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Africa's Global Importance

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
April 27, 2011

It is true generally that citizens of nation states are emboldened by the relative power their original homelands enjoy in the world's council of governance. Jews all over the world are emboldened and strengthened by Israel's power as Indians all over the world are strengthened and empowered by the growing international importance of India which is why not one East Indian demurred when India offered citizenship to Indians in its diaspora after our government allowed Indian and Russian business people to enter Trinidad and Tobago without a visa.

I was heartened therefore when President Hu Jinto, president of the People's Republic of China, invited Jocob Zuma, president of South Africa, to attend the Third Brics Leaders Meeting in Sanya, in the Hainan Island of China two Thursdays ago. South Africa became the fifth Brics country joining Brazil, Russia, India and China, the biggest group of emerging nations that will rearrange the allocation of the world's resources as the century progresses.

Just as the First Pan Africanist Conference led by Sylvester Williams of Trinidad and W.E.B. Du Bois of the United States proclaimed in London in 1900 that "the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line," so too did the Sanya Declaration that emerged from the Brics meeting proclaim that "the 21st century should be one of peace, harmony, co-operation and a century of scientific development." Needless to say the Brics will have a powerful impact on shifting the global balance of power.

Such a posture should not blind us to the fact that Africa is still a poor continent although it is projected to be "the third fastest growing economy in the world." South Africa's economy, the twelfth largest emerging economy behind countries such as Mexico, South Korea, Turkey, Indonesia, Poland, Saudi Arabia and Taiwan, is dwarfed by its Brics partners. In 2010 Brazil's GDP was 2,090 ($bn), its real growth 7.5 percent; China's GDP 5,878 ($bn), real growth 10.3 percent; India's GDP 1,538 ($bn), real growth 10.4 percent; Russia's GDP 1,465 ($bn), real growth 4.0 percent; South Africa's GDP 357 ($bn), real growth 2.8 percent.

Although the European Union and Europe remain South Africa's most important economic trading partner, the Brics are now Africa's largest trading partners and its biggest investors. Yet there are weaknesses. The Brics are not integrated economically; their countries are geographically diverse; and they all have bilateral relations with China. China accounts for about 12 percent of the trade with the Brics while South Africa, Brazil, India and Russia devote "only about 3 percent of their resources to trade with each other and this share has barely changed during the past decade" (Financial Times, April 15).

Such imbalances suggest that the Brics have a long way to go. Presently trade is unbalanced excessively in China's favor. Africa exports its natural resources mainly to China and imports China's finished manufactured goods which echoes the relationship many colonial countries shared with their former colonial masters, a topic that Walter Rodney explored in his work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and the subject of a United Nations Development Conference on Trade and Development in 1972.

Such an ominous past did not prevent President Zuma's from being enthusiastic about South Africa's elevation to this club. South Africa is the leading economy in Africa whose combined annual economic output is over $1,000bn. Used skillfully, South Africa can parlay Africa's enormous economic resources into a consequential force to benefit the entire continent. Such a possibility led John O'Neil, the person who coined the term "Brics," to argue that Africa has the "potential to be a Bric-like economy."

Zuma called this meeting a "historical moment" for Africa and his country. In his address to the meeting, he noted that Africa's future prosperity "is increasingly linked to the economies of the BRICS, and this forum can decisively assist in tackling our development deficits." He recognized the North's "continued dominance" of Africa's economy but acknowledged the "rising importance of the giants of the South and the value thereof, for a developing economy likes ours."

In his press conference after the conference, he stated that South Africa brought an "independent outlook" and an energetic political experiment to the Brics and the exponential growth possibilities such an opportunity offered. He noted that South Africa will strengthen its new association with Brics by establishing Free Trade Agreements between regional African communities, "namely the Southern African Development Community, the Common Market of East and Southern Africa and the East African Community. Over the next ten years, Africa will need 480 billion US dollars for infrastructure development which should interest the BRICS business communities."

These developments bode us well. It signals that Africa is beginning to operate at the highest global level and therefore has a say, albeit limited, in essential aspects of its development. Necessarily, China stands to benefit most from these developments but then we know that altruism is the highest form of self interest. China is not a disinterested party in the fortunes of global development, a point that even the USA understands and appreciates.

Africa cannot decouple from its relationship with the North-nor is it necessary to do so-but having another suitor strengthens its hands in dealing with both the North and the South. Although many persons construe China's relationship with Africa as being exploitative it is wise to contemplate Wu Hai-long, China's assistant foreign minister, response to these concerns. He said it is important "to build up a consensus and tone down differences while emphasizing areas where we can co-operate."

South Africa's new relationship to the Brics also has implications for social and political relations in our country. It helps that China, India and Africa, homelands from which our ancestors came, are attempting to forge a new unity. More importantly, Africans in T&T can lift their heads a little higher in proud recognition of our enhanced status in the world. My mother would say, "Every little bit helps."

Africa, the cradle of civilization, has contributed much to the world. A recent study by Quentin Anderson suggests that Southern Africa may even be the birthplace of human language (See "Phonemic Diversity" in Science, April 15). Its budding global eminence is tremendously heartening. With it, comes a new respect for its people worldwide. It reminds us that each society contributes to the world's store of knowledge and the advancement of humankind. It's a good thing that Africa is regaining its place on the global stage.

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