South Africa: An Odd Model for Bolivia

It’s odd that Bolivian president elect Evo Morales should have chosen South Africa as his first port of call in drumming up international support ahead of his January 22 presidential inauguration.  In a televised speech during his recent visit to South Africa, Morales said he wanted to “learn from South Africa’s experience of nation-building.”  But herein lies a gross contradiction.  Whereas Morales has already announced his government’s plans to nationalize Bolivia’s vast gas reserves, the post-apartheid South African government has by contrast performed a radical turnabout on nationalization and persists in slavishly following a “market-driven” capitalist path in a bid to make itself “globally competitive.”

There was of course a time in South Africa when political activists thought all that was required for change was to dangle before the masses a notion of economic emancipation, and a new, revolutionary government would rise to the occasion.  How wrong they were.  Twelve years after the formal demise of apartheid, there is still grinding poverty and gross inequality in the overall distribution of wealth.  Nor is the situation likely to change in the immediate future.  A government elected largely on a populist platform is not necessarily possessed of an instinctive revolutionary essence

Instead of economic emancipation for the poor and exploited, there is simmering public resentment over the alarming levels of unemployment and the government’s failure to implement meaningful poverty alleviation policies.  Singled out for particularly rancorous criticism is the government’s plan to privatize state-owned utilities controlling the country’s electricity, telecommunications, and railways.  The privatization plan signifies a profound ideological shift that has occurred in the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party since the release of Nelson Mandela from prison 15 years ago.

The ANC won the countrys first democratic election in 1994 largely on the strength of its historic Freedom Charter, replete with socialist rhetoric decreeing that the national wealth including “the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be restored to the people as a whole.”  Mandela himself, in a message smuggled out of prison before his release, promised that “the nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopoly industry is
the policy of the ANC and the change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable.”
  But just a few years down the line, ANC government policy did an about-face with an emphasis on privatization and free-market macroeconomic policies and a corresponding aversion to nationalization.  Government bureaucrats, with the assistance of American and World Bank private sector consultants, have avoided mass involvement in key decision-making processes and alienated themselves from grassroots support.

The ANC’s astonishing post-apartheid turnabout on nationalization, its selling off of state assets, and its unwavering commitment to a “free-market” economy can be seen as a trade-off with its former military and political opponents in the interests of “reconciliation.”  It has served temporarily at least to placate a local and international rightwing consortium of those violently opposed to change, and it has bolstered investor confidence through the ostensible dissipation of conflict.  It also means that the government of Thabo Mbeki, while claiming to be “Africanist” in orientation, has opted for a Eurocentric model of governance based on the curious notion of a “Third Way” in politics.  Namely, a model of governance situated somewhere between socialism and capitalism, in which government leaders aspire to be all things to all people — a bizarre project to reconcile Marxism with free-market capitalism.

ANC apologists claim that, in the triumphal aftermath of “liberation,” South Africa found itself locked into the post-Cold War world-historical system fundamentally hostile to its socialist aspirations — a global system concentrated around international monopoly capital, with no opposing force to the United States’ increasing hegemony after the disintegration of the East European socialist bloc.  The collapse of the Soviet deterrent, apologists say, made British and American military power more threatening as a foreign policy instrument against those who contemplated seizing strategic Western assets.  Hence the South African government’s abandoning of plans to nationalize key foreign interests, particularly in the mining sector, which among other things provides the Anglo-American military-industrial complex with strategic metals and minerals used in the manufacture of armaments.

The CIA in particular has a long and well-documented history of covert intervention and destabilization in southern Africa.  In the 1970s, for example it joined hands with the South African intelligence community.  Together, they secretly groomed and propped up the right-wing Inkhata Freedom Party (IFP).  The IFP’s trade union arm, United Workers Union of South Africa, was formed in 1986, with one of its strongest supporters being the American labor federation, AFL-CIO, which has for nearly half a century been well known as a conduit for CIA money to counter-revolutionary groups.  Defectors from the IFP have disclosed that the apartheid South African Defence Force secretly trained 200 IFP members in death-squad activities, including demolition and the use of mortar-bombs, limpet mines, anti-personnel mines, and hand grenades.

