Last week the organization of countries now known as the BRICS (Brazil Russia India China & South Africa) met in Durban.
The BRICS , a group of developing and newly industralised nations are looking to leverage their huge populations –almost half the world’s population at 3 billion, a combined GDP of $14 trillion – more than that of the US and combined foreign exchange reserves of a similar amount, to assume greater influence in world affairs.
South Africa joined the group in 2010, dwarfed in size by the other four. Her huge sub-Saharan hinterland is a mouth watering attraction, with its huge stockpiles of natural resources they need to power their industries and its nearly half a billion population that has been touted as the next frontier of economic boom.
The BRICS, with their plans to create a development bank to rival the World Bank, are not being shy in challenging the status quo.
A firm commitment on the creation of the development bank did not quite materialize but it was kept firmly at the top of the agenda.
Africa should take advantage of this opportunity with open hands if only because it will provide an alternative to the current situation but also because the BRIC countries are much nearer to us in our development trajectory they could provide useful lessons for our own ambitions.
But let us be under no illusion that the BRIC countries interest in Africa is out of any feeling of charity towards the continent, they need the continent’s resources for their industries and see our populations as potential markets, in that order.
The challenge for the continent is to use what we have learnt during our previous exploitation by foreigners to extract more value from the relationship.
Their larger economies mean that our relationship will always be tilted but one way to shift the advantage more towards ourselves is to strengthen our regional economic blocks.
This will not only prove more attractive to capital from their investors but will improve our bargaining power.
For instance we need to integrate the region’s infrastructure. For instance why is Uganda held hostage by Kenya because their route to the sea is the only one we use? Why have colonial disjointedness persisted so that for instance the communication between former Belgian colony DRC and Uganda formerly a British charge is nonexistent?
In fact one reason the continent is not well integrated between south and north is because of the poor infrastructure in our parts -- the middle part of the continent.
Easier said than done but the politicians of the continent need to look beyond their local interests and think continentally at best and regionally at worst.
This important because the critical cross border investments can only be effected with political backing.
Barring the ascendance to power of some crazed dictator, the region’s leaders are coming around – at least in mouthing it, to the importance of regional integration.
Sadly politicians are always behind the people’s ambitions. Thankfully the people know better than to wait for them to see the light. Africans are trading between borders despite the poor infrastructure and inter-govermental schizophrenia.
The BRICS present are good opportunity for the continent but it is largely up to us whether it is to our benefit or if history will repeat itself with the BRICS stripping us of our resources, shutting down our home grown industries and exploiting our markets.