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Moderates Wilt But Radical South Africans Struggle On


“Breaking with some of its anti-globalization allies, the aid agency Oxfam International issued a report yesterday that praised international trade as a potentially enormous boon to the world’s poor… `The extreme element of the anti-globalization movement is wrong,’ said Kevin Watkins, a senior policy adviser for Oxfam who wrote most of the report. `Trade can deliver much more [for poor countries] than aid or debt relief.’”

Those lines appeared in an article by Paul Blustein in last Thursday’s Washington Post, on the front page of the business section. No mistake there, and no subsequent apology. It was a self-conscious division engineered by Oxfam’s British hq, and not for the first time.

Tellingly, the ploy comes on the eve of what will be excellent anti-neoliberal/anti-imperialist protests in Washington, DC this weekend, and is one of a series of interesting alignment-dynamics. Some go right, but others swing leftward.

We’re watching such maneuvers quite closely here in Johannesburg, because the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) will be convened four months from now in our unsustainably hedonistic suburb of Sandton, and is already being vigorously contested.

Thus local politicians and enviro-bureaucrats led by president Thabo Mbeki aim to craft a “New Deal” based in part on the “New Partnership for Africa’s Development.” But especially after the UN’s “Financing for Development” meeting in Monterrey last month, no one seriously expects anything important to materialize.

On Friday, for example, even financier George Soros told Johannesburg interviewer Ben Cashdan that Mbeki’s Africa plan was “very much designed to meet the standards of the Washington Consensus. And therefore it’s a very skewed document which I think could be improved on.”

Meanwhile, South Africa’s progressive movements are recovering from disarray, in the wake of the ruling African National Congress party’ success in persuading leaders of the Congress of South African Trade Unions to U-turn on anti-neoliberal campaigning, and to simultaneously attack independent social activists. I’ll grapple with an analysis of this problem in next month’s column.

But back to Oxfam, and then to more serious matters, such as recent statements about the WSSD by more genuine allies of poor people, and the ongoing case of the highest-profile political prisoners of South African neoliberalism: Trevor Ngwane and the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee.

Criticizing Oxfam’s “Rigged Rules and Double Standards,” Food First co-director Anuradha Mittal put it best:

“Oxfam’s report contradicts its own stated mission that ending poverty requires a global citizen’s movement for economic and social justice. We are disappointed that Oxfam, one of the NGO leaders on food security, has chosen to undermine the demands of social movements and think tanks in the South such as Via Campesina, MST, Third World Network, Focus on the Global South, and Africa Trade Network which have demanded that governments must uphold the rights of all people to food sovereignty and the right to food rather than industry-led export-oriented production.”

Mittal continued by noting the “discredited World Bank and International Monetary Fund data.” In contrast, “Research at Food First shows that global trade in agriculture has not provided new market access for poor farmers, but rather has destroyed the ability of farmers to grow food for their families and communities. It has resulted in dumping of cheap agricultural products in the Third World nations while undermining their domestic production.”

Meanwhile, Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South avoided Oxfam’s delusional acceptance of neoliberal pro-trade premises, when last week it rejected an invitation for a World Bank “Strategic Policy Workshop: Making Doha work for the Poor” to be held near London next month.

Oxfam’s former international economist John Clark, who joined the Bank to become its main flack-catcher against social movements and NGOs, is a prime facilitator of the self-contradictory meeting.

The Bank invited a small “group of leading thinkers and policymakers from civil society in an intensive dialogue with a senior team from the World Bank” with the proviso that the pow-wow occur “under Chatham House Rules, meaning no attributed quotations should be made after the meeting.” It’s no surprise that two from Oxfam made the 20-person guest list.

Focus was invited too, but their deputy director Nicola Bullard replied in an open letter, “We are totally opposed to this kind of private and closed meeting. We believe that meetings such as this perpetuate the problems of non-transparency, lack of public responsibility and accountability which are endemic to the WTO and characteristic of the Doha negotiations.”

For some years, Oxfam’s insiderist strategy has had the effect, as Mittal charges, of “undermining the demands of social movements and think tanks in the South.” I recall the international reps of Oxfam in Washington explicitly breaking ranks with the 50 Years is Enough coalition in 1995, when the former appeared at a high-profile press conference to endorse more money for James Wolfensohn’s World Bank.

