Interpreting Thabo Mbeki’s various African initiatives

Thabo Mbeki’s speech last Saturday morning at the UN is the highest-profile opportunity yet for the South African leader to plead for a permanent Security Council seat for Africa. He’s already been told that two seats–his first prize (presumably to go to Nigeria and SA)–are out of the question, and if one is granted it will be without a veto.

Still, everyone seems worried about Africa’s health and welfare these days. If you have an open mind and regularly read the Financial Times–or for me, its South African subsidiary Business Day–you would have seen notice of a “Millennium Africa Recovery Plan” (from mid-2000 to mid-2001) a “New African Initiative” (from July-October 2001) and now a “New Partnership for Africa’s Development” (Nepad), launched in Abuja, Nigeria by several African heads of state led by Mbeki on October 23.

They’re actually the same thing, but for various reasons–including the Afrikaans translation of the acronym “naai,” i.e., being “fucked over”–the name has evolved. Everyone supports the Nepad; though frankly, very few of its supporters know what the warmed-over Washington Consensus strategy means or how to defend it, especially against the charge of hypocrisy that its sponsors logically attract.

Somehow, though, it’s trendy to make gurgling sounds about how Africa needs special elite attention these days. The European Union just endorsed Nepad, and the World Trade Organisation meeting in Doha from November 9-14 will echo with the alleged urgency for Africa to get more access to international markets, especially in agriculture.

Of course, progressive Africans protest fervently against the unfair terms of trade that would still prevail during and after a new Doha Round, even if Europe and the US opened the doors a bit.

Not on the agenda for WTO change is the corporate-dominated structure of world commodity trade, worsening biopiracy, the straightjacket of intellectual property rights, the voracious General Agreement on Trade in Services plus related pressure to privatise water and liberalise finance, amongst other aspects of the commodification of daily life which Africa as a continent simply cannot afford.

More globalisation is the answer? No thanks, the past two decades have seen a 35% reduction in the terms of trade values of African exports versus imports, because all Third World countries have been ordered to become export platforms, driving prices down and trade volumes up. The equation no longer makes any sense.

Those critical voices–especially the African Trade Network’s Titteh Hormuh in Accra, Yash Tandon in Harare, Dot Keet in Cape Town, and Mohau Pheko in Johannesburg–are ignored, or pooh-poohed by elites who finally realise the importance of public relations gambits. Consider some related Financial Times headlines that blared within the first month after the September 11 terrorist attacks:

–9/26: “Protesters ask right questions, yet they lack the right answers” (by Belgian prime minister and current European Union president Guy Verhofstadt);

–10/1: “Partnerships only way to break cycle of poverty” (by Anglo American Corporation executive Jonathan Oppenheimer);

–10/7: “New swipe at fighting poverty” (Gondal Gondwe and Callisto Madavo, the leading African officials at the IMF and World Bank);

–10/10: “Attacks on US hurt Africa” (Ian Goldin and Alan Gelb, South African economists and senior Bank employees);

–10/10: “Clamour against capitalism stilled” (FT reporters claiming “the counter-capitalist movement is in retreat”).

Is it coincidental that the barrage of pro-globaloney commentary over a fortnight’s time, spindoctored at least partly for African-elite consumption, accompanies the fusillade of US and British bombs which are killing thousands of innocent Afghanis?

Both assaults reflect faulty intelligence, patronising assumptions, imperial power relations, and a bloodlust sensibility that defines security mainly in terms of Establishment peace-and-quiet, modified by semi-sophisticated lip-service for the needs of the impoverished masses. Bags of food for famine-wracked Afghanistan are carelessly dropped here, while endorsements for the Nepad are repeatedly bestowed there.

The mercurial Mbeki is the main subject of this interest. And we are forced to ask yet again, is he fit to lead the continent?

To answer initially in the negative, alert ZNet readers know that Mbeki has become a pariah amongst health professionals desperately fighting the AIDS pandemic, because of his deadly neglect of the nearly five million of his 40 million constituents who are HIV+.

