* Director of the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Most recent book: Looting Africa: The Economics of Exploitation, London, Zed Books and Pietermaritzburg, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2006
Recently President Thabo Mbeki in the Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture called for a “compassionate society”. But his government’s performance on the world stage over the past years is everything but compassionate.
Several decades ago, the big question in Southern Africa was whether the sharks in Pretoria – especially PW Botha, Pik Botha and their fantasy of a ‘Constellation of Southern African States’ - would dominate the regional minnows. Today, African elites from governments, big business and civil society are buzzing with this quandary: can ongoing African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) reports revitalize the dormant New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD)? We might put it differently: do the APRM and NEPAD provide Pretoria legitimacy for facilitating a new round of neoliberalism in Africa? And we should go on to ask: Is there an alternative approach to building regional and international civil society solidarity against SA subimperialism?
In fact, South Africa’s own 2006 APRM process failed to adequately reflect the turmoil and social unrest underway here, as illustrated for example by police reports of an average 16 protests each day in 2005. Pretoria’s ‘sanitised, self-assessment report’ to the APRM, in the words of the Sunday Times (15 July 2006), removed ‘specific references to past scandals’ and offered ‘no fundamentally original proposals on how to give the people a better voice.’ As Paul Graham from the Institute for Democracy in SA put it, the APRM document released in mid-2006 ‘shows substantial alteration from the report discussed in Kliptown (in front of 1700 delegates) and, as a result, a substantial amount of the texture of the debates has been lost.’ Whether participation in such efforts is worth the time and effort when so many other tasks are undone is a matter of debate.
What should and could have been in a South African APRM report need not detain us, for words are merely words. More importantly, focusing instead on the structural functions of NEPAD on the one hand, and African anti-neoliberal activism on the other, we should consider several troubling, contradictory processes that have gathered pace over the past couple of years.
In short, the South African government’s global reform proposals have been utterly, thoroughly frustrated, especially in the cases of the UN, World Bank, IMF and WTO where Pretoria politicians have began retreating noticeably from the scene. It makes little sense for civil society to promote reforms along these lines when it is evident that President Thabo Mbeki has failed in every initiative against what he terms ‘global apartheid’. Simultaneously, Pretoria’s own subimperial project has also began to falter, as peace deals in Africa proved unreliable, as embarrassing dictators solidified power and as Johannesburg capital ran out of room to accumulate.
Global governance failure
Largely so as to disguise these problems, Pretoria offers up periodic anti-imperialist rhetoric. Greg Mills, then director of the SA Institute of International Affairs, described this as superficial: ‘I think there was a bluster by the South African government, or those associated near or around it, prior to the American invasion of Iraq in March last year (2003), but that was toned down fairly quickly by the South African government and most notably, president Mbeki. Really, there has not been much in the way of condemnation of the American position since March last year’.
Indeed in May 2004, Nelson Mandela retracted his January 2003 attack on the warmonger George W. Bush, ‘because the United States can play a very important role in promoting peace in the world, and this is the role which we would like the United States to play.’
Just over a year later, Mbeki visited Bush and told him, ‘I appreciate it very much the commitment you have demonstrated now for some years with regard to helping us to meet our own domestic South African challenges, as well as the challenges on the African continent.’ At that point, US majority public opinion had shifted to oppose the presence of Washington’s troops in Iraq. With memories of the defeated US mission in Somalia, Mbeki assisted Bush enormously by offering African – not US – soldiers to police the continent: ‘We’ve got the people to do this - military, police, other - so long as we get this necessary logistical support. I think that’s what’s critically important’. Bush agreed wholeheartedly, although opening bases in crucial African sites will be one exception.
US military aid was a sensitive issue, because to get the ‘critically important’ logistical support, Bush had demanded a particularly onerous quid pro quo: denuding the International Criminal Court. In 2003, South Africa was one of the countries which had supposedly lost a few million dollars worth of US military aid, because it agreed to cooperate in future with the Court against US citizens – e.g. the Pentagon’s and State Department’s war criminals - if and when they are brought to trial. In 2005, however, it was revealed that instead of Pretoria being blacklisted for US military aid, Washington ‘had simply re‑routed military funding for South Africa through its European Command in Stuttgart’ so that two additional battalions could be made available for African missions. That, in turn, would relieve Washington’s own imperial burden for policing Africa.