Bad politics are accompanied by weak intellect. Most annoyingly, perhaps, Watkins remark repudiates anyone to the left of, and including, far-sighted bourgeois economists like John Maynard Keynes and Herman Daly.

Keynes’ famous 1933 article in the Yale Review called for “goods to be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible” because of the damage done by the “Treasury View” (i.e., neoliberal) free-traders of his era: “I sympathize with those who would minimize, rather than with those who would maximize, economic entanglement among nations.”

Daly’s 1996 departure speech from the World Bank, where as environmental economist he was repeatedly frustrated, concluded optimistically,

“Take it as a prediction–ten years from now the buzz words and hot concepts will be `renationalization of capital’ and the `community rooting of capital for the development of national and local economies,’ not the current shibboleths of export-led growth stimulated by whatever adjustments are necessary to increase global competitiveness.”

These are, even to my socialist ears, more sensible sentiments than Oxfam’s utopian attempts to reform globalization through, in part, expanding the reach of multinational trading capital.

Oxfam fails to recognise not only the merits of self-reliance, but also that enormous amount of socio-environmental damage is done by virtue of the transport, energy, packaging, marketing, waste and currency fluctuations associated with unnecessary cross-border trade of goods and services in the name of an alleged “comparative advantage,” which in any case is mainly invented or artificial.

Economically, I’ve seen Southern Africa become even more distorted than under colonialism and apartheid, these past two decades, by the single-minded orientation to exporting. I’ve seen class structures skew over to parasitical commercial circuitry, and the universal rise to state power of “comprador” (i.e., local sell-out) supporters of neoliberalism, as a direct result of the 1980s-90s demand of the Washington Consensus that trade be liberalized.

In short, exporting more and more commodities into a world economy faced by massive, unprecedented gluts, and by dramatic declines in the “terms of trade” (import costs in relation to export prices) for Southern exporting states, is senseless.

Moreover, from an international-solidarity perspective, core Oxfam trade reform strategies are dubious–especially their (and many Northern trade unions’); so-called “Social Clause” advocacy.

The idea of modifying free-trade agreements or institutions like the WTO with riders against child labor, union-busting or environment-trashing is virtually never thrashed out in conjunction with the people affected–e.g., campaigners for worker rights in Indian trade unions.

In short, Oxfam and the others typically lack the respect required when someone from the North advocates sanctions against South countries inhabited by oppressed people. Do such sanctions conform to the local liberation strategies? Maybe yes, as in Burma and apartheid-era South Africa, but maybe not in other cases–but the globo-reformers haven’t done that homework.

These concerns apparently make me, in Watkins’ formulation, an “extremist.” I raised them, and the Keynes/Daly riffs, in a note to Watkins last Friday, by the way, and was politely brushed off.

Ironically, the local Oxfam folk invited me to give a talk at last week’s launch of the “Rigged Rules” report here in Jo’burg and, without knowing what Oxfam really had in mind in terms of its opportunistic positionality, I said sure. Now I regret giving this confused crew of movement-splitters any help.

Instead, if one must turn to international NGOs, there are lots more effective opponents of global poverty and eco-degradation, like membership-based Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Council of Canadians.

With the Canadian resort town of Kananaskis hosting the G-8 meeting in June, the latter organisation’s director, Maude Barlow, has a special responsibility to unveil Northern malfeasance. She didn’t disappoint, when last week the Council leaked the G-8′s secret WSSD enviro-strategy document, which “clearly outlines how the environment ministers are going to be supporting the corporate trade agenda of the WTO and forcing this onto countries around the world at the WSSD.”

Commented Barlow, “It is pathetic to see that the G-8 environment ministers are planning to subordinate the world’s environment to corporate globalization. The world’s environmental crisis is mounting and all they can commit to is more of the same globalization that is causing the environmental crisis.”

Two days earlier, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth International blasted the lack of WSSD progress on minimum standards and mandatory guidelines for corporate conduct. FoE’s Daniel Mittler threatened,

“Governments are not listening to us when we’re being polite and pleasant. If we get no response, we will have to return to carrying placards.” Added Greenpeace’s Remi Parmentier, “If we see only cosmetic words at Johannesburg, real people will be very upset. There is an increase in public anger when international conferences have not delivered on expectations. I would be concerned if I were a government representative.”