The president–now termed “undertaker-in-chief Mbeki”–was back in the international news in October for yet more stunning gaffes, first using 5-year old mortality data to imply that health spending priorities should be revised *away* from Aids prevention, and next by disputing subsequent Aids statistics released by the respected local Medical Research Council (a government body).

Then, answering the rightwing opposition’s questions in parliament, he again insisted that excessive toxicity of anti-retroviral drugs justifies ignoring treatments to combat mother-to-child-transmission of HIV. And in a major speech at Fort Hare University on October 12, he revealed a perverse paranoia about his critics:

“Thus does it happen that others who consider themselves to be our leaders take to the streets carrying their placards, to demand that because we are germ carriers, and human beings of a lower order that cannot subject its [sic] passions to reason, we must perforce adopt strange opinions, to save a depraved and diseased people from perishing from self-inflicted disease.”

Even setting aside his ideological penchant for Aids-denialism, Mbeki’s disastrous delivery record has now landed the SA Department of Health in court. The state responded last week to the placard-carrying Treatment Action Campaign’s August lawsuit, which is part of TAC’s attempt to save tens of thousands of infant lives each year by getting approximately 100,000 pregnant HIV+ women access to Nevirapine plus voluntary counselling and testing, and formula as a substitute for breastfeeding.

Mbeki’s people have replied to the court papers with inane distinctions between “cost effective” (yes, they admit) and “affordable” (no, they claim), and with personal insults to the HIV+ women who filed affidavits against the government (http://www.tac.org.za/).

Amidst this unnecessary–some say genocidal–slaughter, let’s play devil’s advocate and take a more positive point of view: Mbeki is seen as Africa’s most legitimate (thanks to the 66% ANC vote in 1999), self-confident and fundamentally pro-Western leader. If anyone can shake down Washington for debt relief or Geneva for trade concessions, it’s the president of a recently liberated South Africa.

From the late 1990s, Mbeki embarked upon an “African Renaissance” branding exercise with poignant poetics. The contentless form was somewhat remedied in the secretive Millennial Africa Recovery Programme, whose powerpoint skeleton was unveiled to select elites in 2000, during Mbeki’s meetings with Bill Clinton in May, the Okinawa G-8 in July, the UN Millennium Summit in September, and a subsequent European Union gathering in Portugal.

The skeleton was fleshed out in November 2000 with the assistance of several economists, including mild annered leftists from Columbia University and the University of Massachusetts/Amherst. It was immediately endorsed during a special South African visit by World Bank president James Wolfensohn “at an undisclosed location,” due presumably to fears of the disruptive protests which had soured a Johannesburg trip by new IMF czar Horst Koehler a few months earlier.

Thanks to work by a coauthor of South Africa’s own disastrous 1996 homegrown structural adjustment programme (Steven Gelb), the content of the 60-page working document was becoming clearer: more privatisation, especially of infrastructure (no matter its profound failure even in South Africa);

more insertion of Africa into the world economy (in spite of fast-declining terms of trade);

more multi-party elections (typically, though, between variants of neoliberal parties, as in the US) as a veil for the lack of thorough-going participatory democracy;

grand visions of information and communications technology (hopelessly unrealistic considering the lack of simple reliable electricity across the continent);

and a self-mandate for peace-keeping (which South Africa has subsequently taken for its soldiers stationed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi).

By this stage, Mbeki had managed to sign on as partners two additional rulers from the crucial West and North regions of the continent: Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Olusegun Obasanjo from Nigeria. Unfortunately, both continued to face mass popular protests and widespread civil/military/religious bloodshed at home, diminishing their utility as model African leaders.

Later, to his credit, Obasanjo led a surprise revolt against Mbeki’s capitulation to Northern pressure at the World Conference Against Racism in September 2001, when he helped generate a split between EU and African countries over reparations due the continent for slavery and colonialism. Tellingly, even loose talk of such reparations cannot be found in the Nepad, and the South African host delegation was furious at Obasanjo’s outburst because it nearly scuppered a final conference resolution.

