Anil Sooklal is a diplomat, historian and religious scholar. He is currently the South African Sherpa to BRICS. He has taught at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of South Africa. During this time he has published more than 20 articles in both local and international journals. Sooklal has served as Deputy Director General of the Asia and Middle East Department of International Relations and Cooperation. In an exclusive interview with TV BRICS, Anil Sooklal spoke about the upcoming BRICS Summit, the objectives of its chairmanship of the group and the leading areas of cooperation between Russia and South Africa.
South Africa is chairing BRICS this year. What does this mean for your country and what priorities does it give to South Africa?
Yes, 2023 is the year of South Africa's presidency of the BRICS. This is the third time South Africa has had the privilege. We have been leading the association in 2013 and 2018. So once every five years we become the BRICS chairman. As in previous years, we use the presidency not only to focus on cooperation among the five member states of the association, but also to get the opportunity to strengthen interaction between BRICS and Africa. By the way, Russia will also host a major event this year: the second Russia-Africa Summit, organised by President Vladimir Putin, will take place in St Petersburg at the end of July. Almost all African leaders will attend the event. So, I think there are similar approaches between the Russian government and South Africa.
South Africa is one of the most economically developed countries on the African continent and is traditionally one of the five largest trading partners of Russia among African countries. How would you describe the economic cooperation between our states?
The Russian Federation and South Africa have very strong bilateral ties. The driving force behind Russian-South African relations at the current stage is an active political dialogue at the highest level. Our countries enjoy a high level of mutual understanding on major issues on the international and regional agenda. Currently in BRICS, Russia and South Africa are demonstrating a constructive mood towards deepening cooperation in the three key areas of the association: politics and security, economy and finance, and humanitarian exchanges. I believe that we can and should do more for the benefit of both countries as the scope for increasing cooperation between our private sectors is huge. The South African leadership has often stressed that engagement within the BRICS is important in realising the key priorities of creating a better future for South Africa, the African continent and a better world as a whole.
Russia shares this view. One of the issues discussed not long ago at a meeting in South Africa was the opening of the Russia-South Africa Business Council. This will be a very important platform for strengthening the partnership. In addition, President Vladimir Putin and President Cyril Ramaphosa will meet at the Russia-Africa summit. The leaders plan to discuss the state of our bilateral relations and together propose options for strengthening the partnership.
What other issues will the Russian and South African presidents be discussing?
The two countries plan to develop cooperation in the peaceful exploration of space, high-tech and nuclear energy. So Russia and South Africa have a lot of common interests and areas where they can work together for mutual benefit. But I think the focus will be on how we can increase our economic cooperation, trade and investment, how we can improve cooperation on technology transfer and exchange, how we can improve communication and social cohesion between our people.
Just a few words about the BRICS summit in South Africa. In which city will the meeting be held?
The summit will be held in Johannesburg, at the Exhibition Centre, from 22 to 24 August. The President has personally invited all the BRICS leaders to attend. As you know, this will be the first face-to-face summit in four years. The previous meeting of the leaders of the Big Five, where you could shake hands and look each other in the eye, took place back in 2019.
In your recent interview, you said that the Sherpa's job is to create all the conditions for a successful summit. How are the preparations going?
South Africa has about 200 events planned, so the schedule is pretty tight. At the end of June, we will have our first meeting with the Sherpas. There have also been expert group meetings, meetings with senior officials. We are continuing to work on several ministerial directions, and we have a meeting with the BRICS foreign ministers on 1 and 2 June. Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, has confirmed his participation. This will be his second trip to South Africa this year.
It will be the first time in about four years that foreign ministers of the BRICS countries will have the opportunity to discuss important issues in person. This places a certain obligation on South Africa as the host country of the meeting. We are making preparations, trying to make sure that everything goes according to plan.
What are the goals of the upcoming summit?
One of the priorities is to strengthen economic cooperation. Last year we adopted the second version of the BRICS Economic Partnership Strategy. The document sets out the main areas for BRICS cooperation until 2025 in the following areas: trade, investment and finance, the digital economy, and sustainable development. The updated strategy will help to develop joint measures to overcome the negative consequences of the pandemic, and will also help to respond more effectively to new economic challenges. We are also planning a meeting of the BRICS Business Council and the BRICS Women's Business Alliance.
Another important area of our attention is green energy. This issue is on the agenda of many countries. The use of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and hydropower will solve the problem of climate change. Ensuring Africa's equitable transition to green development will improve the quality of life and living environment, along with production efficiency and competitiveness. And of course, another important area of our focus will be the capacity building and skills development of our people. The future, as we know, depends on new technologies. We must learn to use our collective experience, best experiences and technologies to build capacity and to increase the productivity.
What is the most important thing for the BRICS right now? How can we strengthen the alliance?
We should focus on strengthening our economic cooperation. As you know, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have agreed that about a third of the world economy will be in recession this year. But I do not think this forecast will affect the BRICS countries. We are going to see positive dynamics. Some of the fastest growing economies are India and China. They are helping to stimulate not only the BRICS economies, but the global economy as a whole. According to the latest statistics, the BRICS now accounts for 31.5 per cent of global GDP. And that is quite a lot. We are well placed to compete with other international associations.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has said that BRICS plays an important role in providing leadership in the world. Where do the BRICS countries stand on the world stage now?
BRICS is a voice of reason, it is an inclusive partnership. It is a cooperation and collaboration with the world community. BRICS has repeatedly stated that it wants to create an equal and fair global society. This is the kind of leadership that the bloc should provide. Then the five countries may easily become an important element in the restructuring of the global geopolitical, economic and financial architecture. And BRICS has the potential to do that.
Your words are easily confirmed by the fact that other countries want to join BRICS. What do you think about this?
Last year, at the Beijing summit hosted by President Xi Jinping, the BRICS leaders asked us to consider the expansion of the association and to develop the guidelines for the admission of new members. What is the purpose of this? It is very simple. So far, a number of countries (at least 13) from Africa, Latin America and Asia have applied or formally approached the BRICS leaders to become members of our association. This is positive news for the bloc, as it demonstrates the confidence of the Global South in the leadership of our association.
What is the level of South Africa's relationship with the other BRICS countries?
We have very strong relations with all the BRICS countries. These states are our strategic partners. Representatives of these states regularly interact at the highest level. And now that we have returned to face-to-face events, the BRICS summit gives the leaders the opportunity not only to meet collectively but also to hold bilateral talks.
In general, BRICS as a global association is based on three pillars - political security, economic and financial development, and social interaction among the member countries. All three pillars are critical important for the creation of a global political architecture that is equitable and just, which is a stable safe environment for all. On the economic and financial side, we need a stable global financial architecture, a global financial arena. That is why we say that we need to trade in our own currencies.
And BRICS is about people. No association can consist only of governments. The strength of BRICS cooperation is based on the fact that we are strengthening the interaction between our peoples. It should be about bringing together our scientists, our civil society, our artists, students and academics. So we should use the BRICS membership to improve interaction between people.
We have the annual BRICS Games to increase sports exchanges, and the annual BRICS Film Festival to increase cultural exchanges. These are all important aspects of cooperation between the five countries. You can already see how much cooperation has expanded within the association. It covers all spheres of life. We must understand each other better, learn from each other, and appreciate the culture and wealth of each society.