The 10th BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit was held in Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg, South Africa from 25-27 July 2018. Set up in 2009, in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, with four countries and then expanded to South Africa in 2010, the emergence of the BRICS was seen in many circles as a concrete step towards constructing a multi-polar world. This was soon underlined with the setting up of the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB), the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) that were supposedly direct challenges to the hegemony of Western-dominated institutions such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF).
However, it was soon evident that these new initiatives, while allegedly eroding the dominance of the Bretton Woods Institutions, would in reality work in a complementary and collaborative fashion with the latter, in part because the new BRICS institutions are influenced by these countries’ most neo-liberal reformers. The BRICS’ record at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and at the United Nations Climate negotiations has also been one of strategic accommodation with western powers.
Together, the BRICS countries control a quarter of the earth’s land mass but 42% of its population. The BRICS are relatively inward-looking economics; although they host 46% of the global workforce, they are responsible for just 14% of the world trade and 19% of the world Gross Domestic Product (although this rises to 27% if measured in purchasing power parity terms – in which per capita term is also low, with only Russia enjoying an income higher than the world average of $11,800).
The 2018 BRICS South Africa Summit was hosted by African National Congress (ANC) where the adoption of neo-liberal policies by the Government has led to tens of thousands of protests by labour unions and community groups. South Africa has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world (close to 40%), and an employment-income inequality Gini coefficient of 0.77, the world’s highest. Brazil’s democratically elected President Dilma Rousseff was ousted through a constitutional coup, with no objection from her BRICS allies. The rightwing President Michel Temer is now actively pushing for the potential privatisation of all state companies, such as Petrobras, electricity utilities, ports and airports. We unequivocally condemn the coup and stand with Brazilian groups that are challenging the ouster of President Dilma. While Russia occasionally adopts stances against western imperialist projects such as NATO, President Putin has pushed an authoritarian capitalist model which has seen rising inequality, declining real wages of the working class and a consequent deterioration of living standards. Much has been written about China’s extraordinary success as a global power and its supposed challenge to western hegemony, but the evidence is also mounting on how the growth of Chinese capitalism is resulting in dispossession and pauperisation of the disempowered and destruction of the environment while facilitating immense wealth accumulation by the elite.
Despite the unravelling of 27 years of neo-liberal policies in India, the NDA Government continues to push privatisation of essential services, promote large-scale infrastructure projects such as mega industrial corridors, nuclear parks and mega-ports and de-regulate labour, land and environmental laws in the interests of finance capital. Any resistance against this by students, labour unions, academics, writers and social movements is often crushed by the Government, by labelling them as ‘anti-national’. The rising growth in agricultural distress, the injustice against dalits and adivasis, violence and mob-lynchings of muslims, privatisation of health, education, assault on reason and dissent and complete neglect and sell out of social sector, the persecution of women and transgender persons, the big promises about jobs and bringing back the black money, the supposedly big-bang attempts such as demonetisation and GST, the shrinking democratic spaces has led to the fuming of resistance across the country. The resistance is so large scaled that even at the times when the media is sold out and in the hands of this fascist government, where the atrocities and the emerging struggles are not at all reported on the mainstream media, the emergence of alternative media is another form and level of resistance that is booming in spite of being less with resources and facing threats to speak against the government and show the reality.
Due to these rising human rights violations and resistance against it, an official process for engagement with civil society was initiated during Russia’s chairmanship in 2015. Titled ‘Civic BRICS’, it saw representatives of certain civil society organisations prepare position papers on social issues through working groups on peace and security, trade, healthcare, education, culture, and sustainable development. The Indian Presidency in 2016 decided to continue and institutionalize this process through the CSO Forum on BRICS. These are largely provisional and government-led and controlled spaces. The BRICS Trade Union Forum was also set up in 2012 in Moscow to encourage dialogue and cooperation on workers’ issues and add a social dimension which is informed by the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) decent work concept. In addition, BRICS from Below, a network of activists and scholars from the BRICS countries which was founded in 2013 during the Durban summit of BRICS, continues to engage critically from an anti-capitalist viewpoint. Peoples’ Forum on BRICS, a similar kind of platform like BRICS from Below was formed in 2016 during the Goa summit of BRICS which was organised by people’s movements in India, a peoples’ forum to analyse the contradictions within policies of the BRICS governments and their institutions, put forth alternatives emanating from people’s struggles, and to create solidarity with struggles and groups of other BRICS countries.
