What To Do With A City Like Johannesburg
Introduction: What’s wrong with South Africa’s primary city?
The pages below are from the introductory and concluding chapters to Unsustainable South Africa, which makes a long, detailed case that the host city for the August 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development needs revolutionary change. The case includes critiques of Johannesburg’s water and energy supplies--megadams in Lesotho and coal-fired power plants in the eastern provinces of South Africa, respectively--and shows how the costs are passed on to low-income consumers, workers, women and the environment. The main arguments can be found in the introductory section. The second section summarises the fightback: struggles to decommodify water and electricity (as well as antiretroviral medicines, land, housing, education and more). We can also, in the process, consider some of the more profound questions about urban-rural eco-social relationships, when we ask, What kind of eco-socialist politics will be required to transform a landscape like Johannesburg, after the revolution?
Welcome to Johannesburg
The retained, post-apartheid name of Johannesburg commemorates Johannes Rissik, the nineteenth century surveyor of the stolen land. When a genuine people’s government comes to power, the name will surely be changed, just as will the inherited landscape of apartheid-era and post-apartheid urban, suburban and peri-urban capitalism.
In the struggle to remake the world in a humane and ecologically-sensitive image, names are trivial symbols, but ‘Johannesburg’ is also notable because it adorns yet another failed UN heads-of-state summit, known as the World Summit on Sustainable Development, or ‘Rio+10’. When social progress advances more rapidly later in the century, then that conference’s awful legacy--the commodification of nature and amplified underdevelopment of the Third World through heightened globalisation--will probably also be forgotten.
Before we address the trajectory such work might entail, consider first the problems that socio-economic liberation will have to face.
The contradictions in contemporary Johannesburg are unmistakable, as many visitors first comprehend with a bird’s eye view. Anyone flying in to Africa’s main commercial complex, particularly during the winter and spring months, descends to the highveld by breaking through a thick brown cloud of particulates. Temperature inversions and the lack of rain for the past four months are the natural reasons Johannesburg’s 1500 metre elevation and brisk winds still don’t provide clean air in winter.
In this region, the settlers’ conquest of nature, particularly since gold was discovered in 1886, is especially grotesque. Viewed from the air, filthy smudges of human fingerprints are everywhere to partake: concentrated industrial pollution over the east-west factory strip and the six-chimneyed power plant astride the airport; gold-mine dumps to the south of the city which ceaselessly blow sand and dust into black neighbourhoods; periodic bush fires; and the ongoing use of coal and fuelwood for cooking and heating in impoverished townships like Soweto and Alexandra.
Township and suburban life
It would be wrong to blame the victims: low-income black people. Across the country, the drive towards electricity commercialisation and privatisation these past few years has meant supply cutoffs for more than a million households who cannot afford price increases. From the air, be thankful that we do not experience the most dangerous results, such as the return to dirtier forms of energy and the re-emergence of tuberculosis and other rampant respiratory infections that threaten the lives of South Africa’s five million HIV-positive people.
Just before landing, we are, however, close enough to notice the silvery glinting of thousands of tiny metal-roofed shacks in the bright sun, like cauterised wounds on the yellowish skin of Africa during the dry season. The township slums stretch to the horizon, and house the majority of Gauteng Province’s ten million inhabitants. Because of a stingy government policy based on World Bank advice in mid-1994, shortly after Nelson Mandela was elected president, Johannesburg’s post-apartheid squatter camps and meagre new formal residential areas for low-income black residents are actually further away from job opportunities and are worse served with community amenities, schools and clinics, than even apartheid-era ghettoes.
Looking down, our eyes are soon drawn away to the bright green of well-watered English-style gardens and thick alien trees that shade traditionally white--now slightly desegregated--suburbs, permeated by ubiquitous sky-blue swimming pools. To achieve the striking effect, the most hedonistic louts of Johannesburg abuse water. Waste occurs not only in the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois residential zones sprawling north and east of the city centre, but in the southern mining belt and the corporate-dominated farms on the city’s outskirts.
Further scarce water is used for cooling coal-burning electricity generators. Jejune South African bureaucrats brag about supplying the world’s cheapest energy for industrial use, because they fail to price in the damage to the environment, including one of the world’s worst global greenhouse gas emissions, corrected for population size and income. The root cause is a phenomenon economists call ‘Dutch Disease’, to commemorate the rise of North Sea oil prices and hence the Dutch currency, which decapacitated Holland’s manufacturing capacity. Likewise, South Africa’s mineral wealth distorts and distends the local economy and annuls efforts at industrial balance. The implications for water supply are becoming critical.
Sucking the ground dry
When gold was discovered, thousands of fortune hunters and proletarians were drawn inland immediately. Johannesburg soon became the planet’s largest metropolis with no substantial natural water source. Seventy-five kilometres to the south, the Vaal River is pumped uphill to Johannesburg, but by the 1980s it became apparent that the source would be insufficient for the next century’s industries and suburbanites.
Apartheid-era engineers and World Bank project officers tried to solve the looming shortages with a dam and tunnel scheme that draws water several hundred kilometres from across a mountain range atop the small and perpetually impoverished nation of Lesotho. Africa’s largest infrastructure project, costing an estimated $8 billion if all six dams are built, the project is now less than half finished but has already displaced tens of thousands of Basotho peasants, inundated sacred land, threatened endangered species and endangered the Orange River’s downstream ecosystem.
