Venezuela and South Africa: Redistributive Policies vs. Neo-liberal Economic Policies

Traveling to both Venezuela and South Africa this past summer, through my work as an academic sociologist, I was able to observe firsthand two radically different approaches to “third world” development: a “redistributive approach” in Venezuela, and a set of basically neo-liberal economic policies in South Africa.  Although this was not a consciously designed research project, the comparison begged for comment, as the differences were extremely obvious.


I was part of a group of North Americans who traveled to Venezuela in June to see with our own eyes what was going on in the country on a tour organized by the Marin Interfaith Task Force on the Americas (MITF) of Northern California.  I had read quite a bit beforehand — I had helped expose the AFL-CIO’s involvement in the April 2002 coup attempt against President Chavez (see my “AFL-CIO in Venezuela: Déjà vu All Over Again” in the April 2004 issue of Labor Notes) — but this was an opportunity to go to see the country with my own eyes.  I was fortunate to go with MITF, as I don’t speak Spanish, and our tour guide, Lisa Sullivan, had not only lived in Latin America for over 20 years, but also provided excellent translations, as other Spanish speakers on the tour readily confirmed.

In the 10 days we were in the country, we visited parts of Caracas (the capital), a mountainous area in the State of Lara (southwest of Caracas), and then the coastal area of Barlovento (northeast of Caracas), which is the center of the Afro-Venezuelan population.  (Despite my many limitations, I wrote a more detailed report that provides a more extensive report of our tour, which is on-line at

What we observed was that, by using part of the profits gained through their oil production, the government of Venezuela was making a significant improvement in the lives of the 80% of the population who are poor.  There has been a massive investment in health care provision, with over 8,000 clinics built recently in the barrios, both urban and rural; thus, people are able to access quality health care, 24 hours a day, in a nearby clinic, and at no cost.  Initially, these clinics were staffed by Cuban doctors who provided services and trained Venezuelans, but more and more Venezuelan health care workers now are providing services.  In addition, the Venezuelan government has been providing cataract surgery to those who need it, by flying them and their companions for free to Cuba for operations and high-quality care.  However, we were told that Venezuelan doctors had now been sufficiently trained that the government was going to provide the surgery in Venezuela — and even that they had offered free cataract surgery for 100,000 people from the United States!

We also observed some of the massive educational effort taking place in the country, where illiteracy was eliminated in little over a year according to the United Nations, where students were excited about learning, and where pupils were no longer limited to at most three years of elementary school in rural regions; now, anyone who meets the academic qualifications can attend university.  It is not just young people who are taking advantage of the government’s educational “Missions”; people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s were returning to school to get the education they were denied earlier in their lives.  In fact, we even met a 76-year-old woman who had just returned from getting one of her eyes repaired in Cuba, and she told us about her now being able to go to school to learn her letters and numbers!

The government has also massively expanded the system of cooperatives across the country: from around 7,000 cooperatives a few years ago to over 108,000 now.  The government told the land owners that they had to sell to the state the land on which they were not producing food, paying them market rates in exchange.  Land was provided to people, so they will have a means to economically support themselves, while working towards ending Venezuela’s historic dependence on food imports.  And at perhaps the model co-op in the country, we were shown how they were shifting into organic farming.

In short — and we got this wherever we talked with the poor — the people had hope in their futures: they really felt that President Chavez and his administration were working to improve their lives.  We certainly saw the changes we had only heard about beforehand (and Ms. Sullivan told us that these processes were taking place across the country).

Let’s be clear: Venezuela is not a paradise, as there are many problems.  It is a very unequal country, where approximately 80% of the population is poor.  It is a country that is very dependent on imports for its food supply.  It is recognizably over-dependent on oil.  And one of the women on the tour was told by a woman in one of the schools we visited that there were extensive problems of male violence against women, as well as abandonment, and the lack of legal support for the women, after the courts had overturned progressive legislation intended to address these issues.   But the point I want to emphasize is how the government is providing the services and the means for people to take more power over their lives; people — and especially women in the barrios — are taking advantage of the opportunities; and as they are improving their lives, hope and excitement about their futures is palpable.  It was exhilarating to see.

