Johannesburg Lefts Prepare To Summit Against The Global Elite

How mature and unified must a broad Left front in a given city become before it establishes a coherent critique of, and hosts demonstrations against, the international establishment?

If movements in Seattle, Washington, Quebec City, Genoa, Barcelona and many other Northern sites have posed and successfully answered this question, and if Porto Alegre’s World Social Forum provided the answer of “one no, many yeses!”, it has also occupied South Africans since the Durban World Conference Against Racism last August.

Here in Johannesburg, there is added urgency in the four weeks before the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), or “Rio+10”, which will be held in the haute-bourgeois suburb of Sandton from 26 August-4 September.

However, a crucial problem from Durban remains: a split between mass-based organisations and the more militant social movements whose exasperation with the African National Congress (ANC) government puts them at the frontline of protest. An attempt to reconcile in mid-July, through a proposed South African Social Forum hosted by the SA NGO Coalition (Sangoco), failed largely because of insufficient time for a unity process.

That leaves two major blocs:

* the “Global Civil Society Forum” of unions, churches, Sangoco and a faction of the once-formidable township civics (residents) movement (website link: http://www.johannesburgsummit.org); and

* the “Social Movement Indaba” which brings together Jubilee South Africa, the AntiPrivatisation Forum of radical Johannesburg-area community groups and their allies in other cities, the national Landless Peoples Movement and other rural advocacy groups, the Environmental Justice Networking Forum, the First People indigenous nations, the Limpopo Province Movement for Delivery, Indymedia South Africa, and a variety of groups which had originally played a role in what was termed the UN Civil Society Indaba hosting committee (forthcoming website: http://www.globalindaba.org).

Bitter divisions have emerged since the mid-1990s over how tough to be with the host government and president Thabo Mbeki in particular. Beginning in late 1995, the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) became visibly concerned about the direction the ANC was taking after 18 months in power, following the country’s first democratic elections in April 1994. Privatisation of state services, which cost tens of thousands of jobs and raised prices to impoverished consumers, became an early and ongoing reason for national strikes and hard words within the ANC-Cosatu-SA Communist Party Alliance.

By August 2001, frustration had built up in the trade union movement to the point that when Cosatu’s leadership called a two-day national strike, more than four million workers–more than twice the federation’s formal membership–heeded the call. The timing was important, for the strike humiliated the ANC at the time of the Durban racism conference, which was attended by more than 10,000 delegates who wanted to believe that South Africa is genuinely liberated.

Still, demonstrating the fickle nature of Alliance politics, Cosatu won no concessions yet then immediately agreed to hold a joint march (of around 7,000 people) against racism alongside the Durban ANC and the Communist Party. The previous day had witnessed a much more militant demonstration by anti-neoliberal movements gathered under the banner of the Durban Social Forum.

The estimated 20,000 protesters united on behalf of Palestinian freedom, land rights, debt cancellation, community housing and services, the call for slavery/colonialism/apartheid reparations and the need for an alternative to neoliberalism. The mood was extremely hostile, and neither Mbeki nor UN secretary-general Kofi Annan deigned to accept the memoranda presented at the Durban convention centre.

As tensions simmered and then cooled within the ANC-SACP-Cosatu Tripartite Alliance in subsequent months, leaders of Cosatu joined Sangoco, the SA Council of Churches and the SA National Civic Organisation (Sanco) to take over the UN’s WSSD civil society secretariat. Earlier this year, that group-the Civil Society Indaba–was booted out unceremoniously, on grounds, according to Cosatu, of financial mismanagement (subsequently shown to be false) and, politically, that “The structures of the Indaba give disproportionate power to small and unrepresentative NGOs” which were “anti-government”.

Another angle also emerged, as reported in the Mail & Guardian newspaper: “The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) appears to be key to the divisions in this sector… The Civil Society Indaba has a leftist, anti-globalisation focus. It has claimed there is `big brother’ interference from the government in the new, mainstream South African Civil Society Forum set up by Cosatu and its allies”.

Meanwhile, during the first six months of 2002, virtually all African civil society groups rejected Mbeki’s partnership plan (see Bond’s “Nepad, No Thanks, Say African Progressives”, ZNet Commentary, June 21). Later, after Mbeki’s disappointing meeting with the G8 at Kananaskis, some fence-sitting churches and even a few intellectuals continued to criticise Nepad’s form, content and process, yet they now politely agree to “engage” Mbeki and other African leaders by requesting a rewrite.

However, it is safe to predict that nothing will come of the demand for a “Nepad with and for the workers and the poor”, as the SA Communist Party leadership opined was feasible at its convention this week (http://www.sacp.org.za). The ANC remains cross with the SACP and vice versa, as demonstrated by the delegates’ electoral rejection of pro-privatisation minister Jeff Radebe and Mbeki’s strongest senior SACP ally, minister Essop Pahad, when the two sought reelection to the central committee.

Heightening the frictions were Mbeki’s decision to cancel his opening speech to the SACP conference, and a vicious attack launched against deputy SACP leader Jeremy Cronin by Mbeki’s main ANC assistant, Smuts Ngonyama. Ngonyama’s assault was catalysed by reports last week about a months-old website publication of a frank interview in which Cronin conceded the systematic marginalisation of the Left within the ANC (http://www.comms.dcu.ie/sheehanh/sheehan.htm).

