The African grassroots and the global movement

Patrick Bond


a ZNet commentary last month, Noam Chomsky observed South-South-North alliances

"taking shape at the grassroots level–an impressive development, rich in

opportunity and promise, and surely causing no little concern in high

places." I want to firmly endorse this trend and today reflect upon some

tangible evidence of activism, visible from even my Johannesburg armchair. (Last

month, I reviewed some key African movements’ statements and resolutions against

neoliberalism and compradorism.)


set the scene, I just read a fantastic e-account of Prague: "The People’s

Battle," by Boris Kagarlitsky. In a September 23 debate organised by Vaclav

Havel, the outstanding Filippino political-economist Walden Bello was trashing

Bank president Jim Wolfensohn and IMF managing director Horst Kohler. Recounts



Manuel, a one-time communist and revolutionary, and now South African finance

minister, objects to Bello: `Without the international financial institutions,

things would be even worse for poor countries.’ The right-wingers applaud.

Someone among the leftists mutters: `Traitor!’"


is one of the most interesting cleavages in global politics today. Over the

coming weekend, Manuel–who is chairperson of the IMF/Bank Board of

Governors–and other finance minister from the "emerging market"

countries will meet in Montreal with G8 leaders, especially the notorious

skinflint Larry Summers, who has spent the past few days lobbying the Senate

against a House of Representatives prohibition on IMF/Bank imposition of

userfees in Third World education and primary healthcare programmes.


and his colleagues often allege that anti-neoliberal protests represent merely

the misguided efforts of spoiled, Northern, petit-bourgeois youth. Manuel’s

press secretary last week had this to say about recent university audiences at

the film "Two Trevors go to Washington" (about the A16 protests):

"They are the richest students in the world and would hardly miss the World

Bank." (Tonight, the film wraps up its leg of a N.American tour associated

with the excellent World Bank Bonds Boycott campaign–victorious a few days ago

in San Francisco! www.worldbankboycott.org–at New York’s Monthly Review office,

122 W.27th St, at 6PM, so if you’re in town, don’t miss it; http://go.to/two.trevors).



as it may be for Manuel and co. to appreciate, Northern leftists, feminists and

greens are not the only ones angry with the Bank and IMF. All too often over the

past year, the struggle sites under media glare–Seattle (N30), Washington

(A16), Prague (S26), and to a lesser extent Davos (January), London (May),

Geneva (June), Windsor (July), Okinawa (July), Philly/LA (August), Melbourne

(September) and NY (September)–have deflected attention from much larger

actions in the Third World, as well as from smaller-scale but even braver anti-neoliberal

campaigns against the Bretton Woods Institutions and the repressive governments

they fund.


my ongoing (and merely partial) list of events that link grassroots and labour

struggles in the South to the higher-profile protests of which the global

movement is justifiably proud.

  • An

    indigenous people’s uprising against neoliberal policies in Ecuador in

    January generated a momentarily-successful alliance with military

    coup-makers in January.

  • The

    movement’s energy shifted to steamy Bangkok in February, where a formidable

    Thai network of unemployed rural and urban activists protested daily at the

    semi-decennial meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and


  • In

    early April, grassroots anti-globalization protest intensified in the main

    square of Cochabamba, Bolivia, where thousands of residents forced water-privatiser

    Bechtel out of the country (and precipitated a national state of emergency

    in the process).

  • When

    soon thereafter, Washington came under unprecedented attack from 30,000

    militants who paralysed a large area surrounding the International Monetary

    Fund (IMF) and World Bank headquarters, substantial solidarity protests were

    held in various Third World settings, including Brazil and South Africa.

    Especially notable, under harsh circumstances, were anti-IMF demonstrations

    mainly by small groups of women in Lusaka and Nairobi, which were harshly

    broken up by police.

  • The

    next month, the small Thai city of Chiang Mai was awoken by 5,000 angry

    students, unemployed workers, environmentalists and displaced rural people,

    who overwhelmed police lines protecting an Asian Development Bank meeting.

  • On

    May 10, South Africa was the site of a national general strike by half the

    country’s workforce, furious over job-killing neoliberal policies adopted at

    the behest of the World Bank, and protest marches brought 200,000 out into

    the streets in several cities 

  • The

    next day, twenty million Indian workers went on strike explicitly to protest

    the surrender of national sovereignty to the IMF and Bank.

  • Smaller

    but still very sharp anti-IMF demonstrations quickly led to police

    crackdowns in Argentina in mid-May, followed by a mass protest of 80,000.

  • Turkish

    police also repressed anti-austerity demonstrations in May.

  • In

    Port-au-Prince, Haiti in June, thousands turned out in June for anti-debt


  • In

    Paraguay, a two-day general strike was called against IMF-mandated


  • Also

    in June, Nigeria’s trade unions allied with Lagos residents in a mass strike

    aimed at reversing an IMF-mandated oil price increase, which also had the

    effect of cutting short Larry Summers’ visit.

  • In

    July, South Korean workers repeatedly demonstrated against IMF-mandated

    austerity policies.

  • The

    Brazilian left hosted a plebiscite in August on whether the society should

    accept an IMF austerity programme, and more than one million voted, nearly

    all against.

  • S26

    solidarity events occurred all over the world, and in South Africa (as a

    leading example) included a march by 1,000 NGO activists in Durban, a demo

    at the US consulate in Cape Town, and a march by hundreds into the lobby of

    the Johannesburg headquarters of Africa’s largest company (Anglo American

    Corp), attracting violence and pepperspray by corporate security guards.

