So, Are Brics ‘Sub-Imperialists’?

‘We reaffirm the character of the ANC as a disciplined force of the left, a multi-class mass movement and an internationalist movement with an anti-imperialist outlook.’ So said Jacob Zuma, orating to his masses at the year’s largest African National Congress celebration, in Durban on January 12.[1]

Eleven days later, Zuma spoke to the World Economic Forum’s imperialists in a small, luxurious conference room in Davos, Switzerland: ‘We are presenting a South Africa that is open for business and which is open to provide entry into the African continent.’[2] (As a carrot, Zuma specifically mentioned the $440 billion in economic infrastructure investment planned in coming years, while back at home, above-inflation price increases were hitting those low-income consumers of electricity, water and sanitation lucky not to have been disconnected for non-payment.)

South African officials often talk anti-imperialist but walk sub-imperialist. In 1965, Ruy Mauro Marini first defined the term using his own Brazilian case: ‘It is not a question of passively accepting North American power (although the actual correlation of forces often leads to that result), but rather of collaborating actively with imperialist expansion, assuming in this expansion the position of a key nation.’[3]

Nearly half a century later, such insights appear prescient, in the wake of the rise of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (Brics) as an active alliance. By 2013 these five key nations encircling the traditional Triad (the US, European Union and Japan) were decisive collaborators with imperialism.

They advanced the cause of neoliberalism by reaffirming its global institutional power structures and driving overproductive and overconsumptive maldevelopment, and they colluded in destruction of not just the world environment – through prolific contributions to climate change – but in the sabotage of any potentially workable global-scale ecological regulation (favouring instead deepened commodification through emissions trading).

The Brics agenda of relegitimising neoliberalism not only reinforces North American power, of course. In each case, the Brics countries’ control of their hinterlands for the sake of regional capitalist hegemony was another impressive feature of sub-imperialism, especially in South Africa’s case. As Brazilian scholar Oliver Stuenkel remarked in 2012, ‘None of the Brics members enjoys meaningful support from its neighbours, and none has a mandate to represent its respective region. Quite to the contrary, their neighbours’ suspicion of Brics projects of regional hegemony is remarkably similar for all members.’[4]

Much of the long-standing (apartheid-era) critique of South African sub-imperialism still applies, but what is new is that thanks to financial deregulation associated with the country’s ‘elite transition’ from racial to class apartheid during the 1990s, what were formerly Johannesburg and Cape Town-based regional corporate powers – Anglo American Corporation, DeBeers, Gencor (later BHP Billiton), Old Mutual and Liberty Life insurance, SA Breweries (later merged with Miller), Investec bank, Didata IT, Mondi paper, etc – escaped.

These firms’ financial headquarters are now in London, New York and Melbourne, and the outflows of profits, dividends and interest are the main reason South Africa was ranked the ‘riskiest’ amongst 17 emerging markets by The Economist in early 2009, requiring vast new foreign debt obligations to cover the hard currency required to facilitate the vast capital flight. South Africa cannot, thus, be described as ‘imperialist’ – it is simply retaining far little of the surplus.

Aside from lubricating world neoliberalism, hastening world eco-destruction, and serving as coordinator of hinterland looting, what are the other features of sub-imperialism that must be assessed, in a context of Washington’s ongoing hegemony? If a ‘new imperialism’ entails – as the City University of New York’s renowned Marxist scholar David Harvey[5] suggests – much greater recourse to ‘accumulation by dispossession’ and hence the appropriation of ‘non-capitalist’ aspects of life and environment by capitalism, then South Africa and the other Brics offer some of the most extreme sites of new sub-imperialism in the world today.

The older generation of arguments about South Africa’s ‘articulations of modes of production’ – i.e., migrant male workers from Bantustans providing ‘cheap labour’ thanks to black rural women’s unpaid reproduction of children, sick workers and retirees generally without state support – seems to apply even more these days, when it comes to notorious Chinese pass-laws or the expansion of the South African migrancy model much deeper into the region in the wake of apartheid (notwithstanding tragic xenophobic reactions from the local working class).

