DURBAN, South Africa (Reuters) - "BRICS, Don't Carve Africa" reads a banner in a church hall in downtown Durban where civil society activists have gathered to cast a critical eye at a summit of five global emerging powers.
The slogan evokes the 19th Century conference in Berlin where the predominant European colonial states carved up the African continent in a scramble historians see as epitomizing the brash exploitative capitalism of the time.
Decades after Africans threw off the colonial yoke, it is the turn of the blossoming BRICS group of Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa to find their motives coming under scrutiny as they proclaim an altruistic-sounding "partnership for development, integration and industrialization" with Africa.
Led by that giant of the emerging powers, China, the BRICS are now Africa's largest trading partners and its biggest new group of investors. BRICS-Africa trade is seen eclipsing $500 billion by 2015, with China taking the lion's share of 60 percent of this, according to Standard Bank.
BRICS leaders persist in presenting their group - which represents more than 40 percent of the world's population and one fifth of global gross domestic product - in the warm and fuzzy framework of benevolent South-South cooperation, an essential counterweight to the 'old' West and a better partner for the poor masses of the developing world.
In his first trip to Africa as head of state, China's new president Xi Jinping expounded this line in Tanzania on Monday, saying his country wanted "a better life for African people" and was offering a relationship of equals.
"We think there's too much back-slapping," said Patrick Bond of the University of KwaZulu-Natal's center for Civil Society, who helped to organize an alternative "BRICS-from-below" meeting in Durban to shadow the BRICS summit on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Bond and other critics of the BRICS' South-South pitch say developing countries that receive investment and assistance from the new emerging powers need to take a hard, close look at the deals they are getting.
Beneath the fraternal veneer, Bond sees "incoherent imperial competition" not unlike the 19th Century scramble, saying that BRICS members are similarly coveting and exploiting African resources without sufficiently boosting industrialization and job-creation, all much needed on the continent.
This view has gained some traction in Africa as citizens from Guinea and Nigeria to Zambia and Mozambique increasingly see Brazilian, Russian, Indian, Chinese and South African companies scooping up multi-billion dollar oil and mining deals and big-ticket infrastructure projects.
Many of these deals have come under scrutiny from local and international rights groups. More than a few have faced criticism that they focus heavily on raw material extraction, lack transparency and do not offer enough employment and developmental benefits to the receiving countries - charges often leveled against corporations from the developed West.
"NEW FORM OF IMPERIALISM"
Anti-poverty activists say the profit motivation of large BRICS corporations working in Africa is no different from that of Western companies.
"Matters of greed are universal and their actors come from both the North and the South," said Wahu Kaara, a Kenyan social justice campaigner and coordinator of the Kenya Debt Relief Network who attended the "BRICS-from-below" meeting.
This wariness of the new players in Africa has even permeated some government circles on the continent.
Warning Africa was opening itself up to "a new form of imperialism", Nigerian central bank governor Lamido Sanusi accused China, now the world's No. 2 economy, of worsening Africa's deindustrialization and underdevelopment.
"China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism," Sanusi wrote in a March 11 opinion column in the Financial Times.
"Africa must recognize that China - like the U.S., Russia, Britain, Brazil and the rest - is in Africa not for African interests but its own," Sanusi added.
Chinese and other BRICS leaders indignantly reject the criticism their group represents a kind of "sub-imperialism" in their growing economic and political engagement with Africa.
Zhong Jianhua, China's special envoy to Africa, told Reuters that China and Africa's common history of resisting colonial pressure put their relationship on a different level.
"China was bullied by others in the past, and so was Africa. This shared experience means they have a lot in common. This is China's advantage and the reason why many Western countries are at a disadvantage," he said in an interview with Reuters.
Zhong added that China should encourage its companies to train and employ more African workers, responding to complaints that Chinese investors often brought in their own workforces.
Catherine Grant-Makokera of the South African Institute of International Affairs said BRICS governments did noticeably operate differently from the West in the way they offered financing and aid to nations in Africa.
"You've seen a greater willingness from the newer players to invest in things like hard infrastructure, either through financing mechanisms, or simply grants or gifts," said Grant-Makokera, SAIIA's program head for economic diplomacy.
But she acknowledged the BRICS development aid approach, while offering faster turnaround times for projects, was often less restrained by labour and environmental considerations.
This has opened BRICS companies up to charges that in their haste to develop resource projects in Africa they flaunt local communities' rights and ride roughshod over the environment.
Brazilian mining giant Vale, named in 2012 by the Swiss non-profit group Public Eye as the corporation with the most "contempt for the environment and human rights" in the world, defends its record in Mozambique, where it is investing billions of dollars to develop coal deposits and infrastructure.
It has faced violent demonstrations from Mozambicans protesting forced relocations and demanding greater benefits.
Vale's head of Africa operations, Ricardo Saad, said the fact the company had experienced "problems" did not mean it could be accused of "neo-colonial" behavior in Africa.
He said colonial powers just came and took the continent's resources, without asking its people, whereas contracts today were closely negotiated with governments and communities.
"From the moment that I seek a license to operate, where you talk to a community, where anything you do has authorization and previous planning with the government, I can't say that's neo-colonialism," Saad told Reuters.
Development analysts say the BRICS, with their radically different economies, governments and competing priorities, still need to demonstrate that they can change global power structures to the benefit of the world's poor and underprivileged.
"The fact that they are pressing for a new balance of power in the world has to be stressed as a positive thing...they have new voices," said Nathalie Beghin of the Brazilian pro-democracy and rights organization INESC.
But she added in a jab at what activists say is the BRICS' leadership-focused, top-down mode of operating so far: "They say they are the voices of the poor. But where are the poor?"
SAIIA's Grant-Makokera says the BRICS offer developing states other options for aid and investment as an alternative to the old Western partners.
"At least you've got a diversity now, I don't think that can be underestimated," she said.