Africa again foiled by elites, North and South

By Patrick Bond

Mutare, Zimbabwe – 22 July is a good day to consider problems caused by the rancid combination of neoliberalism and imperialist geopolitcs, because it’s the 60th birthday of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). It’s a good time to recall that many of us in the global justice movement often fail to pinpoint the ways ‘compradorism’ – collaboration between senior and junior ruling classes — complicates both analysis and activism (although I’m finding that reading the ZNet commentaries/blog by Cape Town-based Mandisi Majavu is a good antidote).

Let’s consider some untenable examples in the news. In early July, three processes unfolded that are indicators, none healthy, of this continent’s future: African elites coddled each other in Addis Ababa; Washington-based corporate and global-state elites pondered how to exploit Africa more thoroughly, for the long haul; and international NGOs debated how to campaign against the World Bank. As I discussed last month, part of the problem in both Latin America and Africa is the disguised character of elite collaboration, given men like Lula and Mbeki who have had a generation of training in talking left, which they do increasingly loudly while walking right.

At the African Union (AU) summit, the South African government advanced two major steps towards, if not control, then dominance within the organization, by winning a contest with Libya and Egypt to host its parliament, and eschewing seats on the formal AU Commission so as to instead take command over its peace/security division. The $5 billion in military hardware that Pretoria is now purchasing hints at an appalling role for the SA National Defense Force as Washington’s deputy sheriff.

Moreover, the neoliberal political-economic strategy promoted by South African president Thabo Mbeki, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), was termed ‘philosophically spot-on’ by the US State Department last year. NEPAD ensures regular invitations for Mbeki and select African rulers to G8 meetings, and its secretariat is already located near Pretoria.

So the spectre of ‘subimperialism’ looms ever larger (as I argue in a new Foreign Policy in Focus article posted at http://www.fpif.org and at http://www.counterpunch.org). Victims will include the Zimbabwean people, amongst whom I’ve just spent a few days.

Indeed, the AU’s main controversy was over an internal report – ‘balanced’ according to South African co-author Barney Pityana — on the Harare government’s systemic human rights abuses and political repression. Though compiled in 2002, Robert Mugabe’s foreign minister lied about not having seen it before, setting off a controversy about whether the AU would deal with it seriously prior to the next Zimbabwe national election: the parliament contest in March 2005.

The African heads of state and foreign ministers gladly agreed to a delay proposed by the Zimbabwean foreign minister. As the disappointed Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo, Pious Ncube, concluded of the AU delegates, ‘All they do is back each other up and drink tea.’

That means, it is fair to predict, that the electoral rigging, the politics of food distribution, the judicial harassment, the stifling of expression and shutdown of independent media, and the thuggery towards ordinary opposition activists carried out by Mugabe’s regime will worsen over the next nine months.

At the same time, Mugabe is making overtures to be readmitted to the International Monetary Fund, and has established a new face-saving electoral commission. Come next March, he will then probably control 67% of the parliament, given that he is legally permitted to choose 20% of the members, who sit in uncontested seats, from the outset. Under present circumstances, it is impossible to poll citizens on their political preferences, but the society remains roughly split in half, with most urban residents opposed to Mugabe.

Aside from the old standby of controlling food aid supplies to rural areas, the latest – and quite impressive – dual strategy to win hearts and minds during hyperinflation and state services collapse, is to offer massively subsidised rural credit and electrification. With inflation above 400%, some state farm credit is still priced at just 30% — a giveaway.

And power transmission wires have been strung up across the peasant areas near the Mozambique border where I had a cup of coffee in a picturesque mountain village last weekend. The typical family pays the equivalent of $0.50 for 140 kiloWatt hours (a month’s consumption of light bulbs and radio), an amount which costs roughly twenty times more in South Africa.

Though I would normally endorse this as excellent social policy, it is more likely in practice to become another bait-and-switch gimmick. After another vote for Mugabe in the 2005 elections, the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority will proceed with privatisation, and the price of energy will soar to the point of unaffordability – just as now faces low-income South Africa households, with widespread disconnections not far behind.

Incidentally, regarding a related South African debate I’ve periodically referred to on this website, the chief water bureaucrat in Pretoria, Mike Muller, admitted to the Mail and Guardian newspaper in late June that his associates in local governments across the land had chopped off household water supplies to more than a million people in 2003: ’275,000 of all households attributed interruptions to cut-offs for non-payment.’

This reveals a culture of heartless state neoliberalism, and is a surprising climb-down from an official who complained bitterly when the New York Times and London Observer quoted similar estimates in stories about water apartheid over the past couple of years (http://www.queensu.ca/msp).

Although the National Water Act gives Muller’s political overlords the power to intervene in such water emergencies, to turn the water taps back on, Muller also now insists on justifying what is a blatant violation of the Constitution’s landmark right to water access. ‘There will always be people whose abuse of public facilities requires firm measures,’ Muller told M&G readers, perhaps forgetting that precisely four years ago, this attitude applied to low-income people in Ngwelezane, KwaZulu-Natal generated an epicentre for the continent’s worst-ever recorded cholera outbreak.

Meanwhile, new state poverty/wealth statistics released in July showed South Africa had become the site of the world’s worst inequality, just in time to miss the African National Congress’ tenth anniversary ‘liberation’ ceremonies in late April.

