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From Seattle To Soweto

South Africa

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Resistance / SOUTH AFRICA

From Seattle to Soweto

As the sharks of global capitalism circle South Africa, Ferial Haffajee tracks a growing grassroots resistance.

On a crisp morning at the beginning of June, the tape of South Africa’s history appears to have been rewound to the time when the community protests that began to topple the apartheid regime were at their height.

The Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) is on the march, led by veteran activist Trevor Ngwane who, lifting his feet in the ritual dance of protest, toyi-toyis with them through dusty streets.

The poor in the townships that have outstanding bills owing to the electricity utility Eskom are being cut off. Before partial privatization Eskom must become more profitable and lower the numbers in its debtors book. According to Ngwane: ‘Our belief is that electricity is a right. We cannot afford to pay rates much higher than big business does. The system’s in a mess.’

Ngwane has gone door to door, collecting information about conditions in Soweto, to help bolster the call to end electricity cut-offs. What he has seen is shocking. Most households in this metropolitan township earn less than R 800 ($100) a month; almost half the households surveyed survive on an old-age pensioner’s payment of R 540 a month. Ngwane recounts how he is often stopped in the streets by acquaintances ‘asking me for five rands to buy bread. I see starvation, actual starvation.’

For Trevor Ngwane, electricity cut-offs in Soweto are easily located in the global economic diktat that services are better run on profit lines. As one-time speculator George Soros admits: ‘South Africa is in the hands of global capital. That’s why it can’t meet the legitimate demands of its people.’

For this reason, Ngwane has also brought his toyi toyi to Washington protests against the World Bank, the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and the World Economic Forum meeting on South African soil in June 2001. Though at heart he is a community activist, he takes hope from a new wave of international protest against economic globalization.

Ngwane’s message to this movement is: ‘Through international solidarity we were able to get rid of the apartheid regime. But now our freedom is coming to nought because of neoliberal policies of these institutions which undermine our freedom. We need solidarity to oppose these policies.’

And about the growing resistance on the home front, he explains: ‘The point has been reached in South Africa where people have been pushed to struggle in defence of their standard of living. It happened under apartheid. When people are under pressure, they have no choice but to fight back.’

He adds: ‘Organizations like the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee are small beginnings, of this we are under no illusions. But I am also aware that history can move in leaps and bounds.’

Soweto, the township that is a symbol of the struggle against apartheid, is the heart of the country – the real South Africa. The taxi dodges potholes and then a horse and cart, piled high with coal. You speed past tiny brick houses, set cheek by jowl. It’s dusty and mostly treeless, except for forlorn attempts at ‘greening’ – a ragged tree, a patch of grass dotted here and there.

In the suburb of Dlamini electric cables run from tall, wooden poles into the mkukus – chicken coops – as the ubiquitous shacks are called. Children run wire cars along the dirt road.

This is the stomping ground of Trevor Ngwane. He wears street-smart dreadlocks and a lumber jacket favoured by urban black men. His turquoise cell-phone rings constantly.

A veteran anti-apartheid activist born and bred in Soweto, Ngwane was expelled as a local councillor of the ANC for Pimville in 1999. He was disciplined after he objected to the Government’s World Bank-influenced development model for Johannesburg which involved privatization (known here as ‘corporatization’) of public services like electricity, water, parks and even the Zoo.

For the ANC has changed course and character from the liberation movement which took power on a wave of euphoria in 1994. The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) it began with was a radical social-democratic policy document based on the Freedom Charter, centred around human, infrastructural and economic development. Its goals were one million houses, universal and affordable electricity, a national health scheme and social security.

But in 1996 the ANC was forced by powerful investors and the IMF to adapt itself to the ‘realities’ of the global economy with its new Growth Employment and Redistribution strategy (GEAR). International economic élites helped shape this programme, and its heart is neoliberal, placing macro-economic targets like low inflation and a low budget deficit (three per cent) at the apex of policy, and relegating development goals to second place.

Since then, health, welfare, education, electrification and housing budgets have been slashed. Income disparity has actually increased since the end of apartheid, and around one in four South Africans are unemployed.

‘There’s been a shift in policy from a redistributive policy to a trickle-down policy,’ says Ngwane. In a nutshell – if you can’t pay, you can’t have it. So he has moved from the inside of power, back to the outside, back to challenge, back to protest.

