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Thabo Mbeki addresses his compatriots


South African president Thabo Mbeki’s opening of parliament on February 8 was eagerly awaited, and began with a grand motif: “The global struggle to eradicate poverty and underdevelopment is fundamental to the well-being of human society.”

Mbeki’s speech (http://www.gov.za) will fascinate international observers for at least two reasons. First, he has adopted the project of saving Africa through his “New Partnership for Africa’s Development” (Nepad), which was the subject of great corporate applause at the World Economic Forum earlier this month.

Nepad will also be the centrepiece of Northern charity at the forthcoming G-8 meeting in the Canadian backwoods, faraway from pesky social-justice activists who would remind elites that dignified Africans need more respectable attire than provided by a knee-pad, useful only for scraping and begging.

Mbeki, at least, will hear civil-society protests along those lines, when in Durban (also in July) he launches the Africa Union, successor to the failed Organisation of African Unity. Already this year, African social movements have issued anti-Nepad statements in Mali (African Social Forum), New York (Johannesburg Summit PrepCom) and Porto Alegre (World Social Forum).

Second, Mbeki will host the World Summit on Sustainable Development here in Johannesburg in late August. Last week, his Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism revealed that such negligible progress had been made drafting Pretoria’s own national sustainable development strategy that the exercise would be postponed until October.

Environmentalist Salim Fakir, who last year worked in the department, admitted that “There has been no proper engagement with players in [economic and social] sectors yet.”

Nevertheless, after hearing Mbeki’s claims of state delivery success last Friday, you would wonder why South African social and labour movements are not aboard Pretoria’s neoliberal train. Let’s consider the best possible interpretations of post-apartheid services provision from Mbeki’s speech. The most elemental example is probably access to clean water.

Mbeki: “In the last three years, four million more people have been connected, bringing the total to seven million since 1994.”

Reality: Those are mainly rural residents who at one point or another since liberation in 1994 gained access to a communal tap–but the figures aren’t corrected to account for more than a million people whose water was cut off because individual or community poverty meant water systems could not be maintained and repaired.

To illustrate the tragedy, thousands of people still contract cholera every month, as government refuses to truck in clean water to infected areas using state vehicles. More than 40,000 children die each year from diarrhoea caused by dirty water.

Financial problems have resulted in many local governments forcibly disconnecting supplies to people who are too poor to pay water bills which have risen dramatically since 1994. The main state sanitation programme delivered only 32,000 toilets last year, leaving an estimated backlog of 18 million people.

Water minister Ronnie Kasrils (a communist) repeatedly spends only a small fraction of the allocated water/sanitation funding, because of the residual neoliberal orientation his staff retains from mid-1990s World Bank-inspired policies.

Water shortages for the poor continue in spite of the right to water guaranteed by the 1996 Constitution. An acclaimed pro-poor judgement in the Constitutional Court 16 months ago has still not been implemented in the Western Cape community of Wallacedene, home to the courageous plaintiff, Irene Grootboom.

Likewise, there are problems in the long-delayed electrification of poor South Africans’ dwellings.

Mbeki: “In the three years since 1999, 1.2 million new connections were made, bringing the total since 1994 to 3.5 million.”

Reality: Mbeki again neglects to include those whose power was subsequently switched off due to inability to pay. Moreover, the rate of electricity connections has been declining in recent years, now that the easier homes have been hooked up to existing urban systems.

The state-owned electricity company, Eskom, finds it cannot profitably link far-flung rural areas to the national grid. That dooms the promise of electricity for all, and means that the free lifeline supply Mbeki promised in the 2000 municipal elections will eventually be available only to those who have connections–not to impoverished, rural, women-headed households who need the lifeline the most.

And disconnection of low-income urban consumers–often because of artificially inflated bills–is still causing enormous friction in Soweto and most other working-class townships.

Land reform is also desperately needed, in the wake of apartheid’s bantustan system of reserving the vast majority of good arable land for white farmers, achieved by forcibly removing indigenous residents by the millions.

Mbeki: The land reform programme has, since 1994, been expanded “to over one million hectares.”

Reality: This is still less than 3% of total arable land. The ANC’s 1994 electoral promise–in the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP)–was that by 1999, 30% of the good land in the country would be redistributed. Anger at the slow pace–even lazier than Zimbabwe’s first decade of independence–is reflected in land invasions such as the internationally-publicised Bredell community’s squat and forced removal last July.

Activists in the main landless network, the National Land Committee, fresh from inspiring Porto Alegre lessons taught by Brazil’s MST Movement of the Landless, are not impressed. Mbeki’s promise to resolve, within the next three years, all land-restitution claims by those displaced by apartheid, is also unrealistic, given how few have been settled to date, cumbersome procedures and resource constraints.

Mbeki also declared that the state’s Integrated Rural Development Programme is moving ahead in 13 rural nodes. Yet a new National Spatial Development Framework was approved by his cabinet recently, which deprioritises state investments in the ex-bantustan areas that are judged economically nonviable–thereby punishing those who were forcibly removed there during apartheid.

What about housing?

Mbeki: “while the number of new houses built or under construction was 514,000 at the end of 1998, the number currently stands at 1.2 million since 1994.”

Reality: Mbeki’s housing minister Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele has issued public statements condemning the very low quality and location of the new homes. The tiny, poorly-built units are sometimes termed “kennels” because their size is typically 20 square meters in floorspace. They are nearly invariably located further from cities and job opportunities than even the apartheid-era townships.