Who pays the bills? Johannesburg water prices went up by 35% during the late 1990s, but township residents in the lowest consumption tier found themselves paying 55% more because of the cost of the Lesotho dams, for which the old Botha regime needed surreptitious funding during the mid-1980s due to apartheid-era financial sanctions. The World Bank set up a secret London account to facilitate matters, overriding objections from the liberation movement, including its then representative in Ireland, Kader Asmal.
As South Africa’s water minister from 1994-99, Asmal was chosen to chair the 1998-2000 World Commission on Dams. Entangled in the massive contradictions and hypocrisies, he refused to let the Commission study the Lesotho dam and angrily rejected grassroots demands from Alexandra, Soweto and Lesotho that overconsumptive water users in the mines, factories and mansions be made more responsible for paying the dam’s bills and for conserving water so as to prevent future dam construction. Such ‘demand-side management’ would also have included repair of ubiquitous leaks in the apartheid-era township infrastructure, where half of Soweto’s water is lost.
Bankers were anxious to continue financing, and construction companies ready to keep building, the multi-billion dollar dams. The World Bank’s Inspection Panel refused a full investigation of township residents’ complaints in 1998. The Bank also went to great lengths to protect a corrupt senior official in the project, Masupha Sole, from being fired, in spite of documented bribes to his Swiss bank account by a dozen of the world’s largest construction companies over the decade 1988-98.
Then, not only did the Bank refuse to bar the companies from further contracts, but it withdrew promised financial support for their 2001-02 public prosection in Lesotho by claiming that it was penalising only the three middlemen who abused the Bank’s loan funds. The Bank’s sleazy side was on such display that even Pretoria’s director-general of water affairs was heard to comment on national radio that Washington should learn to ‘walk the [anti-corruption] talk’.
Asmal’s replacement as water minister, Ronnie Kasrils, finally announced a halt to further dam construction, once the second Lesotho mega-dam, Mohale, is complete in 2004. Yet no environmentalist or community activist trusts Kasrils’ instincts, in the wake of his simultaneous rejection of the Dam Commission report’s guidelines as binding, and his trip to China’s ultra-destructive Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, which he endorsed, inexplicably.
Kasrils has also failed to keep his own rivers clean, including the Vaal, less than an hour’s drive south of Johannesburg. In what is quickly emerging as South Africa’s most humiliating single environmental case of contemporary corporate heartlessness and government paralysis, the former mega-parastatal iron/steel firm Iscor is excreting cadmium-infected effluent waste from its main smelter at Vanderbijlpark. Uniting in opposition to the firm’s lying management, black and white workers and other Vaal residents have discovered that beginning in 1961, the company has ruined the surrounding water table through toxic dumping into unlined dams.
Cancer has spread into the communities through what activists term ‘vast lakes of toxic waste’ stretching for 140 hectares. The seven kilometre plume of poisoned water will probably reach Boipatong township where tens of thousands of people are at risk. Repeatedly, and as recently as 1999, government water officials granted exemptions from the Water Act. If withheld, the exemptions would have prevented further pollution--but that would have entailed Pretoria taking the environment seriously and tackling corporate power conclusively.
Behind the pollution
As is true across the world, Johannesburg’s worsening environmental mess is mainly due to the logic of capital accumulation, at a time of rampant environmental deregulation associated with the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio. South Africa’s traditionally racist and pollution-intensive companies have been embraced by a grateful black elite, including vulgar politicians and the neoliberal officials who control many arms of the government.
To be sure, the onset of free-market economic policies based on an export-orientation fetish preceded Mandela’s ANC government by a few years. But a small clique of ‘New Guard’ ANC officials today work closely with the leftover ‘Old Guard’ bureaucrats whose commitment to racial apartheid is conveniently forgotten but who prosper just as nicely while building class apartheid.
Together, the ruling party and its new-found Afrikaner co-conspirators have:
• allowed vast sums of rich white people’s loot to escape through relaxing already porous exchange controls;
• let the largest firms relocate their financial headquarters to London, hence sucking out profit and dividend flows forever;
• cut corporate tax rates from 48% in 1994 to 30% five years later in search of new investment that never materialised;
• watched aimlessly as business fired a fifth of all formal-sector workers;
• allowed industries like clothing, footwear and appliances to collapse under international competition;
• incessantly privatised once-formidable public assets;
• provided pollution permits to some of the world’s most irresponsible companies; and now
• channel billions of taxpayer funds into bizarre projects like Blue IQ--to make smart Johannesburgers smarter and leave the rest behind--and the ‘Gautrain’ rail system linking the airport to Sandton, central Johannesburg and Pretoria for what are unselfconsciously termed ‘elite’ passengers.
The ANC’s Igoli 2002 privatisation plan, drafted alongside World Bank consultants, was renamed by critics ‘E.coli 2002’ for a good reason: excrement from Johannesburg’s slums--where water is still denied by the French water privatiser Suez, beneficiary of a huge commercialisation contract--regularly despoiled Sandton’s borehole water supplies.
War on the poor
By then, cholera was devastating the countryside from which many Zulu-speaking migrant labourers emerge after their brief Christmas break. The disease spread, inevitably, to Alexandra township, Sandton’s reserve army of labour which is home to an estimated 300,000 people crammed into just over two square miles of mainly squalid housing. The disease quickly killed four residents, and internationally televised apartheid-style forced removals were the bureaucrats’ answer.
