The hype around BRICS, the association of emerging economies, has noticeably died down. But new chair South Africa is keen to continue the cooperation: It benefits both politically and economically from membership.
Big plans, little in the way of results. That is more or less the assessment many observers are making of BRICS, the exclusive club consisting of the emerging economies Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Founded with the aim of breaking the West's supremacy in the global economy, at the start of this decade the BRICS states had a plethora of ambitious plans.
They wanted to create a joint rating agency to counteract supposedly unfair treatment by agencies in the United States. The BRICS countries also wanted to lay their own underwater cable system to protect themselves against possible spying activity by the US and Europe. And a joint development bank was supposed to make the emerging economies more independent of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
However, owing to difficulties in reaching agreements, as well as economic stagnation in South Africa, not to mention recessions in Russia and Brazil, interest in BRICS has noticeably died down. Out of all the projects mentioned above, only the New Development Bank (NDB) seems to making some progress: Last year, the Shanghai-based bank approved projects worth $1.5 billion (1.2 billion euros). However, the NDB is still nowhere near becoming a true alternative to the IMF and the World Bank.
41 percent of the world's population
So has the concept of BRICS become outdated? Not at all, says Jakkie Cilliers, the head of the African Futures and Innovation Program at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in South Africa. He believes that, as an association of emerging economies, BRICS will play an active role in the future as well. "BRICS remains important on the global stage as kind of a balance within the G20 to balance the influence of the G7 grouping," he told DW.
Current economic figures show that there's really no getting around the BRICS countries. In 2017, their joint contribution to the world economy was 23.6 percent, and according to IMF predictions this is set to rise to 26.8 percent by 2022. The BRICS countries' share of the world's population is even higher: 41 percent in 2015.
What these figures conceal, however, is that there is a great imbalance between the BRICS countries themselves. China, the heavyweight, currently contributes almost two thirds of the group's economic performance — and that figure is growing. Every six months the Chinese economy grows by an amount equivalent to the whole of South Africa's economic output.
However, ISS expert Cilliers says that this is one of the reasons why the countries still have a clear desire to continue working together. "Certainly for South Africa BRICS remains important and if one looks at the other members of BRICS, Brazil, China, Russia, almost all of them have of course depended on the big heavyweight China which is the number one trading partner almost for all of these countries. And everybody tries to benefit from that special relationship that they have with China. For South Africa, BRICS is very important, we are something like 3 percent of the total BRICS economy, but we are considered by the partners to be the leader, a leader in Africa."
South Africa takes over BRICS chairmanship
In 2018 South Africa takes over the rotating presidency of the club — reason enough for some observers to question the legitimacy of South Africa's claim to leadership. Because if it were merely a question of economic performance, Nigeria and Egypt, as Africa's biggest national economies, should have joined BRICS long ago.
However, economic strength isn't everything, says Jakkie Cilliers. It's also about foreign policy orientation and the domestic situation in the respective countries. "I think that countries like Nigeria, which now has a larger economy than South Africa, have such an incoherent foreign policy and so many domestic challenges that I think the other members of BRICS may feel that Nigeria in particular probably brings little addition to BRICS."
At the moment, it seems more unclear than ever who exactly will preside over the upcoming BRICS summit in Johannesburg. President Zuma's time in office doesn't officially end until 2019, but it's looking increasingly likely that he will have to go prematurely and against his will. In mid-December Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Zuma as party chairman of the African National Congress (ANC). And last week the South African constitutional court ruled that parliament must initiate impeachment proceedings. The court deemed it proven that Zuma made illegal use of public funds while renovating his private house.
Jakkie Cilliers hopes Ramaphosa will be able to take over the presidency before the summit because with a new cabinet, fresh engagement on the subject of BRICS would also be possible. "That certainly would be quite important for South Africa."