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Economic Apartheid and Resistance in South Africa

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

Mr. Mandela was in Canada this week to receive the highest honour my country has to offer: he was the second person in our history to be made an honorary citizen. So only someone with no sense of timing would have mentioned that, as the Liberal government was honouring Mr. Mandela, it is ramming through an anti-terrorism bill that would have sabotaged the anti-apartheid movement on several fronts had it been in place at the time. (Many other countries are passing similar laws.)

The anti-apartheid movement here in Canada and elsewhere actively raised money for the African National Congress, which would easily have fit most anti-terrorism bills' sloppy definitions of a terrorist organization. Furthermore, anti-apartheid activists deliberately caused "serious disruption" to the activities of companies invested in South Africa, eventually forcing many to pull out. These disruptions would also have been illegal under most proposed anti-terrorism laws.

And then there is the small matter of the fact that many in South Africa insist that apartheid still exists, and requires a new resistance movement, with new disruptions. Earlier this month in London, I met Trevor Ngwane, a former ANC municipal council member, who is at the forefront of that new movement. "Apartheid based on race has been replaced with apartheid based on class," Mr. Ngwane said. "We are the most unequal society in the world."

Confronted with a country where 8-million people are homeless and close to five million are HIV positive, some try to paint deepening inequality 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, and nurtured by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

When Mandela was freed from prison, his vision was of a South Africa that offered economic, as well as democratic, freedom. Basic needs for housing, water, and electricity would be met through massive public works programs.

But as power came into the ANC's reach, writes South African Professor Patrick Bond in his new book "Against Global Apartheid" (University of Cape Town Press), enormous pressure was put on the party to prove it could govern with "sound macroeconomic policies." It became clear that if Mandela attempted genuine redistribution of wealth, the international markets would retaliate. Many within the party understandably feared that an economic meltdown in South Africa would be used as an indictment not just of the ANC, but of black rule itself.

So, instead of their policy of "growth through redistribution," the ANC, particularly under President Thabo Mbeki, adopted the cookie-cutter economic program of trying to "grow" the economy by pleasing foreign investors: mass privatizations, lay-offs and wage cuts in the public sector, corporate tax cuts, and the like.

The results have been devastating. Half a million jobs have been lost since 1993. Wages for the poorest 40 per cent have dropped by 21 per cent. Poor areas have seen their water costs go up by 55 per cent, electricity by as much as 400 per cent. Many have resorted to drinking polluted water, leading to a cholera outbreak that infected 100,000 people. In Soweto, 20,000 homes have their electricity cut off each month.

And the investment? They're still waiting.

This is the type of track record that has turned the World Bank and the IMF into international pariahs, drawing thousands to the streets outside their meetings in Ottawa this weekend, with a "solidarity protests" around the world, including one in Johannesburg.

The Washington Post recently told the heart breaking story of one Soweto resident, Agnes Mohapi, caught up in South Africa's privatization battles. The reporter observed that, "For all its wretchedness, apartheid never did this: It did not lay her off from her job, jack up her utility bill, then disconnect her service when she inevitably could not pay. 'Privatization did that' [Mohapi] said."

In the face of this system of "economic apartheid," the new resistance movement is gathering momentum. There was a three-day general strike against privatization in August, timed to shame the government during the World Conference Against Racism. In Soweto, unemployed workers reconnect their neighbours' cut off water and the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee has illegally reconnected power in thousands of homes. They are also calling on Soweto residents to boycott their electricity payments until the prices are brought under control.

Why don't the police arrest these activists, who after all, are causing "serious disruption" (which is apparently the same as terrorism)? "Because," Mr. Ngwane says matter of factly, "when the police officers' electricity is disconnected, we reconnect them too."

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