NEW PLANS: South African President Jacob Zuma (right) shakes hands with Russian President Vladmir Putin before their bilateral meeting at the Brics Summit in Durban on Tuesday. Picture: REUTERS
NEW PLANS: SA President Jacob Zuma (right) shakes hands with Russian President Vladmir Putin before their bilateral meeting at the Brics Summit in Durban in March 2013. Picture: REUTERS

WHEN economic woes coalesce with flawed development strategy, it is time to find an exit path, especially one that promises the illusion of cargo-cult redemption with reflected glory, if no real solution.

So it is with South Africa’s unrequited romance with Brics-mania, aligned with larger powers — Brazil, Russia, India, China — with whom it ranks as a midget in gross domestic product (GDP), global weight, strategic significance, political "pull" and economic prospects.

To enhance its credentials, South Africa has "bulked up", claiming it acts for Africa, a fragmented set of 55 states of diverse nature, economic scale, contested interests, mixed social landscapes, multiple ethnolinguistic cultures and complex political regimes. The love affair does not appear to be mutual.

South Africa’s allure as "the gateway to Africa" is not borne out by the evidence. No foreign investors or mining-cum-oil/gas players need necessarily come via southern portals. Most go direct to source.

South Africa’s poor economic growth record (barely 2%-2.5% a year) underperforms sub-Saharan Africa, the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and its neighbours. This looks likely to continue, despite National Development Plan claims that 5.4% annual growth should prevail to 2030. Nearly three years into the "plan", the actual/required growth deficit accumulates.

With much of Africa and the Brics nations growing faster on trend, South Africa will fall further behind, and the briquette will likely crumble further in relative significance. Gateway claims may become negligible.

What South Africa wants from its Brics fantasy is a place in the sun, a stage for the consummation of its marriage of ideologies and interests with random "others" — paradoxically, a sort of polygamous relationship — with hidden mistresses scattered around Africa brought à la carte into its privileged relationship from time to time. Few African states buy this model. A self-assumed "state of exception", South Africa exudes little appeal for its brethren to the north. Then there are notions held dear by political nomenklatura in local ruling circles that are just plain nutty: that Brics will become hegemonic to supersede western interests in Africa, to capture future nirvana driven by realignment of the "south" (whatever that may be); that the struggling, yet-unborn Brics Development Bank will challenge the Bretton Woods institutions; that a business council will drive investments according to preplanned ideology; while telecom links will establish a model to resuscitate the new world economic order.

Many earlier "alignments" of convenience have bitten the historic dust in the grand cycles of economic change that sweep the world’s economies. Think: less-developed countries, least-less-developed countries; new industrialising countries, tigers; lions; plus groupings in Latin America. These dalliances are subject to the vagaries of commercial engagement, whether initial romance leads to marriage, divorce or not. As with predecessors in geopolitics and "strategic alliances", the bottom line is about fundamental interests and less eternal friendship, while a discernible life cycle exists to these random concubines.

Flirting that began a decade ago — hailed in the much-heralded but failed "African Renaissance-New Partnership for Africa’s Development syndrome" — eventually turned outwards: towards China/Brics options, an unlike collective of regimes with little in common except for centralist directionality, corruption, commodity-boom-driven good luck and self-generated animus to the "West".

The marriage mooted for consummation in Durban, with lobola or bride wealth invested in a small pot of gold — the infamous development bank — reflected the depth of mutual distrust embedded in separatist realism and realpolitik. While inner disputes were kept behind closed doors, mostly, it is not hard to imagine the contrary dispositions beneath the "grand bargain" that has not been, and may never be, readily struck: divergence is the Brics leitmotif, after all. Brazil exports crude oil, minerals and agro-allied products; Russia is resource-reliant and has "done" Africa before in the Cold War; India looks to globalise but in snail-pace democratic mode; China is an omnivore with a growing import appetite for oil and minerals; and South Africa needs investment but seeks to reorient trade links away from its traditional partners.

Of course, China is cash-rich, Russia periodically so, India fast-emerging from beggary, Brazil in a down cycle, and South Africa is a land of evident great potential that may always be a country of great potential — this the economic kiss of death, first mooted, and still apposite, for Zaire (the Democratic Republic of Congo).

One day, South Africa may no longer "fit" the natural embrace of this partnership of convenience. With time, the disjunction will become more evident, especially regarding South Africa’s risible claims of an assumed in loco parentis role with regard to Africa. All Brics players see potential mileage in Africa, and all engage there independent of South Africa. One achievement announced at the summit, China’s Tanzania port deal for Bagamoyo, stands as a transaction that needed no-one south of the Limpopo for deal closure.

More pseudo-combinations with acronyms will haunt the international economic stage as time marches on. Several have surfaced among bankers already: Civets (an HSBC notion: for Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, South Korea; and Jim O’Neill’s "Next 11" — he too thinks South Africa an undeserved orphan in Brics morphology; plus recently, Mist — Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey). One could offer more combinations in this parlour game, each with "logic" and spin, as sound bites for generic media usage, the inflated ambitions of politicos and to soothe ministerial egos. All can be underpinned with alleged "analysis" based on an economics of understanding "a mile wide and an inch deep".

Indeed, Africa’s economic landscape is littered with old, moribund and dysfunctional entities — the Organisation of African Unity, the African Union and the Economic Commission for Africa among them. These preside over a plethora of weak or defective trade institutions — including Sadc, the Economic Community of West African States, Arab Maghreb Union, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, and more — as a spaghetti bowl of confusion and Africa’s genuflection to the discreet charms of "union", whether political or economic.

Some are destined for amalgamation in Africa-wide board games for agglomerating countries and trade bodies in the vain and inglorious hope that the weaknesses and sloth of the lowest common party will somehow enhance the performance of all.

This state-driven bricolage, marking Africa’s institutional evolution, serves few, and benefits all far less than proclaimed.

Africa’s armies of political bricoleurs engaged in these artificial constructions wax lyrical about stellar ambitions and achievements, as do the Brics today.

However, the evidence of clear and direct-only effects driven solely by Brics politics on continental growth, foreign direct investment and investment, with net value-added commercial gain, is harder to find, notably when you learn that the Brics invest only 2.5% of their foreign investments in each other — and not all of that in Africa, let alone South Africa.

Clarke is the chairman and CEO of Global Pacific & Partners and the author of Africa’s Future: Darkness to Destiny (Profile Books, London, 2012).