusive global governance system.

The BRICS bloc represents 43 per cent of the world’s population, approximately one-fifth of global gross domestic product (GDP), estimated at $13.7 trillion (Dh50.38 trillion), as well as combined foreign reserves estimated at $4.4 trillion.

Last year, the BRICS countries accounted for approximately 11 per cent of global annual foreign direct investment (FDI) flows ($465 billion) and 17 per cent of world trade.

Promoting the African agenda

South Africa’s membership of BRICS contributes to further leveraging economic opportunities for its own development agenda as well as that of the continent.

South Africa wants to ensure that its membership of BRICS also benefits the entire continent. The Fifth BRICS Summit scheduled for March 26-27, 2013, in Durban, will constitute another high-level opportunity to further support key priority areas of the African agenda.

Asset Management Global chairman, Jim O’Neill, has published an article titled ‘South Africa’s BRICS Score: Not All Doom and Gloom’. O’Neil argued objectively that South Africa could more than justify its presence in BRICS if it helped Africa to fulfil its remarkable potential by exploring cross-border expansion in trade and infrastructure, as well as improvements in domestic productivity.

Africa is emerging as one of the fastest-growing markets with the potential of future growth due to the demographic basis underpinning this growth and the new consumer market that is emerging.

BRICS-Africa trade set to treble

The BRICS countries now constitute the largest trading partners of Africa and the largest new investors.

The BRICS investment portfolio in Africa is very encouraging and promising. Over the past decade, we have seen a seismic acceleration of commercial and strategic engagements between the BRICS and Africa.

BRICS has nourished Africa’s economic emergence and elevated the continent’s contemporary global relevance. The recession and recovery period has enhanced this shift. In 2010, Standard Bank economists predicted that BRICS-Africa trade will “see an additional increase in the velocity of BRIC-Africa engagements, with trade and investment spearheading the commercial charge”.

According to Standard Bank, BRICS-Africa trade will increase threefold, from $150 billion in 2010 to $530 billion in 2015.

The exponential growth potential of BRICS over the years to come will impact considerably on the future of emerging markets and developing economies — especially in the case of Africa.

Tackling challenges

South Africa’s membership of this emerging markets bloc must be understood within the context of what it wishes to achieve against the current challenges it faces as a country and a continent.

As part of the developing world, South Africa faces the challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality. BRICS leaders engage in peer-learning and share best practices and development models.

The Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, outlined 10 specific priority areas at the New Delhi Summit last year. These included job creation; skills upgrading; energy, food and water security; sustainable growth through expanded trade opportunities; clean energy; income inequality; urbanisation and the impact of the external geo-political environment.

Due to the complex nature of South Africa’s challenges, the South African government has singled out infrastructure development as a key vehicle to improve the quality of life of the people. Infrastructure development is also expected to boost our competitiveness and create jobs.

Supporting Africa’s industrialisation

The BRICS partners view South Africa as a springboard into the African continent and a partner for economic development opportunities.

At the New Delhi Summit, President Zuma met with captains of industry from fellow BRICS member states and invited them to join hands with South African companies in the development of Africa, pointing out that in the infrastructure sector alone, $480 billion in investments will be required over the next 10 years.

BRICS leaders already expressed support in the Sanya Declaration for infrastructure development in Africa. They are committed to the continent’s industrialisation within the framework of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad).

In the Delhi Declaration, the leaders expressed further support for Africa’s industrialisation, saying they “attach the highest importance to economic growth that supports development and stability in Africa, as many of these countries have not yet realised their full economic potential”.

The BRICS economies, which already constitute between 20 and 25 per cent of global GDP, will link a large part of Africa with the fastest-growing economies in the world.

Maite Nkoana-Mashabane is South Africa’s Minister of International Relations.