“We Must Rethink the International Economic System”


DETROIT, Michigan, Oct 30 (IPS) – Archbishop Desmond Tutu is South Africa‘s first black Anglican bishop. An elder statesman whose moral voice and advocacy against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa first brought him to the world stage in the 1980s, Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

Today he is an international peace negotiator, a man sought after by world leaders and governments for his counsel, and a teacher of peace, justice and non-violence on the campuses of major colleges and universities around the world.

IPS correspondent Bankole Thompson had a one-on-one interview with the man Nelson Mandela trusted with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring racial healing to South Africa. Tutu was in Michigan Wednesday to receive the University of Michigan‘s Wallenberg Medal in Ann Arbor for his humanitarian work.

Tutu told IPS that the current global financial crisis shows something is wrong with the "free market" system and called for a review of the fundamentals of capitalism. He said African governments should form cartels to protect their institutions if Western nations are protecting their own financial companies, lamented that Africa’s political and religious leadership failed Zimbabweans, and hailed the prospect of a Barack Obama presidency in the U.S.

IPS: How do you think the global financial crisis will affect the Millennium Development Goals of the U.N.?

DT: Of course, if there is no money from the rich countries then it is going to be very difficult for the developing countries to reach those goals. But I would hope people would look more carefully at the international economic system, because that is in many ways at the bottom of this. Or you could say they have to look at the fundamental principles of capitalism, because I think capitalism tends to encourage some of the less noble aspects of our characters.

IPS: Western nations are fighting the financial crisis through governments and central bank interventions. But in Africa, the European Union keeps prescribing more trade liberalisation and less government intervention. Is there a willingness on the part of African governments to resist such policies?

DT: We are meant to live in a community of interdependence. If we continue to treat others as outsiders — and as you see, when they are outsiders, they will tend to get the thin end of the stick — then we will be in trouble. I hope that although we will be speaking from a position of weakness, we should be saying, ‘No, we want a fundamental revamp of the economic system."

Because they say ‘liberalise, don’t put up trade barriers.’ But what do they do? In the European Union they have all of these massive agricultural subsidies where they pay two dollars a day for every cow. There are people in the world, millions of people who live on less than that, and they say nothing of their kind of regulation that puts barriers, that makes it difficult for the goods from developing countries to compete fairly in their markets. But now I think they are going to be finding it [uneasy] to say central governments must not intervene. They’ve intervened massively and they’ve said they have ‘free enterprise’. I don’t know how ‘free’ enterprise really is.

IPS: The Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA) being negotiated between Africa and Europe are largely viewed as undermining Africa’s potential for growth and development. Does Africa have a responsibility to put in place safeguards when it enters such international agreements?

DT: I think they have now a far better possibility of doing that. We have to admit that to some extent we are to blame in the sense that we have allowed people [to lead] who were engaging in massive corruption, people who were looking out for themselves and were not servants of the people. Look at what happened to Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of Congo], for instance, a very rich country but we know that a lot of its wealth was stashed in Swiss bank accounts and things of that kind. And so we’ve also got to say to our leaders ‘you are going to be accountable to your people and you are not going to use the positions that you have for self enrichment, for self aggrandisement, you are there for the sake of the people.’

IPS: African governments have been criticised for not taking a hard stance against Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. The political settlement there is very fragile. What do you suggest?

DT: I said right at the beginning that the way we were behaving as leaders made me want to hang my head in shame. And I was speaking not just of the political leaders, because I thought that religious leaders and others needed to point out that we can’t look on and see so many of our people suffering so grievously just in order to retain in power someone who certainly had an outstanding record as a liberation fighter and for maybe the first 10 years of freedom in Zimbabwe under oath, when we don’t think about the massacres. He had helped to make Zimbabwe a bread basket and now it’s awful when you think of what happened. I would hope that they would become more vocal.

IPS: On the eve of African independence, most companies created by African leaders were sold to multinational corporations. With the current financial crisis, Western nations are protecting their own companies. French President Nicolas Sarkozy told the European Parliament last week to create sovereign wealth funds to protect their companies from foreign "predators". What is Africa’s lesson?

DT: Well I hope that our leaders will have learned and that they ought to form…maybe cartels. Let them join forces and say ‘we refuse to be pushed around any longer’. Many of our countries still have the resources that the developed world requires. And we ought to be able to say ‘look, we want to have a fairer deal than we have had up to now’.

IPS: What are the implications for Africa for a Barack Obama presidency?

DT: I just want to say I pray that the American voters do the right thing. It is going to be, I believe, a fantastic thing for people of colour around the world. But when you saw how he was received in Germany you realise that it is not just for people of colour, it is going to be a new epoch. A new era will dawn when Obama enters the White House.

People sometimes speak about anti-Americanism abroad. There is not in my experience any anti-Americanism. There certainly is resentment in most parts of the world [toward] an arrogant unilateral America that is seen as a big bully boy refusing to sign Kyoto Protocols when the rest of the world is saying climate change is a very real threat to the continuous existence of human kind — when most of the world signed their own statutes establishing the International Criminal Court and the United States says we’ll jump in the lake, and goes and does what many people have said should not happen — the invasion of Iraq — which has become such a horrendous disaster.

And one hopes that the new administration would be one that would say ‘we will rid America of the awful mark of Guantanamo Bay, that we will not be a country that makes it possible for things like Abu Ghraib to happen.’

IPS: South Africa has been in the news a lot lately and you’ve been very critical of former president Thabo Mbeki. What do you expect out of the new transition?

DT: One of the remarkable things has been the fact that change happened with no bloodshed or whatever. It is quite unusual for a president in our part of the world, whose term has not ended, to step down as Thabo Mbeki did. [Normally] they invoke the military and there is usually a great deal of bloodshed. So the transition has taken place.

But I have to say that our new president is an attractive person. He is a modest man, personable and some of the changes that they have made are very important as in the health ministry — that we should get a new health minister who talks sense about AIDS and so on. There are many pluses. The concern about the transition is obviously with regard to Jacob Zuma. We don’t know whether the national prosecuting authority will again indict him and that could cause some turmoil.

IPS: After the African National Congress (ANC) rose to the pinnacle of power, some argue that there has been a steady yearning by South Africa’s poor black majority to achieve economic equality. But the problem, critics say, is that the ANC leadership is disconnected from the grassroots. What do you think?

DT: A very disturbing thing has been the gap between the rich and the poor widening. And I have said that people are going to be resentful and say ‘where is this peace dividend?’ If you go to South Africa one of the first things that strikes you — when you are flying to Cape Town — you see the shacks.

A case could be made for a special Marshall plan. Europe got back on its feet after World War II because Europe got this helping hand of the Marshall Plan. You have a government that has to deal with the legacy of apartheid, but also has to deal with contemporary demands and needs and expectations of its people. And that’s tough.

I keep having to say to people ‘remember though we’ve been free for only 14 years’. America became free in the 1700s and it is still dealing with inequities. The levels of poverty here [in America] can be quite shocking. So we say give us time because one of the amazing things is that South Africa should have the stability that it has. That is still amazing. You see headlines ‘vicious race riots’ and you think that is South Africa. And you read on, you find it is Manchester, England.

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