The struggle against apartheid is so recent that a proud culture of resistance is still latent in the townships, and it is this that is feeding the rumbling at the grassroots.

Ngwane says: ‘It’s just like the old days. We are pamphleteering, we have meetings. There’s a defiance campaign called Operation Khanyisa, where people themselves reconnect electricity that’s been cut off. It balances the power between Eskom and us, we contest their power to switch on and off.’

‘I’ve addressed about 20 to 25 meetings recently and things are changing, people are listening. What strikes me now about all these protests is that we’re so fresh out of political independence and it’s amazing that people have shaken off the nationalist honeymoon so quickly,’ he continues.

Trevor Ngwane is seeing that in every community the issues sparking people to march and to organize are different but the same. Different in detail, but they reflect the same needs. Many are allied to the Anti-Privatization Forum, of which Ngwane is secretary, a national forum that links a range of organizations which oppose various forms of privatization and which assist with community struggles.

In Katorus, former guerillas of the ANC are bitter at being forgotten by their comrades – now the war is over, they have not been rehoused, retrained or retained. They too are organizing and last year challenged the ANC during the local election.

For them, Ngwane is an icon, a leader who hasn’t left the township for the suburb; the barricades for the boardrooms. Without a touch of arrogance, Ngwane states: ‘I represent a feeling, a trend, a thinking among people. People come to me and say we are willing to fight. We need someone who is willing to speak out for us.’

Assisted by local and international academics, radical groups, trade unionists and others, the new movement is nascent but has potential. Many from this new movement were heavily involved in the protests against the global pharmaceutical giants and for affordable AIDS drugs, for example. In the port city of Durban, ANC veteran Fatima Meer helps to organize poor communities faced with evictions. She and other former ANC supporters have organized ‘defenders of communities’ – mobile groups who forcibly stop evictions. In April last year, for example, older women in the Chatsworth community surrounded and defended their homes against eviction – this became known as the Auntie’s Revolt.

Ngwane says: ‘The ANC is a shell of its former self. It has no mass politics; it only prepares for power struggles. You still get loyalists, but most people are demobilized, cynical; they are leaving the stage. They are our happy hunting ground. It’s easier to win those on the outside. Our problem now is to provide a political home for these people, but there isn’t a consensus of how we relate to the state. We are a young democracy, remember. But we have to provide people with choices. The ANC in power is very unresponsive. This is their big mistake. When people elect you, you’ve got to be there for them.’

‘When the next election comes in 2004, there will be pressure from the left for a more coherent approach.’ While some of his comrades favour the new politics of social movements, which place little faith in electoral politics, Ngwane is still an old-school activist. He believes that the time will soon be ripe to consider a workers’ party.

Ferial Haffajee is a journalist based in South Africa.

Against global apartheid

‘Who are the protesters?’ asked South African president Thabo Mbeki at the Davos World Economic Forum. ‘No-one could tell me.’

Suggest, however, that the new South African élite are losing their connection to the masses and African National Congress leaders – responsible in 1994 for bringing a heroic 72-year liberation struggle to fruition – turn defensive.

‘Why protest us?’ enquires Mamphela Ramphele – once radical black-consciousness leader Steven Biko’s closest comrade and lover, now managing director of the World Bank responsible for human development. ‘We are now the Establishment, and that is how it should be!’

But the tragic reality is that, while Mbeki occasionally speaks of ‘global apartheid’ as if he means to end it in his lifetime, again and again South Africa’s rulers seem not so much interested in breaking the chains of global apartheid, but in polishing them.

Take the case of AIDS drugs. In March 2000 Mbeki’s spokesperson, Parks Mankahlana, gave this blunt justification to Science magazine as to why the South African Department of Health will not provide a relatively inexpensive shot of Nevirapine to 100,000 pregnant, hiv-positive women to prevent mother-to-child transmission: ‘That mother is going to die and that hiv-negative child will be an orphan. That child must be brought up. Who is going to bring the child up? It’s the state, the state. That’s resources, you see.’

A case alleging that Mbeki is violating the constitutional right to healthcare can be expected in coming months.

