State of BRICS Youth Struggle: About Us, But Without Us

The leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will meet in Johannesburg from 25-27 July for the 10th BRICS Summit. Prior to the Summit a number of other BRICS dialogues are taking place, including the Business Council, Academic Forum, Civil BRICS and BRICS Youth. BRICS Youth was set up in 2013 to put youth voices on the BRICS agenda and to promote and popularise BRICS amongst young people ages 15-34 in each country.

At the time, in March 2013, President Jacob Zuma promised that the Durban BRICS Summit would “contribute immensely to satisfying the employment and development needs of our young population” and that youth employment would be “central to our engagements and discussions with the grouping.” But the fight against South African youth unemployment has been lost.

We reflect here on whether, five years later, SA’s hosting of the BRICS Youth participatory processes show any indication of improving prospects for youth in BRICS countries and South African youth in particular.

Raymond Matlala plays a leading role in BRICS Youth SA through his NGO “SA Youth International Diplomacy,” the G20 Youth Forum and the Euro-BRICS Youth Platform and he led a recent process formulating BRICS Youth recommendations for a civil society meeting called “pre-Civil BRICS.”

In a May 2018 interview, he admitted that the immediate concern facing BRICS Youth is its lack of sufficient representivity when taking positions on behalf of millions of young people. This means that a disconnect may exist between the positions and strategies undertaken by BRICS Youth and those taken by more representative or legitimate youth movements.

Representivity is entrusted to the National Youth Development Agency, a controversial statutory body set up by parliament in 2008. Each BRICS state has its own equivalent government youth agency that selects delegates. There is no formal elective process, which immediately raises questions around the intended political function of the structure.

Matlala, who attended the 2017 BRICS Youth Summit in Beijing, agrees that BRICS Youth has a problem: “BRICS Youth is regarded as an official platform where the decisions taken are binding to all member countries. We are still advocating for a permanent structure. We don’t reach the majority of young people, particularly those in rural and peri-urban areas. This information honestly reaches mostly young people in universities.”

If representatives are hand-picked by government agencies, their independence of perspective and legitimacy is questionable. With authoritarianism on the rise in Russia and India, with China even more totalitarian, and with the closing of democratic spaces in Brazil following the 2016 coup, the other BRICS countries provide even less opportunity for these types of initiatives to present independent views.

Matlala acknowledges that BRICS Youth lacks a constituency, but insists they can put the concerns of youth on the BRICS agenda: “There are a few policies that as young people in the BRICS countries we all agree on. One is on collaboration in education, and to advocate for free, equal and quality education amongst all the BRICS member states. We also agree strongly on the issue of climate change, of reducing the carbon footprint. We say ‘as the BRICS countries, what are you as leaders doing on this front?’ We then challenge our leaders on these particular issues, on education, on youth unemployment, on climate.”

Matlala continues, “You also know that there is the New Development Bank now. In this year’s recommendation we will say ‘we need a certain percentage in the Development Bank in developmental projects that are mainly focused on young people.’ We also need diversity in the NDB. When you look at the current committee there are no young people and also no women there. In this year’s recommendation we are going to say that we want women and young people to be in those structures. Not just old people and men. The NDB says that the funds are reserved for infrastructure development. So when you talk about infrastructure development you have to talk about issues of land!”

Matlala’s comments here reveal the potential for BRICS Youth to position itself as a progressive tendency within the bloc. However, the official documents drawn up at the various BRICS Youth fora are far more diplomatic. BRICS Youth demands in 2018 are packaged for state level consumption in the form of mild ‘policy recommendations’ that mostly concern petit-bourgeois interests such as knowledge sharing for youth entrepreneurship, university exchanges and easing visa requirements between the five nations.

On the other hand, they do demand gender and age diversity in structures like the NDB, but without a strategy to ensure change in the material conditions of poor youth in BRICS countries.

In SA, the NDB has disappointed youth in South Durban given that its only borrower so far, Transnet, will be expanding the port with a $200 million loan in a manner that entails environmental damage and job destruction, given the rapid automation processes in shipping and container handling. Another attack on the youth is the notorious corruption in Transnet’s current generation of leaders, which will adversely our future.

Meanwhile, immediate youth concerns such as access to land, free education, decent work and combating climate change are significantly watered-down in BRICS Youth documentation. In SA, youth demands for free education, decent work, gender equity, environmental protection, healthcare, housing, affordable municipal services and land redistribution have been placed firmly on the national agenda over the last two decades, with the Treatment Action Campaign winning free AIDS medicines, and with thousands of service delivery protests drawing society’s attention to unaffordable or inaccessible water, sanitation and electricity.