In exchange, Mbeki desired a seat on the UN Security Council. During the most serious campaign, in August 2005, he did not get his way in part because of opposition to his Bantustan-leader role by the African Union (AU), which rejected a compromise entailing two African seats without veto rights, as well as seats for Germany, Japan, India and Brazil. In effect, Mbeki offered the AU a global neo- apartheid solution by which the new members would sit at the table but have infinitely less power than the five standing permanent members, who can exercise a veto on Security Council matters. It was not unlike the apartheid reform strategy proposed by PW Botha in 1983 (and rejected by the ANC, United Democratic Front and other activists) to dilute the power of the majority with differential citizenship rights.
To have put any faith in the UN as a site of progressive advocacy – or even as friction to US power – was by that point delusional in any case. A formidable bloc of neoconservative and neoliberal men (and occasional women) had taken the helm of key multilateral institutions. The European Union’s choice of the Spanish neoconservative Rodrigo Rato as International Monetary Fund managing director in mid-2004 was followed in January 2005 by the new head of UNICEF, Bush’s agriculture minister Ann Veneman (even though the USA and Somalia are the only two out of 191 countries which refused to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child). A month later, for another key UN post, the outgoing neoliberal head of the World Trade Organisation, Supachai Panitchpakdi from Thailand (who served US and EU interests from 2003-05), was chosen to lead the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
In Bush’s biggest coup, Paul Wolfowitz – a veritable war criminal – was chosen to head the World Bank in March 2005, in the wake of a consultative phone call from Bush to Mbeki and a few other national rulers. By the time of the April 2005 meetings, World Bank development committee chair (and SA finance minister) Trevor Manuel was reduced to an endorsement of the new leaders: ‘… both Rodrigo here and Paul Wolfowitz are wonderful individuals, perfectly capable’ (World Bank 2005). The European Union’s hardline trade negotiator Pascal Lamy won the directorship of the World Trade Organisation a few weeks after that. Finally, to ensure that Washington’s directives to Kofi Annan continued to be as explicit as possible, Bush appointed John Bolton as US Ambassador to the UN. But Washington also counted on its friends in Pretoria for assistance.
The imperial agenda
What are US planners up to in Africa? The period during the 1990s after the failed Somali intervention, when Washington’s armchair warriors let Africa slide out of view, may have come to an end with September 11. One of the most acute critics of US Africa policy, Bill Martin (2004), argues that ‘The discourse of internal and international terrorism is thus not simply substituting for the ideology of the Cold War, but is forging new military and ideological networks as capable of repressing internal dissent as pursuing “foreign” terrorists.’
The US has developed an Africa Contingency Operations and Assistance Programme to strengthen favoured militaries. Army General Charles Wald, who controls the Africa Programme of the European Command, told the BBC in early 2004 that he aims to have five brigades with 15,000 men working in cooperation with regional partners including South Africa.
Africa remains an important site in Washington’s campaigns against militant Islamic networks, especially in Algeria and Nigeria in the northwest, Tanzania and Kenya in the east, and South Africa. Control of African immigration to the US and Europe is crucial, in part through the expansion of US-style incarceration via private sector firms like Wackenhut, which has invested in South African privatized prison management, along with the notorious Lindela extradition camp for ‘illegal immigrants’. The development of a highly racialized global detention and identification system is proceeding apace.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s military relations with Pretoria were fully ‘normalized’ by July 2004, in the words of SA deputy minister Aziz Pahad. In partnership with General Dynamics Land Systems, State-owned Denel immediately began marketing 105 mm artillery alongside a turret and light armoured vehicle hull, in support of innovative Stryker Brigade Combat Teams (‘a 3500-personnel formation that puts infantry, armour and artillery in different versions of the same 8x8 light armoured vehicle’). Given Pretoria’s 1998 decision to invest $6 billion in mainly offensive weaponry such as fighter jets and submarines, there are growing fears that peacekeeping is a cover for a more expansive geopolitical agenda, and that Mbeki is tacitly permitting a far stronger US role in Africa - from the oil rich Gulf of Guinea and Horn of Africa, to training bases in the South and North - than is necessary.