First, to make the case that sub-imperialism lubricates global neoliberalism in these various ways, and that within Brics South Africa joins the other ‘deputy sheriffs’ to keep regional law and order (e.g. in the Central African Republic, at the time of writing in early 2013), requires dispensing with naïve accounts of foreign policy that remain popular in the international relations field.

Some scholars argue that South Africa’s role is neither anti-imperialist nor sub-imperialist – that as a ‘Middle Power,’ Pretoria attempts to constructively ‘lead’ Africa while acting in the continent’s interests (Maxi Schoeman),[6] through ‘building strategic partnerships… in a constant effort to win over the confidence of fellow African states, and to convince the world community of its regional power status’ (Chris Landsberg),[7] thus seeking ‘non-hegemonic cooperation’ with other African countries (John Daniel et al).[8]

But these thinkers are missing an opportunity to interrogate the power relations with the critical sensibility that these times demand, not least because superexploitative extractive industries based upon migrant labour, without regard to community degradation and ecological damage (e.g. the well-known Marikana platinum mine so profitable to Lonmin until 2012), continue to be the primary form of Brics countries’ engagement with Africa.

Occasionally this agenda leads directly to war, a fetish about which is also a common distraction amongst scholars attempting to elucidate imperial-sub-imperial power relations. In the recent era, the main military conflicts associated with Washington-centred imperialism have been in the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa, and so Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are often cited as the West’s sub-imperial allies.

But it was not long ago – from the 1960s through late 1980s – that Southern Africa was the site of numerous wars featuring anti-colonial liberation struggles and Cold War rivalries, with apartheid South Africa a strong and comforting deputy to Washington.

Over two subsequent decades in this region, however, we have witnessed mainly state-civil tensions associated with conflict-resource battles (e.g. in the Great Lakes region where southern Africa meets central Africa and where millions have been killed by minerals-oriented warlords), neoliberalism (e.g. South Africa and Zambia), an occasional coup (e.g. Madagascar), dictatorial rule (e.g. Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Malawi) or in many cases, a combination.

The civil wars engineered by apartheid and the CIA in Mozambique and Angola had ceased by 1991 and 2001, respectively, with millions dead but with both Lusophone countries subsequently recording high GDP growth rates albeit with extreme inequality.

Across Southern Africa, because imperial and sub-imperial interests have both mainly focused upon resource extraction, a variety of cross-fertilising intra-corporate relationships emerged, symbolised by the way Lonmin (formerly Lonrho, named by British Prime Minister Edward Heath as the ‘unacceptable face of capitalism’ in 1973) ‘benefited’ in mid-2012 from leading ANC politician Cyril Ramphosa’s substantial shareholding and connections to Pretoria’s security apparatus, when strike-breaking was deemed necessary at the Marikana platinum mine.

South African, US, European, Australian and Canadian firms have been joined by major firms from China, India and Brazil in the region. Their work has mainly built upon colonial infrastructural foundations – road, rail, pipeline and port expansion – for the sake of minerals, petroleum and gas extraction. Brics appears entirely consistent with facilitating this activity, especially through the proposed Brics Bank.

Might this conflict of interests result in armed conflict as a result of Washington’s more coercive role in this continent? The Pentagon’s Africa Command has prepared for an increasing presence across the Sahel (e.g. Mali at the time of writing) out to the Horn of Africa (the US has a substantial base in Djibouti), in order to attack Al-Qaeda affiliates and assure future oil flows and a grip on other resources. Since taking office in 2009, Barack Obama maintained tight alliances – and prolific White House photo-ops – with tyrannical African elites, contradicting his own talk-left pro-democracy rhetoric within a well-received 2009 speech in Ghana.