Progress has been achieved, not through a top-down approach from government nor from having government’s ear in various elite political fora, but thanks to daily struggles waged by thousands of young people in communities, in workplaces and at universities, struggles which have consistently been met with the full might of the state. The #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall struggles are victories also linked to oppressed people’s broader identity, to the need to transform neocolonial-capitalist power relations, and to the interests of casualised ‘outsourced’ university workers who won ‘insourcing’ in 2015 thanks to student support – none of which appear in BRICS Youth programming.

The BRICS Youth strategy of putting forward watered-down policy recommendations reflects a theoretically naive understanding of how progressive change is achieved. If the SA delegates in BRICS Youth sincerely believe in the need to address the type of issues that Matlala raises, then they would do well to draw lessons on political strategy from those young people organising on the ground.

The greater concern, however, is that the BRICS Youth programme may represent a mere tick-box exercise which can be used by the BRICS leadership to claim that they have “engaged all role players.”

Box ticking took the form of an event promoting BRICS and BRICS Youth that was held at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) on May 18. The BRICS Youth Dialogue was co-hosted by the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) together with the SA Student Congress Organisation-led Student Representative Council in conjunction with the Department of Energy and Department of International Relations and Cooperation.

Yet, disillusioned comments of student leaders after the event reflect the empty nature of the participatory process: “Dialogue was more a monologue for those people (BRICS Representatives) to tell us (students) that they (the BRICS) are hosting the summit in SA. I am not sure we really raised our thoughts and ideas because the session did not allow much.”

Another student leader put it more bluntly: “BRICS represent the true reflection of capitalism in Africa, it is a tactic to steal state resources… what have we achieved since the inception of the alliance, where is the evidence, these people are just playing with SA people. The worst scenario is that hypothetically even if we were to benefit from trading with BRICS countries, show me SAs who have shops in Russia or China, but look around SA, on every corner is a Chinese enterprise, it already causing lots of rigidity with locals. Wake up Africa!”

Whereas in past decades, youth would leave school with some hope of employment at labour-intensive manufacturing employers in the major cities, since the mid-1990s many industries were closed due to import of either capital-intensive machinery or more commonly, cheaper East Asian products. Youth xenophobia is also a danger, given that there are many African township retail shops run by immigrants from the African continent and Asia, whose pricing advantage from bulk buying undercuts the local spaza shops. The potential for generating international solidarity with Chinese and Indians, given cut-throat township capitalism, is dim.

The opinions of the BRICS Youth Dialogue participants demonstrate the issues that arise from BRICS role in promoting collective development in South Africa. The Dialogue doesn’t really help to inform students or to involve them. These forms of BRICS engagement appear to be very ritualistic. As one student leader put it, “BRICS representatives (are) not speaking the same language as young people, for South African youth we only concerned about job security, skills development… the BRICS Youth is not useful to (our) struggle.”

Despite the catchy BRICS Youth slogan, “nothing about us, without us,” and President Cyril Ramaphosa conceding that “… our most grave and pressing challenge is youth unemployment” in his State of the Nation speech in February, it is an inescapable reality that BRICS Youth is set up and run by government, and reflects government priorities, not the priorities and activism of the youth.

Reflecting this, at the 4thBRICS Youth Summit in late July, hollow state promises predominated. According to the Chairperson of National Youth Development, Sifiso Mtsweni, “Youth must drive the development agenda in South Africa, as the BRICS Youth Forum Chair, we will make our voices to be heard by the leaders of the BRICS countries. The youth must be involved in every key decision made. As the gateway to Africa, we should be creating employment opportunities for young people.”

More vapid official pleasantries were heard from Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Buti Manamela: “ the young people of Brics must take Brics seriously because they are the present and future of Brics… you must therefore demand a seat at the table. To be heard. And to shape this future that belongs to us”.

If the BRICS Youth network develops a radical public image in order to secure its position as a progressive tendency within the bloc, yet continues to make mild-mannered policy recommendations and support intellectually-empty Youth Dialogues and Summit meetings, it will simply fulfil the function of a political buffer between the collective leadership of the BRICS and increasingly angry, alienated young people in BRICS countries.

All eyes are on the outcomes of the highly anticipated summit of BRICS leaders, youth are eager to hear as to what is the next step from here. Decisions are going to be taken, but the concerns from the youth still remain.

Njabulo Maphumulo is a University of the Western Cape post-graduate student activist.

Lynford Dor is a researcher with the Casual Workers Advice Office in Johannesburg.