BRICS Rebuilding the House Uncle Sam Built?

South Africa Hosting the BRICS summit

During the white privilege era of apartheid, Clifton Beach had long been the default visual subject matter for South African tourism. Nestled under the famous Twelve Apostle mountains in Cape Town, the suburb of Clifton Beach arches back steeply away from the Atlantic Ocean facing west, giving every house a sublime view of the most spectacular sunsets you’re ever likely to see. The beach below is like a magnet to those who like a bronzed flesh parade.

And Cape Town being where it is, the light is incredible till well after 9 pm. It sounds perfect, right? But Clifton has a peculiar characteristic to it. Up until quite recently, the houses could only be constructed with wood.

During the cold war, Cape Town was considered to be a strategic vantage point because it stands at the nexus of two oceans. This means that, as far as shipping lanes are concerned, the Cape of Good Hope is in permanent peak rush hour mode. And it’s mostly Middle East oil traffic.

You may wonder what all this has to do with wooden houses.

Simply put, the relationship between the US and segregated South Africa was pretty solid. The Americans, ever suspicious of the ‘damned commie threat’ from the Soviet Union, insisted that they be allowed to install a battery of cannons and missile launchers to defend the virtue of the Fairest Cape. They wanted Clifton for this purpose, and they wanted to be able to install such weaponry within 24 hours of a clear and present danger.

Hence the wooden houses which could be reduced to rubble in no time at all, compared to that pesky cement stuff.

Fast forward to 2023. There is no white privilege anymore – legislated, that is – and US foreign policy is not the testosterone-fuelled, smiling bully it used to be. Clifton Beach’s almost-military past is also now something of an embarrassing joke to anyone around at the time.

The purpose of this story is to illustrate the profound geopolitical change that has occurred in Africa in the last generation, and particularly in South Africa.

Wealth and Poverty in the same neighborhood

South Africa hosting the BRICS summit is a testament to this change. Ironically, it’s happening in the suburb that took over Clifton’s status as the wealthiest place in Africa, Sandton. But it’s also testament to a government with problems. Having assumed the mantle of leadership under Nelson Mandela, is now on the brink of becoming a failed state for  the second time. They’re desperate for foreign investment, and seemingly don’t mind if the country falls deeper into the debt trap diplomacy that has characterized much of Africa. So they’re putting on a bit of a show in Sandton, are the South Africans.

Putin proved to be a fly in the porridge last week, though. Landing in South African would have obliged the local police to arrest him for war crimes. But that problem was solved by Vladimir’s virtual presence. Not that there’s that much trade with Russia, anyway.

China is the real deal, as far as Ramaphosa’s government is concerned. You only have to turn your head 180 degrees in urban areas and you’ll see evidence of Chinese economic colonization.

South Africa hosting the summit is big local news because it lets the country put on a show. But a few kilometres away the worst of South Africa is very much on display in Alexandra. This is a poor township that reflects the country’s stature as having the highest levels of unemployment in the world. Not to mention a financial divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ so wide it appears the middle class is disappearing altogether. And did I mention the rampant corruption in the ruling party? Or the collapsed grid?

The Hit and Miss of BRICS

BRICS itself is a conundrum. This alliance is a much-needed economic bloc to prevent the politics of the dollar from continuing to run riot. But it still feels like a trial and error experiment. Competitive trade activities are putting a question mark behind the notion of unity. As are conflicting alliances with other countries, as reflected by Putin’s virtual attendance.

But the coalition’s existence is still vital, if only to balance political and economic influence throughout the world.

And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.

Americans wanted gun turrets in Clifton. China wants hospitals in Soweto. It’s a no brainer, really. Even if the latter will prove more costly to the people of South Africa.

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