Politicians’ pleas for global justice ring hollow at home

Eloquent sounds are reverberating into South Africa from faraway lands, and I don’t mean thuds from the Rugby World Cup, won by SA’s Springboks in Paris last week. That was a temporary bread and circus distraction for the angry masses, who protest more per person than anywhere else in the world (6000 times per year according to the police, and even higher in 2007 due to mass public sector strikes).

Thus local politicians are increasingly eloquent in shifting the blame. Consider president Thabo Mbeki’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month, demanding a fair deal for the Third World: ‘The wretched of the earth know from their bitter experience how their resource-rich areas were transformed into arid, uninhabitable and desolate areas forcing migration to better-endowed regions thus exacerbating conflicts and struggles for scarce resources… The two economies, one developed and globally connected and another localised and informal, display many features of a global system of apartheid.’

Thankfully, such rhetoric advances beyond Mbeki’s previous claim that these ‘first’ and ‘second’ economies – as he terms them – are ‘structurally disconnected’. They are obviously not, as we learned again last week in SA’s northernmost Limpopo province where land wars between wretched ex-bantustan residents and mining houses were at least temporarily won by Ga-Chaba villagers, who forced Lonmin Platinum to back off a new dig. How many days before Mbeki’s police restore order and help Lonmin transform Ga-Chaba into a desolate mine dump?

Yet Mbeki’s UN speech suggests he still believes global apartheid – the relationship between peasants in Ga-Chaba and the platinum lords – can be beat by rolling out the market: ‘As South Africans, we sought to strengthen the first economy and use it as a base to transfer resources to strengthen and modernise the second economy and thus embark on the process to change the lives of those who subsist in this second economy.’

(Next month a development studies journal – Africanus – devotes a special issue to ‘Transcending Two Economies’ in theory and practice, based on papers from a 2006 Centre for Civil Society conference that dispute all facets of Mbeki’s approach; the draft is available for download at http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs)

Mbeki’s trickle-down strategy includes vast corporate welfare subsidies – Africa’s largest ever – for an artificial first economy at the new Industrial Development Zone of Coega, allegedly for unemployed residents of nearby Port Elizabeth. In the process, the world’s cheapest electricity will be supplied to Canadian corporate Alcan so they can hire fewer than 1000 workers in their aluminum smelter.

The grid will need to add an extra 3.5% power from somewhere to zap the imported bauxite, and public enterprises minister Alec Erwin is convinced privatized energy supply is the answer to the supply crisis.

Instead, Erwin should cut back the mega-industrial projects which create very few jobs, not only because of severe power shortages, but because these foreign firms’ electricity hunger leaves South Africa with one of the world’s worst carbon dioxide emission rates, twenty times higher per unit of economic output per person than even the United States.

Back we go to Mbeki’s UN speech: ‘Gathered here as representatives of the people of the world we know very well that climate change, poverty and underdevelopment are not acts of God but human-made. Clearly, the starting point for a future climate regime must be equity.’

Clearly not at home, though. Poor South Africans are unable to afford more than a small flow of electricity (50 kiloWatt hours free lifeline supply) because the price then rises so steeply, resulting in more than a million people cut off for nonpayment each year and millions more self-disconnected because of pre-paid meters.

Since South Africa draws electricity not only from filthy coal but also a Mozambique dam, problems there last week left SA’s economic heartland of Johannesburg suffering blackouts. Cheap electricity deals for large corporations mean, as Frater Asset Management reported last week, ‘If Eskom has a choice between cutting supply to a large city or an aluminium smelter, you now know which one it will choose. We recommend you ensure gas lanterns are in good supply.’

The lanterns will be useful for reading magnificent speeches by local politicians in far-away places. As another example, environment minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk was in Washington last month at the International Emissions Trading Association Forum, arguing correctly that ‘The pace of climate change negotiations is out of step with the urgency indicated by science… Achieving climate stability requires individual nations to rise above short term self-interest for the benefit of the long term common good.’

But SA’s own policy, developed by van Schalkwyk (formerly head of the apartheid-era National Party which later folded into the ruling African National Congress), epitomizes self-interest, especially in relation to the ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ (CDM) gimmick aimed at legitimizing carbon trading, that false market solution to climate change. SA’s October 2004 National Climate Change Strategy notes that the ‘CDM primarily presents a range of commercial opportunities’ and indeed ‘could be a very important source of foreign direct investment’

As Van Schalkwyk told the Washington conference, ‘An all-encompassing global carbon market regime which includes all developed countries is the first and ultimate aim.’

In other words, cutting back SA’s own emissions – for example by reneging on the Alcan electricity deal – is not even on the agenda. So the smelters keep firing, the CO2 keeps rising, the poor face soaring electricity prices (50% in coming years) and urban residents without generators get their power cut first when supplies are low. It’s a devastating display of pro-corporate, anti-people bias in which expansive global-scale ecological rhetoric disguises extreme suffering at home.

The same pattern emerges from Mbeki’s UN speech in reference to migration: ‘Something is wrong when many Africans traverse, on foot, the harsh, hot and hostile Sahara Desert to reach the European shores. Something is wrong when walls are built to prevent poor neighbours from entering those countries where they seek better opportunities.’

