BRICS Summit to tackle energy transition

The expectation is that there will be in-depth discussions on how to deal with and collaborate on climate change and energy transition in aspects such as expediting the new-energy forms and enhancing technological cooperation.

Siyabonga Cyprian Cwele

As the highly anticipated BRICS Summit 2023 will be held in Johannesburg, South Africa in August, South African Ambassador to China Siyabonga Cyprian Cwele (Cwele) expressed his expectations for the upcoming summit in core areas such as the group’s further contribution in promoting the global recovery post-epidemic and the issue of energy transition and the technological sharing will be on the agenda. In an interview with Global Times (GT) reporter Xiong Xinyi. Cwele also highlighted the achievements that have been made and the unleashed potential for the cooperation between China and South Africa as well as between China and African nations under the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  


GT: Following the recent successful conclusion of the third China-Africa Economic and Trade Expo in Changsha, Central China’s Hunan Province, how do you view this event and its meaning in further boosting the bilateral trade between China and South Africa as well as between China and African nations in general under the BRI? 

Cwele: This was the first in-person expo after the COVID-19 epidemic and it was a successful event. 

The business exchanges and deals are quite significant, because now African entrepreneurs would travel to China, and South Africans ended up signing very good deals with the buyers in China. It shows the practical usefulness to our people. 

There were a lot of entrepreneurs from different provinces in South Africa participating in the expo. They all said that they made businesses and would come back next year, as some of them were attending the expo for the first time. 

The most exciting one for me was to attend a workshop organized by the Hunan provincial government and the General Administration of Customs of China to discuss about dealing with the facilitation of trade such as diseases and pest in a manner that we can empower and comply with each other. 

The Chinese authorities and the South African authorities are working closely with each other and keen to collaborate with other African countries and do exchanges of expertise and training. Some of the African countries do not have experts like veterinarians and they may struggle to make their products qualify for exporting to China. The offering of training means more products will come to China. That was the greatest achievement to me.

GT: As South Africa will host the BRICS Summit 2023 in August in Johannesburg, what are your expectations for this year’s summit? 

Cwele: In addition to the normal agenda, there are some key expectations. 

The first expectation is that there will be in-depth discussions by the leaders on how to deal with and collaborate on climate change and energy transition in aspects such as expediting the new-energy forms and enhancing technological cooperation.

The second one is the collaboration on skill sharing among BRICS countries for the future amid the rapid development of technologies and innovation. Through the strengthened training and cooperation, the workers can be redirected to new industries and the younger people can be empowered with more skills demanded by the market, so they can remain globally competitive. 

The issue of coordinating growth, stability, and global recovery post-pandemic will be another major expectation. The BRICS is playing quite a significant role in pushing the global recovery, particularly China. The big economy has been lifting the whole global community out of a recession. Topics such as how BRICS countries will strengthen the cooperation to expedite global recovery, ensure that the industrial and supply chains are open, promote the globalization and leverage the debts for the recovery process could be discussed by the leaders. 

GT: How is the application going for expanding BRICS membership? Multiple countries previously have expressed their willingness to join the BRICS, what are the reasons behind the surge?

Cwele: Right from its inception, BRICS was never conceived as an exclusive club. It was pushing for inclusiveness, reform of global governance and financial institutions, fairer multilateral system and strengthening multilateral governance under the UN system. We believe in expediting global trade other than protectionism.

The expansion of BRICS was brought back on the agenda in 2022. The key element is to make it not to be divisive to developing countries with very clear criteria. Senior officials were tasked to work on a consensus document which can be presented to the leaders on the upcoming summit in Johannesburg to consider. The senior officials have been working hard on the matter since the beginning of 2023. The BRICS already had experiences with the expansion of the New Development Bank (NDB). 

There is no opening for the application. The BRICS recognizes the public interests for joining the group, and will ask [those] who put this expression of interests to make a formal request when the process is finalized. 

In terms of the surge in the interests, a main element is that the benefits of being BRICS members are being seen by other developing and emerging economies. For instance, the trade between BRICS members has increased which then translated to direct benefits to the people with job opportunities and economic growth. 

Another aspiration is having BRICS’ own financial institutions – the NDB. The NDB has helped BRICS countries to build all the essential infrastructure with less punitive or restrictive conditions attached to it. During the bad times, BRICS has got a contingency reserve mechanism to assist its members to be able to draw in the cases. 

