South Africa Windows on Washington

Against the Current, No. 87, July/August 2000

Patrick Bond

THE WORLD BANK! Haai! Is the Devil! Haai haai!

This was the chant — accompanied by that South African activist war-dance, the toyi-toyi — that my comrades Trevor Ngwane and Molly Dhlamini introduced to A-16/17 week gatherings in Washington, D.C., ranging from Direct Action Network spokescouncil meetings to activist sessions, as well as the street protests and on stage at the main rally.

Here was an organic Sowetan perspective on financial-capitalist-led globalization. Likewise, city councillor Trevor and student activist Molly learned a great deal about how to protest within the belly of the beast. The two thus convey, today, the same spirit of solidarity that motivated one of the world’s great cross-border social movements: the 1980s international anti-apartheid struggle (a site where I and many tens of thousands of U.S. students, community, labor, environmental and women’s activists, learned our politics).

That spirit evokes a mutually-beneficial transfer of politics, struggle, culture and resources. It entails respect for people who suffer and resist, and thus a willingness by comrades living in oppressor nations like the United States (or, quite frankly, South Africa within Africa) to take explicit direction from — and establish relations of accountability with — those affected when tactical matters such as international sanctions or “protectionism” arise.

Indeed more generally, a South-led strategic approach is vital at this stage in the global movement’s development, in part to help U.S. workers and consumers come to grips with their role in an excruciatingly uneven global capitalist development.

Kim Moody convincingly describes elsewhere in this issue how “economic nationalism” is not the right strategy for workers in the North — even if it might be for the South, in circumstances in which a radical Third World government requires modes of “delinking” from the world economy simply for breathing space denied under international economic domination.

Concerns about so-called “wedge issues” such as the proposed Social Clause —  conditioning trade rights of Southern countries upon their compliance with (unenforceable) labor, social and environmental standards — are often expressed by the Left across the global South. Under present circumstances, such penalties have the effect of legitimizing the World Trade Organization rather than changing power relations (see critiques at

The point of political principle here is twofold. First, the Social Clause strategy should be welcomed when the people affected (and their mass movements) advocate sanctions against their own bad governments and economies, such as apartheid South Africa, Haiti during Aristide’s exile, and contemporary Burma.

But second, where trade sanctions do not explicitly advance the local democratic forces’ political strategies, and where the on/off switch is not controlled by those forces, it is as wrong to advocate insertion of Social Clauses in the WTO as it is for the United States to impose sanctions on Cuba, or even on the Iraqi people for the sins of Saddam.

In contrast, the AFL-CIO’s present strategy, unfortunately also endorsed by the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU) leadership, poses protectionism as the answer to the problem of cheap imports. In the current economic contest this strategy will serve to intensify the power relations associated with imperialism and sub-imperialism.

Only the shutdown — not the reform — of the WTO, World Bank and IMF can change a balance of forces, now weighted overwhelmingly on the side of transnational capital, in favor of international labor, social movements, environmentalists, and (one day) radical democratic states.

Practical Internationalism

If the principles underlying such solidarity are correct, and if the movement against corporate globalization is as strong and vibrant as it appears, what kind of translation makes sense? What practical forms of internationalism might be forged in coming weeks and months?

Two examples involving South Africa are illustrative of positive, mutually-reinforcing features of international solidarity. The first is the anti-apartheid financial sanctions that were crucial, from mid-1985, in signalling to Afrikaner rulers in Pretoria and white English-speaking business elites in Johannesburg that the costs of apartheid would now rise to untenable levels.

But it was not the United Nations or Reagan Administration that levied these costs; instead it was the global protest movement who pulled enough money from Northern banks to likewise raise the costs of collaboration with apartheid.

As leading apartheid economic bureaucrat Chris Stals commented to Euromoney magazine in late 1986, “If the world banking community should effectively exclude South Africa from international trade and payment systems, it would be a far more effective sanctions measure than the trade sanctions applied by governments. It would put us on a barter trade system overnight. That is the muscle they have on their side.”

That muscle can be built up again, to demand reparations for loans (for example by Citibank and the World Bank) that built apartheid, even though many of these have already been repaid.