  • Tens

    of thousands of Korean workers, students and social-movement protesters are

    preparing for a day of confrontation on October 20, at a Seoul gathering of

    European and Asian leaders.


get a sense, in these discrete examples, of a broader and potentially universal

maturity, in which the most powerful structural forces responsible for Third

World degradation are now being named and forcefully confronted. Each setting

has a different emphasis, but most aim for decommodified, destratified and even

degendered, environmentally-responsible access to basic goods and services:

jobs, water, electricity, free anti-retroviral drugs to combat AIDS, education,

lower food and petrol prices.


be sure, some of the ongoing activism in Africa is difficult to interpret from a

distance, since much of it is based on a liberal-sounding "rights

discourse" rather than an explicitly "redistributionist agenda,"

to recall an argument presented at a Harare conference last month by Zimbabwe’s

leading civil-society scholar-activist, Brian Raftopoulos. In that setting,

Raftopoulos hopes that the official opposition party, the Movement for

Democratic Change, will ultimately encourage its mass-movement supporters to

counteract quite damaging internal neoliberal pressure (associated with campaign

fund-raising for the June 2000 parliamentary elections), and thus begin to

harness the potent, anti-neoliberal (and anti-government) sentiments of poor and

working-class people.


not nurtured and harnessed, such sentiments have tragically led to "IMF

riots" in Harare on several occasions over the past decade, including

earlier this week, after prices on staple goods were hiked yet again. Indeed,

most Third World social movements have this trouble–i.e., they are often

unprepared to work with those most prone to socio-economic rioting, instead

relying too much upon traditional "governance" demands.


yet, instead of synthesising with mass-lumpen protest, some local activities

undertaken by grassroots groups too easily fall into the trap of neoliberal

economic policies. Consider a warning by the great Nigerian intellectual Claude

Ake, in a book (The Feasibility of Democracy in Africa) finished prior to his

1996 death, which has just been published by Codesria Press in Dakar. Since the

1980s, Ake reports,

"there has been an explosion of associational life in rural Africa. By all

indications, this is a by-product of a general acceptance of the necessity of

self-reliance, yielding a proliferation of institutions such as craft centres,

rural credit unions, farmers’ associations, community-run skill development

centres, community banks, cooperatives, community-financed schools and hospitals

and civic centres, local credit unions, even community vigilante groups for

security. Some have welcomed this development as a sign of a vibrant civil

society in Africa. It may well be that. However, before we begin to idealise

this phenomenon, it is well to remind ourselves that whatever else it is, it is

first and foremost a child of necessity, of desperation even."


rise of "Community-Based Organisations" (CBOs) and associated

development NGOs closely corresponds with the desire of the international

agencies to shrink Third World states as part of the overall effort to lower the

social wage. The result is an ongoing conflict between technicist, apolitical

development interventions on the one hand, and the people-centered strategies

(and militant tactics) of mass-oriented social movements of the oppressed on the

other hand.


by the early 1990s, two out of five World Bank projects involved NGOs (including

well over half in Africa), and in projects involving population, nutrition,

primary health care, and small enterprise, the ratio rose to more than four out

of five. In his seminal 1995 study, Paul Nelson found that NGOs were

"primarily implementors of project components designed by World Bank and

government officials." Moreover, especially since an upsurge in such

participation began in 1988, NGOs have often been used to "deliver

compensatory services to soften the effects of an adjustment plan"; in some

cases the NGOs were not even pre-existing but were "custom-built for

projects" and hence could "neither sustain themselves nor represent

poor people’s interests effectively."


from a recent era in which "Co-Opted NGOs"–CoNGOs, as they’re

termed–happily picked up crumbs from the neoliberal table, I think we may be on

the verge of a return to dominance by radical, people’s-movement NGOs. In South

Africa, the 3,000 member SA NonGovernmental Coalition deserves this recognition,

as do component think-tanks and campaigning groups currently fighting for free

access to anti-retroviral drugs, water, electricity and the like. (Next month,

I’ll provide an update on the mixed reactions from government and the ruling

ANC, as the December 5 municipal elections approach, thereby heightening

populist campaigning promises rather more than I sense from the US election.)


campaigns really do, now, think globally, act locally, and network globally for

support. In his new book, Spaces of Hope (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University

Press), marxist scholar David Harvey seeks out instances of the "global and

universal taken together," which in practical terms means we must

"take globalisation seriously and make universal claims of precisely the

sort that the Zapatistas have advanced from their mountainous retreats in

Southern Mexico. These claims rest firmly on local experience but operate more

dialectically in relation to globalisation."


Zapatistas’ international alliances are a model along these lines, but so too

are their distinctly radical-democratic "development" strategies,

based upon short-term demands to their nation-state. Tellingly, when these are

not forthcoming due to neoliberalism, Zapatista self-activity takes forms such

as liberating household electricity supplies from the pylons that cross Chiapas,

invading underutilised ranches and plantations, and declaring municipal autonomy

in dozens of sites of community struggle.


the rest of us, working in solidarity with such Southern rebellions and in

self-interest, too, the common target appears global and universal taken

together: shutting down the IMF, Bank and WTO. A prerequisite to global social

justice is to fell the agencies which most directly negate our claims of

universal access to decommodified, destratified, degendered and

environmentally-responsible "rights," such as essential drugs and

clean water. It is here that evolving grassroots activity in Africa has lots to

teach the international movement.


the way, I’ll be presenting a longer version of this article in New York, at

Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies at noon on October 19–11th

floor of the International Affairs building–in the event anyone wants to stop

by and check it out.)


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