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In the end, it comes down to values

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    Nat Quinn

    On Wednesday last week, Business Day ran a column by Small Business Institute John Dludlu about the BRICS+ group. BRICS+ has become a totem for South Africa, a multinational forum on which it can trumpet its supposed global influence.

    A rare instance of clarity and insight on the group, Dludlu’s piece argued that whatever benefits this group could provide, it was compromised by a failure to articulate common positions on key issues. The group has not been able reach consensus, let along joint action, on the Russia-Ukraine War (this despite one of its founding members having initiated it), on the Red Sea crisis, or on the war in Gaza. Its default has therefore tended to be (or is assumed to be) hostility to the West.

    ‘A further expansion of the bloc without shared values will limit BRICS+ to a forum for anti-West rants, and undermine its potential as a force for the Global South’s good,’ he concluded.

    Reading this, I was reminded of something I wrote in 2015, which was published in the Mail & Guardian. African unity is one of those heady ideas that has been breathlessly discussed by the continent’s intellectuals since its countries attained their independence. The notion of a mighty, United States of Africa has long been a beguiling one. For any number of reasons this was never feasible, but from my own perspective at this time, it was the diversity of Africa’s political systems that made it unworkable. How, after all, could one feasibly combine reformists like Ghana with regressors like Zimbabwe, democracies (however imperfect) like Mauritius or Botswana with tyrannies like Equatorial Guinea, free societies like South Africa with control systems like Rwanda? Not to mention differences in stability, administrative capacity and so on.


    In other words, it was absurd to even ruminate on this without addressing the question of values. As it happens, the African Union has produced a substantial library of declarations, charters, and treaties, which set out common continental positions on political and governance values – even though adherence is uneven, and at times non-existent.

    Contrast this to the European Union. Warts and all, it grew out of humble beginnings in the 1950s to encompass most of that continent, and achieved a level of internal harmonisation that has been quite remarkable. It has not been without its faults or critics, but its longevity and durability were only possible because it insisted on a commonality of values among its members: a democratic system with corresponding institutions, the rule of law, a market economy.

    This point has been proved at other times in history. The United States was able to constitute itself as a country because the people of its original, disparate parts were able to unite around a set of principles on which to found a new country – and then fell into bloody civil war when another question of values, that of human slavery, split the country apart.

    Values are foundational to communities. They integrate individuals into groups, and smaller groups into larger ones. They establish norms around which people and communities can orient their actions and can order their expectations of one another.

    Note, though, that values are different from interests. Where an endeavour is geared towards a particular outcome, it may not be especially relevant what motivates those pursuing it; when achieving a goal requires cooperation, people of groups may do so for very different reasons. In the Second World War, the Allied coalition was truly diverse in this respect: democracies, dictatorships, imperial possessions, and a fair spread of countries falling outside any neat description.

    Common interests

    So, Dludlu may not have stated his case properly. The BRICS+ group lacks both common interests and common values. A general commitment to reforming the global order or multipolarity is one thing, but agreeing on the specifics of what that might mean is another. Russia is an erstwhile superpower, China and India rising powers. China and India have both been high-growth economies and are as much competitors as they are collaborators – more so, probably, as they have unresolved boundary issues and the notion of a war breaking out between them is by no means fanciful. As a motley collection of political systems, they lack the coherence to articulate a consistent normative alternative.

    For what it’s worth, I also remarked some years ago that those who were energised by the prospect of a multipolar world order should brace themselves for a multipolarity of values. Don’t expect, for instance, the idea of human rights as universal to endure, even rhetorically. Russia and China are aggressively pushing the idea that these ideals are culturally specific and society dependent.

    And it’s not just on issues of global import that values, interests and their interaction are revealing. Perhaps even more pertinently they govern the conduct of domestic politics.

    So, closer to home, the ANC and the uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MK) were in court fighting over whether the latter could use the name it had chosen for itself. This promises to be one of the more sinister dynamics of the coming election, what with MK having already threatened violence if it is unable to contest the election. Expect this to become quite rough in places.

    Interestingly, this is not remotely a conflict of values. As Marius Roodt discussed in a column last week, MK’s manifesto is mostly AI-style boilerplate, which befits a party that seems largely to exist as a vehicle for the erstwhile president’s grievances. But there is nothing there that signifies a major departure from the ANC’s worldview.

    Indeed, the very name suggests that the intention is to maintain as much of a link to the ANC brand as possible. In fact, as Dludlu was ruminating on the state of BRICS, News24 ran an article quoted Jacob Zuma saying that the intention of the party was to ‘reclaim’ the ANC.


    At issue here is not an alternative approach to politics, more a dispute over incumbency and the distribution of spoils – a dispute over interests.

    Much the same could be said, incidentally, regarding the EFF. Its positions may be expressed in a rather more extreme idiom, but its offering is fundamentally to deliver the promises of a militant and radical liberation movement rather than to present something different – to be, in a sense the ‘real’ ANC.

    This produces an interesting conundrum: common values, but divergent and probably irreconcilable interests, the latter encompassing to no small extent the division of opportunities for patronage and plunder. It is a particularly high-stakes game.

    The corresponding conundrum for South Africa is that its prospects for escaping its current malaise would depend on a revitalised approach to governance underwritten by a new and more productive set of values: constitutional fealty, limited but effective government, the separation of party and state, market economics and a focus on achieving results.


    This is broadly what the parties of the Multi-Party Charter place at the centre of their proposals, though I suspect that it will face considerable headwinds in the coming months as a result of latent differences in both interests and values.

    The commitment by the IFP to such things as the institution of traditional leadership – and its hopes to regain control of KwaZulu-Natal – could prove to be a conjunction of value and interest that a rump ANC could exploit. And there has been considerable bad blood between the Democratic Alliance and ActionSA. Although their values hardly diverge, their interests – in the sense that there are all manner of personal conflicts and disputes over the nature of the charter and their relative roles in it – are making for often turbulent travel.

    And then of course, there are a number of other groups – Rise Mzansi, Build One South Africa, the Patriotic Alliance – who see their interests (and possibly their values too) not represented by either camp.

    South Africa’s future will depend on it finding a useful and workable set of interests and respecting a corresponding set of values that consolidate them. On the up side, the overall view of South Africa’s people is actually quite positively oriented in this respect: it is rather parts of the elite that are out of step.

    Like BRICS+ though, South Africa’s politics – certainly within its ‘liberation’ tradition – is compromised by values that are counterproductive to a functioning, developmentally-focused democracy, and disputes over interests that reduce it to incoherence. Until this changes, South Africa, like its multinational counterpart, will fail to live up to its promise.


    SOURCE:In the end, it comes down to values  – Daily Friend

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