DURBAN, South Africa, March 26 (Reuters) - "BRICS, Don't
Carve Africa" reads a banner in a church hall in downtown Durban
where civil society activists have gathered to cast a critical
eye at a summit of five global emerging powers.
The slogan evokes the 19th Century conference in Berlin
where the predominant European colonial states carved up the
African continent in a scramble historians see as epitomising
the brash exploitative capitalism of the time.
Decades after Africans threw off the colonial yoke, it is
the turn of the blossoming BRICS group of Brazil, Russia, China,
India and South Africa to find their motives coming under
scrutiny as they proclaim an altruistic-sounding "partnership
for development, integration and industrialization" with Africa.
Led by that giant of the emerging powers, China, the BRICS
are now Africa's largest trading partners and its biggest new
group of investors. BRICS-Africa trade is seen eclipsing $500
billion by 2015, with China taking the lion's share of 60
percent of this, according to Standard Bank.
BRICS leaders persist in presenting their group - which
represents more than 40 percent of the world's population and
one fifth of global gross domestic product - in the warm and
fuzzy framework of benevolent South-South cooperation, an
essential counterweight to the 'old' West and a better partner
for the poor masses of the developing world.
In his first trip to Africa as head of state, China's new
president Xi Jinping expounded this line in Tanzania on Monday,
saying his country wanted "a better life for African people" and
was offering a relationship of equals.
"We think there's too much back-slapping," said Patrick Bond
of the University of KwaZulu-Natal's centre for Civil Society,
who helped to organise an alternative "BRICS-from-below" meeting
in Durban to shadow the BRICS summit on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Bond and other critics of the BRICS' South-South pitch say
developing countries that receive investment and assistance from
the new emerging powers need to take a hard, close look at the
deals they are getting.
Beneath the fraternal veneer, Bond sees "incoherent imperial
competition" not unlike the 19th Century scramble, saying that
BRICS members are similarly coveting and exploiting African
resources without sufficiently boosting industrialisation and
job-creation, all much needed on the continent.
This view has gained some traction in Africa as citizens
from Guinea and Nigeria to Zambia and Mozambique increasingly
see Brazilian, Russian, Indian, Chinese and South African
companies scooping up multi-billion dollar oil and mining deals
and big-ticket infrastructure projects.
Many of these deals have come under scrutiny from local and
international rights groups. More than a few have faced
criticism that they focus heavily on raw material extraction,
lack transparency and do not offer enough employment and
developmental benefits to the receiving countries - charges
often levelled against corporations from the developed West.
"NEW FORM OF IMPERIALISM"
Anti-poverty activists say the profit motivation of large
BRICS corporations working in Africa is no different from that
of Western companies.
"Matters of greed are universal and their actors come from
both the North and the South," said Wahu Kaara, a Kenyan social
justice campaigner and coordinator of the Kenya Debt Relief
Network who attended the "BRICS-from-below" meeting.
This wariness of the new players in Africa has even
permeated some government circles on the continent.
Warning Africa was opening itself up to "a new form of
imperialism", Nigerian central bank governor Lamido Sanusi
accused China, now the world's No. 2 economy, of worsening
Africa's deindustrialisation and underdevelopment.
"China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured
ones. This was also the essence of colonialism," Sanusi wrote in
a March 11 opinion column in the Financial Times.
"Africa must recognise that China - like the U.S., Russia,
Britain, Brazil and the rest - is in Africa not for African
interests but its own," Sanusi added.
Chinese and other BRICS leaders indignantly reject the
criticism their group represents a kind of "sub-imperialism" in
their growing economic and political engagement with Africa.
Zhong Jianhua, China's special envoy to Africa, told Reuters
that China and Africa's common history of resisting colonial
pressure put their relationship on a different level.
"China was bullied by others in the past, and so was Africa.
This shared experience means they have a lot in common. This is
China's advantage and the reason why many Western countries are
at a disadvantage," he said in an interview with Reuters.
Zhong added that China should encourage its companies to
train and employ more African workers, responding to complaints
that Chinese investors often brought in their own workforces.
Catherine Grant-Makokera of the South African Institute of
International Affairs said BRICS governments did noticeably
operate differently from the West in the way they offered
financing and aid to nations in Africa.
"You've seen a greater willingness from the newer players to
invest in things like hard infrastructure, either through
financing mechanisms, or simply grants or gifts," said
Grant-Makokera, SAIIA's programme head for economic diplomacy.
But she acknowledged the BRICS development aid approach,
while offering faster turnaround times for projects, was often
less restrained by labour and environmental considerations.
This has opened BRICS companies up to charges that in their
haste to develop resource projects in Africa they flaunt local
communities' rights and ride roughshod over the environment.
Brazilian mining giant Vale, named in 2012 by the Swiss
non-profit group Public Eye as the corporation with the most
"contempt for the environment and human rights" in the world,
defends its record in Mozambique, where it is investing billions
of dollars to develop coal deposits and infrastructure.
It has faced violent demonstrations from Mozambicans
protesting forced relocations and demanding greater benefits.
Vale's head of Africa operations, Ricardo Saad, said the
fact the company had experienced "problems" did not mean it
could be accused of "neo-colonial" behaviour in Africa.
He said colonial powers just came and took the continent's
resources, without asking its people, whereas contracts today
were closely negotiated with governments and communities.
"From the moment that I seek a licence to operate, where you
talk to a community, where anything you do has authorisation and
previous planning with the government, I can't say that's
neo-colonialism," Saad told Reuters.
Development analysts say the BRICS, with their radically
different economies, governments and competing priorities, still
need to demonstrate that they can change global power structures
to the benefit of the world's poor and underprivileged.
"The fact that they are pressing for a new balance of power
in the world has to be stressed as a positive thing...they have
new voices," said Nathalie Beghin of the Brazilian pro-democracy
and rights organisation INESC.
But she added in a jab at what activists say is the BRICS'
leadership-focused, top-down mode of operating so far: "They say
they are the voices of the poor. But where are the poor?"
SAIIA's Grant-Makokera says the BRICS offer developing
states other options for aid and investment as an alternative to
the old Western partners.
"At least you've got a diversity now, I don't think that can
be underestimated," she said.