To add more fuel to the fire, another two-day protest was called last week by Cosatu for October 1-2, on grounds, as general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi put it, that “Privatisation of basic services has continued unabated. The bloodbath of job losses has intensified despite millions protesting against this attack on the working-class living standards since 1999” (http://www.cosatu.org.za).

Cosatu’s suspension of anti-privatisation strikes this year–in favour of intra-Alliance talks–got the labour movement nowhere, Vavi conceded, and it is time for renewed street heat.

Cosatu members in the 120,000-strong SA Municipal Workers Union also carried off a successful three-week strike earlier this month (http://www.samwu.org.za). The major cities were, as a result, littered with rubbish, embarrassing Mbeki when he hosted the controversy-ridden Durban launch of the Africa Union in early July–a site where African authoritarians Gaddafi (Libya), Mugabe (Zimbabwe) and Mwanawasa (Zambia) played havoc with Nepad’s Western-centric gambit, but where progressive civil society activists protesting outside quickly reckoned they had NO friends or comrades.

Closely allied with Cosatu, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) has done exceptional advocacy work to make Aids medicines available to five million HIV-positive South Africans, even if the pressure has not yet succeeded in overturning Pretoria’s Aids-denialist, genocidal policies.

Although TAC’s victory in a precedent-setting constitutional court case in early July forces Mbeki to provide the drug nevirapine to pregnant HIV+ women and rape survivors, the roll-out process is slow and subject to central government sabotage. Health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was quoted at the recent Barcelona Aids conference calling nevirapine “poison”, and then hijacked a grant to KwaZulu-Natal province from the UN-administered Global Fund last week so as to centralise funding into programmes that don’t emphasise treatment.

Impressive grassroots mobilisations in Soweto, Cape Town’s townships and many other sites include illegal reconnection of services and resistance to evictions due to poverty (see, e.g., http://www.antieviction.org.za, http://www.queensu.ca/msp and especially Ashwin Desai’s brilliant new book, *We are the Poors,* http://www.monthlyreview.org).

An international day of protest at SA embassies on August 15 will coincide with the crucial trial of Trevor Ngwane and 86 other Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee activists (contact Ranja at spleenteem@hotmail.com to offer solidarity).

Robust alliances and campaigns have also emerged around other issues. The Jubilee movement put the apartheid debt on the agenda and will protest last month’s appalling loan by Pretoria to the Democratic Republic of the Congo so as to clear IMF arrears from Mobuto’s days.

Progressive church groups and NGOs have formed advocacy coalitions demanding a universal Basic Income Grant (of $10/month); prohibition of Genetically Modified food; the cancellation of the $6 billion arms deal; and reparations from apartheid-era profiteering. On the latter front, a lawsuit against US and European companies and banks filed last month was only one of the many activities underway to raise consciousness about the historical legacy of injustice. Conveniently, the new Africa headquarters of apartheid-financier Citibank happens to stand next door to the Sandton convention centre which is hosting the WSSD (for infinite reasons to run on Citibank, see http://www.ran.org).

The Landless Movement periodically marches and occupies land. The Environmental Justice Networking Forum includes strong community campaigns as well as national issue development on problems ranging from leaded petrol to global warming. Students regularly contest expulsions from universities on grounds of affordability, and recently joined eight other organisations–including NGOs and education-sector trade unions–to mobilise around the demand of free education for all, including expanded Adult Basic Education.

A revival of a feminist movement is long overdue, but women’s rights are advancing thanks to pressure by key individuals.

It must be conceded, of course, that unity between those fighting neoliberalism, patriarchy, racism, ecological degradation and many other ills remains several years away, until the trade unions ultimately break from the ANC. Meantime, purity is often on display, as the Landless Peoples Movement (LPM) made clear in an anti-Cosatu press statement last week:

“The March of the Landless on 31 August, 2002 will not include organisations which are part of the Tripartite Alliance whose record of governance has ensured the failure of land reform in South Africa. The March of the Landless will be led by the LPM on the same day in alliance with other civil society organisations.

The march will be the culmination of an alternative Week of the Landless that will take place decisively outside of the formal UN processes of the WSSD. The purpose of the March of the Landless will not be to support the World Summit on Sustainable Development, or to make vague calls for `sustainable development’ through unsustainable policies like Nepad or Gear.

Instead, the purpose of the March of the Landless will be to denounce the unsustainable policies being fortified by the world’s elite in the Sandton Convention Centre; to focus world attention on the failure of South Africa’s World Bank style land reform programme; and to forward the demands of the 19-million poor and landless rural South Africans and 7-million poor and landless urban South Africans. That demand is: `End Poverty: Land! Food! Jobs!’.”

So you see, rhetoric from the South African Lefts remain inspiring: as robust as that generated by any mass movements today, at least in the english-speaking world. But the divisions and infighting–sometimes logical and sometimes shameful–are just as fierce. Let’s hope that this does not become debilitating over coming weeks, because the elites from global to local need the strongest message possible: the privatisation of everything anticipated at the WSSD will get its comeuppance.

(The best place to watch the action here, as ever, is http://southafrica.indymedia.org; other excellent radical websites include http://www.aidc.org.za, http://www.earthsummit.biz and http://www.und.ac.za/ccs)


Bond and Guliwe work at Wits University’s Graduate School of Public and Development Management in Johannesburg. Bond’s book *Unsustainable South Africa: Environment, Development and Social Protest* is being published next month by University of Natal Press and London’s Merlin Press.

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