Welcome to Jo’burg

Patrick Bond


you had a choice, which host city would you choose for Rio+10, a.k.a. the 2002

`World Summit on Sustainable Development,’ where 60,000 delegates will jawjaw

about social and environmental problems, maybe in the process constructing more

bits of a global state? Let’s do a quick scan of the site picked by the UN last

month: Johannesburg, South Africa.


main Rio+10 conference will take place in what passes for Jo’burg’s new business

district, a hedonistic edge-city called Sandton. It’s about fifteen miles north

of the traditional city centre where, during the 1890s gold rush, the old

Central Business District was first originally built–and then many times

rebuilt, to ultimately welcome Africa’s most intimidating concrete canyons.


from an investor’s standpoint, democracy wasn’t good for that part of town.

Beginning in the late 1980s, black South Africans were allowed into the CBD

without their `passbooks.’ Now, even luxury office blocks–such as the Carlton

Centre, Africa’s tallest building at 50 stories–are now valued at 5-10% of

their replacement cost, thanks to mass white-capitalist disinvestment and bank



the past decade, virtually all Jo’burg’s white-run corporations fled the

desegregating inner-city and instead built a huge, faux- Italian `public’ square

in the southern hemisphere’s plushest suburb. Sandton Square was quickly

surrounded by skyscrapers, banks (including a brand new Citibank tower),

boutiques for the ubiquitous nouveau-riche, 5-star hotels, a garish convention

centre, Africa’s biggest stock exchange and other architectural detritus

showcasing brazen economic power.


South Africa’s crime hysteria, a fortress mentality prevails in Sandton.

Jo’burg’s cutting-edge high-tech surveillance systems, staffed by poverty-level

black security-sector workers, compare closely to Los Angeles’ Bonaventura Hotel

and would give author Mike Davis even more raw material conjoining conspicuous

consumption norms, insulate!-psychology, phallic symbolism, and a profoundly

distorted political economy. And as for transplanting mediterranean themes to

the African high- veld, you can imagine the culture clash.


an aside, Christmas week saw a vibrant power struggle between South African

security guards and their sweatshop-style employers. While small black-run

security firms agreed to union demands for a minimum monthly wage of

US$200–hardly compensating for no perks and life- threatening work guarding the

rich in the world’s most unequal country–this was considered an excessive sum

by the white- owned firms, many of which are run by ex- cops from apartheid

times. That struggle continues, too.)


a couple of miles to the east lives Sandton’s reserve army of labour, in an

impoverished township called Alexandra, home to an estimated 300,000 people

crammed into just over two square miles of mainly squalid housing. (A book by my

friend Mzwanele Mayekiso, Township Politics, published by Monthly Review five

years ago, is still an excellent guide to Alexandra, because tragically little

has changed since apartheid.) Last week, in the murky Jukskei River which cuts

through the township, there was an outbreak of cholera, brought (say

epidemiologists) by Zulu migrant-workers returning to the city from the holiday

break. The national epidemic has already sickened 25,000 people, leaving 72

dead, with 500 more contracting the killer disease every day.


reason is simple: nearly seven years after apartheid ended, most South Africans

still rely upon untreated water, and there has been virtually no installation of

even inexpensive rural pit-latrine sanitation since 1994. (As I mentioned in my

December 5 ZNet Commentary, the disease’s epicentre, last August, was deep in

the rural KwaZulu- Natal ex-homeland, where piped water was cut off to destitute

people who couldn’t pay a $7 connection fee, having had free water supplied by

the apartheid regime for 17 years prior.)


apartheid-era migrant labour system is still dominant today, based on sustained

patriarchy which has rural women carrying many of the labour-reproduction costs

that a normal capitalist economy would internalise. Add to this the unserviced

shack settlements which have popped up in many Jo’burg environs and you get a

lethal mix, a public health bomb, detonated again and again by poverty,

unemployment, evictions of poor people from formal townships, and cutoffs of

municipal services like water and electricity.


to the madness, Jo’burg’s lead bureaucrats announced last week, just as the

cholera bug appeared, that they would redouble their `credit control’ system

against people not paying for services, by cutting off yet more poor residents.

