Brics has a lot to offer, but what will Zimbabwe offer Brics?
WHEN the then Tanzanian President John Magufuli urged the east Africa nation’s women to “set your ovaries free” and bear more children, many thought he had lost his marbles while feminists warned that this would instead worsen inequality and poverty.
“When you have a big population you build the economy. That’s why China’s economy is so huge,” he said in 2019, citing India and Nigeria as other examples of countries that gained from a demographic dividend. He was addressing a gathering in his home town of Chato.
“I know that those who like to block ovaries will complain about my remarks. Set your ovaries free, let them block theirs.”
Since taking office in 2015, Magufuli launched an industrialisation campaign that helped buoy economic growth, which averaged 6-7% annually. He said a higher birth rate would achieve faster progress. The Tanzanian leader did not live long enough to see his dream come true. He died in 2021 due to heart complications.
While Maguguli’s remarks stirred debate on equally important issues such gender equality, the late leader raised pertinent issues relating to the concept of mercantilism in international political economy.
The term mercantilism was coined by Victor de Riqueti, marquis de Mirabeau in 1763 and popularised by Adam Smith in 1776. Mercantilism is an economic and political doctrine developed in western European in which statesmen, policymakers and merchants seek to increase wealth through state action. Mercantilism is hinged on key factors such as favourable balance of trade, a large population (and a large army to protect political and economic interests) and protectionism.
Critics say inward-looking policies such as protectionism may harm Zimbabwe’s economy at a time Africa is setting up the largest free trade area.
One of the most crucial parameters for the attainment of growth and stability in the economy is through enhancement of export performance of a country. The concept of “Mercantilism”, laid emphasis on the relevance of exports and expressed that maximisation of net exports is the best route towards prosperity of a nation.
Experts say neo-mercantilist policies largely helped most Brics countries like China in their national development and global expansion. But with a population of just over 15 million, Zimbabwe still has some catching up to do when comparing with the numerical supremacy of powerhouses like China which has over a billion people.
Brazil has a population of over 216 million while Russia and India are home to 146 million and 1.4 billion respectively. While South Africa’s population is four times larger than Zimbabwe, both southern African nations have populations well under 100 million, making Pretoria a less influential player of the Brics.
South Africa took over the Brics chairmanship from China and will host the group’s annual summit this year — with President Cyril Ramaphosa promising more African countries will be invited to attend.
“We want to use this opportunity to advance the interests of our continent, and we will therefore through the Brics summit be having an outreach process or moment, where we will invite other African countries to come and be part of the Brics because we do want Brics in whatever Brics does to focus on helping to develop our continent,” Ramaphosa was quoted by local media in January.
Apart from having a small population, Zimbabwe’s exports remain small and less when compared to regional peers.
According to the World Bank, in the early 2000s Zimbabwe used to introduce 600 new products in the export basket. The rate of discovery (exports of previously un-exported products), however, has been declining and in 2019 it dropped to just five.
Immediately, Zimbabwe’s quest to transition into an upper middle-income economy by 2030 was brought into sharp focus and questions were asked as to how feasible this ambitious project is without a robust export-driven development plan.
Brics is an acronym referring to the developing countries of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, which are identified as rising economic powers.
Other countries that have expressed interest in joining include Argentina, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Egypt, Bahrain and Indonesia, along with two nations from East Africa and one from West Africa.
Zimbabwe, which endured two decades of Western isolation, is now looking elsewhere to stimulate economic growth. The southern African country is upping its dependence on Brics countries as a source of much-needed financial support after concessional funding from traditional international financial institutions (IFIs) dried up due to non-payment of arrears.
Alexander Rusero, an international relations and journalism lecturer at the Mutare-based Africa University, said Zimbabwe’s signalling of cementing relations with the Brics is meant to counterbalance years of Western isolation.
“I think Harare has always considered South-South cooperation as high-ranking in terms of its priorities. But more importantly what is happening has to be understood in the context of dispersal of dependence,” Rusero said.
“Dispersal of dependence is a viable strategy in the 21st century where the world has constantly reviewed the extent at which it is unpredictable. Your erstwhile sponsor, your erstwhile funder, your erstwhile supporter could turn to be your fierce critic, your fierce enemy so to speak. I think Zimbabwe has learnt a lot from the hostile relationship that characterised its diplomatic interactions with the Western international community consisting of the United States, United Kingdom and the entire allies following the land reform which did not augur well with the erstwhile coloniser and the entire Western international community. Zimbabwe has actually suffered in terms of navigating and wobbling out of the mess that it found itself in post-2000.”
As Brics countries consolidate their position on the global stage, news bulletins are giving more and more coverage to matters like the so-called “trade wars” between the United States and China.
These are, indeed, increasingly defining relations between the two largest economies in the world and could well underpin a multi-dimensional rivalry that could be a central feature of international relations for many years to come.
Stephen Chan, a professor of international politics at the University of London, however told The NewsHawks that Zimbabwe’s high-risk profile may not make it a good recipient for Brics funding.
“Even the Brics funds and banks have fiscal safeguards against lending to high-risk clients,” Chan said.
“There has got to be some credible plan for service and repayment. Zimbabwe has gotten used to the idea that there is ‘something for nothing’ but has mismanaged its affairs sufficiently so that it has twice now had the world’s highest sustained inflation. Even the most politically sympathetic institution will be wary about being economically sympathetic beyond a certain point.
“Zimbabwe has nothing to offer the Brics group. Even South Africa is there only as a courtesy, its economy being dwarfed by those of Brazil, Russia, India and China. For genuine South-South cooperation to work you have to have something reliable and valuable to trade. Zimbabwe keeps hoping for value from e.g. lithium, but its reliability record is very low and lithium production is still in its early phases with much catch-up required in the production and export infrastructure.”
Zimbabwe’s Government of National Unity (GNU) which came into effect from 2009 to 2013, Rusero said, slightly came to the rescue of Zimbabwe in terms of the economic quagmire and the economic mess such that even in the post-GNU scenario there has been some modicum of leverage which Zimbabwe attained which is still there.
“Zimbabwe has now decided to assert its urgency in as much as international economic relations are concerned by expressing interest in becoming a member of the Brics,” he said.
“I think it is viable, I think it is also coming from the fact that Zimbabwe can actually then use the leverage of its abundant natural resources because obviously one would question where Zimbabwe would get the sufficient monies, the sufficient deposits that are required for starters to become a member. I think it has already indulged in some cost and benefit analysis. But what is more important is that whatever relations that Zimbabwe is seeking to make should have direct dividends trickling down to the people as opposed to being an instrument of the Zanu PF-led government preservation and perpetual stay in power.”