South Africa

Compared to Venezuela, South Africa was very disheartening.  I spent most of my three and a half weeks in the country in Johannesburg; although I did go to Soweto on a couple of brief tours and get to Durban for a few days, my travel was much more limited than in Venezuela.  However, because I spoke the dominant language in South Africa, English, and an extensive range of high-quality books and articles about the country are available, I had many more in-depth and extensive conversations about what was going on in the country.

Through massive sacrifice and mobilization during the struggle for liberation, “ordinary” people (mostly black, but not all) had battled the South African state to a standstill: they couldn’t overthrow the racially-based apartheid regime, but the regime could not control the insurgency.  Ultimately, both sides entered into negotiations:  various people’s forces (including the African National Congress, the Pan African Congress, and the South African Communist Party) were unbanned; long-serving political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela were freed; political exiles were allowed to return; and, ultimately, elections were held in 1994, which elected Mandela and the ANC to lead the country.  The system of apartheid was discarded, and it looks like the ANC will continue to control the government for the foreseeable future.

What I saw — and remember, I only saw a tiny bit of the country — surprised me.  There was much less racial tension than I had expected to find.  There was almost none among the political activists that I met.  It was somewhat mind-boggling as an American white male to be hugged by blacks after they had been only told I was a “comrade,” but it happened a couple of times.  And even when it didn’t, it seemed to take almost no time at all to create bonds solid enough for deep and critical conversation about the current situation.  Among the general public, too, whether on the street or in a few malls that I ended up visiting, the level of overt racial tension was amazingly low (at least to my eye, though the blacks in the same situations might notice what I didn’t.  Nevertheless, while this was my first trip to South Africa, I have lived most of my adult life in multiracial, if not people of color-dominated, areas in the US, in both African-American and Latino communities, so I have some experience on which to make these observations.)  Needless to say, not a nirvana by any means, but the closest way to describe it is that it is similar to what I see daily in Chicago: blacks and whites don’t generally mix in society, but when they do mix publicly, they do so with a minimum of obvious resentment or conflict, though blacks are much more likely to go into white areas than are whites to go in black areas.  And this, quite frankly, I did not expect.  So, qualitative political changes have been made from the past.

However, that leads me to the economic situation.  The negotiations between the apartheid regime and the liberation forces, which overthrew the political regime, left the economic regime untouched.  Key to the negotiations, for the whites, was that there be no effort to redistribute economic resources to the black, “colored,” and Asian populations once the new government assumed power.  The white leaders claimed that the best way to overcome poverty was to not shackle them; they argued that, once the global economic boycott against South Africa was ended, they could lead the economy to such growth that poverty could be overcome and that economic opportunities would be available for all; i.e., they claimed the economy could “grow” its way out of the problem.  Thus, no redistribution of economic resources should be considered, corporate power should be left intact, and taxes on white assets should not be raised.

The leadership of the ANC bought the argument.  Apparently, the fear was that if compromises were not made by both sides, the country would plunge into a civil war that would be terrible, whose burden would be borne mostly by blacks and other peoples of color, which should be avoided at all costs.  How valid the argument was is something that South Africans will have to settle over time, although I can appreciate being in a very difficult position can force people to take positions they would rather not take.

When the ANC got into power, it began to institute the RDP, the Reconstruction and Development Program, which had been advanced by its political allies, COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions — the largely black, but non-racial labor movement), and the SACP (South African Communist Party).  They began to initiate at least some social programs.  There were a number of problems with the RDP, especially a lack of specificity, which allowed multiple interpretations and created conflict among proponents, but it was a serious effort to address the long-standing problems of the country that had developed out of white racial oppression.

Yet, by 1996, the RDP was history, replaced by a program called GEAR (Growth, Employment, and Redistribution).  This was a set of basically neo-liberal economic policies that aimed for economic growth by dropping tariff barriers and competing internationally in the global markets.  This approach meant getting rid of workers and cutting labor costs and social programs.  It also meant privatization of public services, cutting even more jobs and weakening unions.  Sampie Terreblanche, in his acclaimed History of Inequality in South Africa, 1652-2002 — arguably the most informed historical study to date on inequality in the country, written, interestingly, by an Afrikaaner — described GEAR accordingly:

… the strategy was aimed at providing the country with a comprehensive and  well-integrated macroeconomic framework.  GEAR’S point of departure is that higher levels of sustained economic growth requires a competitive, out-ward oriented economy.  Its immediate aim was to reassure potential — especially foreign — investors that the government was committed to the neo-liberal orthodoxies of the ‘Washington consensus’.  Decorated with all the trimmings of globalization, GEAR represents an almost desperate attempt to attract FDI” [foreign direct investment].

