South African Social Mobilisation Leads the World

Tuesday, 8 January, 2008 - 09:28

By Prof Patrick BondPolitical society seems terminally sick, with President Mbeki’s approval ratings in the 40% range for numerous good reasons, and the Zuma camp displaying signs of patriarchal tradi

By Prof Patrick Bond

Political society seems terminally sick, with President Mbeki’s approval ratings in the 40% range for numerous good reasons, and the Zuma camp displaying signs of patriarchal traditionalism, militarism, ethnicism, homophobia, and - as told to Citibank and Merrill Lynch financial speculators in October 2007 - an unbending commitment to maintaining South Africa’s pro-corporate economic policy.

The progressive movements in civil society are healthier, campaigning for myriad social change initiatives, and when insider efforts don’t work, maintaining the world’s highest per person protest rate in 2007 thanks to labour, student, community and social movement unrest. The tree-shakers are usually necessary for progressive jam-makers, and can claim partial wins on access to AIDS medicines, cheaper education, free basic water and electricity, larger social grants, higher civil servant pay and even a U-turn on supporting Burma’s junta.

Still, the grievances are profound. Socio-economic conditions for poor and working-class people are, as trade union leader Zwelinzima Vavi pointed out in October 2007, demonstrably worse than during apartheid, with at least double the unemployment rate and ever-growing inequality.

Housing, for example, is often half the size of the hated matchboxes, further from jobs and community amenities, built with rubbishy construction materials, and lacking decent levels of services, which are in turn overpriced compared to the apartheid era, and more prone to disconnection in the event of non-payment and unaffordability.

As for the natural environment, even government now admits that in every substantive way, matters have deteriorated since 1994. The economy is on an unsustainable trajectory, as manufacturing withers due to vast inflows of Asian goods financed by ‘hot money’, while corporate profits escape to the new overseas financial headquarters (in London, New York and Melbourne) of apartheid-capital’s biggest firms, leaving a dangerously high current account deficit (i.e., a negative trade plus financial payments balance).

To be sure, sharp internecine conflict continues within organisations and coalitions committed to social justice, for example, Cosatu and the landless and Jubilee anti-debt movements. Differences between NGOs which are dependent upon service delivery contracting (in a context of state shrinkage) and the radical forces in society (demanding a larger welfare state) appear to be growing. Some such divisions are durable for structural reasons and some are temporary (and often personality-based), perhaps to be resolved after political dust in the Alliance finally begins to settle in coming months.

Given the silliness with which the ANC leadership succession is unfolding, we can remain most optimistic about South Africa’s future by shifting our eyes to the global scale. There, while politicians fail in their global governance reform agenda, SA grassroots struggle experiences are contributing to more sophisticated, committed and transformative civil society strategies than we typically find in the higher-profile NGO and rock-star campaigning on behalf of Millennium Development Goals. The Live 8 concerts, Make Poverty History and the Global Call to Action against Poverty rely for credibility upon minor advances within multilateral elite institutions, which in reality appear absolutely impervious to reform.

Discussing the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign, writer Noreena Hertz confessed, ‘We achieved next to nothing’ because ‘the campaign’s design allowed it to accept inappropriate markers for success that were never real proxies for justice, empowerment or accountability. And also because its demands were never in fact audacious enough.’ Most London charity NGO strategies ensured that core issue areas – debt, aid, trade and investment – would be addressed in only the most superficial ways. By 2007, one of the main lobbyists, rock star Bob Geldof, finally became so frustrated that he called those attending the Heiligendamm G8 summit ‘creeps’ and their work a ‘total farce’.

In contrast, a more exciting strategic and politico-ideological discussion has emerged through the World Social Forum (WSF). The WSF’s primary achievements have been in gathering the multiplicity of movements fighting neoliberal capitalism and imperialism, and maintaining the open space to keep alive mutual education and networking. But the WSF’s main disappointment remains our inability to converge on strategy, generate agreed joint actions, and forge cross-sectoral ties.

The South African debate over how to remedy this was stimulated in 2006 by the great African political economist Samir Amin, who was the key promoter of the ‘Bamako Appeal’, a document drafted at the WSF in order to fuse traditional ideologies of socialism, anti-racism/colonialism, and (national) development.