To be sure, South Africa can claim one intervention worthy of its human rights rhetoric: leadership of the 1997 movement to ban landmines (and hence a major mine-clearing role for South African businesses which helped lay the mines in the first place). But the new government in Pretoria showed its more durable orientation by recognising the Myanmar military junta as a legitimate government in 1994; gave the country’s highest official award to Indonesian dictator Suharto three months before his 1998 demise (in the process extracting $25 million in donations for the ANC); sold arms to countries which practiced mass violence, such as Algeria, Colombia, Peru and Turkey; and closer to home nurtured repressive regimes in Zimbabwe and Swaziland.
On the surface, Pretoria’s senior roles in the mediation of conflicts in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during 2003 appeared positive. However, closer to the ground, the agreements more closely resemble the style of elite deals which lock in place ‘low-intensity democracy’ and neoliberal economic regimes. Moreover, because some of the belligerent forces were explicitly left out, the subsequent weeks and months after declarations of peace witnessed periodic massacres of civilians in both countries and a near-coup in the DRC. The DRC was especially victimized by the South African government when it came to repaying Mobuto’s vast foreign debt, a point returned to below.
Pretoria’s world leadership?
Once the South African government showed its willingness to put self-interest above principles, the international political power centres invested increasing trust in Mandela, Mbeki, Manuel and Erwin, giving them insider access to many international elite fora. As global-establishment institutions came under attack, they sometimes attempted to reinvent themselves with a dose of New South African legitimacy; witness Mandela’s 1998 caressing of the IMF during the East Asian crisis, and of Clinton during the Lewinsky sex scandal. Indeed, Pretoria’s lead politicians were allowed, during the late 1990s, to preside over the UN Security Council, the board of governors of the IMF and Bank, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the Commonwealth, the World Commission on Dams and many other important global and continental bodies. Simultaneously taking Third World leadership, Pretoria also headed the Non-Aligned Movement, the Organisation of African Unity and the Southern African Development Community.
But this was just the warm up period. During a frenetic four years beginning in September 2001, Mbeki and his colleagues hosted, led, or played instrumental roles at the following major international events: the World Conference Against Racism in Durban (September 2001); the launch of NEPAD in Abuja, Nigeria (October 2001); the Doha, Qatar ministerial summit of the World Trade Organization (November 2001); the UN’s Financing for Development conference in Monterrey, Mexico (March 2002); G8 summits in Kananaskis, Canada (June 2002), Evian, France (June 2003), Sea Island, Georgia (June 2004) and Gleneagles, Scotland (July 2005); the African Union launch in Durban (July 2002); the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg (August-September 2002); the Davos World Economic Forum (January 2003 and occasionally thereafter); George W. Bush’s first trip to Africa (July 2003); the Cancun WTO ministerial (September 2003); World Bank/IMF annual meetings in Dubai (September 2003) and Washington (September 2004 and 2005); the UN Millennium Development Summit (September 2005); and the Hong Kong WTO ministerial (December 2005).
In spite of increasing opportunities for participation in the corridors of power by NGOs, Virtually nothing was actually accomplished through the 2001-05 opportunities:
· at the UN racism conference, Mbeki colluded with the EU to reject the demand of NGOs and African leaders for slavery/colonialism/apartheid reparations;
· NEPAD provided merely a homegrown version of the Washington Consensus;
· at Doha, trade minister Alec Erwin split the African delegation so as to prevent a repeat of the denial of consensus that had foiled the Seattle ministerial in December 1999;
· at Monterrey, Manuel was summit co-leader (with former IMF managing director Michel Camdessus and disgraced Mexican ex-president Ernesto Zedillo), and legitimized all ongoing IMF/Bank strategies;
· from Kananaskis, Mbeki departed with only an additional $1 billion commitment for Africa (aside from funds already pledged at Monterrey), and none of the subsequent G8 Summits – Evian, Sea Island and Gleneagles – represented genuine progress;
· the African Union supported both NEPAD and the Zimbabwean regime of president Robert Mugabe, hence further delegitimizing the self-defensive political project of Africa’s elite;
· at the Johannesburg WSSD, Mbeki undermined UN democratic procedure, facilitated the privatization of nature, and did nothing to address the plight of the world’s poor majority;
· in Davos, global elites ignored Africa, in 2003 and subsequently;
· for hosting a leg of Bush’s Africa trip, Mbeki merely became the US ‘point man’ on Zimbabwe, and he avoided any conflict over Iraq’s recolonization;
· in Cancun, the collapse of trade negotiations – again, catalysed by a walkout by Africans – left Erwin ‘disappointed’;
· at World Bank and IMF annual meetings from 2001-05, with Manuel leading the Development Committee, there was no Bretton Woods democratization, new debt relief or Post-Washington policy reform; and
· the UN Millennium Review Summit provided Mbeki (2005) grounds for heart-break, leaving him to bemoan, ‘We should not be surprised when these billions do not acclaim us as heroes and heroines.’