Likewise, when non-violent protesters from Soweto took a bus to Johannesburg mayor Amos Masondo’s house in April 2002 to demonstrate against evictions and the cutoffs of water and electricity due to unaffordability, his bodyguard responded by pumping eight rounds of live ammo into the crowd, wounding two. Emblematically for the South African ‘justice’ system, 87 Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee members (including elderly people and minors) were arrested and 50 were jailed for 11 days before getting a bail hearing, while the bodyguard remained at large. They were the highest-profile political prisoners of neoliberalism to date, and they wouldn’t be the last.
The Johannesburg landscape is also being defaced by other greed-driven processes, including bank ‘redlining’ (denial of loan access) in many townships and inner-city sites of racial desegregation such as cosmopolitan but poverty stricken Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville. Slum landlords from the kombi-taxi sector are running down huge inner-city blocks of flats while government officials yet again attempt the gentrification of the Newtown arts district which wealthy whites remain too fearful to patronise.
One reason is ongoing ‘crime and grime’ downtown, in spite of a new camera surveillance system that Foucault would have admired. The old Central Business District spent the 1990s being virtually emptied of professionals, with more than two-thirds of office space vacant at one point and Africa’s largest prestige building, the Carlton Centre, sold in 2000 at 5% of its 1974 construction costs.
No escape from unsustainable development
Where, then, aside from London and ‘EsCapeTown’, did smart money flee? Fifteen kilometres northeast of the old CBD, the edge-city of Sandton attracted many billions of rands worth of 1990s commercial property investment, as well as world-class traffic jams, nouveau-riche conspicuous consumption and discordant postmodern architecture. Only the world’s least socially conscious financial speculators would trash their ex-headquarters downtown to build a new city while draining South Africa of capital.
Sandton Square was quickly surrounded by skyscrapers, banks (including a brand new Citibank tower), boutiques for the ubiquitous nouveau-riche, 5-star hotels, a garish convention centre, Africa’s biggest stock exchange and other architectural detritus showcasing brazen economic power. Only the most aesthetically barren of moneyed elites would build their little Tuscanies on Africa’s beautiful highveld, behind three-metre high walls adorned with barbed wire to keep out the criminals. Jo’burg’s cutting-edge high-tech surveillance systems are staffed by poverty-level black security-sector workers. Expensive car-tracking systems identify heart-of-darkness ‘NoGoZones’ like Alexandra for which, if drivers dare venture inside, satellite alarm beams are activated and rescue teams are mobilised. In unison, these features of Sandton conjoin conspicuous consumption norms, the psychology of class insulation, phallic symbolism, and a profoundly distorted political economy.
The environmental destruction, malgovernance, political repression, social hypocrisy and parasitical financial activity together attract a backlash, of course. What was by all accounts the world’s most impressive urban social movement, the South African ‘civics’, witnessed the ruling party’s systematic demobilisation of their ranks during the mid-1990s. However, an independent network of community groups has arisen in several Johannesburg townships through the Anti-Privatisation Forum. Municipal workers and other public sector unions often demonstrate against grievances. Mass marches of workers and residents are increasingly common. Surgical Robin Hood theft of electricity and water by community activists is an everyday occurrence.
Yet virtue at the grassroots turns sour when NGO and trade union politics dominate. The 2001-02 fragmentation of the various hosting committees--the UN Civil Society Secretariat, the South African Civil Society Forum set up by pro-government trade union and church leaders, the Civil Society Indaba of groups tossed out of the function, and some resource-scarce independent-left social movements and intellectuals--symbolises why power relations remain so skewed. Still, elite Johannesburg’s repeated attacks on both ecology and the poor will inevitably lead to a ‘Social Forum’ process, as the international meeting in Porto Alegre portends for many sites of anti-neoliberal struggle across the world.
Like the corporate-controlled World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) itself, Johannesburg will continue to self-delegitimise the very idea of ‘sustainable development’--until the grassroots, shopfloor, women, youth, church and environmental comrades get their acts together and take power away from those old and new rulers who have made such a mess of Africa’s wealthiest city. But to do this, they will need to sharpen their ideology, and link local problems to global phenomena. In particular, they will need to answer this question: after the revolution, what do we do with a city like Johannesburg?
2. Decommodification, life and liberation
The demand for lifeline supplies of water and electricity is being across urban ghettos where disconnections remain a problem, as well as many urban and rural areas which have still not received piped water. The need for free access to antiretroviral medicines, for five million HIV-positive South Africans, is acute. A campaign for a Basic Income Grant has also been taken up by churches and trade unions. The Landless People’s Movement objects to the failure of a commodified land reform policy designed by the World Bank, and insists upon access to land as a human right. Such demands, based upon the political principle of decommodification, are central to campaigns ranging from basic survival through access to health services, to resistance to municipal services privatisation.
The verb decommodify has become popular amongst progressive strategists in part through studies of social policy conducted by Gosta Esping-Andersen, a Swedish academic. In his book The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, Esping-Andersen points out that during the first half of the twentieth century, the Scandinavian welfare state grew because of urban-rural, worker-farmer, red-green alliances which made universalist demands on the ruling elites.
Those demands typically aimed to give the working class and small farmers social protection from the vagaries of employment, especially during periodic recessions. They therefore allowed people to escape the prison of wage labour, by weaving a thick, state-supplied safety net as a fall-back position. To decommodify their constituents’ labour in this manner required, in short, that the alliance defend a level of social protection adequate to meet basic needs. Over a period of decades, this took the form of generous pensions, healthcare, education, and other free state services which, like childcare and eldercare, disproportionately support and liberate women.
