Can Thabo Mbeki change the world?
In a formidable speech last Friday,
South African President Thabo Mbeki, quoting Shakespeare, publicly attacked not
only a senior white politician for alleged racism and arrogance over the AIDS
treatment tragedy. He also castigated the section of the "native petit
bourgeoisie, with the native intelligentsia in its midst, that, in pursuit of
well-being that has no object beyond itself, commits itself to be the
foot-lickers of those that will secure the personal well-being of its
Cynics may be tempted to view Mbeki's
own recent pronouncements on global governance in a similar vein: the uncritical
embrace, during a May trip to the US, of president Bill Clinton's
corporate-designed Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, of highly-conditional debt
"alleviation"--not cancellation--by the World Bank and International
Monetary Fund (IMF), and of renewed World Trade Organisation negotiations.
In each case, the 1960s-era radical
intellectuals whom Mbeki cited repeatedly in his speech--Frantz Fanon, Amilcar
Cabral, Walter Rodney, Malcolm X--would have called for revolution against, not
reform of, the Washington-centred world economy.
At the Havana meeting of the G-77
countries which Mbeki addressed in May, for example, Cuban president Fidel
Castro proposed the IMF's closure, due to the brutal effect of its policies on
the developing world.
Yet soon thereafter, Mbeki chided
African National Congress leaders gathered at the Port Elizabeth meeting of the
National General Council: "There is nobody in the world who formed a secret
committee to conspire to impose globalization on an unsuspecting humanity."
But in the next breath, Mbeki denounced Fifa's decision to grant the 2006 soccer
World Cup to Germany instead of an unsuspecting SA: "As the ANC, we
therefore understand very well what is meant by what one writer has described as
the globalization of apartheid."
On the one hand, thus, Mbeki
displaces Third World problems from the (untouchable) economic to the
moral-political terrain, which in turn evokes calls for revision--not
dismantling--of existing economic systems and institutions. But on the other
hand, he maintains a relentless campaign to persuade his constituents that
"There Is No Alternative" to globalization, and likewise to the failed
Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme, SA's IMF-friendly austerity
Is there, however, a more nuanced
reading of the global strategy? Mbeki, after all, was introspective in his talk
last week: "Our own intelligentsia faces the challenge, perhaps to overcome
the class limitations which Rodney speaks of, and ensure that it does not become
an obstacle to the further development of our own revolution."
There can be no doubt that the
further development of South Africa's liberation, deep into the hostile
socio-economic territory where class apartheid has been cemented since 1994,
does and will require global social change.
What is the programme, then? Will it
work? Who are the friends and enemies?
At least four strands of a strategy
have emerged from Pretoria since Mbeki's rise to the presidency last June:
leading the launch of a new
"developmental" World Trade Organisation round, in cooperation with
four semi- peripheral allies (Egypt, Nigeria, Brazil and India), to contest
promoting more democracy in the IMF
and World Bank (with less power in the hands of the US);
rejuvenating the United Nations,
partly, it seems, through seeking a permanent seat on the Security Council; and
confronting, even if tentatively,
transnational corporate prerogatives, at least when it comes to emergencies such
as pharmaceutical drug pricing.
In Port Elizabeth, Mbeki noted the
ANC's role as "an agent of change to end the apartheid legacy in our own
country. We also sought to examine the question of what contribution we could
make to the struggle to end apartheid globally." The answer, he told the
opening session of parliament this year, is that "we have an obligation
ourselves to contribute to the construction of a better world for all humanity.
From this, we cannot walk away."
Mbeki may seek allies in other large
developing countries, but like South Africa each appears ready to cut its own
deals. He may speak of an African Renaissance, but his trade minister Alec Erwin
profoundly alienated African delegates to the World Trade Organisation summit
last December, and the SA-European Union free trade deal is justifiably feared
in the region.
And just after finance minister
Trevor Manuel became chair of the IMF and World Bank board of governors late
last year, reforms went into reverse gear, witnessed by the furious resignations
of two leading dissident Bank economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Ravi Kanbur, and
Washington's veto of an IMF managing director who would not, to borrow Mbeki's
metaphor, lick the feet of US treasury secretary Lawrence Summers.
Further reason to doubt the integrity
of the strategy emerged when Mbeki sided with global corporations, during the
Durban meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government he chaired last November,
against SA trade union attempt to impose "social clauses" to protect
labour and the environment via trade deals. "We are pleased that the
Commonwealth Business Council has made its own submission," Mbeki told the
corporate executives, who were also opposed to pro- labour provisions in the
World Trade Organisation.
Mbeki may actually have been correct,
some radical Third World economists say, because such clauses would simply have
amplified Washington's power of protectionism.
Yet it is here, in the broader debate
over the merits of a strengthened global economic order, with a world state in
only embryonic form, that Mbeki's critics are most concerned.
From the pan-Africanist tradition in
which Mbeki locates the present managers of South Africa's revolution, the
question arises whether, to be blunt, a Frantz Fanon would have joined or
criticised Mbeki for shining the chains of global apartheid--at a time when
opportunities are emerging to break those chains.
Mbeki, after all, came home from the
G- 8 meeting in Japan last month emptyhanded on debt relief; and Manuel returned
from Washington World Bank/IMF meetings in April with no democratisation
progress to report; and Erwin emerged embarrassed from the Seattle trade fiasco
last December. The reform gamble is in fact now in bankruptcy.
The only successful component of
Pretoria's strategy--pressing US firms, which were backed by Al Gore, to
surrender patents on life-saving HIV-AIDS drugs--was the result not of cozying
up to the US or other developing countries: instead, local Treatment Action
Campaign and their activist allies in the US, by all accounts, made the
difference in changing power relations and forcing Gore to retreat.
But in his heart, Mbeki knows this.
As he told a group of young socialist activists in Sweden just over a fortnight
ago, "Fundamental to the labour, social democratic, socialist and national
liberation movements from their very inception, is the adherence to the view
that the people must be their own liberators."
If so, the strategy to change the world should return to its roots. Mbeki himself put it best, while in Stockholm: "As the movement all of us present here represent, surely our task must be to encourage these masses, where they are oppressed, to rebellion, to assert the vision fundamental to all progressive movements that--the people shall govern!"
Rebellion against globalized
apartheid is, Fanon would agree, the only way to change the world.
(This is an excerpt from the first
Frantz Fanon Memorial Lecture, delivered on August 17 at the University of
Durban-Westville School of Governance, Durban, South Africa. A full copy of the
2000 Fanon Lecture can be obtained from email@example.com)