Terreblanche went on to remark that “[i]deologically, GEAR falls squarely within the supply-side/neo-classical paradigm,” that it is “openly Thatcherite in content and tone,” and that it “envisages a worldwide capitalist economic system in which market forces reign supreme, rewarding those countries that obey its imperatives and deservedly punishing those that do not.”   Then, this professor of economics summed up the practical ramifications of such an approach: “By retreating into the fantasy world of economic textbooks, the compilers of . . . GEAR lost contact with the imperfect reality of and deep-seated inequalities in South Africa.”

GEAR has not addressed the long-standing problems of the vast majority of the people of the country:  it has allowed a small group of blacks, along with white colleagues, to become incredibly wealthy, but for approximately 60% of the population, the economic situation has certainly not improved since apartheid and has gotten worse for many.  (While in South Africa, I had recommended to me Ashwin Desai’s 2002 book from Monthly Review Press, We Are the Poors:  Community Struggles in South Africa.)

The result of this is a rapidly increasing inequality among the people of South Africa.  As could be expected, crime — at least in Johannesburg — was rampant.  Everywhere I went, I saw houses of both the rich and the rest surrounded with high walls, topped with spikes or glass shards, and equipped with alarm systems — my favorite was a house that had “Mi Casa Su Casa” (my house is your house) on an outside wall, with an “Armed Response” sign right next to it! — and then they still required visitors to pass through two or three metal gates to get inside a house.

Some people also have anti-hijack devices on their cars.  That way, should certain processes not be followed correctly after starting the car, the car will “freeze up” and not move.  There is no sense of security on the streets of Johannesburg.  A personal friend of mine had been hijacked prior to my arrival, and another person I met while there had his house entered into the night before.

The most interesting thing about the neo-liberal economic policies of the ANC government is that COSATU, their key Alliance partner, still generally accepts them.  Yes, COSATU has had demonstrations against these policies, and one person told me that COSATU had made over 230 interventions at the legislative level against them.  The government has responded in certain limited ways to the protests, so one cannot accurately describe the government’s neo-liberal policies as “classic” — rather, they are neo-liberal with a few efforts to reduce their harshest impacts.  Nonetheless, the reality is that COSATU has not launched a determined campaign against them.

There are clearly forces within COSATU and labor-supportive academics that are challenging this acquiescence.  I met a number of people who were thinking/acting against them from within labor.  One interesting development: I was one of three speakers for an opening night “public debate” that preceded the first international labor history conference in the country since 1994, and it turned out that all three of us (with no discussion among us beforehand) challenged continued acceptance of neo-liberal economic policies!  (I spoke about the experiences of workers in the Philippines — see my “Global Economic Crisis, Neoliberal Solutions, and the Philippines,” Monthly Review 51.7, December 1999: 1-14 — and in the United States, a piece I’m currently working on.)

The long and short of it, though, is that neo-liberal economic policies have been a disaster for the large majority of people — both black and white — in South Africa.  And, they offer no realistic way forward: a country simply cannot grow its way out of 350 years of racist colonialism and neo-colonialism!


The trips to both Venezuela and South Africa gave me a perspective I would never have gotten by visiting only one of them: I can compare two countries taking two radically different approaches to their social development — Venezuela trying to redistribute social services and opportunities, and South Africa trying to hold on to the failed economic policies of the past, in efforts that benefit the small elite of both whites and blacks but come at the direct expense of 60% or more of the population of all racial groupings.  In Venezuela, I saw hope among the poor; in South Africa, dejection and dissatisfaction.

The choice in the way forward seems obvious: we’ve got to reject neo-liberalism in all its forms, wherever it raises its ugly head.

Kim Scipes is a member of the National Writers Union and a long-time global labor activist in the US. He currently teaches sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana. The Worker to Worker Solidarity Committee has just published Scipes’ latest piece, “The AFL-CIO Foreign Policy Program and the 2002 Coup in Venezuela: Was the AFL-CIO Involved?” which can be found at His on-line bibliography on “Contemporary Labor Issues” can be accessed at He can be contacted at <>.

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