The electoral weight and grassroots political power of the red-green alliance was sufficient to win these demands, which were paid for through taxing wealthy households and large corporations at high rates. They were defended until recently, when corporate power and the ideology of competitiveness have forced some cutbacks across Scandinavia. A similar although much less far-reaching construction of welfare-state policies occurred elsewhere across the world, in the context of a Cold War that required western capitalism to put on a more humane face against the East Bloc and to maintain state spending, in the spirit of John Maynard Keynes, so as to boost macroeconomic growth.
In the post-war US, in contrast, corporations lobbied more effectively against state entitlements such as healthcare and pensions, preferring to hold control over workers through company health and pension plans which would then deter workers from going on strike. (The failure to decommodify labour-power helps explain the durability of the US trade union movement’s pro-corporate--and often pro-imperialist--position, until it began shifting leftward in the mid-1990s.)
As the 1950s-60s virtuous cycle of economic growth and expanding social policy came to an end, it was replaced not by a strengthened socialist struggle as the limits of such reforms were reached, but rather by an era of neoliberalism, which began during the late 1970s. Because the balance of forces has been inauspicious, for a variety of reasons, this recent period of class war by ruling elites continues to be characterised by austerity-oriented economic policies, shrinkage of social programmes, privatisation, trade and financial liberalisation, corporate deregulation, and what is often termed ‘the commodification of everything’.
In a setting as unequal as South Africa--with 45% unemployment and, alongside Brazil and Guatemala, the world’s highest income disparities--the neoliberal policies adopted during the 1990s pushed even essential state services such as water and electricity beyond most households’ ability to pay. Some of these policies were adopted before political liberation from apartheid in 1994, but many were the result of influence on Nelson Mandela’s ANC by the World Bank, US AID and other global and local neoliberals during the late 1990s.
The neoliberal approach to basic services generally dismisses the positive eco-social externalities associated with water/sanitation, energy and other services. The failure to fully incorporate social and environmental benefits of state services is typical of commodification, because when state services undergo commercialisation, the state fragments itself as water, electricity, health and other agencies adopt arm’s-length, non-integrated relationships that reduce them to mere ‘profit-centres’. Service disconnections follow logically.
The first stage of resistance to the commodification of water and electricity often takes the form of a popular demand for a short-term, inexpensive flat rate applicable to all consumers. In Durban, community groups are, at the time of writing, mobilising for a R10 monthly fee for all municipal services, alongside an insistence that no one’s supply be cut off. More compellingly, for medium-range policy a redistributive demand for decommodification is advanced by groups like the SA Municipal Workers Union, Rural Development Services Network, Johannesburg Anti-Privatisation Forum and Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee: a specific minimal daily amount of water (50 litres) and electricity (1 kiloWatt hour) to be supplied to each person free. The free services should be financed not only by subsidies from central government, but also by a rising block tariff in which the water and electricity bills for high-volume consumers and corporations rise at a more rapid rate when their usage soars to hedonistic levels.
When charged at ever-higher rates, the consumption of services by hedonistic users should decline, which would be welcome. South Africa is a water-scarce country, especially in the Johannesburg area which depends upon socio-ecologically destructive Lesotho dams. The country is also the amongst the world’s worst sites of greenhouse gas emissions, when corrected for population and relative income. Hence conservation through higher rates for large consumers makes eco-socio-economic sense on merely technical grounds.
These demands, grounded in decades of social struggles to make basic services a human right were originally given political credibility with the promise of lifeline services and rising block tariffs in the Reconstruction and Development Programme of 1994, the ANC’s campaign platform in the first democratic election. They were partially incorporated in the 1996 Constitution, which guarantees that ‘everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being ... everyone has the right to have access to healthcare services, including reproductive health care; sufficient food and water; and social security’.
The World Bank immediately became the most effective opponent of this philosophical principle and political strategy, arguing (incorrectly) that South Africa does not have sufficient resources to make good on the RDP or Constitution. Beginning by drafting infrastructure investment policy in late 1994, Bank staff then played a self-described ‘instrumental’ role in ‘facilitating a radical revision in South Africa’s approach to bulk water management’ in 1995, when the water minister, Kader Asmal, accepted advice not to supply South Africans with free water.
To reiterate a key point, the main criticism of a free lifeline and rising block tariff offered by Bank water official John Roome was that water privatisation contracts ‘would be much harder to establish’ if poor consumers had the expectation of getting something for nothing. If consumers didn’t pay, Roome continued, Asmal needed a ‘credible threat of cutting service’. In short, a private supplier logically objects to serving low-income people with even a small lifeline consumption amount. Hence the demand for such a rising block tariff is indeed, as Roome pointed out, a serious deterrent to privatisation.
Demands to reverse the government’s full cost-recovery policy by labour and social movements were made during the late 1990s, and Asmal’s mid-1999 replacement, Kasrils, began hinting at a policy change in February 2000 after rural water projects broke down at a dramatic rate--mainly because impoverished residents could not keep the vital service maintained by themselves without a subsidy, as Asmal had demanded. When cholera broke out in August 2000, less than four months before nation-wide municipal elections, the ANC government reacted by promising a free services lifeline. It was progress, although for poor households the promise was half the amount needed, and for electricity was undefined but in practice amounted to only a tenth of essential needs.
As might have been predicted, Roome and his colleagues saw Kasrils’ and the ANC’s free-services promise as potentially dangerous. In March 2000, the Bank’s Orwellian-inspired Sourcebook on Community Driven Development in the Africa Region laid out the policy on pricing water: ‘Work is still needed with political leaders in some national governments to move away from the concept of free water for all ... Promote increased capital cost recovery from users. An upfront cash contribution based on their willingness-to-pay is required from users to demonstrate demand and develop community capacity to administer funds and tariffs. Ensure 100% recovery of operation and maintenance costs’.