Amin was criticised – in the article ‘Why Bamako does not appeal’ - by four CCS associates: Franco Barchiesi, Heinrich Bohmke, Prishani Naidoo and Ahmed Veriava. Representing an autonomist view of insurgent liberatory politics, they reject a formal programme and accuse the Appeal and the WSF of degenerating ‘into an organised network of experts, academics and NGO practitioners… The WSF elite’s cold institutional and technicist soup, occasionally warmed up by some hints of tired poeticism, can provide little nourishment for local subjectivities whose daily responses to neoliberalism face more urgent needs to turn everyday survival into sustained confrontations with an increasingly repressive state.’

A third, very strong tradition in the WSF is socialist party-building, represented especially by the International Socialist and Fourth International Tendency strands of Trotskyism, and argued passionately by CCS associate Trevor Ngwane. In this view, the Forum movement is best situated for socialist consciousness and cadre; critics accuse the organised socialists of being formulaic and manipulative.

A fourth position (which I am partial to) seeks the 21st century’s ‘manifesto’ for global justice not top-down but bottom-up, in the existing social, labour and environmental movements already engaged in excellent transnational social justice struggles. The WSF’s greatest potential - so far unrealised - is the possibility of linking dozens of radical movements in various sectors.

(These four positions are reflected in a book by the New Delhi-based Institute for Critical Action and CCS: A Political Programme for the World Social Forum?, released at the Nairobi WSF in January 2007.)

In several of the social justice struggles, South Africans have been leaders. The liberation of AIDS medicines from tyrannical monopoly patents which had previously prevented their consumption by poor people, has been sufficiently successful to claim both ‘decommodification’ and ‘deglobalisation’ (of capital): these medicines are now free to many poor and working-class people getting public health services (where those do exist) and are being produced by generic drug companies in several African sites.

There are many other success stories that can be drawn from some of the finest networks of social justice activists presently active, in fields such as land (Via Campesino), healthcare (International Peoples Health Movement), free schooling (Global Campaign for Education), water (the People’s World Water Forum), energy/climate change (the Durban Declaration), debt (Jubilee South), and trade (Our World is Not for Sale). In many cases, South Africans are at the cutting edge.

Usually we find the leading strategists turning away from centralised, corporate-controlled systems of global power, to national and local solutions. To illustrate, the local decommodification agenda entails struggles to turn basic needs into genuine human rights including: free anti-retroviral medicines (hence disempowering Big Pharma’s Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights claims); 50 litres of free water per person per day (hence ridding South Africa of Paris or London-based privatisers); 1 kiloWatt hour of free electricity for each individual every day (hence reorienting energy resources from export-oriented mining and smelting, to basic-needs consumption); extensive land reform (hence de-emphasising cash cropping and export-oriented plantations); prohibitions on service disconnections and evictions; free education (hence halting the General Agreement on Trade in Services); the right to a job; a Basic Income Grant; and the like.

Such demands and strategies come from activists who inexorably find that the source of their problems isn’t (as Mbeki posits) the officious municipal bureaucrat who denies an applicant ‘indigent’ status so as to prevent discounts on basic services – but instead the global financial institutions, aid agencies and South African collaborators who insist on fiscal austerity, indigence policies and means-testing rather than well-funded, generous social policies and universal entitlements.

How these global justice campaigns in turn make change in South Africa is complicated, because there are no formulae for shifting power from a liberation movement whose nationalist ideology retains prestige in spite of its neocolonial policies and crony-capitalist bias, to a genuinely post-neoliberal project built poor and working people, women, environmentalists and all those others whose identities have been repressed. Where civil society forces in Africa thought they had a post-nationalist breakthrough, the new elites (sometimes even from trade union leadership) turned against the masses.

Latin America is the main Southern scene from which we gain inspiration for future state-building, particularly Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Cuba (in the North, only Norway and Italy have centre-left governments, and only barely). But others seeking justice in sites of brutality - Burma, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Niger Delta, rural India, Zimbabwe, Morocco, Swaziland, Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, just to note a few hotspots – can also be inspired by the work of SA civil society, and vice versa. The crucial people-people relationships that our times demand are, indeed, already being established by a 21st century internationalist left, whose roots here are in struggles against both apartheid and post-1994 class-apartheid.


- This article written by the Director of the Centre for Civil Society, Patrick Bond, appeares in Prodder - NGOs and Development in South Africa 2008.   

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