South Africa hosted the fifth BRICS Summit in Durban in March 2013. This summit was a first for South Africa and for the BRICS in more ways than one. Notable was the fact that it was the first summit held under a theme that went beyond the five BRICS members and resonated with the continent in which the Summit was being hosted. The theme for the Summit was, "BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Development, Integration and Industrialisation".
This was further the first time that South Africa hosted the Summit, having only been a member since 2011. South Africa's membership had initially been celebrated on the basis of it being a gateway to Africa.
The Summit theme was aligned to a stated African priority agenda and, despite criticism from some commentators and analysts, it was also relevant to the BRICS in view of their increasing involvement in the African continent, particularly in the trade and investment space.
BRICS-Africa trade has been growing at a tremendous pace, having doubled since 2007 and still growing. This trade buffered African economies during the global economic crisis by providing welcome alternative export markets for Africa, thus diminishing the effects of the crisis.
It also speaks to a long standing call by analysts for Africa to explore and take more advantage of opportunities for South-South trade and the need to diversify export destinations. Inherent in such calculations is the need to expand the continent's economic base, grow the manufacturing sector and diversify export baskets.
BRICS foreign direct investment in Africa has been growing, especially in the infrastructure and agricultural sector. This has the potential to both assist with growing intra-regional trade and make regional economic integration more relevant for Africa. Regional integration is one of the stated key priorities of the African Union, coupled with infrastructure development.
Nonetheless, despite the desirability of this investment and diversification of trade partners, the contribution of BRICS to shifting the African export basket has been very minimal as the BRICS largely demand primary commodities which they need for their own continued development and industrialisation.
This then begs the question, what role can the BRICS play in African regional integration? The answer lies in the commitments that the BRICS have themselves made to promote regional integration in Africa; Africa's response to the increased BRICS engagement in Africa; as well as the role played by other actors in Africa, particularly Africa's traditional partners such as the EU, Japan and the US.
In terms of the BRICS countries' individual bilateral engagements with African countries, with the exception of South Africa for obvious reasons they have had little direct involvement in regional integration initiatives, which are not a major part of their stated agendas. Instead, they tend to engage with individual countries, even when such dealings may have regional ramifications.
This approach may constitute tacit recognition that given the weakness of Africa's regional structures, involvement in regional integration based on a top-down approach would be more political than economic in its effects (although China has developed some degree of relationship at a continental level with the AU and, among other things, built the new AU headquarters in Addis Ababa).
At the Durban BRICS Summit, the leaders committed themselves to the establishment of a BRICS Development Bank, which is expected to play a big role in financing infrastructure in Africa; they signed the BRICS Multilateral Infrastructure Co-Financing Agreement for Africa, that will be used as a vehicle to facilitate co-financing for infrastructure development projects in Africa; and, lastly, they held a Retreat with African leaders after the Summit, themed, "Unlocking Africa's potential: BRICS and Africa Cooperation on Infrastructure".
This was an opportunity for BRICS and African leaders to discuss strengthening and deepening their engagement to support the economic growth and development of Africa. While the Retreat was touted as having been successful, little came out of it besides reiterations of the BRICS' commitment to African development.
This was echoed by the Summit Declaration which supports African countries in their industrialisation process, and acknowledges the importance of infrastructure development and related continental initiatives - all within the framework of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).
Africa's response to the BRICS has been muted in terms of strategy, with each country more concerned with its own economic development and therefore individual engagement with the BRICS members.
As industrialisation and development are both national and regional goals there is a need for both the harmonisation of the BRICS countries' individual engagements in Africa, and the response of African countries.
Through South Africa's effort, the Durban BRICS Summit was potentially a first step towards providing such a platform and dialogue with the BRICS on Africa's development imperatives.
This becomes particularly important when one also considers the need to reframe trading relations away from the traditional commodity-export route. This common and strategic approach to BRICS engagement in Africa is however not apparent post the 2013 BRICS Summit and this is a theme that Africa still needs to engage with more seriously and consistently.
It is also important to remain cognisant of the fact that while BRICS engagement in Africa is growing, Africa's traditional partners still remain relevant to Africa's growth story, especially in terms of regional integration and infrastructure development, and as they have donor programmes that focus specifically on these themes.
Again, the issue of Africa owning this agenda becomes apparent. Traditional partners have tended to own the agenda when it comes to the projects that they fund and implement.
The rise of the BRICS and their economic influence in Africa has led to competition by traditional and emerging partners to increase their scope of influence in Africa. This should be utilised as an opportunity for Africa to bargain for greater benefits and more ownership of its own development agenda and any support provided for this agenda.
There is much scope for a defined role for the BRICS countries in African regional integration and economic development but this definition largely relies on Africa itself.
Taking the commitments made at the 2013 Durban BRICS Summit and the outcomes of the BRICS and African leaders retreat and translating them into action demands that Africa hold the BRICS countries accountable for their promises. Key to this approach is Africa having a strategic plan of engagement, at a regional and continental level, with both the BRICS and other external actors on the continent that influence regional integration.
It remains to be seen whether Africa will remain on the BRICS agenda for years to come and an indicator of this will be the agenda set by Brazil for the 2014 BRICS Summit.
However, with Africa being touted as the final development frontier and with developed countries and advanced emerging economies competing for both the African market and political influence, it makes sense that African development remains one of the priority agenda items within BRICS so as to give the BRICS members themselves a competitive edge. The continent at the same time has a responsibility to take ownership of how this agenda manifests itself on African ground.
Memory Dube is senior researcher with SAIIA's Economic Diplomacy Programme. A version of this article was originally published in Africa Rising Magazine published by the NEPAD Business Foundation.