BRICS in South Africa, and the think tank in BRICS

Earlier this year, the South African Cabinet designated the HSRC as the incubator of the South African BRICS Think Tank for the 2013/14 financial year. In this capacity it is supported by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). What led to this development, and why is it important? Michael Cosser explains.

South Africa was formally welcomed into the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) fold through the Sanya Declaration, the official proceedings of the meeting of BRICS countries that took place in Hainan, China, on 14 April 2011. This development signalled an important milestone in South Africa being recognised as a key player in the emerging and developing group of countries and as a regional powerhouse in sub-Saharan Africa.

Even before South Africa’s admission to BRICS however, Brazil, Russia, India and China had acknowledged the significance of think tanks, formally welcoming the establishment of a conference of think tanks in their joint statement, issued after the second BRIC Summit of Heads of State and Government on 15 April 2010 (Brasilia, Brazil).

The importance of think tanks
Think tanks have played a major role in explaining the phenomenon of global political and economic change over the past three-quarters of a century. The UN Development Programme, for example, regard think tanks as organisations ‘engaged on a regular basis in research and advocacy on
any matter related to public policy… [building] the bridge between knowledge and power in modern democracies’.

From a BRICS perspective it is imperative that the fast-growing countries of the grouping have a platform – the think tank – for the exchange of ideas and the generation of evidence-based policy recommendations. Given their location at the research-policy nexus, think tanks are well placed to
shape the strategic visions of individual BRICS countries, as well as the grouping as a whole.

The South African context
As a member of the BRICS grouping, South Africa needs a think tank to provide strategic vision for the country as it negotiates its role within a changing world order, and also to give it a voice within the BRICS Think Tanks Council, a formation of the think tanks of the five countries, formally recognised through the eThekwini Declaration of 27 March 2013 (the proceedings of the fifth BRICS summit held in Durban). Hence the decision to establish a South African think tank and to appoint the HSRC as incubator of the South African BRICS Think Tank, given the HSRC’s pre-eminence as a social science body with a strong evidence-based approach to research and policy formation.

Since South Africa is the BRICS chair for 2013/14, its think tank has assumed responsibility for spearheading the agenda of the BRICS Think Tanks Council (BTTC). A major item on this agenda is the drafting of a long-term vision and strategy for BRICS, and the HSRC has been tasked to oversee and finalise the process. Having drawn up a schedule for this process, the HSRC is collating comments from the five countries into the next draft of the vision and strategy document, which will be finalised at the mid-term meeting of the BTTC in November.

Author: Michael Cosser, HSRC and member, BRICS Secretariat, interim South African BRICS Think Tank.