South Africa’s position as a gateway to Africa is a highlight of this year’s BRICS summit. Members of the BRICS bloc - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - top officials from the African Union and leaders of Africa’s regional economic communities are attending this week’s summit in Durban.
South Africa is the newest and financially weakest member of the BRICS bloc. But its membership, South African officials say, affords nations in the group a coveted gateway into Africa - and access to its economic resources, inexpensive labor and growing consumer base.
To that end, South African President Jacob Zuma said he had invited, in all, 15 African heads of state to the meeting. Among them are the new leaders of East African powerhouse Ethiopia and West Africa's economic and diplomatic hub Senegal - though both of those leaders will be representing regional organizations.
But do the BRICS nations need South Africa's introduction to the rest of Africa? Tom Wheeler of the South African Institute of International Affairs said maybe.
“In some ways yes and in many ways no," Wheeler said. "I think that China doesn’t come to South Africa to get to Africa, nor does India. In some ways, the financial institutions here are useful to move into Africa but then again those countries probably don’t need it. There are probably other countries that will use this route more regularly.”
Wheeler notes, China-Africa trade hit $20 billion last year. President Xi Jinping made his first visit to the continent ahead of the summit, visiting the Republic of Congo and Tanzania.
But South African officials argue they are attempting to reach out to the rest of the continent through a proposed BRICS development bank, which may be able to extend loans that the major lending institutions will not. The bank’s focus will be infrastructure - a key issue in Africa, where many resource-rich nations are held back by their lack of basic structures.
Caroline Bracht of the University of Toronto-based BRICS Research Group, said the African attendees have good reason to develop friendly relations with BRICS.
"Their growth has been variable over the last quarter or two quarters or so, [but] it is still much faster and much more rapid than the Western countries. ... So these countries, at the moment, by engaging with the BRICS, have access to some finances," Bracht said.
"The question is now, who is leading the agenda. And I'm hopeful of this situation in the sense that the Africa-BRICS dialogue will hopefully facilitate an African agenda, versus the BRICS bilateral, or pluri-lateral agenda," she added.
Whether South Africa's membership benefits the rest of Africa as touted will become more clear when the BRICS summit opens Tuesday.