Social disasters from such rigid neoliberal policy were strewn across Africa, especially when low-income people simply could not afford any state services, or cut back on girls’ schooling or healthcare when cost recovery became burdensome. In October 2000, the Bank was instructed by the US Congress never to impose these user-fee provisions on education and healthcare, and in 2002 a campaign by progressive NGOs in the US expanded to decommodify water as well.
In South Africa, since free water came into effect in July 2001 as official policy--notwithstanding widespread sabotage by municipal and national bureaucrats responsible for administering the policy--there have been no new water privatisations, in large part due to the fear that cherrypicking and supply cuts will be deemed unconstitutional. Moreover, some of the major pilot cases have resulted in disaster.
For example, Saur had to renegotiate its Dolphin Coast contract in mid-2001 due to lack of profits, with research showing that it regularly denies services to poor people. For similar reasons, Saur also pulled out of its Maputo, Mozambique contract in late 2001. Having been thrown out of Fort Beaufort (also known as Nkonkobe), Suez’s subsidiary is responding with a lawsuit for millions of dollars in damages.
The Johannesburg Water Company, also managed by Suez, is controversially introducing pit latrines in spite of porous soil and the spread of the E.Coli bacteria, to prevent poor people flushing their toilets. If these are unacceptable, Johannesburg Water offers a low-flush ‘shallow sewage’ system to residents of ‘condominium’ (single-storey) houses arranged in rows, connected to each other by sanitation pipes much closer to the surface. Given the limited role of gravity in the gradient and the mere trickle of water that flows through, community residents are required to negotiate with each other, over who will physically unblock sewers every three months. With this sort of attitude, public health problems, including mass outbreaks of diarrhoea and even cholera, will continue to embarrass officials in the WSSD host city.
Electricity privatisation also remains a source of conflict. The SECC continues to hold protests against politicians who insist that the inclement privatisation of the state electricity utility, Eskom, requires cutoffs of power to those who can’t pay. At one point in 2001, when Eskom was cutting the supplies of 20,000 Soweto households each month, activists went door-to-door like Robin Hood, illegally reconnecting people for free. The SECC achieved folk-hero status as a result.
The other acute embarrassment for the South African government remains its fear of alienating international pharmaceutical companies. Hence Mbeki maintains an Aids-denialist posture, claiming that antiretroviral medicines are either too toxic or that they don’t work. But the same spirit of decommodification has emerged from the TAC and its international allies like the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), Medicins sans Frontieres and Oxfam. Like activists demanding free water and electricity, the Campaign has also hit the barrier of transnational (and local) corporate power.
The same conflicts were imported into the broader WSSD process, beginning at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Privatisation of basic services is moving ahead at great speed globally, under the rubric of Public-Private Partnerships. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) was drafted by a team under Mbeki’s direction, and also calls for a massive dose of foreign investment in privatised infrastructure. If African leaders genuinely embrace the neoliberal plan, which would simply extend the economic policies that have ravaged the continent the past two decades, the most powerful water privatisers and Eskom would be the main beneficiaries. Mbeki won official endorsements of the plan at both the June 2002 summit of the G8 leaders in Alberta, Canada and the July launch of the Africa Union in Durban. Demonstrations by anti-capitalists from African and Canadian social movements embarrassed Mbeki at each event, leading him to brand the criticisms ‘easy, routine, uninformed and cynical’.
Towards green socialism?
The green and red critiques come together in Johannesburg. What the South African experience these last few years shows, is that full cost-recovery doesn’t work and will be resisted, especially if combined with cutoffs of services. Those services create additional social welfare in the form of public/merit goods, but only if they are not privatised because solely the state--if it genuinely represents society--has an in-built incentive to use services like water and electricity to promote public health, gender equity, environmental protection and economic spin-offs.
Not only do privatisers ignore public goods, they are also inevitably opposed to free lifeline supplies and redistributive pricing. Hence, as so many South Africans have learned these last few years, the fight against privatisation is also a fight to decommodify the basic services we all need, simply to stay alive. And by winning that fight, there is a chance that the state can be won over to its logical role: serving the democratically determined needs and aspirations of that huge majority for whom the power of capital has become a profound threat to social and environmental well-being.
The socialist strategy has always entailed making profound demands--in some discourses, ‘a transitional programme’ and in others, ‘non-reformist reforms’--upon the capitalist state. When invariably the class power of capital is challenged in the process, no matter how feasible the demands are in fiscal/administrative respects, the question of socialist revolution inexorably emerges. The demands for decommodification are popular, sane, logical and backed by solid democratic organisation.
On behalf of capital, the state must resist, and the South African state has typically done so by deploying the rhetoric of globalisation. For example, Chippy Olver, manager of the WSSD process for the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, was previously the state’s infrastructure policy director. When confronted by the first round of demands that subsidies be used to help low-income people get free electricity, instead of helping mega-polluters like the Alusaf smelter, he rejected the request, making clear the nature of the class struggle ahead: ‘If we increase the price of electricity to users like Alusaf, their products will become uncompetitive and that will affect our balance of payments’.
