BRICS-from-below: An alternative to the alternative

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simone.claar's picture

 Co-Authored by Johannes Lejeune

Strolling along the beach front of Durban’s Central Business District with its mixture of modern high-rises and colonial-era buildings one can easily understand why South Africa chose the city for hosting the 5th BRICS Summit in March 2013: The modern hotels, conference centers and boulevards represent the South Africa Pretoria wanted to show the Brazilian, Russian, Indian and Chinese heads of state. After all, South Africa is under some pressure to justify its entry into the exclusive grouping in 2010, since in terms of GDP and domestic market it hardly lives up to the other four countries. An area in which South Africa can easily compete with the rest of the group, however, is in terms of social inequality. Of course this reality was largely absent from the city center, where the official BRICS Beach Party invited the masses to celebrate the meeting of their leaders.

Photo 1: BRICS Beach Party

However, only a short drive away the harsh reality becomes quite visible. Townships such as Cato Manor or informal settlements such as Crest, located right below the University of KwaZulu-Natal, stand for many of South Africa’s pressing problems: Poverty, unemployment, HIV/AIDS or insufficient access to housing and land. Similar problems occur in South Durban, where the expansion of the port not only has resulted in environmental degradation, but also the forced eviction of the local population. And while the BRICS Business Forum provided big companies with a voice in the BRICS Summit, people living in these areas are not invited to participate in the debate.

To raise their voices, several civil society organizations had prepared BRICS-from-below to discuss BRICS and its impact. The participants represented a broad spectrum, ranging from political activists to members of NGOs and academics from all over the world. The topics under discussion were equally diverse: re-colonization of Africa, climate change, justice in BRICS, regional exploitation by individual BRICS countries and, very prominently, the envisaged BRICS Development Bank. The overarching question, however, was clearly whether BRICS represents an alternative to the established global order – most commentators were rather skeptical. Instead, fears of a new form of imperialism and carving up of Africa dominated.

Photo 2: Prof. Patrick Bond introducing the next session.

Such fears, combined with the feeling that their interests are ignored, urged roughly 500 people to participate in a march through central Durban to the International Convention Center where the five BRICS leaders were about to meet with 15 African heads of state. And while such demonstrations would arguably not be possible in some other BRICS countries, the memory of what happened a few months ago at Marikana hang as a shadow over the participants: When they were forced in a fenced area as a prerequisite for a meeting with a representative of the South African government, many feared for their lives, although the march ended peacefully.

Photo 3: Protesters voicing social and economic concerns.

The experiences in Durban – including the easily recognizable gap between international academics and activists from the grass roots – also were a strong reminder not to forget the individuals and their lives behind the phenomena we as scholars are working on.

Further reading:
Peter Alexander, Thapelo Lekgowa, Botsang Mmope, Luke Sinwell, Bongani Xezwi (2013): Marikana: A View from the Mountain and a Case to Answer. Jacana Media.




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