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Alliances and conflicts prior to Cancun


In spite of an encouraging backlash led by Brazil, the poor nations are preparing for another unsatisfying round of trade talks in Cancun, and South Africa once again is lining up in a manner consistent with Third World rhetoric–and First World interests.

Consider the rhetoric, which on Tuesday in Malaysia took a surprising turn. South African president Thabo Mbeki was speaking at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, during the course of a state visit to a leader–prime minister Mahathir Mohamed–considered amongst the Third World’s most militant nationalists. (Accused of anti-semitism for his paranoid 1998 attacks on George Soros and ‘Jewish bankers,’ Mahathir then imposed tough exchange controls which, according to local progressive economist Jomo K.S., mainly served to protect Mahathir’s cronies.)

Earlier this year, Mbeki had passed the three-year chair of the Non-Aligned Movement to Malaysia, and he encouraged Mahathir’s delegation to take leadership at Cancun. But it was not only South-South unity that Mbeki apparently sought.

The Straights Times reported: ‘Mbeki said that from South Africa’s past experience, it helped to have strong anti-apartheid groups in developed countries to lobby its case. In the same way, he suggested linking up with groups in developed countries which were concerned about the negative effects of globalisation–which seemed to cause greater imbalances and disparity among the rich and poor nations. “They may act in ways you and I may not like and break windows in the street but the message they communicate relates.”’

Well, this is new and different. It was, after all, only a year ago that Mbeki’s government used stun grenades to disrupt a nonviolent Johannesburg march of nearly 1000 global justice movement supporters outside the University of the Witwatersrand, and then initially banned another mass march to the World Summit on Sustainable Development. Defying the ban, at least 20,000 people marched from Alexandra township to Sandton, against Mbeki and the corporate-dominated talk-shop.

Within days, Mbeki provided this analysis to an African National Congress Policy Conference: ‘Our movement and its policies are also under sustained attack from domestic and foreign left sectarian factions that claim to be the best representatives of the workers and the poor of our country. They accuse our movement of having abandoned the working people, saying that we have adopted and are implementing neoliberal policies.’

And indeed they still do, and will continue to after Cancun’s dust has settled. What kinds of responses is Mbeki likely to get from the local allies of the global justice movements?

First, the wonderful network of trade activists across Africa have chosen September 13 to demonstrate in 18 cities, focusing on how public water systems are under threat due to the creeping privatisation advanced through the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services. Mohau Pheko, coordinator of the Gender and Trade Network in Africa, was invited to attend Cancun as part of the official South African delegation on August 15. However, on August 20, the day after Pheko gave a critical talk, the invitation was withdrawn along with an excuse that the delegation had to be downsized. On August 21, Pheko found herself on the famous Mexican ‘watchlist’ of neoliberalism’s enemies.

The point is not a personal one: it is that SA trade minister Alec Erwin is subimperialist in his negotiating strategy. He positioned himself as a ‘Green Room’ apologist for free trade at Seattle, and a ‘Friend of the Chair’ (a.k.a. Green Man) at the 2001 Doha round. The book *Behind the Scenes at the WTO* by Fatoumata Jawara and Aileen Kwa of Focus on the Global South (published this month by Zed Press), tells the story well.

Even neoliberal think-tanks like the South African Institute of International Affairs concede, as two researchers there recently put it, that African governments view Erwin ‘with some degree of suspicion’ because he ‘does not have their best interests at heart.’

You can be sure that September 13 will include not only catcalls at US embassies across the continent, but also criticisms by African activists about Mbeki’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development, which would open Africa up to further global trade and financial vulnerabilities.

Second, another source of extraordinary conflict where international alliances play a key role is litigation over reparations for apartheid-era profits and interest. Two dozen multinational corporations are being sued by various South African groups for many billions of dollars ‘for knowingly aiding and abetting the commission of crimes against humanity,’ to compensate black victims and also to serve as a disincentive to any company considering similar bedfellows in future.

The cases are scheduled to begin in November, and so Mbeki has turned his attention to the matter in recent months, telling a very bourgeois Swiss audience that it is ‘completely unacceptable that matters that are central to the future of our country should be adjudicated in foreign courts which bear no responsibility for the well-being of our country and the observance of the perspective contained in our constitution of the promotion of national reconciliation.’

Erwin added that Pretoria was ‘opposed to and contemptuous of the litigation’ and that any findings against companies ‘would not be honoured.’

