Bush in Africa
The petro-military-commerce safari that George Bush embarked upon this week may well succeed in the areas that progressive critics fear most. Those critics, ranged in protest in several African cities, are not shy about what's wrong with Washington's agenda.
First, the imperial-subimperial nexus in South Africa and Nigeria will tighten. Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Olusegon Obasanjo are pro-western in terms of obeying the logic of multinational corporate privilege, and sufficiently undemocratic as to coddle dictators like Robert Mugabe. Mbeki and Obasanjo are the key boosters of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), that neoliberal manifesto considered by the Bush regime as 'philosophically spot-on', as chief Africa diplomat Walter Kansteiner told Institutional Investor magazine last month.
Second, the possibility of increased US military activity on the continent will increase in some areas (bases in West Africa and the Horn of Africa to guard oil fields) and lesson in others (potential peace-keeping activities). South Africa will pick up the latter duty, even in places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi, both of which have seen recent 'peace' agreements -- in reality, elite deals with no durable means of addressing long-standing local grievances -- followed immediately by intense fighting and bloodshed.
Third, US trading corporations are increasingly profitable because of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), and an even further-reaching free trade deal with pliant Southern African leaders is also making progress. This trend leaves less revenue for states like Namibia and Lesotho which used to count on larger import tariff funds, and leaves all of Africa more susceptible to Washington's arm-twisting. The Bush regime is already notorious for linkage of its geopolitical agenda with trade preferences and debt relief. Other AGOA conditionalities include adopting neoliberal policies, privatising state assets, removing subsidies and price controls, and ending incentives for local companies.
Fourth, Bush needs the trip to project a more compassionate public image (especially to African-Americans in advance of the 2004 elections). That entails promoting the very slight rise in highly-conditional donations to Africa, as well as the miseleadingly advertised HIV/AIDS fund. The US piece of the AIDS fund will be run by a pharmaceutical corporate executive, and coincides with US government advisory support that makes import or local production of generic AIDS medicines much more difficult. That, of course, is the point of the new spending, which in any case is likely to be half or less than the $15 billion in coming years that Bush has bragged about.
There are always a few complications, of course, and these were on display in Pretoria, where Bush spent 18 hours after his opening gambit at Senegal's slave-trading site on Tuesday. For example, South Africa did not join the 'coalition of the willing' against Saddam Hussein, and Nelson Mandela remains a staunch opponent of Bush (hence no meeting¯a symbolic slapdown of the US leader).
On the other hand, Pretoria seems to have profited nicely from the hostilities by selling arms and also hyping somewhat ludicrous security concerns to play to the local anti-imperialist audience. Thus just before the war broke out, at a February 19 demonstration at the US embassy in Pretoria, African National Congress general secretary Kgalema Motlanthe pronounced, 'Because we are endowed with several rich minerals, if we don't stop this unilateral action against Iraq today, tomorrow they will come for us.' Likewise, health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was reported by the Guardian to have said, 'South Africa cannot afford drugs to fight HIV/AIDS partly because it needs submarines to deter attacks from nations such as the US.'
The high tech weaponry Tshabala-Msimang referred to will cost South Africa $5 billion, and make it possible to engage in fighting across the subcontinent. Meanwhile, Pretoria ignored widespread calls to withdraw permission for three Iraq-bound warships to dock and refuel in Durban harbor, and to halt sales of sophisticated armaments to the US/UK regimes. The state-owned arms manufacturer Denel often stated its vision of being 'an acknowledged global player.' In the months before the war, it contracted to deliver $29 million in ammunition shell-casing, $169 million in artillery propellants, and 326 hand-held laser range finders to the British army. Denel also sold the US Marines 125 laser-guidance sights.
If anti-war tensions were largely a 'talk-left, act-right' dance of the sort we are so accustomed to, another tension -- over Bush's desired non-extradition treaty aimed at circumventing the International Criminal Court where US citizens are wanted -- at least gave Mbeki the chance to look principled. Losing roughly $7 million in military aid from Bush was not a terribly high cost, and kept alive the fiction that Pretoria can stand firm against Washington.
It has often been remarked, including by Mbeki, that the most striking component of US international economic policy is hypocrisy. Treasury undersecretary John Taylor has explained the protection of steel and agriculture quite casually: 'You take steps forward and move back. That's always the case.'