Further failures were evident in 2006 during the Doha round negotiations which collapsed in July (to the applause of progressives in the Global South), and with respect to aid and debt promise-keeping by the G8 a year after their Gleneagles Summit. As a result of the void of genuine word-scale reform possibilities, attention has shifted to the continental scale, where a few countries – including South Africa – have grudgingly undergone a sharply delimited peer review. It is here that the West’s ongoing conquest of Africa – in political, military and ideological terms – requires not only the reproduction of neoliberalism but also good governance and anti-corruption gimmicks under the guise of NEPAD.
Staking claims on Africa
By early 2001, in Davos, Mbeki made clear whose interests NEPAD would serve: ‘It is significant that in a sense the first formal briefing on the progress in developing this programme is taking place at the World Economic Forum meeting. The success of its implementation would require the buy in from members of this exciting and vibrant forum!’ International capital would benefit from large infrastructure construction opportunities on the public-private partnership model, privatized state services, ongoing structural adjustment, intensified rule of international property law and various of NEPAD’s sectoral plans, all coordinated from a South African office staffed with neoliberals and open to economic and geopolitical gatekeeping. The actual NEPAD document was publicly launched in Abuja, Nigeria, by African heads of state on October 23, 2001. Within 18 months, NEPAD was described as ‘philosophically spot-on’ by the White House’s main Africa official.
Who benefits most from NEPAD? Johannesburg-based corporations were lining up as ‘new imperialists’, a problem of ‘great concern’ to Pretoria’s then public enterprises minister Jeff Radebe in early 2004: ‘There are strong perceptions that many South African companies working elsewhere in Africa come across as arrogant, disrespectful, aloof and careless in their attitude towards local business communities, work seekers and even governments’.
Given this background, the African left has expressed deep scepticism over NEPAD’s main strategies. A succinct critique emerged from a conference of the Council for Development and Social Science Research in Africa and Third World Network-Africa in April 2002. According to the meeting’s resolution:
The most fundamental flaws of NEPAD, which reproduce the central elements of the World Bank’s Can Africa Claim the Twenty-first Century? and the UN Economic Commission on Africa’s Compact for African Recovery, include:
(a) the neoliberal economic policy framework at the heart of the plan, and which repeats the structural adjustment policy packages of the preceding two decades and overlooks the disastrous effects of those policies;
(b) the fact that in spite of its proclaimed recognition of the central role of the African people to the plan, the African people have not played any part in the conception, design and formulation of the NEPAD;
(c) notwithstanding its stated concerns for social and gender equity, it adopts the social and economic measures that have contributed to the marginalization of women;
(d) that in spite of claims of African origins, its main targets are foreign donors, particularly in the G8;
(e) its vision of democracy is defined by the needs of creating a functional market;
(f) it under-emphasizes the external conditions fundamental to Africa’s developmental crisis, and thereby does not promote any meaningful measure to manage and restrict the effects of this environment on Africa development efforts. On the contrary, the engagement that is seeks with institutions and processes like the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, the United States Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, the Cotonou Agreement, will further lock Africa’s economies disadvantageously into this environment;
(g) the means for mobilization of resources will further the disintegration of African economies that we have witnessed at the hands of structural adjustment and WTO rules.
African critiques of neoliberalism are not limited to globalisation, ‘Washington Consensus’ macroeconomic policies, debt peonage and unfair terms of trade. (The Africa Trade Network, the Gender and Trade Network and Jubilee Africa’s affiliates are regular intellectual critics – and active protesters – against macroeconomic neoliberalism at the sites of global-scale negotiations and African elite summits.) In addition to NEPAD and the APRM, several other processes aimed at African civil society cooption - Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, the Millennium Development Goals and the north-driven Make Poverty History campaign (run in part from Gordon Brown’s office) - are all examples of accepting the broad parameters of neoliberalism and working within the box; all are considered failures even on their own limited terms.