Even now some developed countries have expressed interests, but we are really focusing on developing and emerging economies first to make sure that we expand this cooperation.

BRI not an ‘indebting system,’ but bringing massive infrastructure expansion to Africa

GT: How has BRICS been contributing to promoting regional and global economic development and how will BRICS help new emerging economies tackle debt issues? 

Cwele: The trade and sharing of experiences with developing nations is a core of the BRICS right from the beginning. The BRICS has introduced programs like the BRICS Outreach and the BRICS Plus, where we invite representatives of other emerging economies to be part of us. We locate time outside of formal BRICS meetings to interact with them and see how we can help deal with challenges they are facing. 

In terms of making sure that we all rise, we don’t develop at the expense of other countries. But we have a win-win development with the countries we are helping or trading with.

We don’t have any formal mandate to deal with the debts because there’s a bank mandate. If there are sovereign debts which are bilateral, we normally discuss them with the countries and see how the best we can reduce or restructure their debts to be more sustainable debts rather than crippling debts.

It is more important to assist these countries to grow their economies and make sure that they also get some benefits of economic development. They are not dependent on their debts, which is a key mission for the BRICS partnership. 

GT: Amid the current global de-dollarization trend, how is the current process or development of a reported new BRICS currency?

Cwele: This is led by the NDB and they will be presenting some progress report. Sometimes we trade in our own local currencies to reduce the cost of trade. The center of the discussion is the unilateral sanctions which are not mandated by the UN starting to have impact on us like the inflationary pressures. We then must look for alternative trading system, cross-border financing mechanism or transmission mechanism. 

But we’re not just only looking for alternative currencies to US dollars or local currencies. We are looking into how the new digital currency can help us, which are the things that the financial experts and the bank are working on. 

GT: Some politicians and media alleged that the BRI was responsible for a so-called debt-trap in some African countries. How would you respond to such claims?

Cwele: As far as we’re concerned, the African countries were heavily indebted not from the BRICS or from China but from other developed economies even before 10 years ago. They have been facing a huge debt button since then.

We don’t see the BRI as an indebting mechanism. First, we treat each other in a relation with mutual respect as juniors. Any debt can be paid, and China has seen them as restructuring debt so they are becoming more sustainable. We are now seeing African institutions working with Chinese institutions to do better project preparation as projects will be properly bankable and sustainable. The African Development Bank now works with other global institutions and Chinese institutions to have the governments to prepare their projects better.

We have seen all these massive economic infrastructures to Africa under the BRI which was not there. Without the infrastructures and the extensive digital infrastructure, we can’t compete in the global economy. A huge benefit for us is that we can trade with each other through the infrastructures connecting the cities and countries. 

From the Africans’ perspective, we are only seeing the benefits of the BRI. For instance, China was even able to help us build our own African Union headquarters through the BRI and infrastructures. China is helping us now build the center for disease control in Africa, which is very important.

GT: This year marks the 10th anniversary of the BRI. South Africa was among the earliest countries to sign an MOU with China. What changes have the BRI brought to South Africa in boosting economy and improving people’s livelihoods in your view? What are some of the areas that you expect the two sides to further explore the cooperation potential under the initiative?

Cwele: Chinese corporations are winning public tenders for constructing roads, bridges, and dams in South Africa, which are extending across the country and are critical to bring industries in some of the poor provinces. We are seeing them participating in the expansion of our ports. Chinese companies are working closely with South Africa in terms of dealing with the electricity challenge and involving largely in energy production, especially in renewable energy. 

The issue of energy transition and the technological sharing will be on the agenda. 

The second one is a call for greater cooperation in terms of new economy, digital economy, and technologies. China has made significant strides over the last 10 or 15 years in these aspects. Sharing experiences with the South Africa will help us a lot because we are at the early phase of our digitalization of the economy and transforming the production methods. 

The third one is people-to-people exchanges, which are not only limited to tourism but also in education and other sectors, such as sports and healthcare cooperation.  

Source: Global Times Jul 20, 2023.

South African Ambassador to China Siyabonga Cyprian Cwele Photo: Chen Tao/GT

South African Ambassador to China Siyabonga Cyprian Cwele Photo: Chen Tao/GT