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Corporate Globalization Resistance

The African Grassroots and The Global Movement
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By Patrick Bond

In a ZNet commentary last month, Noam Chomsky observed South-South-North alliances "taking shape at the grassroots level--an impressive development, rich in opportunity and promise, and surely causing no little concern in high places." I want to firmly endorse this trend and today reflect upon some tangible evidence of activism, visible from even my Johannesburg armchair. (Last month, I reviewed some key African movements' statements and resolutions against neoliberalism and compradorism.)

To set the scene, I just read a fantastic e-account of Prague: "The People's Battle," by Boris Kagarlitsky. In a September 23 debate organised by Vaclav Havel, the outstanding Filippino political-economist Walden Bello was trashing Bank president Jim Wolfensohn and IMF managing director Horst Kohler. Recounts Kagarlitsky, "Trevor Manuel, a one-time communist and revolutionary, and now South African finance minister, objects to Bello: `Without the international financial institutions, things would be even worse for poor countries.' The right-wingers applaud. Someone among the leftists mutters: `Traitor!'"

This is one of the most interesting cleavages in global politics today. Over the coming weekend, Manuel--who is chairperson of the IMF/Bank Board of Governors--and other finance minister from the "emerging market" countries will meet in Montreal with G8 leaders, especially the notorious skinflint Larry Summers, who has spent the past few days lobbying the Senate against a House of Representatives prohibition on IMF/Bank imposition of userfees in Third World education and primary healthcare programmes.

Manuel and his colleagues often allege that anti-neoliberal protests represent merely the misguided efforts of spoiled, Northern, petit-bourgeois youth. Manuel's press secretary last week had this to say about recent university audiences at the film "Two Trevors go to Washington" (about the A16 protests): "They are the richest students in the world and would hardly miss the World Bank." (Tonight, the film wraps up its leg of a N.American tour associated with the excellent World Bank Bonds Boycott campaign--victorious a few days ago in San Francisco! New York's Monthly Review office, 122 W.27th St, at 6PM, so if you're in town, don't miss it;


Hard as it may be for Manuel and co. to appreciate, Northern leftists, feminists and greens are not the only ones angry with the Bank and IMF. All too often over the past year, the struggle sites under media glare--Seattle (N30), Washington (A16), Prague (S26), and to a lesser extent Davos (January), London (May), Geneva (June), Windsor (July), Okinawa (July), Philly/LA (August), Melbourne (September) and NY (September)--have deflected attention from much larger actions in the Third World, as well as from smaller-scale but even braver anti-neoliberal campaigns against the Bretton Woods Institutions and the repressive governments they fund.

Here's my ongoing (and merely partial) list of events that link grassroots and labour struggles in the South to the higher-profile protests of which the global movement is justifiably proud.

  • An indigenous people's uprising against neoliberal policies in Ecuador in January generated a momentarily-successful alliance with military coup-makers in January.

  • The movement's energy shifted to steamy Bangkok in February, where a formidable Thai network of unemployed rural and urban activists protested daily at the semi-decennial meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

  • In early April, grassroots anti-globalization protest intensified in the main square of Cochabamba, Bolivia, where thousands of residents forced water-privatiser Bechtel out of the country (and precipitated a national state of emergency in the process).

  • When soon thereafter, Washington came under unprecedented attack from 30,000 militants who paralysed a large area surrounding the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank headquarters, substantial solidarity protests were held in various Third World settings, including Brazil and South Africa. Especially notable, under harsh circumstances, were anti-IMF demonstrations mainly by small groups of women in Lusaka and Nairobi, which were harshly broken up by police.

  • The next month, the small Thai city of Chiang Mai was awoken by 5,000 angry students, unemployed workers, environmentalists and displaced rural people, who overwhelmed police lines protecting an Asian Development Bank meeting.

  • On May 10, South Africa was the site of a national general strike by half the country's workforce, furious over job-killing neoliberal policies adopted at the behest of the World Bank, and protest marches brought 200,000 out into the streets in several cities 

  • The next day, twenty million Indian workers went on strike explicitly to protest the surrender of national sovereignty to the IMF and Bank.

  • Smaller but still very sharp anti-IMF demonstrations quickly led to police crackdowns in Argentina in mid-May, followed by a mass protest of 80,000.

  • Turkish police also repressed anti-austerity demonstrations in May.

  • In Port-au-Prince, Haiti in June, thousands turned out in June for anti-debt activities.

  • In Paraguay, a two-day general strike was called against IMF-mandated privatisation.

  • Also in June, Nigeria's trade unions allied with Lagos residents in a mass strike aimed at reversing an IMF-mandated oil price increase, which also had the effect of cutting short Larry Summers' visit.

  • In July, South Korean workers repeatedly demonstrated against IMF-mandated austerity policies.

  • The Brazilian left hosted a plebiscite in August on whether the society should accept an IMF austerity programme, and more than six million voted, nearly all against.

  • S26 solidarity events occurred all over the world, and in South Africa (as a leading example) included a march by 1,000 NGO activists in Durban, a demo at the US consulate in Cape Town, and a march by hundreds into the lobby of the Johannesburg headquarters of Africa's largest company (Anglo American Corp), attracting violence and pepperspray by corporate security guards.

