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Prof. Mthunzi Mdwaba walks us through the potential changes coming to BRICS and how the partnership could look in the future

Change is inevitable, and as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus is quoted as saying, “Change is the only constant in life!”

We also know that change is very difficult for everyone. The geo-political changes that are being thrust into the global structures are going to require that we have our best tyres, brakes, and seatbelts for the ride!

The BRICS—currently Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—partnership, with 19 countries having stated their intention to apply for membership, is threatening to throw lots of cats amongst the Western global structure pigeons.

In 2010, a few of us accompanied the then Minister of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Rob Davies, to Brazil to attend the IBSA (India, Brazil, and South Africa) and the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) summits. The intention was to add the ‘S’ in the BRIC to make it BRICS.

I was then a Vice-President for BUSA (Business Unity South Africa), and two of us, the other being the very passionate Ms Gloria Serobe, found ourselves doing multiple sectoral presentations that were designed to sell South Africa’s capability and appropriateness to be admitted into this now very powerful grouping of countries. I participated in the signing ceremony in Brasilia. In December of 2010, China officially invited South Africa to join, and BRICS was born. In 2011, we attended our first BRICS Summit in China.

Twelve years later, almost 30 years from the dawn of our democracy and 47 years from the 1976 youth uprisings in Soweto that eventually changed the face of South Africa, we are about to witness a much bigger revolution, with South Africa at the centre again.

In case some of you missed it, South Africa is the Chair of the BRICS annual meetings this year, having had the BRICS LEMM (Labour and Employment Ministers Meetings) in February in Johannesburg, and, more recently, in May in Port Alfred, amongst other streams, for example, Energy, Trade and Arts and Culture, etc.

There will be two more LEMMs in Geneva in June, and in Durban in September following the BRICS Summit in August.

Some of you may be wondering what the rationale is for my mentioning the ages. Twelve years represents tween years, leaving childhood to enter adolescence, while 30 years is recognised as the time young people start taking responsibility in earnest for their lives, finalising the direction they want to take. Forty-seven as you approach 50, means you are consolidating your gains and building on your growth. South Africa has this exciting mix in its status orientation, and I truly believe that our time to change our destiny as revolutionary leaders is now.

The South African Presidency/Chairing of BRICS LEMM for the year has focussed on four priorities, namely:

  • Building sustainable enterprises, innovation and enhancing productivity;
  • Promoting labour rights at work and reducing decent work deficits;
  • Universal access to social protection and ensuring a minimum basic income grant (South Africa currently has a 52% coverage of its population with the average for the African continent sitting at 17%); and
  • Promoting decent work and closing the skills gap in the informal economy.

The ILO Centenary Declaration on the Future of Work (FoW), which I had the privilege of being one of the three global leaders involved in crafting, in my capacity as the Vice President of the International Organisation of Employers (IOE), and Vice-Chairman of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) together with the leaders of the trade unions and governments, reaffirmed member countries’ commitment to the ILO’s fundamental principles and rights at work. The IOE is the largest private sector organisation in the world, representing over 150 employer organisations (including BUSA here at home) from over 140 countries, and consequently representing over 50 million companies. It also provides all the secretariat services in the ILO for all employers in the 187 member countries of the ILO.

The Declaration outlines four key pillars for action, namely; investing in people’s capabilities, institutions for the FoW, decent and sustainable work, and the FoW for the greater good.

It serves as a roadmap for ensuring that the world of work evolves in a way that is sustainable, inclusive and equitable for all.

It is also hugely significant that the declaration was the first official instrument of the ILO to have productivity mentioned no less than 11 times in spite of same being a few pages.

In perusing the Report of the BRICS Employment Working Group (BEWG), it is hugely impressive that having ventilated on the four priorities with clear support being provided by the ILO local leadership, paragraph six of the Conclusions, the penultimate paragraph before summing up, clearly states a commitment to “establish a BRICS-wide productivity ecosystem for decent work.” Before giving a full account of what is intended and the meaning thereof, it is important to share some utterances made by the ILO as quoted in the post meeting deliberations media reports. Jens Drying Christensen, Senior Specialist in Enterprise Development and Management at the ILO, said: “The BRICS countries need to urgently expand trade with each other rather than with the rest of the world…” and said this would “boost economic growth among the member states, by identifying where their mutual interests are…” and offered the ILO’s technical support towards attaining such a goal, focusing on how specific productivity ecosystems could be implemented in each member state. He further proposed that the way forward “could lie in asking the ILO to create a team of technical experts based in each country to support the implementation, by setting up a fully-fledged BRICS team of experts across the five countries”. This of course means that this would be done for all the new member countries whose member countries have applied to join BRICS, which will be deliberated in a meeting of the five Ambassadors on June 2 and 3 2023.

Siyabonga Hadebe of the Department of Employment and Labour, Labour Attaché in Geneva, concurred, saying: “The time had come for BRICS member states to work as a bloc to achieve their common goals of boosting economic growth among themselves and thereby change the geo-political landscape.”

Paragraph 6 of the Conclusions underscores this in stressing an aim to deepen cooperation and trade relations within the BRICS bloc and facilitating bankable projects acceptable to the New Development Bank (NDP).

While this will need a different focus in perhaps subsequent articles, it is worth mentioning, that rural economy and informal sector productivity and funding via the NDP and other Developmental Finance Institutions (DFIs), and South-South cooperation were rightfully identified as being critical for the growth of productivity and economies in the region. Natural resources and human capital were identified as competitive advantages for productivity. The million dollar question though, is when are DFIs and the State going to be funders of first resort within the BRICS region?

There are so many opportunities here, such as cultivating a proactive relationship with, for example, The South Centre, which is made up of 55 countries of the South, some of whom have applied to be members of the BRICS partnership. Another opportunity, is the chairmanship/presidency of the G20. This year, it is being steered by India, next year, Brazil, and in 2025, South Africa—enough time to leverage and steer the geo-political transition.

There may be merit in also strongly considering a BRICS Productivity Association to be launched at the LEMM in September to be the vehicle used for the Productivity Ecosystem on a full time basis to ensure active implementation in-between LEMMs.

Finally, as a former Governing Body Officer in the ILO, it is like music in my ears to hear that there is an intention to have a Ministerial Declaration on setting up a BRICS network of Labour research, formalisation of Tripartism and cooperation beyond the BRICS statutory meetings. This is power! The BRICS partnership’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) already exceeds that of the G7 countries and leveraging that power and utilising same at the Multilateral agency level as well simply makes sense—why have regional formations such as ASPAC, IMEC, GRULAC, Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Africa Group in the ILO, and not have BRICS? This is way overdue.

It is time for change and impact!

Prof. Mthunzi Mdwaba is the President and CEO of TZoro IBC, Chairman of Productivity SA, and Chairman of the South African Norwegian Association (SANA).