Globalization Made Them
The market has neutered South Africa's ANC government
more effectively than apartheid did.
Tompaine.com, August 2002
Remember when apartheid in South Africa ended? Remember
when Nelson Mandela walked out of jail and into the
presidential palace? We thought the people of South
Africa had been liberated. We thought that their lives
could only get better. We were wrong.
Globalisation - the process of extending the American
version of consumer capitalism to every nation on Earth
- is destroying the lives of South Africa's poorest
people as effectively as apartheid ever did. Globalisation,
pushed by some of the biggest and most powerful private
corporations in history, is placing the pursuit of trade,
profits and economic growth before poverty alleviation,
environmental protection and the pursuit of social justice.
When the African National Congress (ANC) took power
in 1994, it promised to take action to right the wrongs
of apartheid. Those wrongs were deeply ingrained. The
top 5 percent of the population - all white - consumed
more than the bottom 85 percent, and income inequality
in the country was up there with Brazil and Nigeria
as the worst in the world. A rich, white elite controlled
most of the land, the capital and the economy, more
than half of the country's black citizens lived in dire
poverty, and less than a third of them had access to
basic services. The ANC had a tough job on its hands.
It initially chose to tackle this job through something
called the Reconstruction and Development Program, or
RDP. It was a government-led program to rebuild a shattered
nation, and its "first priority [was] to begin
to meet the basic needs of people - jobs, land, housing,
water, electricity, telecommunications, transport."
The list went on. This was to be achieved through programmes
to redistribute land to the landless, build a million
new homes and provide free basic services to all. It
was unequivocal stuff. It was also short-lived.
By 1996, the RDP was dead, most of its targets unmet,
the ministry set up to oversee it closed down. In its
place came a new economic plan - the Growth Employment
and Redistribution program - or GEAR. GEAR was drawn
up by 15 economists, two of them from the World Bank,
the others were from various African banks, the Reserve
Bank of South Africa, neoliberal think tanks and corporations.
Only one economist had any footing in the South African
Democratic movement, and only one was black.
The World Bank, the IMF and the U.S. government - the
three pillars of the 'Washington consensus' upon which
the ideology of globalisation rests - were very pleased
with the strategies of this new economic plan. GEAR
represented a swift and brutal change of direction for
the ANC - a change that most of its citizens are still
coming to terms with. The government, which had come
to power with such grand ideas about reconstructing
its dazed nation had, after just two years, effectively
given up. GEAR was the ANC's white flag: from now on,
the markets would decide the fate of South Africa's
Where the RDP had promised basic services for all,
GEAR promised public-private sector partnerships based
on cost recovery. Translated, this meant the privatisation
of utilities and increased water, electricity and rent
bills for some of the poorest South Africans. Where
the RDP set targets for reducing unemployment, GEAR
called for "greater labour market flexibility."
And where the RDP made a great show of highlighting
the systematically enforced racial divisions in the
economy, and the system's structural inequalities, GEAR
talked about "economic stability," "cost
recovery," "sound fiscal policy," "foreign
direct investment" and "strong export performance".
The results on the ground are now making themselves
clear. Patrick Bond, a Johannesburg academic, was involved
in drawing up the original RDP and is now a firm opponent
of GEAR. The author of several books on what he calls
the country's "elite transition" from apartheid
to neoliberalism, Bond said he believes, like many other
South Africans, that GEAR is "a capitulation to
a very one-sided Faustian pact."
According to Bond, almost a million jobs have been
lost to GEAR. South Africa's unemployment rate is now
conservatively estimated at 25 percent - and may be
as high as 40 percent. Twenty-two million South Africans,
out of a population of 42 million, still live in absolute
poverty, according to widely reported estimates.
Recent research showed that GEAR has led to 10 million
South Africans having their water cut off, 10 million
having their electricity cut off, and 2 million being
evicted from their homes - all for non-payment of bills
which, in a country in which half the population gets
by on around $2 a day, they simply cannot pay.