And then provincial bureaucrats announced, early this week, that they would

begin mass evictions of tens of thousands of long-time Alexandra residents

living in shacks along the Jukskei, in a two- week exercise reminiscent of

apartheid forced removals (except not on race grounds now, we have instead

full-blown class- apartheid). People will be moved dozens of miles away to other

already-overcrowded shantytowns (many will resist).


such a lethal zone of contradiction, political friction can be enlightening, as

global and local pressures blend. For example, one sunny summer afternoon last

month, I joined my friends Fernando Bejarano and Neil Tangri, who, with some

Greenpeace activists, carried off a couple of spirited demonstrations at the

Sandton Convention Centre. The glitzy Centre–the main staging point for

Rio+10–was hosting an international conference dedicated to regulating

`Persistent Organic Pollutants’ (POPs) in early December. Fernando and Neil

explained that once again, the official US delegation was the fly in the

ointment. (True, the host South African government was also opposed to a

conference resolution prohibiting all uses of toxics; Pretoria allows the

spraying of DDT in malaria-infested areas, arguing unconvincingly that all other

measures have failed.)


looked like a repeat of the anti-landmines conference (which Clinton eschewed to

the US’ shame), or the previous month’s debacle in The Hague, where stubborn

Washington officials blocked `progress’ on the Kyoto Protocol (aimed at slowing

global warming). Even that sickly deal on CO2-emissions is based on a

pollution-trading strategy that, environmental economist Peter Dorman warns,

will raise the floor to the ceiling, because under emissions-trading, countries

can sell rights to pollute (instead of themselves generating all the CO2

permissible, which may not be otherwise economical). So Clinton’s team managed

to reduce pressure on the US to cut its obscene contribution to global warming.

And moreover, through the commodification of clean air–a strategy warmly

endorsed by the World Bank and other neoliberals–Kyoto’s maximum emissions

become guaranteed minimums in any case. For the environment, Kyoto-Hague was a

lose-lose proposition.


I finally come to my point. It is precisely because of such attempts at

international `regulation’ of environmental problems created by the market

(e.g., global warming), *using tools of the market* (like emissions-trading),

that I so firmly mistrust what passes these days for `global governance,’

`global public goods’ (as punted by James Wolfensohn, always in search of a

fresh mandate), and especially the United Nations `global compact’ with dozens

of the world’s largest and most irresponsible corporations. Their talkshops–

invariably in First World conference centres, sometimes like last month in

shouting distance of Third World urban catastrophes– rarely make a difference.


to play devil’s advocate, the POPs conference did ultimately deliver some nice-

sounding language. Fernando, a former farmworker organiser with Cesar Chavez, is

Mexico’s leading anti-pesticide campaigner, while activist-intellectual Neil

labours for the excellent Healthcare Without Harm international advocacy network

out of Ralph Nader’s Washington offices. As the conference closed, the two

now-groggy activists stopped by after intense lobbying sessions to celebrate

with a beer at my house on the way to the airport. They confirmed that at the

last minute, in the wee hours of the morning, some left-leaning delegates pushed

the US position to the wall on several particularly nasty chemicals.


this an exception, then? Perhaps, but typically such international conventions

must still be ratified (and that’s Jesse Helms’ department). Most are merely

nation-to- nation contracts, and if the US violates them, a country (like Haiti,

for example) which receives a toxic gift (ash from Philadelphia a few years ago)

must bear an enormous financial burden to contest the US (and its deep-pocket

corporates) in the International Court of Justice.


local example unveils some political limits of global regulation. At merely a

personal level, my own environmental consciousness-raising came from realising

that Jo’burg water is now increasingly sourced from a massive dam-complex in

Lesotho, several hundred kilometres south of here. In one of the world’s most

impressive cross-catchment projects, water shoots down from the Maluti Mountains

into the river systems that supply Jo’burg, through a tunnel 42 kilometres long,

built at a cost of $2.5 billion. But the dams that make this happen are

fundamentally flawed, as an excellent international team of researchers and

community activists have been revealing (the multifaceted case is too complex to

simplify, but can be found at http://www.queensu.ca/msp under documents).


