SA faces a dilemma in BRICS deals

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - OPINION - Shan­non Ebrahim

AS SOUTH Africans, we tend to be overly neg­a­tive about what we have to of­fer the world, ei­ther de­pict­ing our­selves as the small “s” in BRICS, or as the lesser of the five great emerg­ing economies.

What I took away from the BRICS Sum­mit this week was that South Africa has huge po­ten­tial, and we just have to be­lieve in our­selves.

One anec­dote that stood out for me was an ex­am­ple Min­is­ter of Trade and In­dus­try Rob Davies shared at the start of the sum­mit.

He talked about the fact that the sec­ond best per­form­ing branch of Hisense, a large Chi­nese man­u­fac­turer of TVs and house­hold ap­pli­ances, is in South Africa.

The Chi­nese man­ager of

Hisense, based in Cape Town, told Davies their top per­form­ing branch is in the US, then in South Africa.

That shocked me as all we tend to hear are com­plaints that South African labour is too costly, in­vestors are put off by the lack of phys­i­cal se­cu­rity, our bu­reau­cratic red tape is oner­ous and our work­ers don’t have the same work ethic as those in Asia. But that the South African branch of Hisense is one of the best per­form­ing branches in the world says a lot about our ca­pa­bil­i­ties as a work­force and the in­vest­ment en­vi­ron­ment here. This is truly some­thing to cel­e­brate.

What I also found re­mark­able was that this week was the first time in many years a new car manufacturing plant has opened here. This is why the open­ing of the Bei­jing Au­to­mo­tive Group plant in Port El­iz­a­beth on Tues­day was cel­e­brated with such fan­fare, with Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa and Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping in­au­gu­rat­ing the launch via video con­fer­ence.

Davies hailed it as the big­gest sin­gle in­vest­ment in our auto sec­tor. The plant will cre­ate at least 800 jobs in the Nel­son Man­dela Bay area and aims to pro­duce 50 000 ve­hi­cles a year by 2022. The speed at which this pro­ject moved from con­cep­tu­al­i­sa­tion to fruition is also in­cred­i­ble. The pro­ject to es­tab­lish the plant was agreed and signed on the state visit of the Chi­nese pres­i­dent in De­cem­ber 2015, and it took only two and a half years to get to the launch with new cars rolling off the as­sem­bly line this week.

This in­di­cates Chi­nese prom­ises of in­vest­ment and com­mit­ment to manufacturing projects are re­li­able, de­liv­ered timeously and outdo ex­pec­ta­tions. This should set the stage for South Africa to be­come a manufacturing hub for the African con­ti­nent, par­tic­u­larly of ve­hi­cles, auto-parts, and even rail­way car­riages. This is the vi­sion of our pol­icy mak­ers, and there is no rea­son it can’t be re­alised. The ex­ten­sive new in­fra­struc­ture be­ing rolled out across the con­ti­nent will greatly fa­cil­i­tate in­tra-African trade, and as­sist us to build economies of scale.

Africa still desperately needs in­fra­struc­ture be­yond ma­jor ur­ban cen­tres to raise the liv­ing stan­dards of its peo­ple. So the suc­cess­ful track record of the BRICS NDB should be hailed as it will en­able South Africa and, even­tu­ally other African states, to ac­cess fund­ing for in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment.

As Dr Iqbal Surve, chair­per­son of the BRICS Busi­ness Coun­cil, noted this week, over the next few years the NDB will have pro­vided more loans to BRICS coun­tries than the World Bank did over 75 years. So those who talked down the sum­mit’s sig­nif­i­cance, need to re­mem­ber that be­hind the cer­e­mo­nial talk is a very real com­mit­ment to en­hance the de­vel­op­ment prospects of emerg­ing economies. The pool­ing of in­tel­lec­tual cap­i­tal, skills and re­sources are seen as a way to over­come poverty and un­der­de­vel­op­ment.

Yes, there are BRICS mem­bers with less than ac­cept­able hu­man rights records, and more at­ten­tion needs to be paid to this, but it doesn’t re­duce the im­por­tance of what BRICS is try­ing to do for the de­vel­op­ing south.

A dif­fi­cult chal­lenge for South Africa and our Depart­ment of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions is how to take for­ward a hu­man rights for­eign pol­icy, while at the same time part­ner­ing for the sake of de­vel­op­ment with lead­ers who pre­side over hu­man rights abuses with seem­ing im­punity. This will re­quire cre­ative pol­icy mak­ing in the fu­ture.

The Global spot­light will re­turn on Septem­ber 2.

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