In addition to macro-scale neoliberalism, the micro-developmental and ecological damage done through market-centred policies is now also widely recognised. Some of the most notable recent upsurges of protest have been in areas of localized environmental justice, exemplified by 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai’s struggle, two decades ago, to build Kenya’s Greenbelt Movement against the interests of the corrupt national state and big capital. More recently, women in the oil rich Nigerian Delta regularly conducted sit-ins at the local offices of multinationals. Oil workers have vigorously protested at several Delta platforms over not only wages but also broader community eco-social demands, even taking corporate managers hostage for a time.
In Botswana, indigenous-rights campaigners lobby the DeBeers diamond corporation, the World Bank and the Botswana government against the displacement of Basarwa/San Bushmen from the central Kalahari. According to the Guardian, the San targeted for relocation away from diamond exploration areas ‘had their water supplies cut off before being dumped in bleak settlements with derisory compensation.’ Solidarity was sufficiently powerful that by August 2002, the Botswana Gazette described the government as a ‘disease-ridden international polecat’. In the same spirit, activists resist large dams that threaten mass displacement in Namibia (Epupa), Lesotho (Highlands Water Project), Uganda (Bujagali) and Mozambique (Mphanda Nkuwa), as well as the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline. Support from northern environmentalists has been crucial.
Efforts to bridge global-local and Northern-African divides are being advanced in many other areas, including (but not limited to) Treatment Action advocates breaking the hold of pharmaceutical corporations on monopoly antiretroviral patents; activists fighting Monsanto’s GM drive from the US to South Africa to several African countries; blood-diamonds victims from Sierra Leone and Angola generating a partially-successful global deal at Kimberley; a growing network questioning Liberia’s long exploitation by Firestone Rubber; Oil Watch linkages of Nigerian Delta and many other Gulf of Guinea communities; and Ghanaian, South African and Dutch activists opposing water privatization.
Solidarity has also been a feature of reparations campaigners, led by South Africa’s Jubilee and Khulumani, who reacted to 2004 court defeats with pledges to campaign yet harder. They, in turn, were inspired by the work of Nigerian church and debt activists who several years ago focused attention on the role of British and Swiss banks in Sani Abacha’s 1990s looting spree, and won significant concessions that will deter illicit capital flight (still amongst Africa’s most debilitating economic problems).
There are ongoing civil society campaigns underway elsewhere in Africa against environmental racism, toxic dumping, asbestos damage, incinerators, biopiracy, genetically modified food, carbon trading and air pollution. Movements against privatisation of Africa’s basic services - mainly water and electricity, but also municipal waste, health and education - began in Accra and Johannesburg in 2000 and quickly attracted global solidarity. A PanAfrican Treatment network of AIDS activists is taking forward the work of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign, to challenge unfair monopoly patents on life-saving medicines.
Can such efforts become more coherently aligned, and will they persuade those in the traditional lineage to take up more serious social-change activism, in contrast to dead-end APRM consultations? If so, it is possible that the African Social Forum (ASF) will be the source of such coordination and consensus-building. The ASF’s (2002) original Bamako Declaration insisted that ‘the values, practices, structures and institutions of the currently dominant neoliberal order are inimical to and incompatible with the realisation of Africa’s dignity, values and aspirations.’ Of particular concern was NEPAD:
The Forum rejected neoliberal globalisation and further integration of Africa into an unjust system as a basis for its growth and development. In this context, there was a strong consensus that initiatives such as NEPAD that are inspired by the IMF‑WB strategies of Structural Adjustment Programs, trade liberalisation that continues to subject Africa to an unequal exchange, and strictures on governance borrowed from the practices of Western countries, are not rooted in the culture and history of the peoples of Africa.
What merit, then, is APRM participation, NEPAD legitimation and the generation of confusion amongst civil society constituents, on behalf of Johannesburg capital, Pretoria’s subimperial agenda, and the US State Department and Pentagon? Those in South African society genuinely committed to a renaissance in Africa free of exploitation should worry first about the enormous damage done by their own government and capitalist class.