The main venue is New York, because the South African government has failed to establish any enabling legislation to support reparations, and, moreover, now actively opposes Jubilee South Africa and its US and Swiss allies. In July, Mbeki’s justice minister, Penuell Maduna, filed a formal objection with judge John Sprizzo, asking him to throw out the lawsuits on grounds that it would discourage ‘much-needed foreign investment [and] could have a destabilising effect on the South African economy.’ (Sprizzo replied that Maduna’s letter was something he ‘could not ignore.’)

However, whereas Maduna asked that the corporations be let off the hook ‘in deference to the sovereign rights of foreign countries to legislate, adjudicate and otherwise resolve domestic issues without outside interference,’ a different agenda was revealed at last week’s Reparations Conference in Johannesburg. Picking up the story of the August 27 opening plenary debate is Berend Schuitema from Jubilee South Africa’s Eastern Cape affiliate:

‘Dumisa Ntzebeza [one of the lawyers who filed reparations claims] basically picked the sovereignty argument to pieces. “Show me the enabling legislation and I will leap at the opportunity.” A remarkable fact then slipped out from the Minister. The reason why he had made the objection was that he was asked for an opinion on the lawsuit by Colin Powell. He thus gave Powell his written response. Where upon Powell then said that he should lodge this same submission to the Judge of the New York Court. Howls from the floor. Jubilee South Africa chairperson M.P. Giyose pointed out the bankruptcy of the sovereignty argument.’

Nobel laureate and former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz has also chimed in, writing to the court in opposition to Maduna and Mbeki last month, and ridiculing the argument that a large settlement against apartheid-supporting corporations would harm the post-apartheid economy: ‘Those who helped support that system, and who contributed to human rights abuses, should be held accountable.’

Third, the last few weeks also witnessed developments in the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) for access to anti-retroviral medicines, which has been so powerfully assisted by the US group ACT UP, the French doctors in Medicins sans Frontiers, and even Oxfam. TAC leader Zackie Achmat announced that he didn’t want to see yet one more South African killed by Mbeki’s AIDS policies (600 die every day), and so began taking his pills, to the great relief of virtually the entire society. Previously, he had vowed to await the day when all HIV+ people had access, and he could now more safely predict that TAC’s struggle was working, for at least half a million people who need medicines urgently.

The big question remains whether this occurs through generic medicines, and hence is more affordable and more easily established across the rest of Africa. Erwin remains a target, because, according to a TAC charge of culpable homocide filed with police in March, he ‘unlawfully and negligently caused the death of men, women and children’ when he ignored ‘repeated requests’ to issue compulsory licenses for anti-retroviral treatment. His ‘conduct in failing to make these medicines available to people who need them does not meet the standards of a reasonable person.’ (The police refused to charge Erwin, and instead used violence against peaceful TAC protesters in Durban.)

When, last month, the SA cabinet finally announced that a plan would be prepared for rolling out expanded access to medicines, no one trusted health minister Manto Tshabala-Msimang to do so. The state Medical Research Council further complicated matters by threatening the deregistration of the drug Nevirapine, which TAC says has saved more than 50,000 babies from getting the HIV virus from their mothers. Meanwhile, the US government’s pre-Cancun concessions on Trade in Intellectual Property Rights clauses that protect pharmaceutical corporate patent monopolies continued to disappoint activists. In sum, given the trio of Mbeki, Bush and Big Pharma, people like Achmat and their international allies will need all the sustenance they can get, because the fight is by no means over.

Fourth, water privatisation is another site where internationalist allies have supported post-apartheid South African opponents of worsening class apartheid. Here again, the last days have shown the need to intensify the pressure.

In Johannesburg’s Orange Farm and Soweto townships, the Anti-Privatisation Forum has been opposing attempts by Paris-based Suez to install thousands of pre-paid water meters. During the last two weeks, Trevor Ngwane and a half-dozen of his comrades were arrested for filling in trenches that are being dug in Phiri zone of Soweto. The South African government delegation to Cancun still hasn’t revealed whether it will follow European Union requests for much more extensive water privatization through the General Agreement on Trade in Services.

These are just four sites where it seems that Mbeki’s newfound interest in the world’s anti-capitalist movement will not be met with trust and respect. Should international progressive groups—or even just those who like to ‘break windows’–be open-minded about Mbeki’s apparent desire for an alliance? Five days earlier, the Reparations Conference concluded its deliberations with this sentence: ‘The conference was informed of the call by the President’s Office for a list of participants to the conference and expressed its condemnation of this approach as an invasion of participants’ rights.’

In other words, they don’t trust the man–not one bit.

(The second edition of Patrick Bond’s book *Against Global Apartheid* has just been published by Zed Press; Patrick is at [email protected], and he takes up a visiting lectureship at York University in Toronto this month.)

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