It’s not enough to bring Soweto to Rosedale

On Saturday night, I found myself at a party honouring Nelson Mandela and raising money for his children’s fund. It was a lovely affair and only a very rude person would have pointed out that the party was packed with many of the banking and mining executives who refused to pull their investments out of apartheid-run South Africa for decades.

Similarly, only someone with no sense of timing would have mentioned that, as the Liberals were making Mr. Mandela an honorary Canadian citizen, they were also trying to ram through an anti-terrorism bill that would have sabotaged the anti-apartheid movement on several fronts had it been in place at the time.

The Canadian anti-apartheid movement raised money for the African National Congress, which would easily have fit Bill C-36’s sloppy definition of a terrorist organization. Furthermore, anti-apartheid activists deliberately caused “serious disruption” to companies that invested in South Africa, eventually forcing many to pull out. These disruptions would also have been illegal under C-36.

Only someone with absolutely no sense of propriety would have muttered, amidst all the self-congratulation last weekend, that many in South Africa insist that apartheid still exists, and requires a new resistance movement. But two weeks ago, I met Trevor Ngwane, a former ANC municipal council member, who says just that. “Apartheid based on race has been replaced with apartheid based on class.”

Confronted with a country where eight million people are homeless and nearly five million are HIV positive, some try to paint deep inequality as a sad but unavoidable legacy of racial apartheid. Mr. Ngwane says it is the direct result of a specific economic “restructuring” program, embraced by the current government and nurtured by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

When Mr. Mandela was freed from prison, his vision was of a South Africa that offered economic, as well as democratic, freedom. Basic needs for housing, water and electricity would be met through massive public works programs.

But as power came into the ANC’s reach, writes South African professor Patrick Bond in his new book Against Global Apartheid,enormous pressure was put on the party to prove it could govern with “sound macroeconomic policies.”

It became clear that, if Mr. Mandela tried genuine redistribution of wealth, the international markets would punish South Africa. Many within the party understandably feared that an economic meltdown would be used as an indictment not just of the ANC, but of black rule itself.

So, instead of its policy of “growth through redistribution,” the ANC, particularly under President Thabo Mbeki, adopted the cookie-cutter program of trying to “grow” the economy by pleasing foreign investors: mass privatizations, layoffs and wage cuts in the public sector, corporate tax cuts, and the like.

The results have been devastating. Half a million jobs have been lost since 1993. Wages for the poorest 40 per cent have dropped by 21 per cent. Poor areas have seen their water costs go up by 55 per cent, electricity by as much as 400 per cent. Many have resorted to drinking polluted water, leading to a cholera outbreak that infected 100,000 people. In Soweto, 20,000 homes have their electricity cut off each month. And the investment? They’re still waiting.

This is the type of track record that has turned the World Bank and the IMF into international pariahs, drawing thousands to the streets of Ottawa last weekend, with a “solidarity protest” in Johannesburg. The Washington Post recently told the heart-breaking story of one Soweto resident, Agnes Mohapi.

The reporter observed, “For all its wretchedness, apartheid never did this: It did not lay her off from her job, jack up her utility bill, then disconnect her service when she inevitably could not pay. ‘Privatization did that,’ [Ms. Mohapi] said.”

In the face of this system of “economic apartheid,” a new resistance movement is inevitable. There was a three-day general strike against privatization in August. (Workers held up signs that read, “ANC We Love You But Not Privatizations.”)

In Soweto, unemployed workers reconnect their neighbours’ cutoff water, and the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee has illegally reconnected power in thousands of homes. Why don’t the police arrest them? “Because,” Mr. Ngwane says, “when the police officers’ electricity is disconnected, we reconnect them, too.”

It looks as if the Bay Street executives, so eager to have their pictures taken with Nelson Mandela last weekend, have a second chance to fight apartheid — this time while it’s still going on. They can do it not only through good-hearted charity, but by questioning the economic logic that is failing so many around the world.

Which side will they be on this time?

The Globe and Mail Wednesday, November 21, 2001

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