Truth and Solidarity in South Africa

On Saturday night, I found myself at a party honouring Nelson Mandelaand raising money for his children’s fund (I’m still trying to figureout how I ended there). It was a lovely affair and only a very rudeperson would have pointed out that the party was packed with many of thebanking and mining executives who refused to pull their investments outof apartheid-run South Africa for decades.

Mr. Mandela was in Canada this week to receive the highest honour mycountry has to offer: he was the second person in our history to be madean honorary citizen.

So only someone with no sense of timing would havementioned that, as the Liberal government was honouring Mr. Mandela, itis ramming through an anti-terrorism bill that would have sabotaged theanti-apartheid movement on several fronts had it been in place at thetime. (Many other countries are passing similar laws.)

The anti-apartheid movement here in Canada and elsewhere activelyraised money for the African National Congress (ANC), which would easily havefit most anti-terrorism bills’ sloppy definitions of a terroristorganization.

Furthermore, anti-apartheid activists deliberately caused“serious disruption” to the activities of companies invested in SouthAfrica, eventually forcing many to pull out. These disruptions wouldalso have been illegal under most proposed anti-terrorism laws.

And then there is the small matter of the fact that many in SouthAfrica insist that apartheid still exists, and requires a new resistancemovement, with new disruptions.

Earlier this month in London, I metTrevor Ngwane, a former ANC municipal council member, who is at theforefront of that new movement. “Apartheid based on race has beenreplaced with apartheid based on class,” Mr. Ngwane said. “We are themost unequal society in the world.”

Confronted with a country where eight million people are homeless andclose to five million are HIV positive, some try to paint deepeninginequality 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, andnurtured by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

When Mandela was freed from prison, his vision was of a South Africathat offered economic, as well as democratic, freedom. Basic needs forhousing, water, and electricity would be met through massive publicworks programs.

But as power came into the ANC’s reach, writes South AfricanProfessor Patrick Bond in his new book “Against Global Apartheid”(University of Cape Town Press), enormous pressure was put on the partyto prove it could govern with “sound macroeconomic policies.” It becameclear that if Mandela attempted genuine redistribution of wealth, theinternational markets would retaliate.

Many within the partyunderstandably feared that an economic meltdown in South Africa would beused as an indictment not just of the ANC, but of black rule itself.

So, instead of their policy of “growth through redistribution,” theANC, particularly under President Thabo Mbeki, adopted the cookie-cuttereconomic program of trying to “grow” the economy by pleasing foreigninvestors: mass privatizations, lay-offs and wage cuts in the publicsector, corporate tax cuts, and the like.

The results have been devastating. Half a million jobs have beenlost since 1993. Wages for the poorest forty per cent have dropped by twenty-oneper cent. Poor areas have seen their water costs go up by fifty-five per cent,electricity by as much as four-hundred per cent. Many have resorted to drinkingpolluted water, leading to a cholera outbreak that infected 100,000people. In Soweto, 20,000 homes have their electricity cut off eachmonth.

And the investment? They’re still waiting. This is the type of track record that has turned the World Bank andthe IMF into international pariahs, drawing thousands to the streetsoutside their meetings in Ottawa this weekend, with a “solidarityprotests” around the world, including one in Johannesburg.

The Washington Post recently told the heart breaking story of oneSoweto resident, Agnes Mohapi, caught up in South Africa’s privatizationbattles. The reporter observed that, “For all its wretchedness,apartheid never did this: it did not lay her off from her job, jack upher utility bill, then disconnect her service when she inevitably couldnot pay. ‘Privatization did that’ [Mohapi] said.”

In the face of this system of “economic apartheid,” the newresistance movement is gathering momentum. There was a three-day generalstrike against privatization in August, timed to shame the governmentduring the World Conference Against Racism.

In Soweto, unemployedworkers reconnect their neighbours’ cut off water and the SowetoElectricity Crisis Committee has illegally reconnected power inthousands of homes. They are also calling on Soweto residents to boycotttheir electricity payments until the prices are brought under control.

Why don’t the police arrest these activists, who after all, arecausing “serious disruption” (which is apparently the same asterrorism)? “Because,” Mr. Ngwane says matter of factly, “when thepolice officers’ electricity is disconnected, we reconnect them too.”

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