BRICS in Africa: “You are either at the table or on the menu”


At a Johannesburg BRICS think tank, scholars get drunk on their own rhetoric

South African academics and think tanks met on 28-31 May 2018 for deliberations leading to the July 2018 BRICS heads of state summit to be hosted by South Africa. Most of these scholars believe that the BRICS countries offer an alternative to Western imperialism, but the author argues that they are seriously wrong.

A “think tank” is sometimes a group of people paid to think, by the people who control the tanks (as Naomi Klein once remarked). In Johannesburg, one of South Africa’s highest-profile intellectual vehicles appears to be a victim of drunken driving by scholars from whom we otherwise expect much stronger political navigation skills.

In the luxurious central business district of Sandton, a large gathering of state-funded intellectuals (staying at the 5-star Intercontinental Hotel) is conferencing in heart-warmingly hedonistic style, replete with national Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) songs and dances.

The 28-31 May BRICS Academic Forum and South Africa (SA) BRICS Think Tank meeting at the Sandton Convention Centre must be South African scholars’ most expensive event of the year, in spite of the theme, “Envisioning Inclusive Development through a Socially Responsive Economy.”

The mandate from Higher Education and Training Minister Naledi Pandoor’s opening speech was framed with unabashed talk-left ideology, regardless of obvious walk-right realities. She asked academics to

“develop a collaborative set of interventions that advances the agenda of the bloc. The BRICS formation is one that is based on a progressive view of how the world should develop; and the world is in need of progressive ideas, of ideas that come from issues of social justice and inclusion.”

But to advance that agenda entails active avoidance of major class contradictions within and between the BRICS, and between the BRICS and Africa, especially host South Africa’s rampant corporate and state corruption. The point, according to BRICS facilitator Anil Sooklal, Deputy Director-General of Pretoria’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), is state-business-intellectual “synergy”:

“We found that the Think Tank and Academic Forum is working in one compartment, and our business [sector] was working in another compartment, and government in another compartment. So we took the initiative to bring them all together.”

As the gathering this week illustrates, being embedded within a state-corporate power and funding system – at a time South Africa’s National Research Foundation is cutting back drastically on scholars’ research subsidies – risks transmission of the worst disease intellectuals can catch: failure of analytical nerve.

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