The second example comes from the period after apartheid was defeated in 1994, when political dignity increased even as creeping neoliberalism objectively worsened the socioeconomic status of the South African masses.

One reflection of growing desperation is the AIDS crisis. Given the residual wealth of white South Africa and the resulting bias within the health system, multinational pharmaceutical companies have priced their anti-retroviral drugs (like AZT) at extreme levels to reap obscene profits, thus preventing ameliorative care for people with AIDS, or even a short course to prevent HIV transmission from pregnant mothers to babies.

In a rare anti-corporate moment, the ANC government passed a 1997 law allowing generic domestic production of such drugs in violation of international patents. Al Gore and the State Department immediately applied what they termed a “full court press” of imperialist pressure against South Africa.

But thanks largely to the ACT UP chapter in Philadelphia and its allies, Gore was dogged by robust in-your-face protest at early presidential campaign stops. At some point he apparently decided the damage done by the ACT UP protesters (with their “Al Gore’s Greed Kills!” and “Gore is Killing African Babies!” placards) surpassed the money he was receiving in campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry. Gore and the Clinton Administration backed down last year, and in May extended broad permission for countries to parallel import and produce generic drugs without fear of WTO penalties.

That victory didn’t end the battle for cheap drugs, because as a result of fiscal constraints caused by a World Bank-designed but allegedly “homegrown” structural adjustment program, Pretoria still won’t supply $15 million worth of AZT to pregnant women that would save an estimated 40,000 babies each year.

Jubilee and Beyond

To reduce the pressure on Pretoria, the Jubilee 2000 South Africa movement joined other Jubilee movements from the South, as well as groups like the Haitian PAPDA (anti-neoliberal) network, the Brazilian Movement of the Landless and many others to catalyze a World Bank Bond Boycott (http://www.worldbank

The defunding strategy entails, therefore, both no new funding or replenishment of funds from national governments to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and a complete boycott of World Bank bonds which generate eighty percent of Bank funds.

Is the South African window a clear one through which to establish a strategy for the way forward? The defunding tactics hark back to the defunding of apartheid, but some leading South Africans are now muddying the picture.

Talk Left, Act Right

During a U.S. tour in late May — including a stop at Ebenezer Church in Atlanta — South African president Thabo Mbeki first attacked global economic power: “Many of us are punished by the development and trade structures in place, which benefit the wealthy countries that wrote them and continue to impact negatively on us.”

But in a reflection of what is termed by cynics “Talk-Left, Act-Right” politics, Mbeki quickly called for a “reformed” World Bank and IMF.

Likewise, former Black Consciousness leader Mamphele Ramphele (a close associate of Steve Biko) was just appointed as World Bank vice president in charge of social development, but her recent arguments have been Alan Keyes-style bootstrap-capitalist propaganda. In her previous job as University of Cape Town president, she destroyed the staff union in an outsourcing frenzy.

The outgoing president of the UN Conference on Trade and Development, SA trade/industry minister Alec Erwin (a former left-wing trade union bureaucrat), is desperately trying to reestablish credibility for another WTO round, by launching a “G-5” with Brazil, Egypt, Nigeria and India.

Erwin publicly advocates the demise of what he terms “dinosaur Industries” (manufacturing and farming) in the North. In Seattle, he spent most of his five minutes’ speaking time slamming the demonstrators.

To top it off, the chair of the IMF/World Bank during 2000 is none other than Trevor Manuel, the SA finance minister and former street-activist who, along with Trevor Ngwane, unwittingly stars in the hilarious SA Broadcasting Corporation documentary “Two Trevors go to Washington” (for information contact independent filmmaker Ben Cashdan at

Grassroots Alternatives

If in contrast political clarity and courage emanate from grassroots socialist instincts, South Africans are fortunate that Trevor Ngwane, Molly Dhlamini and their comrades in the Jubilee 2000 South Africa movement are increasingly able to open the windows of power and let in some fresh air.

Their and similar struggles to resurrect anti-apartheid energies for an attack on neoliberalism and capitalism, and to move easily from Soweto to Washington (to Prague) and back, are deserving of the utmost solidarity.

ATC 87, July-August 2000