But the struggle that South Africans employed so effectively
against the evil of apartheid is now being rallied against
the neo-liberal policies of the new, centre-right ANC.
In the former townships, resistance to what is increasingly
being called the ANC's 'sell-out' is gathering pace.
In Soweto, the vast Johannesburg township that was the
cradle of resistance to apartheid, community groups
opposing the ANC's policies - and their effects on the
people there - are growing in number.
Trevor Ngwane, a former ANC councillor for Soweto,
was expelled from the party for opposing its privatisation
plans. He, and others, set up the Johannesburg Anti-Privatisation
Forum in response and are now touring the country drumming
up support for their resistance.
"The ANC are worried about us," Ngwane told
me when I visited South Africa last November. "There
is no doubt in my mind. More and more people are no
longer listening to them. We are speaking out against
Privatisation of basic services is the key to this
new battle. The World Bank and IMF demand privatisation
wherever they go. It is the key to corporate control
and corporate profits, and is a major plank of ANC policy,
according to government documents that outline the GEAR
The World Bank says that the South African government
should recover its costs for services such as water
and electricity. This means that bills go up, and in
places like Soweto - which has 70 percent unemployment
- people simply cannot pay. The result: services are
cut. The Sowetans' response: they reconnect them.
This, Dudu Mphenyeke said, is the latest form of resistance
in Soweto. Mphenyeke is one of the founders of the Soweto
Electricity Crisis Committee, a group of 5,000 Soweto
residents who rebelled against the electricity company,
Eskom, and its move to cut off supplies to the poorest
people in the name of the free market. They have trained
a group of illegal 'reconnectors' who roam Soweto reconnecting
the electricity of people who have been cut off. It
is a desperate measure, says Dudu, but a necessary one,
for the government, egged on by the markets and the
powerful corporate lobby, simply doesn't listen.
Mphenyeke said that life in Soweto has not improved
in the post-apartheid era. "The government is making
things easier for business people and making it more
difficult for workers. We don't have freedom yet in
South Africa, and we feel deceived."
This is a feeling that is growing all over the country.
Anti-Privatisation Forums and groups of illegal reconnectors
are spreading to every township in the nation. The Congress
of South African Trade Unions has called for a general
strike in October to protest against the government's
privatisation plans. Marches, rallies and protests against
everything from the World Trade Organisation to retrenchment
are now almost a weekly occurrence. They will step up
a notch when the delegates to Earth Summit 2 begin arriving
in town for the start of the summit on August 26. Activists
plan to rally to protest the corporate takeover of both
the UN and their own government.
All this worries the ANC. But the party believes it
has no choice. Globalisation, they say, made them do
it. I asked Michael Sachs, the party's head of policy
and research, why the ANC was following the Washington
line, despite the suffering such policies were causing.
"We achieved democracy in 1994, and immediately
had to confront the issue of globalisation," he
said. "We see ourselves as being in government
to deliver a national democratic revolution, but no
revolutionary movement has ever taken power in such
unfavourable global conditions - such an unbridled victory
for finance capitalism, such a unipolar world, with
the U.S. at its head.
"You can't just go and redistribute things in
this era. You've got to play the game. You've got to
ensure you don't go on some adventure -- you know, you
will be defeated. They were defeated in Chile. They
were defeated in Nicaragua.... You can't do it now."
Rarely have I heard such a stark admission of governmental
powerlessness in the face of the global markets. Whether
the ANC is being realistic or cowardly is a moot point,
but one certainty is that the U.S. government, and the
markets, love them for it either way. So much so that
President George W. Bush, along with British Prime Minister
Tony Blair and other Western leaders, recently lined
up to promote South African President Thabo Mbeki's
New Economic Partnership for African Development - NEPAD
- a continent-wide development plan, which many South
Africans are calling "GEAR for Africa."
The once-radical ANC is now toeing the free-market
line. If it continues to do so, as Sachs conceded is
likely, the South African government will keep getting
pats on the back from President Bush and his corporate
buddies. But what it gets from its own people may be
something entirely different.