avatar
Momentum Returns to the Movements against Corporate Globalisation


I was glad to see Mokhiber/Weissman writing for ZNet last week on the durability of the anti-neoliberal movement. Here in Johannesburg, September 11 came and went, with linkages made between the Left peace movement’s urgent agenda–anti-war demonstrations against US consulates in several South African cities–and the broader problem of imperialism’s new form.

I don’t call it `Empire,’ as do some trendy intellectual friends, but I do recognise that the imperialist project is about more than a superpower bully acting on homegrown corporate interests.

Imperialism today entails the penetration of neoliberal-capitalist ideology everywhere, as part and parcel of expanding the material terrain of commodification. Fortunately, a great many of our local struggles for social justice here in Southern Africa now recognise the general character of this new terrain quite explicitly.

An important protest for the Left was against the World Trade Organisation’s Doha meeting last month, which gave South Africa’s trade minister Alec Erwin another platform for the neoliberal Southern strategy, requiring him to split the regional delegation away from the rest of the African trade ministers.

(Incongruously, Erwin remains a member of the SA Communist Party, though relations frayed noticeably when he firmly backed privatisation while the SACP supported the union movement’s national strike in late August.)

Lessons keep emerging about building the anti-neoliberal, pro-people project, which we are learning in praxis in this part of the world, as well as from keeping an eye on international developments.

South Africa’s visionary progressive leaders–like Trevor Ngwane in Soweto, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane in Cape Town, Fatima Meer in Durban and Dennis Brutus (all over the world!)–all pursue global-local linkages: drawing attention to the relationships between pharmacorp monopoly patents and the inaccessibility of Aids drugs, between home-grown structural adjustment and housing evictions, between the crashing value of the currency (55% down over two years) and the need for apartheid-era financing reparations from foreign banks, between global arms trade and local violence, and many others.

For example, Ngwane’s work with the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee involves reconnecting thousands of households (illegally) in the wake of cut-offs by the rapidly-privatising state electricity company Eskom. The struggle was featured last month on the front page of the Washington Post, on CNN and in all the local media.

Minister of public enterprises Jeff Radebe–also a senior SACP leader–labeled Ngwane and his merry band of Operation Khanyisa (`Light Up’); amateur-electricians `criminals’ and `thugs’ last week, and a tough crack-down is anticipated.

Ngwane is in and out of court every few days for disconnecting local ANC city councillors, a tactic the Sowetans resorted to when all non-violence civil disobedience protests failed, and he invariably brings along hundreds of others who in solidarity demand that they be arrested too.

(An academic analysis of the `Soweto Electricity Crisis’ that my Municipal Services Project colleagues have developed, working alongside the SECC, is at http://www.queensu.ca/msp)

Another telling incident last week was the state’s announcement that it would take on a new World Bank loan–only the second since 1994 thanks to widespread opposition–which will bring technical and financial “expertise” from the Bank into Johannesburg and other municipalities.

Such expertise has already led to water privatisation, as I wrote about here last April, and indirectly caused the death of hundreds of people during the 2000-01 cholera outbreak. The cholera epicentre was the main site where water was disconnected because impoverished women-headed households couldn’t pay the full operating cost, as the Bank had insisted in a pricing policy whose impact on South African water minister Kader Asmal was `instrumental,’ the Bank later bragged.

Partly because this city hosts the World Summit on Sustainable Development in September 2002 (“Rio+10″), the elaboration and generalisation of global-local linkages appears terribly important, in the run-up to the Porto Alegre World Social Forum next month.

I was delighted when comrades in various Washington thinktanks began identifying the `micro-neoliberal’ processes associated with the Bretton Woods Institutions, and then campaigned successfully last year to prevent the World Bank from imposing cost-recovery and user-fee provisions in health and education programmes.

As a step along the way to shutting down the Bank and IMF, this is great work. Its strategic merits were confirmed during an intense workshop last week on the steamy shores of Lake Malawi: the excellent Southern African People’s Solidarity Network (http://aidc.org.za) called for the `dismantling’ of the Bank and IMF, hand-in-hand with demilitarising this region, long a playground for Cold Warriors, arms-traders, gun-toting mining corporations, mercenaries, and other motley imperialists.