Regional electricity and water are merely two microcosms that combine the venal politics and untenable economics of neoliberalism. Add some State Department imperial neoconservatism and the petro-military influences that permeate the White House, and you get a new report: ‘Rising US Interests in Africa.’ In Washington on July 8, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) publicly launched the US-Africa policy blueprint, which was requested by Colin Powell and the Congress.

The report co-authors were Powell’s former lead Africa official, Walter Kansteiner, and CSIS researcher Stephen Morrison, and their panel included the usual suspects: venture capitalists and financiers, establishment academics, development consultants, former diplomats (like Ronald Reagan’s Africa mischief-manager Chester Crocker), army strategists, infectious disease specialists, a wheeler-dealer environmentalist (Peter Seligmann from Conservation International) and Senator Russell Feingold, known as an occasional progressive.

The new imperial agenda emphasizes seven interventions: Sudan, whose oil is craved by Washington; Africa’s decrepit capital markets, which could ‘jump start’ Bush’s gimmicky Millennium Challenge Account; energy, especially the ‘massive future earnings by Nigeria and Angola, among other key West African oil producers’; wildlife conservation; ‘counter-terrorism’ efforts, which include ‘a Muslim outreach initiative’; peace operations, which can be transferred to African troops thanks to new G8 funding; and AIDS, whose treatment is feared by pharmaceutical corporations because it will require generic drugs. In all but Sudan, South African cooperation will be crucial for the new US imperial agenda.

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STOP PRESS (21 July): Finally I understand this talk of a ‘move left’ by Mbeki in recent weeks, discussed at length in the current issue of The Economist and advertised to perhaps naïve readers of the US lefty listserve ‘Portside’ yesterday. If you look at a world map, you’ll also get the point, because although the ANC government would never travel pure left – which would take it to Brazil, a potential competitor – it seems ok now to talk about a rather more northwesterly move.

Lo and behold, back in Jo’burg just about to file this article, I find a delighted deputy South African foreign minister ‘expressing his appreciation towards officials from the US State Department and the representatives of Armscor, Denel and Fuchs [South Africa's three main arms dealers] for the positive and co-operative manner’ in which they have arranged new ‘business opportunities in the United States,’ according to Pretoria’s official website.

And indeed last Friday, a report in ThisDay newspaper by reporter Michael Schmidt revealed that what we had thought was an honourable stand by Mbeki last July – refusing to accept $7 million in US military aid in the infamous blackmail, so as to get SA rejection of extradition of US war criminals to the International Criminal Court – was another sleight of hand: ‘Peter McIntosh, editor of the African Armed Forces journal, said the US had simply re-routed military funding for SA through its European Command in Stuttgart, Germany.’ That, in turn, seems to have paved the way for the deputy-sheriff duty that, at a Sea Island G8 luncheon in June, Mbeki accepted in the form of African ‘peace-keepers’ for the continent’s rough neighbourhoods.

* * *

The other kind of comprador process I worry about increasingly, is the way that desperate NGOs are seeking accommodation with a World Bank whose bona fides are now in utter shambles. The smooth-talking Bank managing director, James Wolfensohn, has had a talent for suckering critics into ‘multistakeholder dialogues.’ Some of the more clever militants fighting against big destructive dams, or structural adjustment, or fossil fuel abuse, were able to pull these commissions to the left.

In the case of the World Commission on Dams (WCD), reporting in 2000, the South African chair Kader Asmal allowed a quite critical analysis and set of recommendations into the final report. Bank staff, in particular South African John Briscoe, sabotaged it immediately. One of the leading gurus of the anti-dam movement, Paddy McCully of International Rivers Network, replied: ‘The World Bank’s singularly negative and non-committal response to the WCD Report means that the Bank will no longer be accepted as an honest broker in any further multi-stakeholder dialogues.’

The same experience confronted the Structural Adjustment Participatory Review Initiative team members, including hundreds of organisations and scholars from Bangladesh, Ecuador, El Salvador, Ghana, Hungary, Mexico, the Philippines, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Bank staff walked out of the process they had helped fund in 2001 when the results were looking adverse.

Now the Extractive Industries Review is having the same experience, as on August 3, Wolfensohn and the board of governors is expected to reject commission recommendations that the Bank phase out its oil/gas financing. Yet a long list of NGOs, given a wonderful opportunity to trash the Bank for extreme deceit, are writing mealy-mouthed letters to Wolfensohn asking for reforms that fall short of even the Review commission. This is the time to call for the Bank to *retire*, not reform, and good progress is being made on defunding at http://www.worldbankboycott.org, which all ZNet comrades should support.

Next month I’ll go into more detail about the IMF, which put up a sign similar to what in South Africa we called ‘net-blankes’ (whites-only in Afrikaans). That sign was visible on the IMF managing director’s door when it was time to choose a new occupant a few weeks ago. Interestingly, tats was also the moment when South African finance minister Trevor Manuel was in charge of internal IMF/Bank recommendations on governance.

Did Manuel choose to fight the totally undemocratic nature of multilateral financial power, or instead did he prefer a role comparable to a ‘bantustan’ (homeland) leader from the bad old days, sitting back and taking it easy, lubricating global apartheid by giving it legitimacy? More details coming on yet another problem of compradorism.

(Patrick — [email protected] – recently authored Talk Left, Walk Right: South Africa’s Frustrated Global Reforms, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2004, http://www.unpress.co.za//showbook.asp?id=581)

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