BRICS article by Ziaad Suleman

BRICS can deliver value to SA as our 4IR journey gathers speed

From SA’s perspective, we have settled on a set of four priorities that we believe will derive the most benefit in advancing our society and our economy

As representatives of investment agencies, businesses and the government met for the 2021 virtual Brics Trade Fair in August, there was a sense of urgency and revitalised belief in the benefits of Brics structures to its members.

Brics, an association of the five major emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA, remains a force to be reckoned with. It represents 42% of the world’s population – 3.6-billion people – 26% of the world’s geographical area, and 30% of global GDP. Our membership in this formation opens up geographies that would otherwise be remote and uninviting. It offers insights into global best practice, local contexts, and the technologies and sectors at the forefront of the fourth industrial revolution, or 4IR.

SA was well represented at the event, where we saw a gratifying willingness of all to commit to collaboration for mutual growth and to further augment our learning and information-sharing platforms.

Unlike the US or EU, the Brics alignment covers the entire globe. It comprises countries that have unique and varied local operating contexts yet remain pivotal to the success of the global economy.

Forums such as the Brics Trade Fair, and structures such as the Brics Business Council, are thus crucial intermediaries that pave the way for South African businesses to do business easily and effectively across the Brics bloc.

Successful digitalisation of the economy requires large-scale skill upgrades and technology adoption

Those of us who are represented on the Business Council wear several hats. We advance the interests of Brics itself, as well as those of our constituent nations. For South Africans, there is an additional responsibility: to be the voice of a continent to enhance the broader inclusion of Africa in trade and other opportunities.

From SA’s perspective, we have settled on a set of four priorities that we believe will derive the most benefit in advancing our society and our economy.

Firstly, skills development. A larger pool of relevant skills in the country would vastly increase our opportunities for international trade. It would allow us to onshore and reshore businesses that have surrendered jobs to more competitive geographies. And it would mean lower unemployment, broader growth and a more robust economy.

Secondly, connectivity. This is a crucial area that defines our future trajectory as a nation. Inclusive economic growth in the context of 4IR depends entirely on our ability to connect as many South Africans as possible to affordable, efficient networks.

Thirdly, e-commerce and other digital platforms. Connectivity is a prerequisite for these, but once people are connected, they need to be given the reach and tools required to enable them to be global economic players.

Finally, small, medium and micro enterprises. SMMEs are Africa’s conduit to sustainable growth. If we are to grow employment, prioritise innovation, and expand the tax base and GDP, SMMEs are key.

From a Brics digital economy perspective, we have six priorities to stimulate greater cross-border digital trade and mutual investment.

The first is digital governance. Digital governance enables governments to provide services in an efficient, cost-effective and convenient manner while making the administrative processes more transparent, accountable and responsible.

The second is digital infrastructure. The widespread adoption of emerging technology breakthroughs in the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics, Internet of Things, biotechnology, quantum computing and other emerging technologies holds the potential to raise global income levels and improve the quality of life for populations around the world.

The third is the digitisation of health care. If done well, this would usher in a paradigm shift from reactive to proactive health care. Advance monitoring of patient metrics points towards a future of “always on” health monitoring and affordable, easy diagnostics. Surgery will be made more accessible and affordable, and life-saving drugs could be more efficiently and cheaply developed.

The fourth is smart manufacturing, which brings together technology mega-trends including connectivity, intelligence and automation to make plants more agile, efficient and productive.
The fifth is digital skills across Brics nations. Higher use of advanced technologies requires large, medium and small enterprises to augment and upgrade the digital skills of their entire workforce. Successful digitalisation of the economy requires large-scale skill upgrades and technology adoption, with the involvement of the government, enterprises and citizens at large.

Finally, from an e-commerce perspective, collaboration and mutual investment in
e-commerce sectors within Brics nations can provide new and exciting economic opportunities. The advantages include expanded imports and exports, expansion of the digital economy, development of SMMEs into newer markets, employment generation and improved cooperation among companies and countries.

The world is becoming more and more competitive and complex. Any advantage we can leverage will position us more securely within the accelerating 4IR. International alignments such as Brics are one way in which SA can leverage global learnings, opportunities and networks in order to improve our competitive advantage and help ensure a better future for our citizens, both in SA and across the African continent.

Suleman is chair of the Brics Business Council (Digital Economy), chair of the Public Private Growth Initiative (Digital Economy) and chief commercial officer of EOH.

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