Another example of the Washington's imposition of unsustainable development on Africa is the genetically-modified (GM) food controversy. The EU, Australia, Japan, China, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have banned GM trade and production, so Bush is clearly desperate for new markets in Africa, as he revealed to the US Africa Business Summit shortly before his trip: 'To help Africa become more self sufficient in the production of food, I have proposed the initiative to end hunger in Africa. This initiative will help African countries to use new high yield bio tech crops and unleash the power of markets to dramatically increase agricultural productivity.
But there's a problem. There's a problem. At present, some governments are blocking the import of crops grown with biotechnology, which discourages African countries from producing and exporting these crops. The ban of these countries is unfounded; it is unscientific; it is undermining the agricultural future of Africa. And I urge them to stop this ban.'
The Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference replied, 'We do not believe that agro companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.' Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, interprets: 'The Bush administration is not straightforward. It is not poverty in Africa that is the most important issue for the administration but business considerations on behalf of the US technology and agricultural sector.'
As InterPress Service reports, 'Zambia, citing health concerns, rejected GM corn in both grain and milled forms. One year later, President Levy Mwanawasa announced last week that this year Zambia will nearly double the 600,000 tonnes of grain it harvested last season, providing new fuel to the argument that GM technology is not necessary for reducing hunger in Africa.'
Again, as in the case of resistance to local AIDS drugs, Bush's underlying concern is the penetration of capital into all areas of African life where it can make a profit. That requires the protection of patents as fundamental property rights, so as to protect profits in other parts of the world in circumstances where Africans are simply too poor to buy medicines or import non-GM food.
These and many other insults to Africans have generated a healthy backlash. South Africa was one of the key sites of protest during the war and in recent days, notwithstanding the worsening divide between the major civil society groups and the independent left. The latter continues to mobilise as the Anti-War Coalition, and drew many thousands to marches in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban that called for Bush to leave Africa. The major trade unions, Communist Party, and ANC itself mustered numbers only in the hundreds, and issued a confusing message calling on Bush to listen to Mbeki, but not to cancel his visit. (Only in the Eastern Cape province has unity between the two groups been somewhat successful.)
After Bush's talk with Mbeki on Wednesday, proponents of democracy in Zimbabwe were deeply embittered, for as opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai put it, the South African issued a 'false and mischievous' statement that talks had already begun with Mugabe's regime. Hastily, South African and Zimbabwe government mediators sent a delegation to request Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change to enter discussions.
In any event, Bush made clear he would take the lead from Mbeki. Once again, it demonstrated to Zimbabwean progressives that 'none but ourselves' will liberate the country. Whether imperial Washington or subimperial Pretoria attempts to mediate, the result will no doubt favor the worst features of the status quo.
The same sentiment appears rife in Nigeria, where Obasanjo ran an extremely dirty election a few weeks ago, and where trade unions had a successful national strike against a gasoline price hike last week.
But perhaps due merely to my proximity, the last word should go to the largest collection of anti-capitalist groups in South Africa: the Social Movements Indaba (SMI), which gathered at least 20,000 last August to protest the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development. In their communique from the Maputo site of the African Union's second annual conference, chaired by Mozambican president Joachim Chissano beginning Thursday morning, the SMI announced that it:
'rejects the dominance of the United States and the other G8 countries and calls for the shutting down of their instruments of domination, including the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organisation (WTO). The SMI also opposes those leaders and governments in Africa that are complicit in imposing this neoliberal global order...
It is no small surprise that the G8 has refused to fill the begging bowl. It chooses only to support military intervention in the continent. George Bush is visiting Africa to secure oil resources, in other words to take what he wants whether Nepad is there or not. The African Union (AU) has been formed on the basis of Nepad as its fundamental policy. It thus compels us to stand up to the AU and demand that it jettisons Nepad before we give consideration to engaging with its structures.'
Not all African social movements are as tough, but the more they see of the Bush agenda, the greater the distance will grow between those perpetuating international minority rule (even Mbeki has used the phrase 'global apartheid'); and its African victims. The leaders of African nations who chose to play the comprador role for Bush this week are not unaware of the US president's agenda, and they remain on notice that their legitimacy will also continue to suffer.
(Patrick Bond is a Johannesburg-based academic and activist.)