Southern African Movements Seek Antidotes To Neoliberalism

Last week’s two-day national labour stayaway against the impending privatisation of South African electricity, telephones, water and transport services was only a mixed success. But combined with other recent regional dynamics and ruling-party convulsions, it adds to the sense that activists are now thoroughly fed up with rampant neoliberalism and the political tyranny that invariably accompanies it on the world’s periphery.

To illustrate, the failed neoliberal strategy of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe during the 1990s generated malgovernance, rebellions and an opposition movement from the trade unions and urban poor. Since losing a February 2000 referendum, Mugabe responded not only with talk-left/act-right bluster and by activating a paramilitary posing as land-reformers.

He also conclusively cheated on three elections, including last weekend’s national poll of rural district municipalities. In more than half the districts, intimidation was so severe that the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) could not even register their candidates for the 1400 seats. Arrests, beating and torture of MDC supporters were again in evidence, against a backdrop of worsening starvation induced both by drought and venal politics, in which food aid is being used by Mugabe’s lieutenants as a weapon and rape of rural women opposed to his regime is also steeply on the rise.

As to growing concern over the opposition party’s own internal stagnation and conservative orientation, late last month the MDC fired neoliberal economic spokesperson Eddie Cross, a white businessperson, in a favour of the ex-trotskyist (and still leftist) human rights lawyer Tendai Biti. MDC general secretary Morgan Tsvangirai also began talking of mass nonviolent action.

More importantly, so too have progressive civil society activists in the National Constitutional Assembly begun to shift their own strategy for popular demonstrations in Harare, which will arise in coming weeks from a township base instead of at the traditional protest site next to parliament, vulnerable as it is to police/army clampdown. Students, workers and other anti-privatisation activists are again flexing muscles against Mugabe, after six months of post-election mourning.

As another example of degenerate state leadership, South African president Thabo Mbeki has rarely sounded so paranoid-defensive as he did when opening the September 27 ANC policy conference. Attacking the “left sectarian factions” who allegedly “occupy the same trench with the anti-socialist forces which they claim are their sworn enemies”, Mbeki warned his followers that “this ultra-left works to implant itself within our ranks. It strives to abuse our internal democratic processes to advance its agenda, against policies agreed by our most senior decision-making structures”.

Meant in the first instance as a threat to left-leaning leaders of the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu), Mbeki failed to persuade them to postpone the October 1-2 strike until after a promised economic policy summit next year. At the same time, a vituperative document was leaked by the ANC’s Political Education Unit. Although it is still being rewritten (probably to appear at http://www.anc.org.za), Mbeki’s concerns about ultraleftism can be derived from these sentences:

“The charge of neo-liberalism constitutes the most consistent platform presented by the ‘left’ opposition in its fight against the ANC and our government… In our country, it is represented by important factions in the SA Communist Party and Cosatu, as well as the Anti-Privatisation Forum, the local chapter of Jubilee 2000, and other groups and individuals. All of these maintain links with their like-minded counterparts internationally and work to mobilise these to act in solidarity with them in support of the anti-neoliberal campaign in our country…

“These specific anti-neoliberal formations define our efforts to contribute to the victory of the African Renaissance as an expression of sub-imperialism. They assert that the ANC and our government are acting as the representative and instrument of the South African bourgeoisie, which they say seeks to dominate the African continent. They go further to say that the soul of the ANC has been captured by a pro-capitalist, and therefore neoliberal faction”.

Not a bad summary of independent-left conventional wisdom. But here’s where the logic then twists:

“The anti-neoliberal coalition hopes that it will trample over the fallen colossus, the ANC, and march on to a victorious socialist revolution, however defined. Better still, it hopes that by engaging in all manner of manoeuvre, including conspiring about who its leaders should be, it can capture control of the ANC and use it for its purposes. To achieve these objectives, the anti-neoliberal coalition is ready to treat the forces of neoliberalism as its ally. Therefore it joins forces with them, together to open fire on the ANC and our government”.

What’s new in the ANC tract are, first, the preposterous charge that the indy left is working with the neolib right, and second, the correct perception that international solidarity is now a meaningful political variable, a point I return to in closing.

The Treatment Action Campaign was the first major post-apartheid beneficiary of internationalism, as the world came to learn of Mbeki’s genocidal HIV/Aids policies in 2000. Now, the accusation of SA subimperialism is, indeed, being made across the region. In Harare a fortnight ago, strategists of southern African social movements, NGOs, labour, women, landless people and environmentalists met to discuss alternatives to Mbeki’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad). Activist unity had been forged by many of these forces–e.g., the SA Social Movements Indaba; the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development; the Malawi Economic Justice Network; the Swaziland Campaign against Poverty and Economic Inequality; and others in the Southern African Peoples Solidarity Network–at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development a month ago.

Strong anti-Nepad statements have emerged from groups like these over the past year, since Mbeki and Nigeria’s Olusegun Obasanjo formally launched the document in Abuja (see ZNet Commentaries, 21 June 2002, 4 November 2001). Four points merely need to be reiterated:

* the process behind authorship/ownership of Africa’s plan was fatally flawed, given its origination in meetings between Mbeki, G8 leaders and Davos business tycoons beginning in 1999, augmented by a few African elites in 2001, leaving consultation with civil society until April 2002, six months after Nepad was finalised;

* Nepad’s commitment to good governance is considered farcical in the wake of Mbeki/Obasanjo’s winking at high-profile vote-rigging episodes and oppression in several countries, including not only Zimbabwe and Zambia but also Nigeria and South Africa;

* as for the development strategy, Nepad is skewed towards strengthening the role of the World Bank, IMF and World Trade Organisation, privatising Africa’s infrastructure and rolling out a red carpet to corporate free-trade interests; and

* Nepad amplifies existing patriarchal institutions, practices, power relations and even philosophies.