But that was largely during a time of unashamed Western collusion with SA’s former regime of apartheid fascism.  Perceptions of risk in SA today, by contrast, have little to do with any real evidence of threats from abroad.  Rather, they are shaped by paranoid assumptions of vulnerability.  Sure, anxieties over national security are understandable — it is only right that the government should be mindful of potential threats.  But meaningful government policy needs to be able to accommodate acceptable risks in an environment that allows the governed to extend their abilities and confidence.  Indeed, the defeat of apartheid would not have been possible without the many risks taken by freedom fighters, and in fact the entire history of human progress shows there can be no progress without calculated risk.

South African policy makers’ aversion for calculated risk, by contrast, probably accounts for the significant increase in military co-operation between South Africa and the US, as announced officially by an American diplomat in the February 2005 edition of African Armed Forces Journal.  Yet public debate, what there is of it, fails to recognize that the Americans may in fact be exploiting fears about security to scare South Africa into maintaining the status quo against socialism.  It is a backward slide into an outmoded world of deference and denial, at a time when South Africa should instead be presenting itself as possessing a richer culture of open debate and robust public engagement.

The country’s growing climate of cynicism and social disengagement has been caused by the government’s inability to come up with sustainable development initiatives.  This much is clear from the slow pace of land reform, job creation, and skills development programs.  In a country rich with abundant mineral resources and vast areas of unused land, the unemployed and landless majority of people are forced to barely survive on social grants.  The mineral resources remain in the hands of foreign-based multinational conglomerates, and the unused land remains largely in the possession of a few wealthy land-barons.

Social security handouts to the destitute millions, meanwhile, although providing at least some essential relief, nevertheless keep the recipients — about one third of the entire population — locked in the same time warp and fixated on their disadvantaged status, repeating their dependency over and over again, instead of providing them with the means to forge their own livelihoods.  To be categorized as a social liability invalidates the “beneficiaries” as human beings and saps their potential to take responsibility for their own lives and actions.

Government apologists cite inadequate resources to finance development imperatives.  They say the former, apartheid government saddled the new ANC-led government with an enormous burden of foreign debt running into many billions of dollars, with interest repayments alone being the present government’s second largest budgetary item.  International banks have refused to write off this debt, and failure to repay it would only create problems for the government in securing new loans.  Or so the risk aversion argument goes.  It neglects weighing up the hypothetical consequences of risks from abroad with the very real risk of psycho-social consequences on the domestic front.  Government policy planners apparently fail to recognize that a substitution of risk aversion for revolutionary fervor has had a dissipative effect, which now permeates the national psyche.

Some veterans of the liberation war, for example, have gone beyond disillusion to a desperate, criminal nihilism.  Being better trained and armed than the police, they have embarked on a continuing series of successful cash-in-transit heists conducted with military precision — the militarization of crime.  Most raiders have escaped with very large sums of money.  Others have committed suicide rather than be captured.  The amounts of money involved in cash-in-transit heists are, however, small by comparison with the financial resources lost to the greed and corruption of many government officials.  Nor is bribery and corruption restricted to the lower ranks of officialdom; it includes even the recently sacked deputy president of the country who is currently facing criminal charges of fraud and corruption amounting to millions of dollars.  This is symptomatic of a system founded on principles of unbridled acquisitiveness and the capitalist premise that “greed is good.”

At the same time, the generous post-apartheid amnesties handed out to apartheid-era war criminals and perpetrators of gross human rights violations has signaled that people can commit the most heinous crimes and get away with it.  The end result is that South Africa today has one of the highest serious crime rates in the world.

Given the large gaps between rhetoric and reality, and the bizarre contradictions now existing in “liberated” South Africa, the new Bolivian government could be well advised not to use this country as its socio-political and economic development model.

South African-based journalist Stan Winer is author of the book Between the Lies: Rise of the Media-Military-Industrial Complex (London: Southern Universities Press, 2004), available from <>.