South Africa joins the BRICS club, calls for reform of UN

South Africa has long seen itself as a voice of developing nations. Now as a member of the BRICS club – Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa – it can speak with the political heft of a fifth of the world's economy behind it.

Nelson Ching/Reuters
South Africa's President Jacob Zuma speaks during a joint news conference at the BRICS Leaders Meeting in Sanya, Hainan province, on April 14.

South Africa this week joined a club of the world’s emerging economic giants, a group that plans to flex its muscles on the global stage in coming years.

The club is called BRICS, an acronym of the five member states: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Like the Group of 8 (which also includes Russia), BRICS meets on a regular basis to discuss economic issues of interest and also political concerns that each of the nations share. Whereas the G-8 is a self-selecting by-invitation-only club of rich nations, BRICS is a self-selecting, by-invitation-only club of up-and-coming regional powers who make up nearly a fifth of the world’s gross domestic product.

It’s a small distinction, perhaps. But it is a distinction that BRICS is careful to preserve, and one that BRICS hopes will earn it increasing political heft as a voice for developing countries to counter the overwhelming power of Europe and America on the global stage.

Challenging the UN

Speaking to reporters after the BRICS meeting, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev condemned the use of force by France and the United Nations against the fighters of former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo.

The UN’s resolution on Ivory Coast "speaks of the use of UN forces, but not in order to support one of the sides in the conflict," Mr. Medvedev was quoted by Reuters as saying. "The United Nations cannot take sides, but that is de facto what happened."

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In addition to calling for comprehensive reform of the UN Security Council – of which both Russia and China are permanent voting members – BRICS has also agreed to work together to try to reform the international monetary system, and to move toward a reliable, stable international reserve currency system to help limit the shocks as the values of the world’s top currencies fluctuate. Currently, the US dollar is used as a global currency for trade, but its falling value has many countries looking for alternatives.

New kid on the block

This is the first meeting at which South Africa has acted as a member, and its increasingly frosty relationship with Western nations such as Britain, France, and the US helps it fit in well with BRICS members who feel that the old order of global politics needs a firm shakeup.

While South African President Jacob Zuma – who led South Africa’s delegation at the BRICS meeting in Sanya, China this week – initially voted in favor of a UN no-fly-zone in Libya, he later condemned the way the no-fly-zone was implemented against the forces of Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi, under the international legal “responsibility to protect” civilians from military attack.

South Africa now argues that the use of NATO warplanes in Libya unfairly benefits one side, the rebels, as the NATO planes only bomb the aircraft and heavy weaponry of Qaddafi’s troops.

It may be a humble start, but South Africa’s entry into the BRICS club is a big ego boost, and South Africa will likely expand its role to speak out in international forums as an advocate for poorer developing nations and for the needs of Africa.

What remains to be seen is whether other African nations will like what they hear from South Africa.

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