But that incident aside, 2001 has been a successful year for selling Nepad. Another pro-Western ruler, Tanzania’s Benjamin Mkapa, joined the New Africa leadership group in January 2001 in Davos, Switzerland. There, Mbeki gave the world’s leading capitalists and state elites a briefing, which was very poorly-attended.

A few days later, an effort was made in Mali to sell West Africans to the plan, with on-the-spot cheerleading by Wolfensohn and Koehler. The July 2001 meeting of the African Union in Lusaka provided the opportunity for a continent-wide leadership endorsement, once Mbeki’s plan was “merged” with an infrastructure-heavy initiative–the “Omega Plan”–offered by the neoliberal Senegalese president, Abdoulaye Wade, to become the New African Initiative.

The Genoa G-8 summit offered soothing encouragement. With 300,000 protesters outside the conference accusing the world’s main political leaders of running a destructive, elitist club, Mbeki was a useful adornment. Likewise, Mbeki’s October visits to Japan and Brussels confirmed his elite popularity, perhaps because there was no apparent demand for formal monetary commitments.

The recent surge of enthusiasm from Johannesburg corporations, Washington multilateral banks, and European capitals deserves much more consideration than I have space for here, particularly given the geopolitical give-and-take associated with George W. Bush’s “anti-terror” coalition-building. But to sum up the ideological partnership that Mbeki proposes, consider the way that the neoliberal recolonisation of African economic policy is explained on the website version of Nepad:

“The structural adjustment programmes provided only a partial solution. They promoted reforms that tended to remove serious price distortions, but gave inadequate attention to the provision of social services. As a consequence, only a few countries managed to achieve sustainable higher growth under these programmes.”

Slippery, this line of analysis, and worth unpacking briefly to conclude. For one test of robust analysis is to pose the opposite premise, and to see whether the subsequent hypotheses are worth exploring:

–What if structural adjustment represented not “a partial solution” but instead, reflecting local and global power shifts, a profound defeat for genuine African nationalists, workers, peasants, women, children and the environment?

–What if “promoting reforms” really amounted to the IMF and World Bank imposing their cookie-cutter neoliberal policies on desperately disempowered African societies, without any reference to democratic processes, resistance or diverse local conditions?

–What if the removal of “serious price distortions” really meant the repeal of exchange controls (hence allowing massive capital flight), subsidy cuts (hence pushing masses of people below the poverty line), and lowered import tariffs (hence generating massive deindustrialisation)?

–What if “inadequate attention to the provision of social services” in reality meant the opposite: excessive attention to applying neoliberalism not just to the macroeconomy, but also to health, education, water and other crucial state services?

— And what if the form of IMF/Bank attention included insistence upon greater cost recovery, higher user-fees, lower budgetary allocations, privatisation, and even the disconnection of supplies to those too poor to afford them, hence leading to the unnecessary deaths of millions of people?

–What if “inadequate attention to the provision of social services” is not anywhere correlated to the inability of countries to “achieve sustainable higher growth,” but rather serves as a nice-sounding justification for “adjustment with a human face,” as UNICEF coined the compromise that Nepad apparently seeks?

If these hypotheses are reasonable, and if the implication is to not proceed further with structural adjustment–human face or not–then a central task of Nepad must be to slip around such arguments without reference to their relevance. By doing so, Nepad fits right into the globalisers’ modified neoliberal project, which now insists even more incongruously that integration solves poverty.

Like all top-down policy formulations, Nepad reeks of technicism, a scent which could dissipate partially if exposed to the fires of popular debate, protest and participation. But that would risk the transformation of Nepad into a partnership with Africans themselves.

Mbeki’s Aids initiatives provide enough evidence of his intentions to keep millions of Africans alive, much less in partnership. And that means, for the rest of us, that Nepad will require some new placards, namely against South African sub-imperialism.


(Bond’s new book is *Against Global Apartheid: South Africa meets the World Bank, IMF and International Finance,* from University of Cape Town Press; ordering information available from [email protected])

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