According to Sherwood Ross, one reason is that amongst 28 countries ‘that held prisoners in behalf of the US based on published data,’ are a dozen from Africa: Algeria, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia, Kenya, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Somalia, South Africa and Zambia.[9]

In Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh’s acquiescence to the CIA’s need for a rendition site for US torture victims may explain Obama’s blind eye towards his dictatorship. Likewise, the US role in Egypt – another rendition-torture hotspot – propping up the Mubarak regime spoke volumes about the persistence of strong-man geopolitics, trumping the ‘strong institutions’ that Obama had promised.[10]

With fewer direct military conflicts in Africa but more subtle forms of imperial control, and with ‘Africa Rising’ rhetoric abundant since the early 2000’s commodity price boom, the continent and specifically the Southern African region appear as attractive sites for investment, in no small measure because of South Africa’s ‘gateway’ function, with Johannesburg as a regional branch-plant base for a variety of multinational corporations.

Throughout this period, there was a restrained yet increasingly important Washington geopolitical agenda for Africa, which Bush’s first Secretary of State, Colin Powell, described cogently in a document, Rising US Stakes in Africa:

·         political stabilisation of Sudan, whose oil was craved by Washington;

·         support for Africa’s decrepit capital markets, which could allegedly ‘jump start’ the Millennium Challenge Account, a new US AID mechanism;

·         more attention to energy, especially the ‘massive future earnings by Nigeria and Angola, among other key West African oil producers’;

·         promotion of wildlife conservation;

·         increased ‘counter-terrorism’ efforts, which included ‘a Muslim outreach initiative’;

·         expanded peace operations, transferred to tens of thousands of African troops thanks to new G8 funding; and more attention to AIDS.

On all but Sudan, South African co-operation was crucial for the US imperial agenda. However, after the US military’s humiliating 1993 ‘Black Hawk Down’ episode in Somalia, there was insufficient appetite at the Pentagon for direct troop deployment in Africa, and as a result, President Bill Clinton was compelled to apologise for standing idly by during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Instead, as Africa Command head Carter Ham explained in 2011, Washington ‘would eventually need an AfriCom that could undertake more traditional military operations… [although] not conducting operations – that’s for the Africans to do.’[11]

Likewise, the US Air University’s Strategic Studies Quarterly cited a US military advisor to the African Union: ‘We don’t want to see our guys going in and getting whacked… We want Africans to go in.’[12] In late 2006, for example, when Bush wanted to invade Somalia to rid the country of its nascent Islamic Courts government, he called in Mbeki to assist with legitimating the idea, though it was ultimately carried out by Meles Zenawi’s Ethiopian army three weeks later.[13]

When in 2011, Obama wanted to invade Libya to rid the country of Muammar Gaddafy, South Africa voted affirmatively for NATO bombing within the UN Security Council (where it held a temporary seat), in spite of enormous opposition within the African Union.

There was similar reliance by the G8 upon G20, Brics and even South African ‘deputy sheriff’ support on the economic battlefield. At the nadir of the 2008-09 crisis, for example, the G20 was described by Walden Bello: ‘It’s all show. What the show masks is a very deep worry and fear among the global elite that it really doesn’t know the direction in which the world economy is heading and the measures needed to stabilize it.’ [14]

According to Harvey, the G20 asked, simply, ‘how can we actually reconstitute the same sort of capitalism we had and have had over the last thirty years in a slightly more regulated, benevolent form, but don’t challenge the fundamentals?’[15]

For foreign policy, the big question raised by Zuma’s presidency was whether the momentum from Mbeki’s expansionist ‘New Partnership for Africa’s Development’ would be resumed after that project’s demise, given the former’s preoccupations with domestic matters and comparatively weak passion for the international stage. Only in 2012 was the answer decisively affirmative: Nkozana Dlamini-Zuma’s engineered election as African Union Commission chairperson.

