Time for Reparations Now

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

Molly Dhlamini

WE WENT TO Washington to strengthen at least three global campaigns: to cancel the Third World debt, to advance the cause of reparations, and to shut down the IMF and World Bank.

The essential question we pose is this: “Who really owes what to whom?” With this, we remind people of the legacies of slavery, colonialism, apartheid, neocolonialism and neoliberalism.

We declare it immoral for the world’s poor to repay foreign debt contracted on the basis of neocolonial relations which continue to subjugate countries of the South to the trade, financial and investment prerogatives of the North.

We are thus ever more confident in demanding reparations from those who have oppressed us for centuries. Specific campaigns have begun against German and Swiss banks, which took fifty-five years to compensate Jews for financial collaboration with the Nazis, and which we insist repay South Africa for theirfunding of apartheid.

Campaigns against Citibank and the World Bank on similar grounds were approved in May at a National Reparations Conference in Johannesburg, and solidarity is being sought to this end from U.S. activists. Citibank is also a target of the Rainforest Action Network, the World Bank Bond Boycott, inner-city community groups and other activists.

But we recognize that there is still confusion in Washington, amongst those in some NGOs and church offices who believe debt “relief” for the “poorest of the poor” should come in the form of increased power and resources for the IMF and World Bank, whose development policy recommendations and projects have been uniformly disastrous.

To illustrate by using the example of South African education, two-thirds of the tertiary education bill is paid by the state, and one-third by individual students. When subsidies are cut, the effect is perverse, as the poor are unable to pay the larger share, so the subsidies that remain go increasingly to those who do not lose their university places due to inaffordability.

At the University of Witwatersrand (WITS), more than 600 workers are being laid off as catering, cleaning and other services are being privatized.

Most of the social movements in the South have come to a more radical position than some Jubilee 2000 Northern chapters, including in the United States, which are hostile to our calls that the IMF and Bank should be shut down. But we were heartened that the IMF and Bank were exposed to public scrutiny by the A-16/17 protests. More grassroots activists are now more able to transcend uncreative, “inside-the-beltway” thinking, and discard illusions that an international financial and trade system set up to service multinational corporations and banks can be reformed.

But as we build this global movement for economic justice, and as we focus on some of the main agencies that are transmission belts for neoliberalism, we have to always remind ourselves that the agencies are not the basis of our problem — which obviously lies with the capitalist system.

We must fight the institutions in the short-term, but in defunding the World Bank, for example, we are simply seeking to conscientize those whose pensions or church funds or university endowments or tax monies — or even accounts in banks like Citigroup which market Bank bonds — support neoliberalism and intensify our suffering.

From this consciousness comes a growing confrontation with the power of capital. And if we succeed in, for example, lowering the AAA bond rating of the Bank through the Bond Boycott, this will at the same time change the balance of forces in favor of the masses.

These are some of the reasons that those of us suffering in areas so harshly affected by neoliberalism will want and need to intensify the links, and to bring the spirit of Seattle and Washington, DC, to Johannesburg and Soweto.

ATC 87, July-August 2000