SA and Zimbabwe Politicos Join Global Financiers in Self-Destruction

The past week has been a wild roller-coaster ride in and out of Southern African ruling-party politics, down the troughs of world capitalism, and up the peaks of radical social activism.  Glancing around the region and world from those peaks, we can see quite a way further than usual.

Looking first to South Africa, Saturday’s dumping of president Thabo Mbeki by Jacob Zuma — president of the party — and his temporary replacement (until next April’s election) by ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, was an excellent reflection of ruling elite fragility in neoliberal regimes.  Some of Mbeki’s main supporters — including Mbhazima Shilowa, the former trade union leader and now provincial government leader in the economic heartland of Johannesburg — are apparently considering the launch of a competing party.

Likewise, the inability to cement a working power-sharing deal across the river in Zimbabwe confirms how hard elite factions will fight over the crumbs of even a quick-shrinking state.  These are interconnected problems and should make world elites rather nervous.

Their favourite Zimbabwean, Morgan Tsvangirai, may feel the need to follow their austerity instructions.  But to get the billions of dollars promised in coming months from Western powers and Pretoria, Tsvangirai must tighten the belts of his already starving compatriots, a task requiring far more control of the Zimbabwe state than the patronage-addicted cronies of Robert Mugabe will allow.

On Friday, negotiations over the new cabinet’s composition broke down because Mugabe’s Zanu (PF) colleagues were dissatisfied over getting only 15 of the 31 seats in a deal done the prior week with Mbeki acting as facilitator.  Mugabe’s men are, without question, the most exploitative, parasitical force in Harare today, but imperialism (London mining houses) and South African subimperialism (Johannesburg mining, banking, retail, transport, tourism) look on greedily — in part for platinum reserves as rich as any outside South Africa.

The outsiders have hoped that Zimbabwe’s ongoing economic implosion — a 20 million+ percent inflation rate and persistent shortages of nearly all basics (hence last week requiring permission for many shops to trade in dollars and rands instead of the debased Zim currency) — compels Mugabe to give up power, though Mbeki’s aim has all along been to shoehorn Tsvangirai into a junior partnership, which he agreed to in spite of widespread dissent that the concessions were too great.

Unfortunately, against this lot, Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change party and its progressive allies in the trade unions and social movements simply could not generate a “Plan B” — popular insurgency or active civil disobedience — in the face of Mugabe’s repressive police, army and paramilitaries.

So all Tsvangirai has left for countervailing power is his moral claim to a March electoral victory (he withdrew from a June run-off when 100 supporters were killed by Mugabe’s thugs) — worth nearly nothing in Harare power politics — and the hope he can attract a vast reconstruction fund from London, Washington and Brussels.

Such funds will be much harder to mobilize now, after Monday’s stock market crash in New York and the crashes of investment banks, mortgage guarantors, insurance companies and in coming days, money market funds and commercial banks, for whom bailouts will require upwards of a trillion US$ before all is said and done.

Fourteen years ago, these same New York financiers put extreme pressure on Nelson Mandela’s new African National Congress government, when I worked in his reconstruction and development program ministry and saw firsthand the defeatist philosophies of ‘Freedom Next Time’ and ‘Shock Doctrine’ that John Pilger and Naomi Klein later described so accurately in their books.

At the time, deputy president Mbeki ordered state officials to ‘Send the signals to the markets’.  Rising unemployment and inequality were the logical result, as Mbeki’s team made SA much more vulnerable to international finance than ever in its history.  (The most aggressive neoliberal amongst them, finance minister Trevor Manue — whose first job in 1996 was imposition of structural adjustment programme and who in 2000 chaired board of the World Bank and IMF — was asked to stay on for another term by Zuma and apparently has agreed.)

In the same spirit, just under a year ago, Merrill Lynch held what amounted to a job interview for Zuma, as Mbeki’s apparent successor gave a speech “aimed at reassuring them that there was no need for the market to be ‘jittery'” according to a Zuma aide.

Mbeki was fired by the ANC national executive committee in the wake of a high court judgment a week earlier.  That ruling temporarily threw out corruption charges against Zuma, in part because the judge disapproved of Mbeki’s conspiratorial handling of his competitor’s career, starting in 2001.  (Zuma was SA deputy president from 1999 until 2005, when his financial manager Shabir Shaik’s bribe-taking attracted a jail sentence — but Mbeki’s mistake was to hope Zuma would fade away, especially after a rape accusation later that year.)

Inept procedure was the technical problem that dislodged Mbeki and freed Zuma, although the National Prosecuting Authority said it would appeal the corruption case.  More importantly, the coalition of forces — led by SA trade unionists and the communist party — which have backed the allegedly corrupt and sometimes feudal Zuma did so for explicitly political reasons.

As a Machiavellian back-stabber, Mbeki simply made too many enemies — including trade union leader Zwelinzima Vavi, communist party secretary Blade Nzimande, ANC youth league president Julius Malema, and businessmen Tokyo Sexwale, Cyril Ramaphosa and Matthews Phosa.  But as a hardcore neoliberal economist, he was doomed in any case.  Treatment Action Campaign leader Zackie Achmat accused Mbeki of murderous AIDS policies and also celebrated his departure.

And ironically, simultaneous to Mbeki’s downfall, the economic alter on which so many South Africans were sacrificed — appeasing the damn financial markets — has also tumbled.  Gambling in real estate, the arrogant czars of Merrill Lynch lost 82% of the firm’s share value since early 2007, before last week’s $50 billion desperation rescue by the Bank of America.

