Can Thabo Mbeki change the world?

Patrick Bond

In a formidable speech last Friday,

South African President Thabo Mbeki, quoting Shakespeare, publicly attacked not

only a senior white politician for alleged racism and arrogance over the AIDS

treatment tragedy. He also castigated the section of the "native petit

bourgeoisie, with the native intelligentsia in its midst, that, in pursuit of

well-being that has no object beyond itself, commits itself to be the

foot-lickers of those that will secure the personal well-being of its


Cynics may be tempted to view Mbeki’s

own recent pronouncements on global governance in a similar vein: the uncritical

embrace, during a May trip to the US, of president Bill Clinton’s

corporate-designed Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, of highly-conditional debt

"alleviation"–not cancellation–by the World Bank and International

Monetary Fund (IMF), and of renewed World Trade Organisation negotiations.

In each case, the 1960s-era radical

intellectuals whom Mbeki cited repeatedly in his speech–Frantz Fanon, Amilcar

Cabral, Walter Rodney, Malcolm X–would have called for revolution against, not

reform of, the Washington-centred world economy.

At the Havana meeting of the G-77

countries which Mbeki addressed in May, for example, Cuban president Fidel

Castro proposed the IMF’s closure, due to the brutal effect of its policies on

the developing world.

Yet soon thereafter, Mbeki chided

African National Congress leaders gathered at the Port Elizabeth meeting of the

National General Council: "There is nobody in the world who formed a secret

committee to conspire to impose globalization on an unsuspecting humanity."

But in the next breath, Mbeki denounced Fifa’s decision to grant the 2006 soccer

World Cup to Germany instead of an unsuspecting SA: "As the ANC, we

therefore understand very well what is meant by what one writer has described as

the globalization of apartheid."

On the one hand, thus, Mbeki

displaces Third World problems from the (untouchable) economic to the

moral-political terrain, which in turn evokes calls for revision–not

dismantling–of existing economic systems and institutions. But on the other

hand, he maintains a relentless campaign to persuade his constituents that

"There Is No Alternative" to globalization, and likewise to the failed

Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme, SA’s IMF-friendly austerity


Is there, however, a more nuanced

reading of the global strategy? Mbeki, after all, was introspective in his talk

last week: "Our own intelligentsia faces the challenge, perhaps to overcome

the class limitations which Rodney speaks of, and ensure that it does not become

an obstacle to the further development of our own revolution."

There can be no doubt that the

further development of South Africa’s liberation, deep into the hostile

socio-economic territory where class apartheid has been cemented since 1994,

does and will require global social change.

What is the programme, then? Will it

work? Who are the friends and enemies?

At least four strands of a strategy

have emerged from Pretoria since Mbeki’s rise to the presidency last June:

leading the launch of a new

"developmental" World Trade Organisation round, in cooperation with

four semi- peripheral allies (Egypt, Nigeria, Brazil and India), to contest

Northern protectionism;

promoting more democracy in the IMF

and World Bank (with less power in the hands of the US);

rejuvenating the United Nations,

partly, it seems, through seeking a permanent seat on the Security Council; and

confronting, even if tentatively,

transnational corporate prerogatives, at least when it comes to emergencies such

as pharmaceutical drug pricing.

In Port Elizabeth, Mbeki noted the

ANC’s role as "an agent of change to end the apartheid legacy in our own

country. We also sought to examine the question of what contribution we could

make to the struggle to end apartheid globally." The answer, he told the

opening session of parliament this year, is that "we have an obligation

ourselves to contribute to the construction of a better world for all humanity.

From this, we cannot walk away."

Mbeki may seek allies in other large

developing countries, but like South Africa each appears ready to cut its own

deals. He may speak of an African Renaissance, but his trade minister Alec Erwin

profoundly alienated African delegates to the World Trade Organisation summit

last December, and the SA-European Union free trade deal is justifiably feared

in the region.

And just after finance minister

Trevor Manuel became chair of the IMF and World Bank board of governors late

last year, reforms went into reverse gear, witnessed by the furious resignations

of two leading dissident Bank economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Ravi Kanbur, and

Washington’s veto of an IMF managing director who would not, to borrow Mbeki’s

metaphor, lick the feet of US treasury secretary Lawrence Summers.

Further reason to doubt the integrity

of the strategy emerged when Mbeki sided with global corporations, during the

Durban meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government he chaired last November,

against SA trade union attempt to impose "social clauses" to protect

labour and the environment via trade deals. "We are pleased that the

Commonwealth Business Council has made its own submission," Mbeki told the

corporate executives, who were also opposed to pro- labour provisions in the

World Trade Organisation.

Mbeki may actually have been correct,

some radical Third World economists say, because such clauses would simply have

amplified Washington’s power of protectionism.

Yet it is here, in the broader debate

over the merits of a strengthened global economic order, with a world state in

only embryonic form, that Mbeki’s critics are most concerned.

From the pan-Africanist tradition in

which Mbeki locates the present managers of South Africa’s revolution, the

question arises whether, to be blunt, a Frantz Fanon would have joined or

criticised Mbeki for shining the chains of global apartheid–at a time when

opportunities are emerging to break those chains.

Mbeki, after all, came home from the

G- 8 meeting in Japan last month emptyhanded on debt relief; and Manuel returned

from Washington World Bank/IMF meetings in April with no democratisation

progress to report; and Erwin emerged embarrassed from the Seattle trade fiasco

last December. The reform gamble is in fact now in bankruptcy.

The only successful component of

Pretoria’s strategy–pressing US firms, which were backed by Al Gore, to

surrender patents on life-saving HIV-AIDS drugs–was the result not of cozying

up to the US or other developing countries: instead, local Treatment Action

Campaign and their activist allies in the US, by all accounts, made the

difference in changing power relations and forcing Gore to retreat.

But in his heart, Mbeki knows this.

As he told a group of young socialist activists in Sweden just over a fortnight

ago, "Fundamental to the labour, social democratic, socialist and national

liberation movements from their very inception, is the adherence to the view

that the people must be their own liberators."

If so, the strategy to change the world should return to

its roots. Mbeki himself put it best, while in Stockholm: "As the movement

all of us present here represent, surely our task must be to encourage these

masses, where they are oppressed, to rebellion, to assert the vision fundamental

to all progressive movements that–the people shall govern!"

Rebellion against globalized

apartheid is, Fanon would agree, the only way to change the world.


(This is an excerpt from the first

Frantz Fanon Memorial Lecture, delivered on August 17 at the University of

Durban-Westville School of Governance, Durban, South Africa. A full copy of the

2000 Fanon Lecture can be obtained from pbond@wn.apc.org)



Leave a comment