It is often asked whether a deeper coherence and more rigorous set of `alternatives’ can indeed emerge from the cacophony of anti-neoliberal protest, including at Rio+10.

One paternalistic and uncomprehending critic, Belgian prime minister and European Union president Guy Verhofstadt, argued recently that `Protesters ask right questions, yet they lack the right answers’ for the Financial Times (26 September).

In a more serious vein, the Financial Times reporter James Harding (`Clamour against capitalism stilled,’ 10 October) anticipated that in the wake of September 11, global justice movements would be `derailed.’

One spurious reason was `the absence of both leadership and a cogent philosophy to inspire fellowship.’ The counterpoint is obvious: hierarchical leadership is not necessarily a positive attribute for the kind of broad-based opposition that is required, and that is bubbling up from all corners of the world.

Still, a cogent approach to replacing monolithic Washington-centred neoliberalism with far different philosophical and practical arrangements is desirable, as the international movements mature. I am not in any position to propose such an approach, but can report on some of the embryonic principles and strategies that have emerged here.

A series of strategic principles of social justice are beginning–it appears–to take the following forms in Southern Africa:

–decommodifying access to the basic goods and services that we all need to survive;

–`deglobalisation of capital’ and decommissioning of the multilateral agencies that work most aggressively on behalf of transnational capital;

–delinking from those circuits of finance, commerce and direct investment that actively underdevelop Africa; and

–denuding South Africa of its explicitly subimperialist role in the region and denying Pretoria the pretention that by joining the neoliberal project, on terms largely dictated by Washington and the world’s financial markets, Africa as a continent will progress (my ZNet column on November 18 provided details about this problem).

The first task I will try to report on regularly next year across various sectors. In addition to access to Aids drugs, the most compelling struggles may be around water (see, e.g., my and Karen Bakker’s ZNet column last July on the Blue Planet Project).

Last week in Bonn, the world’s leading radical water activists–from environmental groups, municipal labour, community organisations and think-tanks–condemned government bureaucrats who gathered for their Rio+10 preparatory work. They ultimately only modified slightly the pro-commodification posture of the World Bank and ghastly UN Development Programme’s World Water Forum.

The second task is being pursued through,

–first, conscientising the public in this region that corporate globalisation is harmful and must be rolled back;

–second, putting human bodies in the way of the elites so the latter encounter difficulty both retaining legitimacy and getting into their meetings (such as the World Economic Forum in New York in late January, and very likely at Rio+10 next September); and

–third, working hard to deny the main front-line institution of underdevelopment the money it needed to keep its project going, via a World Bank Bonds Boycott (http://www.worldbankboycott.org/).

The third task encompasses interlocking and overlapping strategies of diverse Southern African movements which–alongside crucial international allies–campaign for their governments to,

–repudiate Third World debt and to take on no new foreign debt for basic-needs development;

–reject intellectual patents and property rights on HIV-Aids drugs so as to save millions of lives; and

–renounce both imports and exports of arms.

Can people in this part of the world count on international movements for support? The death-knell of the Northern anti-capitalist movement was sounded by Harding:

It is riddled with egotism and petty politics. Its actions are sometimes misinformed, sometimes misjudged. It has an inflated sense of its own importance. Its targets keep changing and growing. And it has been robbed of its momentum.

Counter-capitalism was not just a movement, it was a mood. Its main platform–the street–is not as open as it was. Its message, always complicated, is now much more loaded. Its audience–politicians, the press and the public–are seriously distracted. And its funding base, already tiny, threatens to shrivel as charitable foundations and philanthropists see their fortunes shrink with the stock market.

All of these complaints have a grain of truth. But if activists have been slowed and distracted the past few weeks, subsequent months and years will see our revitalisation, I’m convinced, for one simple reason: the problems we are identifying are only becoming worse with no prospects for meaningful reform on offer from the international ruling class.

The same goes for Southern Africa’s ruling elites, as regrettably we will see in my next column, which considers the case of the upcoming Zimbabwe presidential election.

(Bond’s new book, Against Global Apartheid: South Africa meets the World Bank, IMF and International Finance, was published by University of Cape Town Press; ordering info at [email protected])

Leave a comment