In Pretoria, however, no such plea is made to his Home Affairs and SA Police Services, whose officials torment SA’s poor neighbours, hauling them into the notorious Lindela Accommodation Centre west of Joburg. Nor, presumably, did Mbeki ever mention his welcoming attitude to senior members of the ANC Women’s League who created Dyambu Trust, the private agency which saw in Lindela a chance for a tidy profit in 1996.

As many as twenty percent of the people snatched from kombi taxis or sidewalks and interned at Lindela were legitimate residents or visitors to South Africa, according to Human Rights Watch a decade ago. Last Sunday’s City Press newspaper told the story of Sibusisu Gumede, 26, from KwaZulu-Natal province, whose especially dark skin – and lack of an ID book at the time – made him a tempting target for dumping in Lindela. He won a $9000 court judgement for his weeks-long ordeal after being forcibly removed to Zimbabwe, and his lawyer Peter Jordi has recorded ‘hundreds of similar cases in the past few years’.

Corruption by police and Home Affairs staff is rampant, as an SA Broadcasting Corporation report on Lindela showed three years ago. Unnecessary deaths at the detention centre were so blatant that the following month, an internal investigation left Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to admit, ‘This report is indeed a damning report and a real indictment on our work as a department.’

What did she then do? Last June, Mapisa-Nqakula – a founding member of Dyambu Trust (and ironically a member of the SA Communist Party) – defended the rehiring of Dyambu to run Lindela (under the name Bosasa) on grounds there were not enough bidders, and then permitted her own communications adviser, Stephen Laufer, to serve the firm as a client. The state’s ‘rip-off’ contract with Bosasa, as it was described in a parliamentary hearing by the chair of the public accounts committee, gives the company an additional $7.5 million profit a year.

Despite SA’s role as magnet for millions of regional migrants, finance minister Trevor Manuel made the same talk-left, walk-right move at an Institute of International Finance conference in Washington last week: ‘From the perspective of the South it seems that developed Western countries, who in their quest to save and minimise costs and maximise returns, are producing too few engineers, doctors and nurses to even meet their own demands. And so the developed world plunders developing countries for the skills that they have failed to create.’

South Africa’s policy of higher university fees and financial exclusions – which will adversely affect my own university in coming weeks – confirms Manuel’s drive to minimise costs. State subsidies per learner will drop 20% in the next three years.

Manuel continued: ‘National leaders look in despair at the outflow of their talented and educated people to opportunities in other countries – this is all too-easily a self-reinforcing deteriorating spiral: people leave because the outlook for their own countries looks unfavourable, and the outflow itself reduces the prospects for growth and development.’

That’s a reasonable description of what is happening to Zimbabwe, thanks to the flight of both skilled and unskilled workers to South Africa, in turn thanks to the failure of Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy with Robert Mugabe. And here again, the last weeks of deal-making arranged by Mbeki with the once-principled (now apparently desperate and confused) opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), will ensure that Mugabe or his hand-picked successor will continue destroying the lives of poor and working-class Zimbabweans after a 2008 election.

Progressives in Zimbabwean civil society overwhelmingly oppose the ‘sell-out’ of their democratic struggle. The MDC women’s assembly was recently shut down by its (male) leaders because, say strong feminists (like Lucia Matibenga – vice president of the country’s main labor federation), they were considered deal ‘spoilers’.

SA civil society activists are working against Mbeki, Erwin, Manuel, Mapisa-Nqakula and Van Schalkwyk, not to mention health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who stands accused of persistent alcoholism and kleptomania (and has no defense).

For example, pressure from the Free Burma Campaign of South Africa and former archbishop Desmond Tutu compelled Nelson Mandela to break off a golf sponsorship with former world champion Gary Player (a defender of apartheid), because of the latter’s design of a golf course for the Myanmar junta.

Because of the high consciousness associated with this struggle, even Mbeki changed policies this month to endorse a UN Security Council statement condemning the junta – something he had refused to do in January. (China’s shift made a big difference.)

So there are rare victories against venal politicians. More typical, however, was Mbeki’s stubborn refusal last week to cease support for corporations which looted black South Africa during apartheid. These firms were rebuffed in the US Circuit Court when judges overthrew an earlier pro-corporate decision, hence allowing Jubilee South Africa and the Khulumani apartheid victims group to again file for reparations under the Alien Tort Claims Act. Colin Powell had asked Mbeki to support the US firms in 2003, which he did. And still does.

And that tells us why with his popularity shrinking fast, and with the trade union movement furious at Mbeki’s continuing neoliberal policies, the president may face a stunning defeat in December at the ANC leadership conference. Mbeki seeks a third term as ANC leader. If he or a proxy gets it, that may lead to the early dissolution of the Alliance with labor, which is long overdue.

But if labor’s candidate, Jacob Zuma, wins, we’re in for a renewed period of political hypocrisy. Behind closed doors, Zuma last week courted 20 asset and hedge fund managers, according to a Business Day report: ‘Zuma’s speech to the investors was aimed at reassuring them that there was no need for the market to be "jittery"… Zuma’s talk, which came at the request of Merrill Lynch, was "warmly received".’

(Patrick is lecturing and showing videos on the dangers of carbon trading at the Brecht Forum in NYC on November 14, as well as at other US and Canadian locations: details http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs)

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