Mbeki’s state Treasury has foiled Mthembi-Mahanyele’s attempts to raise spending on housing subsidies to 5% of the national budget–as promised in the RDP and the first Housing White Paper in 1994. Instead, spending has stagnated at closer to 1.5%, which has lowered the rate of construction and actually raised the backlog–estimated at more than three million families still without adequate shelter.

Underspending of a fatal nature characterises Mbeki’s offer of health services to HIV+ South Africans.

Mbeki: The speech promised government would “increase treatment of all diseases including those associated with Aids.”

Reality: No one trusts Mbeki on this topic. He has already rejected advice from former president Nelson Mandela, thousands of health professionals and advocacy groups, by refusing to make anti-retroviral drugs readily available across the country.

He continues to fight the mother-to-child-transmission case his health ministry lost to Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) activists in December, by appealing to the Constitutional Court. His government continues to constantly bicker with TAC and to harass high-profile clinics–such as those in the town of Nelspruit and the Cape township of Khayelitsha (run by Medicins sans Frontieres)–where doctors are trying to prevent HIV transmission by pregnant women.

In wealthy countries, Aids has become a chronic illness, like diabetes, thanks to anti-retroviral treatment. South Africa could easily take advantage of cheap but safe Indian, Thai and Brazilian generic drug imports to prolong and enhance the lives of millions of HIV+ people (the majority of whom are African women and children).

But political will is absent in Pretoria, and the terms “genocide” and “infanticide” are now regularly used by even professionals and journalists to describe Mbeki’s Aids policies.

A slow, painful death also awaits South Africa’s economy.

Mbeki: “The sudden depreciation of the currency a few months ago is not a reflection of systemic or structural weaknesses in the economy as a whole.”

Reality: South Africa’s financial vulnerability is indeed a structural weakness, dating at least to March 1995, when Pretoria dropped decade-old exchange controls. Since then, there have been three runs on the currency, each impoverishing South Africa by more than 30%: February 1996, June 1998 and 2000-01.

From R6.1 to the dollar in December 1999, the currency crashed by more than 50%, to R13.8 to the dollar two years later before “stabilising” at R11.5/US$1. Last month, Mbeki appointed an official commission to examine the problem, yet he denied the group a mandate to consider tougher exchange controls, for example by reimposing the “financial rand” dual-exchange-rate mechanism which has been endorsed by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz. Instead, Mbeki wants the commission to merely investigate whether existing (weak) controls were tampered with by speculators.

Mbeki: “We will need to continue working with international financial institutions and developing countries to fashion a global financial architecture that cushions so-called emerging markets from occasional market irrationality.”

Reality: That work has been underway since the Asian Crisis began in 1997, with Pretoria’s finance minister Trevor Manuel even chairing the IMF and World Bank board of governors during 2000 (when huge anti-Bank/IMF demonstrations clogged Washington and Prague). The new architecture’s strength is typified by ongoing crisis and bankruptcy in Turkey and Argentina.

Mbeki and Manuel hold the utopian view that the Bank and IMF can be reformed, and hence they continue to give Washington legitimacy, instead of protecting the South African economy from financial looting through capital controls. Manuel is co-chair, with former IMF boss Michel Camdessus, of the UN’s Monterrey Financing for Development conference next month, where once again nothing will be done on behalf of global financial stability.

Mbeki: “On the whole, we should emphasise that the path of an open economy that we have charted for ourselves is not up for review.”

Reality: Partly because of an excessively open economy, Mbeki’s trade union allies complain that South Africa has lost more formal-sector jobs since 1994 than any other country in history outside wartime or depression. The main point of opening the economy was to attract foreign direct investment, yet even government statistics concede negligible if not negative results.

Mbeki: “Restructuring of state assets remains one of the primary areas of focus in government’s programme.”

Reality: The record of South African privatisation is farcical.

* South African Airways had to be renationalised year when partner Swiss Air went bankrupt, and the failed Sun Air black-empowerment privatisation remains mired in controversy.

* After only one foreign bid for a stake in government’s land-line phone company was offered in 1996, controversy has raged over the company’s rate increases for local phone calls, their mass retrenchments of surplus workers, their ongoing monopolistic practices, and their “churning” of accounts (more than 500,000 new customers have been disconnected due to unaffordability). These practices all emanate from the Texan and Malaysian syndicate running the phone company, and their extreme greed for profits.

* Eskom’s commercialisation also featured tens of thousands of retrenchments, as well as electricity cut-offs to low-income consumers, and likewise, no progress on the free lifeline electricity Mbeki promised during the 2000 election campaign.

* The state railroad’s commercialisation led to the death of small towns whose unprofitable rail links were cut.

* Important pilot water privatisations involving the huge Paris-based firms Saur and Suez in two small municipalities (Dolphin Coast and Nkonkobe) were, respectively, unethically renegotiated to the water company’s benefit, and canceled due to the company’s nonperformance.

* The sale of the state iron and steel company, dating to 1989 (the first such privatisation) was a failure, whether measured in terms of the destruction of tens of thousands jobs, the company’s ongoing environmental record, or even its profitability and share value.

After twelve years of trying, there is not a single privatisation success story. Yet Mbeki’s African infrastructure investment drive, as articulated in Nepad, is reliant upon public-private partnerships. If these systematically fail in South Africa, how will they work in countries vastly more impoverished?

Unless Mbeki urgently addresses criticisms such as these with vigour and change, his liberation project will be reduced to the replacement of racial apartheid with class apartheid. And Nepad, the African Union and the Johannesburg Summit will also be subjected to anti-apartheid activism in coming months.

(Patrick Bond is giving talks in London, Oxford, Amsterdam, Toronto, Ottawa, Washington DC and New York later this month; ZNetters are warmly welcome; contact [email protected] for details.)

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