That conclusion seems to have been reached by the WSSD host-city government on April 6, after a peaceful protest was held at ANC mayor Amos Masondo’s house (in the petit-bourgeois suburb of Kensington where I also live), organized by the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee and the regional Anti-Privatization Forum. Though Masondo was in Hawaii at a WSSD meeting, his bodyguard panicked and fired eight live rounds into the 100-strong crowd, wounding two people.

A few activists tossed rocks while others cut off Masondo’s water supply. Then, in one of the most obvious abuses of the judicial system for political ends in recent history, the police arrested 87 people for public disorder, including dozens of elderly, pension-dependent Sowetans and a five-year old who were only released after spending a night in jail.

As I write on April 15, 50 activists remain imprisoned *without having had a bail hearing* because the police have dawdled in finding their addresses, in what is widely seen here as unprecedented political interference. (That hearing is on April 16, and will be covered at http://southafrica.indymedia.org.)

(Ironically, another illustration of court fallibility was provided late last week, when a key member of the judiciary’s old-guard wing controversially acquitted apartheid South Africa’s notorious “Dr Death”–surgeon, chemist and military strategist Wouter Basson–of dozens of counts of murder.)

But the Kensington protest is crucial far beyond the unsatisfying legal process, for it unveils classical WSSD contradictions.

South Africa boasts the world’s worst global-warming contribution (corrected for by population size and income), with amongst the world’s dirtiest coal-fired electricity plants, generating the world’s cheapest energy for big business to process minerals in vast S02-emitting smelters like those of the company Alusaf, whose profits mainly flow away to the London financial headquarters of formerly Jo’burg-domiciled mining houses like Anglo American and Gencor/Billiton, thus leaving the currency in tatters, about half as valuable as it was two years ago.

At the same time, Pretoria also continues to price simple domestic electricity beyond the range of poor people, *as a matter of neoliberal policy* (a 1998 White Paper promotes “cost-based pricing” with diminishing subsidies). When people fall into arrears on bills, the state responds with punitive water/electricity cut-offs, and even evictions.

One charismatic leader of anti-neoliberal revolt is the former Jo’burg City Councilor Trevor Ngwane, a man the ANC fired in 1999 because he opposed the privatization of our city’s water supply to a multinational corporation, Suez, notorious for corruption and for denying poor people services.

(In a telling incident six months ago, Suez was itself tossed out of its 1993 pilot project in the small town of Nkonkobe, for failing to deliver even the simplest sanitation improvements. Low-income people were forced to use the unhygienic back-garden “bucket system” for their excrement, and when they couldn’t pay Suez bills, their buckets were confiscated by the Paris-based company.)

Ngwane and his comrades battle for dignity, via demands for at least some free “lifeline” electricity and water. Such services would erase much travail and inequity associated with women’s household reproduction burden; would improve the sooty township environment; would provide ways of surviving in the informal sector via income-generating projects; and would curtail outbreaks of diarrhea, cholera, TB and Aids opportunistic infections.

But Ngwane’s comrades and many other similar groups are losing, mainly because South Africa’s single-minded export drive has weakened the state’s capacity to force cross-subsidization on even its own parastatal companies, such as electricity supplier Eskom. The increasingly corporatized providers of water and electricity view low-income South Africans as pure costs, because it’s not in their financial interest to calculate and internalize any of the benefits.

Dr Chippy Olver, the main Pretoria bureaucrat responsible for WSSD logistics, blurted out the neoliberal logic to the media five years ago, “If we increase the price of electricity to users like Alusaf [so as to cross-subsidize the poor], their products will become uncompetitive and that will affect our balance of payments.”

And that’s the logic of expanded trade under the present (and foreseeable future) balance of global political-economic forces, with or without the rancid carrots of orthodox aid and conditional debt relief. Failing to recognise these connections and to develop a strategy accordingly, as exemplified in Oxfam’s new gambit, is to fall headfirst into the neoliberal trap.

(If conscientious Brit readers of ZNet have any money to spare, won’t you redirect it away from the wankers at OxfamGB and consider instead, say, War on Want or Comic Relief, whose resources are now helping give Ngwane, his Sowetan neighbors, and the Anti-Privatization Forum at least a fighting chance, against worsening class apartheid.)

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