There has emerged a bit of elite shame about the first and second points, but not the third and fourth. Indeed, Mbeki successfully steered Nepad through three major conferences the last three months: the July launch of the African Union in Durban; the August-September World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg; and the mid-September UN summit in New York. In spite of protests, the base document, controversial in so many ways (http://www.nepad.org), was not–and will not be–amended, in spite of harsh critiques from virtually all of African civil society (http://www.aidc.org.za).

Nepad increasingly serves as a pole of opposition, carrying African progressives over barriers that include borders, genders, language groups and sectoral focus areas. Uneven political development across the African continent means that different regions will respond at different paces and with particular interests. But in some areas, we can expect common, or at least overlapping, values and political rhetorics.

Thus advocacy for women’s rights is emblematic, partly because Nepad is so profoundly patriarchal. As Zimbabwean feminist Bella Matambanadzo of the Women’s Resource Centre and Network put it, “Nepad is ignorant not only of the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, but also the Africa Platform for Action moving to Beijing conference and the Southern African Development Community’s own gender declaration of 1997″.

In some of these official statements, issues of sexual rights, especially in terms of HIV/Aids, have become part of the discourse. Nevertheless, Matambanadzo observes, “Nepad is frightened to take the blanket off things we consider private: culture, sex and sexuality”. Nepad also neglects to mention, much less incorporate, unpaid women’s labour and the costs of gender-based violence. Nepad’s gender equity component is merely the usual rhetoric about microcredit, income generating projects and integration into markets. In contrast, women’s groups are firmly demanding a generous social wage–the full array of essential services–from their states.

There you get a good sense of both critique and, implicitly, the alternatives that women and many other Africans are seeking. At a continent-wide scale, the search for a post-neoliberal development philosophy began within these sorts of groups during the late 1990s, in conferences in Accra, Johannesburg, Lusaka, Nairobi and Dakar that culminated in the January 2002 Bamako meeting of the African Social Forum. The groups have a general anti-capitalist pespective, now, but what they are “for” is still diverse, consistent with the Social Forum formula “One No Many Yeses”.

According to Nancy Kachingwe from the regional network Mwengo, “The weakness of Bamako was that it stayed at the level of generality, which in opposition to liberalisation, austerity and globalisation is fine, but we now need to get detailed alternatives”. There remains a great hunger for an “African People’s Consensus” to help hone organic grassroots/shopfloor demands more systematically. Aside from ongoing class and social struggles, those demands seem to take the form of fights on two levels: against specific damaging projects and on policy.

In southern/central Africa, current hot (and mainly successful) campaigns include three mega-dams: Epupa in Namibia, Bujagali in Uganda and Mepunda Uncua in Mozambique. In Tanzania, an exorbitant British air traffic control system is being contested while in Swaziland, the authoritarian monarchy’s purchase of a $50 million personal jet received the same reactions. Zambia’s democratic movements are campaigning not only against neoliberalism but also for a recontestation of the stolen December 2001 election, while Lesotho activists celebrate last month’s bribery conviction of the first of a dozen companies accused of corrupting local officials through a World Bank dam contract.

State policy is harder to crack. Activists working at the intersection of democracy, human rights and socio-economic grievances are sceptical that Nepad’s African Peer Review Mechanism will bring deviant countries into line. As Brian Kagoro, director of the watchdog group Crisis in Zimbabwe, pointed out, “The process is voluntary; corrective not punitive; and based on quiet diplomacy–as has been so ineffectual in bringing about a free election here”.

The main antidote is a different kind of peer review: people’s solidarity. At a time when so many opportunities arise to draw attention to malevolent behaviour by states and capital, coordinated protests have been too few and far between, but that may be changing. The strike against Mbeki’s privatisation programme was supported by between 10% and 50% of the workforce, depending on whether you believe the ANC or Cosatu. A militant demonstration of 40,000 workers and the urban poor turned Johannesburg’s streets red with banners and tee-shirts last Tuesday.

Moreover, international networks will also be activated in coming weeks, just as Mbeki fears. Protests against the trial of Trevor Ngwane and the Kensington 87 for their April demonstration at the Johannesburg mayor’s house will be held in major cities across the world (including Harare) on October 22. Global pressure is also mounting on Pretoria to free a political prisoner–the autonomist intellectual-activist Jaime Yovanovich Prieto, wanted on a frame-up by residual Pinochet supporters in Chile’s military courts–who could soon face extradition from a local prison (http://southafrica.indymedia.org).

Meanwhile, community and trade union struggles which make this region such a compelling case of anti-neoliberalism for the global left will only strengthen, the more Mbeki, Mugabe and other regional tyrants respond in predictable ways.

(Patrick Bond’s recent book is *Unsustainable South Africa: Environment, Development and Social Protest* — http://www.unpress.co.za and http://www.merlinpress.co.uk.)

Leave a comment