especially to help from the International Rivers Network, Center for

International Environmental Law and Environmental Defense Fund, community

activists in Alexandra have been fighting to stop the dams and instead make rich

white Jo’burgers pay more to water their english gardens and fill their swimming

pools, and force the municipality to repair apartheid-era leaking pipes through

which half the township water drains out before reaching the people. They

recently joined with Lesotho rural groups to demand a moratorium on further

Lesotho dam- building, due to the project’s many violations of best-practice

recommendations made by yet another international assembly: the `World

Commission on Dams,’ sponsored by the World Bank and environmental group IUCN.


activists have regularly complained not only to Lesotho officials and the South

African government–especially the then- water minister, Kader Asmal, chair of

the World Commission on Dams–but to the project’s main organiser, the Bank

itself. The Bank’s in-house `Inspection Panel’ is meant to provide oversight so

its Board can cancel unsound projects. But because of politics (not sound

technical reasoning) the Panel outright refused to consider–even fully

investigate–the activists’ case. (No point in offending or embarrassing Asmal,

they seemed to reason; having once opposed the Lesotho dams as a case of

apartheid sanctions-busting, Asmal in 1998 gave the go-ahead for expanding the

controversial project.)


name at least one name, it was Jim MacNeill, the Bank Inspection Panel’s key

staffer–and formerly secretary of the Brundtland Commission (which popularised

the ghastly phrase `sustainable development’);–who surmised that Asmal had

introduced a sustainable water services policy to South Africa. Thus the Bank

could ignore the Alexandra residents’ plight, and specifically their case

against the expensive, unnecessary, corrupt, ecologically- catastrophic and

distributionally-unfair Lesotho dams. (I’d now like to invite Jim back to

Jo’burg, to have a sip of Alexandra’s Jukskei River water, just for a taste of



the point is that the international struggle to stop large dams, whether in

Sardar Sarovar, India or Lesotho-Alexandra, was shunted into an international

conference setting, where progressive activists and researchers waged a struggle

to add decent language to the final language. (Telling, however, was a minority

rider to the report by Medha Patkar, the guru of the international anti-dams

movement, and inspiration for defending the Narmada River.) Predictably, the SA

government and World Bank ignored the activists’ request for a moratorium on

Lesotho’s dams.


to the Sandton Convention Centre. Those of you readers who’ll join us here

protesting at the Rio+10 `World Summit on Sustainable Development’ next year,

will be happy to know that South Africa’s best environmentalists, union

organisers and social/community activists are already making preparations.

Alexandra will host one of the most exciting `convergence centres’ of

progressive activists yet established.


as Sandton puts out red carpets to Citibank and other toxic corporations so as

to attract more tenants to its luxury buildings (the corpos might otherwise go

to beautiful Cape Town, steamy Durban or the Jo’burg-Pretoria highway strip

called Midrand), it strikes me yet again that the only way to stop such

self-destructive competition between cities is to put sufficient political

pressure on our nation-states to reject the international economic power

structure, no matter how much it is camouflaged by the best-meaning UN



economic pressure comes, in its most direct manifestation, from the *real*

embryonic world state–the IMF, World Bank and WTO–which is a veritable boot on

a Third World leader’s neck. (In other research, I’ve been tracing the cholera

in KwaZulu-Natal and Alexandra directly to World Bank advisors, who claimed two

years ago to have been `instrumental’ in determining SA’s water pricing system.)

This spring, US university students and socially-responsible investment

advocates will be helping some of the best South African activists attempt to

defund–and some of us hope, close down–the World Bank (http://www.worldbankboycott.org)


fairness, though, I will close by introducing next month’s column, a review of

the excellent new book by Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello and Brendan Smith–

`Globalization from Below’ (South End Press)–which takes a somewhat different

point of view. Stay tuned, for more of this debate on whether to reform, or

smash, the global state… a debate that may, depending upon strategy and the

balance of forces, culminate at Rio+10 right here in Jo’burg.


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