Look north-west now to Nigeria for more insights into world chaos.  Thanks to US fossil fuel addiction, the leading NGO Environmental Rights Action (ERA) in Port Harcourt worries about the revival of a war harking back more than 15 years, when Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Ogoni survival movement intensified its non-violent efforts to rid the Niger Delta of the super-exploitive Shell Oil.

Saro-Wiwa faced a repressive state whose army was called in by Shell to execute him on a frame-up charge in 1995, in spite of appeals by Mandela.

Last week, the powerful guerrilla-based Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta forced Shell to evacuate 100 employees from an installation and demanded that all foreign firms leave the area.

Meanwhile, ERA director Nimmo Bassey spent the week with dozens of African environmentalists here in Durban.  The OilWatch activists were hosted by the Pietermaritzburg NGO groundWork, ERA’s partner in the Friends of the Earth network.

Bassey’s strategy is to “keep the oil in the soil”.  To pay for needed development and environmental clean-up, ERA demands ecological debt repayment by the north to the south, much as Accion Ecologica has insisted on in Ecuador, even moving Rafael Correa’s government to endorse the concept.

The OilWatch network ventured on Durban’s famous Toxic Tour by the South Durban Community and Environmental Alliance, which stops in on leaky refineries and other pollution hot spots that give the area its world-leading leukemia and asthma rates.  That alliance will soon file an environmental impact assessment complaint to halt the parastatal firm Transnet’s proposed $7 billion pipeline, aimed to soon double petrol flows to Johannesburg.

Aside from environmental racism (the pipeline takes a 200km southerly detour to avoid white-dominated areas), several other reasons have emerged to rethink the pipeline: climate change, refining problems, Johannesburg auto congestion and the lack so far of political will to build an alternative mass public transport system.

Far better to blow up the Johannesburg petrol pipeline before it is built, through legal, nonviolent means, South Durban activists reckon, than to contend with Niger Delta-type disasters such as the series of major tank fires at installations in South Durban that began exactly a year ago.  Then and now, municipal officials failed south Durban residents, by keeping secret the evacuation plan.

If we look a bit further south, to the famous Wild Coast on the Transkei coast a few hours drive from Durban, we find a similar confrontation between communities and an unresponsive, crony-capitalist state.  And again, bottom-up struggle has generated a formidable backlash against Mbeki’s minerals minister and the multinational corporation she has been wooing.

After receiving a stern lecture by community and indigenous leaders in the Xolobeni community last Friday, minister Buyelwa Sonjica conceded that a multibillion-rand titanium sands project suffered from flawed consultation.  Activists insisted she withdraw a licence to mine the sand dunes, which she had secretly granted Australia’s Mineral Resource Commodities a few weeks ago.

Sonjica confessed, “I am disappointed because most of the things said here today, I did not know”.  Like so many officials, she had not listened to civil society, especially the Amadiba Crisis Committee and Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa.   The community group’s superb lawyer, Richard Spoor (ridiculed by Sonjica two weeks’ earlier), must now painstakingly undo the damage she has done.

To return where we began, in wretched Zimbabwe, what can progressive forces do to regroup in this context of national, regional and global chaos?  Pretoria power-brokers are vanishing, New York financiers are buckling, Washington/London king-makers are scrambling for cash, mining houses are putting investment plans on hold, and orthodox World Bank and United Nations Development Program strategies are not going to satisfy the Zimbabwean masses.

The organizations that best represent those masses had demanded a neutral transitional authority and socio-economic interventions, which Mbeki ignored, even though the National People’s Convention made these demands clearly in February.

As Zimbabwean activist Elinor Sisulu put it last week, “If I was sitting in Mbeki’s powerful position, I know that I would have conducted myself very differently.  I would never ever have pulled out all stops and used my power and influence to keep a ruthless and ageing dictator in power.  I would never have turned a blind eye to the violence meted out to citizens in Zimbabwe.  I would never have sat on a report by my own generals, not only failing to act on that report, but doing everything in my power to stave off pressure on the perpetrators.”

Zimbabwean elites are getting this advice from Johannesburg, specifically from Investec’s Roelof Horne: “austerity from within”.  South Africa’s powerful Independent newspaper group editorialized that Mugabe/Tsvangirai government should “introduce drastic policies, including slashing government spending and freeing up price, currency and other controls” as “conditions for receiving foreign aid.”

Mbeki just canceled his trip to the United Nations, but Mugabe will try to claim legitimacy as Zimbabwe’s head of state.  To counteract their nonsense, a Zimbabwean-born South African who will also be there on Tuesday night, at the Brecht Forum, performing “Marx in Soweto”, Howard Zinn’s masterpiece play.  No one knows more than Dennis Brutus, the 83 year-old poet and anti-apartheid activist, about Southern African resistance to elite oppression.  Go see Dennis if you are in NYC.

In Brutus’ footsteps, Tinashe Chimedza, a great Zimbabwean student activist, last week penned this about Zimbabwe, an appropriate note to close on when thinking of world financial and regional political celebrations gone sour:

pass me the cognac

the elites scramble for power and profit

the poor become footnotes

we write epitaphs ‘rest in peace Cde Tonde’

the bubbly flows

pass me the Borboun

am tired of the imported Cognac

more drivers, another motorcade

four more motorcades

another charade

dish me my share of toil

‘ndakadashurwa’ – any questions?

the rubble will eat tomorrow

who wants to jump with them anyway,

the commoners, teach them culture first

am waiting for my OBE

they are fodder, my cdes remind me

lets dance ball room tonite

on the bellies of the filth

Patrick Bond is the director of the UKZN Centre for Civil Society: <>.  A version of this originally appeared as a ZNet commentary.

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