This year, as the BRICS summit was happening in Sandton, Johannesburg, BRICS from Below organized a 2 day meeting at the Wits School of Governance from 23rd-24thJuly followed by a protest at NDB office and outside the BRICS meeting venue was organized which was participated by activists and scholars from different parts of South Africa, India and Russia. Activists from Brazil and China were connected through Skype for the meeting. The meeting was divided into sessions like the challenge to BRICS investment strategies in oil, gas and nuclear; geopolitics, economics and human rights; investment strategies in coal and in Africa; feminists and ‘extractivism’ critics, social resistances across the BRICS etc. The different reasons for ‘Why should we break the BRICS?’ like their cooperation with destructive multilateral agencies such as G20, World Bank, WTO,IMF etc, promoting pro-capitalist mega-projects and the loot of natural resources leading to environmental destruction, their agreement to destructive climate policies at the UNFCCC meetings in Durban (2011) and Paris (2015), the setting up of New Development Bank (NDB) which works with and applies the same standards for assessing countries seeking a loan as the IMF, moving towards the creation of an unequal society, less democracy and more repression, were discussed.
The first day of the meeting started with the revolutionary songs of the struggles that are going on in different parts of South Africa and slogans of ‘Phansi BRICS Phansi’ that means Down BRICS Down against the land grabbing, resource loot and human rights violations that the BRICS countries are doing. There were sessions on the investment of BRICS in oil and gas with Speakers like Desmond D’Sa (South Durban Community Environmental Alliance), a Goldman Prize Awardee, Fracking with Francois DU Toit (Project Africa) and affected communities, nuclear energy with Makoma Lekalakala (Earthlife Africa), a Goldman Prize Awardee and affected communities. There was a session on ‘The world in turmoil thanks to BRICS and US/EU chaos’ and ‘Human rights and wrongs’ in which the speakers like Dale Mckinley (R2K) from South Africa, Priya Dharshini and myself from India, Ilya Mateev from Openleft.ru, Russia, Folo Alona from Congo, Salman Khan from Kashmir Action Group and many others from different BRICS countries spoke about the situation and the atrocities in their country and how this combo is using this platform against the objectives with which they came together.
The second day of the meeting followed by a session where 5 Goldman Prize Awardees from South Africa came forward and spoke about how to unite against this hegemony and raise multiple issues in a single voice in terms of international solidarity. A session on feminists and ‘extractivism’ critics was organised by Albertina Almeida, a Human Rights lawyer from Goa, India, Marion Cabrera (Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development) and Trusha Reddy (WoMin) in which the discussions on how women are being affected and fighting against the coal power plants in Africa, gender issues in BRICS countries and globally, why it is very much important to look at our own movements and reflect on how much do we take up the gender issues instead of pointing the finger every time at the State.
Apart from these discussions, the South African activists shared their experiences of how organizations like Oxfam, Economic Justice Network (EJN) control the Civil-BRICS process and the way they function by writing position papers on different issues does not represent the voices of the grassroots activists and affected communities. In explanation to that Bandile Mdlalose (Durban Community Activist) shared her experience of power plays in Civil and Academic BRICS.
The ‘Pre-Civil BRICS’ meeting, held in late April, was well attended by a wide spectrum of grassroots activists and movements, and BRICS INGOs and NGOs (including African delegates). Tellingly, it was not attended by Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) or National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS) officials (despite their names being on the programme). Activists were left with an impression of tokenistic, box-ticking participation, followed by an even more confident bureaucratic dismissal of their grievances around their role in agenda setting. As a result, the 2018 Civil BRICS process has been criticised by the activists and social movements involved. The grassroots activists on the SA Civil BRICS steering committee have experienced the space as primarily managed by the NGOs on behalf of DIRCO, leaving them unable to influence the process of agenda setting. Until recently, the grassroots activists and movements coordinated by the steering committee have adopted a ‘wait and see’ approach to the outcome of Civil BRICS even though they have found it hard to represent their communities in ways that scale up their concerns.
Activist criticisms of the recommendation formulation process have included the technical language used to make recommendations across sectors, with one participant stating “… we need to use language which is understood by communities and not misinterpreted by them.” The ‘wait and see’ approach from academics and NGOs involved in Academic and Civil BRICS process, as well as the BRICS Trade Union Forum and Youth BRICS, may not deliver results, and may instead just legitimate the BRICS governments and corporations.
The activists from BRICS felt a very high need of building solidarity across the BRICS countries. A solidarity that comes from BELOW, from the grass root, from the affected communities and not from a bunch of organisations who claim to represent the affected communities and the grass root reality. Through the discussions, everyone felt that it is important to situate the 2018 BRICS summit within this global, regional and national context, to work for a just and equitable world and to think of the alternatives which are emerging out of the peoples’ movements.