Where does that leave those arguing for traditions of human rights, decommodification and socialism-from-below? In coming months and years, four sorts of tasks present themselves:
• link up the demands and campaigns for free services, medicines and universal-entitlement income grants;
• translate these from the spheres of consumption to production, beginning with creative renationalisation of privatised services, restructured municipal work, expansion of the nascent cooperative sector and establishment of state-driven local generic drug manufacturing;
• strengthen the basis for longer-term alliances between poor and working people, that are in the first instance rooted in civil society and that probably within the next decade will also be taken up by a mass workers’ party; and
• regionalise and internationalise these principles, strategies and tactics, just as Pretoria politicians and Johannesburg capital intensify their subimperialist ambitions across Africa, using concepts of deglobalisation and the formula of internationalism plus the nation-state.
One very hopeful sign of the last is the emergence of Anti-Privatisation Forums in the three largest South African cities and, in mid-2002, in Mbabane, Swaziland and Harare and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. In each, mass-democratic activist groups are at the core, supported by explicitly socialist activists like those grassroots ideologues who drafted the handbill at the outset of this chapter, as well as organised socialist revolutionaries. Third World debt rupidation and campaigns to kick out the World Bank and IMF, supported by the growing movement around the world to defund the Bank through the Bonds Boycott tactic, are common starting points.
Additionally, the more that South African subimperialism emerges as a key problem, the more unity these movements will find in common opponents. The Southern African People’s Solidarity Network is one of the main vehicles for ideological development. The African Social Forum will also continue expanding through debt, trade, environment and other sectoral networks.
The terrain is, therefore, being prepared for a deep-rooted challenge to capitalism. Aside from short-term splits over divided loyalties to exhausted political parties, which can be expected not only in South Africa but in many sites of African struggle, the prospects for unity between radical communities, labour, women, environmentalists and health activists have never been greater. The kinds of internationalist, anti-capitalist sentiments that rocked Europe during 2002 and scared so many globo-elites in their summits and conferences in prior years are becoming rooted in at least some Southern African soils. Through growing direct links to similar grassroots campaigns in places as diverse as Accra, Cochabamba, Narmada Valley and Porto Alegre, the struggle to decommodify life has enormous potential to grow from autonomous sites of struggle like Soweto into a full-fledged socialist movement. But that terrain also contains potholes which have to be recognised and filled in.
Uneven eco-socialist politics
It would be unfair to conclude without once again noting some of the philosophical and practical pitfalls of green-red consciousness in Johannesburg and South Africa as it is currently emerging. Some pitfalls fall away when we take the limits of the eco-social justice movement and consider their relevance to particular scales, instead of invoking full-fledged universalism. That strategy gets us beyond the constraints of localism and the utopianism of global-reformism.
Other divisions disappear when alliances form against the ‘green business’ approach. That philosophy was concisely articulated in 1989 by three authors associated with Anglo American Corporation, mixing neoliberal principles with sustainable development rhetoric:
We must make the free enterprise system market mechanism work for us and use it to guide research and development and technological innovation. The last thing one wants is to have these functions micro-managed by government. The taxpayer has traditionally borne the brunt of the costs of environmental damage. This burden could now become an opportunity for profit for the imaginative investor in new technologies.
Much of the counter-hegemonic challenge is to continue expanding our scientific knowledge so that glib opportunity for profit strategies--also known as ‘green imperialism’--are no longer so readily adopted by policy-makers. To do that requires, in part, that we establish dialectical-strategic directions so that the conceptual barriers that keep the critical ecology movements of various types apart, can in future be taken away.
Andrew Jamison posits four types of environmentalism: civic work on campaigns and social ecology; professional interventions based upon science and law; militant direct action; and personal environmentalism. Jamison’s typology of how the dichotomy between green business and critical ecology can be transcended.
Dialectics of environmentalisms and eco-socialism
green business critical ecologies eco-socialism
type of agency TNCs, states, global agencies environmentalists, green NGOs hybrid red-green networks
forms of action commercial, brokerage popularisation, resistance exemplary mobilisation
ideal of ‘science’ theoretical, expert factual, lay situated, contextual
knowledge sources disciplines traditions experiences
competencies professional personal synthetic
In the first row, Jamison concedes that green business can sometimes, perhaps often, co-opt environmentalism into the nexus of capital accumulation, using concepts of sustainable development. The critical ecology movements resist, drawing upon concepts of environmental justice. But the battle of environmentalists and green NGOs against TNCs, states and global agencies will not succeed without a dialectical advance to the next stage: hybrid red-green networks.
As for emblematic forms of action, the commercial, brokerage functions of green business come into direct cultural conflict with the repertoire of resistance tactics utilised by the eco-social justice activists. The eco-socialist project, in contrast, has to advance to the stage of what Jamison terms ‘exemplary mobilisation’, in which the ideas that ‘Another World is Possible’ and ‘Socialism is the future, build it today’ become more than the slogans of Porto Alegre and the SACP, and take on real meaning.
Intellectual buttressing remains crucial, and hence the ideal articulation of ‘science’ is also worth dwelling upon briefly. Discourses range from the ‘theoretical, expert’ inputs--no matter how flawed in reality--of promoters working from a green business standpoint, to the factual and lay languages of activists. What we seek is to build upon the second by defying the first, and achieving a situated, contextual science. The knowledge sources that undergird such efforts are typically divided into the technical disciplines of green business, the political traditions of eco-social justice, and the transcendental experiences of the eco-socialist project. As for the terrain of competencies, the green-business suits claim professionalism; the critical ecologists invoke personal commitment; and eco-socialists strive for a synthetic understanding of personal, professional and, above all, political.