Or take the cut-offs, in August 2000 and as a prelude to privatization, of what had been a 17-year-long free supply of water to residents in rural KwaZulu-Natal province, forcing them to fetch water from contaminated sources. Within a month a cholera outbreak occurred which affected more than 100,000 people in one year – the worst epidemic ever recorded in Africa.

Paying twice for apartheid
Within three years of the official launch of apartheid in 1948, a World Bank mission visited Pretoria and began lending to the white regime. Only when South Africa became an ‘upper-middle-income country’ in 1967 did the Bank stop funding apartheid (the IMF continued until told to stop by the US Congress in 1982).

Half the Bank’s $200 million in loans went to expand white consumers’ access to electricity, which was denied to virtually all black South Africans until the 1980s.

The apartheid debt inherited by the ANC in 1994 was around $25 billion. Because of power relations prevailing at the time, and fear of offending foreign lenders, Nelson Mandela and his advisors agreed to service the loans. Diabolically, apartheid would be paid for twice: first when foreign bank loans funded bullets which killed black democracy activists, and then when society repaid those banks for the bullets with resources that should have gone to social development.

In response a group of activists formed Jubilee South Africa, demanding total cancellation by creditors in the US, Switzerland, Britain and Germany. Led by the Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane and Mandela’s official biographer, Professor Fatima Meer, the Jubilee movement also demands reparations from financiers who supported apartheid and colonialism throughout the region. At regular anti-bank protests in Switzerland Ndungane tells officials: ‘It took you 50 years to do right by the victims of the Holocaust. Don’t take so long when it comes to victims of your apartheid loans.’

The World Bank and Citibank are other key targets, and Jubilee helped catalyse the World Bank Bonds Boycott, reviving the international solidarity tactics once used to encourage disinvestment from companies doing business in apartheid-era South Africa.

Citibank is also building a new skyscraper next to Johannesburg’s Sandton Convention Centre, which in September 2002 will host the World Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio-plus 10) and is fast becoming a focus for resistance.

Taking inspiration from hundreds of citizen mobilizations around the world, from Seattle to Cochabamba to Prague to Harare, local activists in the healthcare, water, environment, economic justice, community, women’s, youth, church and labour movements will all be there. They won’t hesitate to remind visitors that racial liberation has come at a huge socio-economic cost.

For South African activists like Trevor Ngwane, the metaphor of the anti-apartheid struggle – such as has inspired the World Bank Bonds Boycott campaign — also applies to ‘decommodification’ struggles over land, air, water and everything in between, uniting grassroots progressives against common enemies and around ‘rights-based’ demands that put people before profits.

And perhaps Rio-plus 10 will be where we break – rather than polish – the chains of global apartheid, not least the neoliberal policies foisted on the new South Africa as part of its Faustian compromise with globalization.

Patrick Bond is a Johannesburg-based academic and activist; his new book, Against Global Apartheid: South Africa meets the World Bank, IMF and International Finance, is available from UCT Press and Pluto Press.

The Restless Margins: some key moments of the global movement 1994-2001
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: The World Economic Forum goes under siege in Davos, Switzerland. The first international treaty explicitly addressing both environment and trade negotiated since the establishment of the WTO, the Biosafety Protocol regulating international trade in Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is signed in Montreal by governments reeling in the aftermath of Seattle.
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February: The culmination of the Ecuadorian indigenous uprising against IMF dollarization of the economy; President overthrown. Thai activists protest against globalization at United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) meeting, Bangkok.
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: Protests against pricing of water in Cochabamba, Bolivia under World Bank-imposed privatization. Thirty thousand converge on Washington DC on 16 April to protest against the World Bank/IMF annual meeting.
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May: The Asian Development Bank meeting is blockaded by farmers, students, and NGOs opposed to its anti-poor policies in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
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September: Protests in Melbourne, Australia against the World Economic Forum meeting and in Prague, Czech Republic against the World Bank and IMF draw thousands onto the streets.
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: Nearly six million Brazilians vote to end IMF-imposed reforms of their economy in a self-organized referendum. ‘Cry of the Excluded’ marches take place simultaneously in Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Argentina, Mexico, Honduras, Paraguay.
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20 October: 20,000 militant workers and students erupt onto the streets of Seoul, South Korea chanting ‘we oppose neoliberalism and globalization’ during the Asia-Europe (ASEM) summit.
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New Internationalist issue 338 magazine cover This article is from the September 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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