By mid-2012, Pretoria’s National Development Plan – overseen from within the SA Presidency and endorsed at the ANC’s December 2012 national conference – provided a variety of mandated changes in policy so as to align with South Africa’s new Brics identity and functions. These mainly involved pro-business statements for deeper regional economic penetration, alongside the exhortation to change ‘the perception of the country as a regional bully, and that South African policy-makers tend to have a weak grasp of African geopolitics.’[16]

That problem will haunt Pretoria in coming years, because like the political carving of African in Berlin in 1884-85, the Brics 2013 Durban summit has as its aim the continent’s economic carve-up, unburdened – now as then – by what would be derided as ‘Western’ concerns about democracy and human rights. Also invited were 16 African heads of state to serve as collaborators.

          Reading between the lines, the Durban Brics resolutions will:

  • support favoured corporations’ extraction and land-grab strategies;
  • worsen Africa’s retail-driven deindustrialization (South Africa’s Shoprite and Makro – soon to be run by Walmart – are already notorious in many capital cities for importing even simple products that could be supplied locally);
  • revive failed projects such as Nepad; and
  • confirm the financing of both African land-grabbing and the extension of neo-colonial infrastructure through a new ‘Brics Bank,’ in spite of the damaging role of the Development Bank of Southern Africa in its immediate hinterland, following Washington’s script.[17]

With this evidence, and more, can we determine whether the Brics are ‘anti-imperialist’ – or instead, ‘sub-imperialist,’ doing deputy-sheriff duty for global corporations and neoliberal ideologues, while controlling their own angry populaces as well as their hinterlands through a more formidable security apparatus? The eco-destructive, consumerist-centric, over-financialised, climate-frying maldevelopment model throughout the Brics works very well for corporate and parastatal profits, especially for Western capital, but is generating repeated crises for the majority of its people and for the planet.

Hence the label sub-imperialist is tempting. During the 1970s, Marini argued that Brazil was ‘the best current manifestation of sub-imperialism,’ for three central reasons:

  • Doesn’t the Brazilian expansionist policy in Latin America and Africa correspond, beyond the quest for new markets, to an attempt to gain control over sources of raw materials – such as ores and gas in Bolivia, oil in Ecuador and in the former Portuguese colonies of Africa, the hydroelectric potential in Paraguay – and, more cogently still, to prevent potential competitors such as Argentina from having access to such resources?
  • ‘Doesn’t the export of Brazilian capital, mainly via the State as exemplified by Petrobras, stand out as a particular case of capital export in the context of what a dependent country like Brazil is able to do? Brazil also exports capital through the constant increase of foreign public loans and through capital associated to finance groups which operate in Paraguay, Bolivia and the former Portuguese colonies in Africa, to mention just a few instances.
  • It would be good to keep in mind the accelerated process of monopolization (via concentration and centralization of capital) that has occurred in Brazil over these past years, as well as the extraordinary development of financial capital, mainly from 1968 onward.[18]

Matters subsequently degenerated on all fronts. In addition to these criteria – regional economic extraction, ‘export of capital’ (always associated with subsequent imperialist politics) and internal corporate monopolization and financialisation – there are two additional roles for Brics regimes if they are genuinely sub-imperialist. One is ensuring regional geopolitical ‘stability’: for example, Brasilia’s hated army in Haiti and Pretoria’s deal-making in African hotspots like South Sudan, the Great Lakes and the Central African Republic for which $5 billion in corruption-riddled arms purchases serve as military back-up.

The second is advancing the broader agenda of neoliberalism, so as to legitimate deepened market access. Evidence includes South Africa’s Nepad; the attempt by China, Brazil and India to revive the WTO; and Brazil’s sabotage of the left project within Venezuela’s ‘Bank of the South’ initiative. As Eric Toussaint remarked at a World Social Forum panel in 2009, ‘The definition of Brazil as a peripheral imperialist power is not dependent on which political party is in power. The word imperialism may seem excessive because it is associated with an aggressive military policy. But this is a narrow perception of imperialism.’