With a similar grasp of the dialectic challenge, one of the leading contemporary historical materialists, David Harvey, insists that eco-socialist programmes must be explicitly forward-looking, and hence must deal in the material and institutional issues of how to organise production and distribution in general, how to confront the realities of global power politics and how to displace the hegemonic powers of capitalism not simply with dispersed, autonomous, localised, and essentially communitarian solutions (apologists for which can be found on both right and left ends of the political spectrum), but with a rather more complex politics that recognises how environmental and social justice must be sought by a rational ordering of activities at different scales.
Thus we have to think more broadly about how society should manage its inherited environment. The rational ordering of South Africa’s space economy must be considered one of the fundamental starting points for future attacks on the irrational socio-ecological utilisation--really, despoliation--of natural resources more generally.
Settlement patterns in question
A good place to start such consideration is the South African city, of which Johannesburg is surely the worst offender. Harvey remarks,
If biocentric thinking is correct and the boundary between human activity and ecosystemic activities must be collapsed, then this means not only that ecological processes have to be incorporated into our understanding of social life: it also means that flows of money and of commodities and the transformative actions of human beings (in the building of urban systems, for example) have to be understood as fundamentally ecological processes.
The environmental justice movement, with its emphasis upon marginalised and impoverished populations exposed to hazardous ecological circumstances, freely acknowledges these connections. Many of the issues with which it is confronted are specifically urban in character. Consequently, the principles it has enunciated include the mandate to address environmental justice in the city by the cleaning up and rebuilding of urban environments.
This line of thinking takes us immediately to, but also far beyond, the questions raised above, over how cities are allocated their share of natural resources. Although it is vital not to assume any anti-urban sentiments (as do many ecological radicals), we have arrived at a position where it is only honest to address the ecological discourse established a century and a half ago in Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. There we find the call for a ‘gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country’.
Johannesburg was born, after all, merely because of the discovery in 1886 of gold, that centuries-old relic of faithlessness in the value of money. But is Johannesburg’s future golden or grim? There are now more industrial substitutes for gold. In the wake of dramatic financial market turbulence since the mid-1990s, the luxury consumption market for gold jewellery is unreliable. It is difficult to achieve profitable yields from ever-deeper mining operations. South African gold mining remains ecologically offensive, and particularly water-polluting. Add labour-related factors such as health, safety and migrancy, and there should be no geographical or locational grounds for Johannesburg continuing as South Africa’s economic heartland over coming decades and centuries. Agglomerations of industry, particularly the outdated overcapacity that characterises uncompetitive Gauteng manufacturing, offer little basis for economic strength in a more flexible era based increasingly on the South African government’s strategy, albeit a failure thus far, to promote export-oriented growth. It should be logical for Johannesburg gradually to decline, much like a Detroit or other rust belt towns.
If the response to Johannesburg’s decline is the construction of a more humane system of production, it will require more than transcending the potent Minerals-Energy Complex that continues to prove so ecologically and economically self-destructive. At one point recently, South Africa promised a far greater degree of political capacity to shift production systems not only sectorally into more ‘sustainable’, redistributive systems (such as using relatively decommodified, basic-needs infrastructure as the basis for kick-starting more balanced economic development), but also geographically.
As the ANC RDP mandated in 1994, ‘Macroeconomic policies must take into consideration their effect upon the geographic distribution of economic activity. Additional strategies must address the excessive growth of the largest urban centres, the skewed distribution of population within rural areas, the role of small and medium-sized towns, and the future of declining towns and regions, and the apartheid dumping grounds’. Amongst many other RDP promises, this was immediately broken in government’s 1995 Draft Urban Development Strategy:
The country’s largest cities are not excessively large by international standards, and the rates of growth of the various tiers also appear to be normal. Hence there appears to be little reason to favour policies which may artificially induce or restrain growth in a particular centre, region or tier ... The growth rate is sufficiently normal to suggest that effective urban management is possible and there is, therefore, no justification for interventionist policies which attempt to prevent urbanisation.
Indeed, because ‘South Africa’s cities are more than ever strategic sites in a transnationalised production system’ the debate has to be joined by a wider questioning of South Africa’s insertion in the international division of labour. The same challenge can be posed of many Southern African cities, according to University of Botswana political scientist Larry Swatuk:
All of these patterns of settlement and attendant problems are exaggerated in the context of apartheid engineering, replicated to a large degree in Zimbabwe and Namibia, and to varying degrees in Botswana, Swaziland and Zambia: alienation of fertile land and the creation of plantation agriculture; forced removals of indigenous people and their relocation to arid ‘homelands’; the creation of ill- or non-serviced ‘locations’ which in the beginning were little more than dormitories for cheap labour.
Moreover, this ‘crush’ of people in barren environs was made all the worse in the post-colonial and post-apartheid periods as the movement of indigenous people was no longer restricted. Families from the rural areas joined husbands and fathers in the townships and ‘high-density suburbs’; many others made the trek to urban areas in search of work. At the same time, the early post-apartheid period saw a large influx of Africans from beyond the SADC region into the urban and peri-urban areas.
Changing global structures of production and South African state-makers’ attempts to find a neoliberal solution to them have also exacerbated settlement problems in the region. Countries which had long supplied labour to the mines and farms of South Africa in recent years have seen the return of tens of thousands of these citizens, retrenched as the South African mining industry continues to restructure. So, cities like Blantyre and Maseru are increasingly overrun with the newly unemployed and displaced.
Taken together, what these facts reveal is water security for the few and insecurity for the many. As stated at the outset of this paper, this is a ‘crisis’ that is socially constructed. Its roots are historical, the result of deliberate actions taken in the service of settler and colonial interests. Its contemporary manifestations result from a combination of continuing elite privilege, shallow social and physical science, and the collective actions of millions of people responding ‘logically’ to abiding conditions of poverty and underdevelopment.
A revolution is surely required to right these eco-social wrongs. Harvey concludes his analysis of environmental justice discourses by noting that ‘There is a long and arduous road to travel to take the environmental justice movement beyond the phase of rhetorical flourishes, media successes, and symbolic politics, into a world of strong coherent political organising and practical revolutionary action’.
That too might be the key lesson to be learnt from the most conceptually advanced of the environmental justice struggles considered above. Alexandra residents protested against the neoliberal South African state’s prioritising of ‘development’, which in practical terms meant an awesome distributional bias towards big corporations and wealthy (mainly white) consumers. That imbalance was exacerbated by the state deploying merely token strategies to redirect water. In retrospect, the protest brought mainly a momentary conscientisation value to the water struggle.
Other approaches failed as well. Though necessary, reformist and technicist critiques are--from evidence in many of the Johannesburg struggles mentioned above--clearly insufficient to foster real momentum for change. They simply cannot generate the alliances required for a broader--brown-green, urban-rural--critique of environmental injustice. The only alternatives left are practical but no less revolutionary: anti-capitalist analysis, demands and organising.
Since the early 1970s, the world has witnessed three broad discourses emerging around environmental management: neoliberalism, sustainable development and eco-social justice. The area between these is sometimes grey, and partisans often move fitfully--often largely rhetorically--between the camps. But the studies of existing environmental conditions in South Africa and of the emblematic policy and project case studies, give us a sense of how these discourses played out in a country characterised by a dramatic political power shift in 1994, but also by residual economic domination by corporate interests and a surprising degree of ideological adherence to the Washington Consensus world-view.
What underlies the discourses, however, is not only material interest but also political power to transform a particular discourse into a hegemonic discourse. What this means, concretely, is that South Africa is replete with radical intentions based on a highly politicised history and the obvious legacies of apartheid-capitalism on the one hand, with centrist bargaining fora and severely compromised legislative processes on the other; and in their most concrete manifestations, in actual cases of environmental management, extremely conservative policies and practices reflecting, above all, the dominance of major economic actors.
This is all widely understood, and does not go unchallenged. One expression of the implications of uneven political power relations for moral discourses about environmental management was provided by Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs: ‘People who have washing machines have no right to condemn others who dirty streams with their laundry. Those who summon up energy with the click of a switch should hesitate before denouncing persons who denude forests in search of firewood. It is undeniably distasteful to spend huge sums on saving the white rhino when millions of black children are starving’.
And yet the privileges and prejudices of elites and of those companies which still wish society to take the overall burden of externalised environmental costs remain in place. It is in this sense that to firmly address the generation of socio-ecological inequality and the failure of South Africa to even achieve a modicum of ‘sustainable development’ can be traced not just to existing power relations but further, to the capitalist mode of production. The structural relationship between the capitalist mode of production and environmental crisis, and the need to articulate such a relationship in policy, legislation and concrete practice, is explained by Paul Burkett:
Mainstream environmentalism bypasses the connections between capitalism’s social relations of production and the system’s tendency to devour, dispose of, and degrade nature to the point of threatening the basic conditions of human-material reproduction. Sustainable development, we are told, can be achieved via state policies (so-called ‘green’ tax/subsidy schemes and other technical fixes) and changes in individual behavior (recycling, marketing and consumption of more ecologically correct products, etc.) without changing the class relations between people and necessary conditions of their material reproduction. The assumption here is that eco-destruction is an inessential ‘externality’ of capitalism which does not fundamentally implicate the system’s essential relations of class-exploitation and competition.
Notwithstanding South Africa’s rights-based rhetoric and various attempts to tinker with environmental management problems through technical, market-oriented solutions, two factors are obvious: the imperatives of ecological exploitation and the impossibility of more fundamental reversals of environmental degradation. In contrast, an eco-socialist perspective starts with the very ingredient missing from virtually all post-apartheid government initiatives: popular mobilisation. In this sense, the issues associated with the survival of society’s oppressed communities can only be understood and tackled through an increasing convergence of green, brown, feminist, racial/ethnic justice, and class politics--or, militant particularisms, as Raymond Williams and David Harvey describes them.
That kind of serious environmentalism, Harvey insists, must claim the broadest appropriate terrain as its mandate, including cultural and spiritual features of ecological and social life, and seek to rationally reorder the space economy in a way that directly confronts capitalism’s neoliberal discourses:
The reinsertion of ‘rational ordering’ indicates that such a movement will have no option, as it broadens out from its militant particularist base, but to reclaim for itself a noncoopted and nonperverted version of the theses of ecological modernisation. On the one hand that means subsuming the highly geographically differentiated desire for cultural autonomy and dispersion, for the proliferation of tradition and difference within a more global politics, but on the other hand making the quest for environmental and social justice central rather than peripheral concerns.
For that to happen, the environmental justice movement has to radicalise the ecological modernisation discourse.
As neoliberal economic orthodoxy continues to prevail in so many areas of South African environment and development, and as sustainable-development discourses, policies and legislation fall far short of resolving the interlocking crises, it is to more radical confrontations with powerful forces that South Africa’s eco-social justice movements inexorably will be drawn. All of us hope to track these, because the South African movements have continued to successfully call forth local citizen activism and generous international solidarity with a simple appeal: ‘Another World is Possible!’--but only if you join us!