  • Tens of thousands of Korean workers, students and social-movement protesters are preparing for a day of confrontation on October 20, at a Seoul gathering of European and Asian leaders.

I get a sense, in these discrete examples, of a broader and potentially universal maturity, in which the most powerful structural forces responsible for Third World degradation are now being named and forcefully confronted. Each setting has a different emphasis, but most aim for decommodified, destratified and even degendered, environmentally-responsible access to basic goods and services: jobs, water, electricity, free anti-retroviral drugs to combat AIDS, education, lower food and petrol prices.

To be sure, some of the ongoing activism in Africa is difficult to interpret from a distance, since much of it is based on a liberal-sounding "rights discourse" rather than an explicitly "redistributionist agenda," to recall an argument presented at a Harare conference last month by Zimbabwe's leading civil-society scholar-activist, Brian Raftopoulos. In that setting, Raftopoulos hopes that the official opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, will ultimately encourage its mass-movement supporters to counteract quite damaging internal neoliberal pressure (associated with campaign fund-raising for the June 2000 parliamentary elections), and thus begin to harness the potent, anti-neoliberal (and anti-government) sentiments of poor and working-class people.

When not nurtured and harnessed, such sentiments have tragically led to "IMF riots" in Harare on several occasions over the past decade, including earlier this week, after prices on staple goods were hiked yet again. Indeed, most Third World social movements have this trouble--i.e., they are often unprepared to work with those most prone to socio-economic rioting, instead relying too much upon traditional "governance" demands.

Worse yet, instead of synthesising with mass-lumpen protest, some local activities undertaken by grassroots groups too easily fall into the trap of neoliberal economic policies. Consider a warning by the great Nigerian intellectual Claude Ake, in a book (The Feasibility of Democracy in Africa) finished prior to his 1996 death, which has just been published by Codesria Press in Dakar. Since the 1980s, Ake reports, "there has been an explosion of associational life in rural Africa. By all indications, this is a by-product of a general acceptance of the necessity of self-reliance, yielding a proliferation of institutions such as craft centres, rural credit unions, farmers' associations, community-run skill development centres, community banks, cooperatives, community-financed schools and hospitals and civic centres, local credit unions, even community vigilante groups for security. Some have welcomed this development as a sign of a vibrant civil society in Africa. It may well be that. However, before we begin to idealise this phenomenon, it is well to remind ourselves that whatever else it is, it is first and foremost a child of necessity, of desperation even."

The rise of "Community-Based Organisations" (CBOs) and associated development NGOs closely corresponds with the desire of the international agencies to shrink Third World states as part of the overall effort to lower the social wage. The result is an ongoing conflict between technicist, apolitical development interventions on the one hand, and the people-centered strategies (and militant tactics) of mass-oriented social movements of the oppressed on the other hand.

Thus by the early 1990s, two out of five World Bank projects involved NGOs (including well over half in Africa), and in projects involving population, nutrition, primary health care, and small enterprise, the ratio rose to more than four out of five. In his seminal 1995 study, Paul Nelson found that NGOs were "primarily implementors of project components designed by World Bank and government officials." Moreover, especially since an upsurge in such participation began in 1988, NGOs have often been used to "deliver compensatory services to soften the effects of an adjustment plan"; in some cases the NGOs were not even pre-existing but were "custom-built for projects" and hence could "neither sustain themselves nor represent poor people's interests effectively."

But from a recent era in which "Co-Opted NGOs"--CoNGOs, as they're termed--happily picked up crumbs from the neoliberal table, I think we may be on the verge of a return to dominance by radical, people's-movement NGOs. In South Africa, the 3,000 member SA NonGovernmental Coalition deserves this recognition, as do component think-tanks and campaigning groups currently fighting for free access to anti-retroviral drugs, water, electricity and the like. (Next month, I'll provide an update on the mixed reactions from government and the ruling ANC, as the December 5 municipal elections approach, thereby heightening populist campaigning promises rather more than I sense from the US election.)

The campaigns really do, now, think globally, act locally, and network globally for support. In his new book, Spaces of Hope (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press), marxist scholar David Harvey seeks out instances of the "global and universal taken together," which in practical terms means we must "take globalisation seriously and make universal claims of precisely the sort that the Zapatistas have advanced from their mountainous retreats in Southern Mexico. These claims rest firmly on local experience but operate more dialectically in relation to globalisation."

The Zapatistas' international alliances are a model along these lines, but so too are their distinctly radical-democratic "development" strategies, based upon short-term demands to their nation-state. Tellingly, when these are not forthcoming due to neoliberalism, Zapatista self-activity takes forms such as liberating household electricity supplies from the pylons that cross Chiapas, invading underutilised ranches and plantations, and declaring municipal autonomy in dozens of sites of community struggle.

For the rest of us, working in solidarity with such Southern rebellions and in self-interest, too, the common target appears global and universal taken together: shutting down the IMF, Bank and WTO. A prerequisite to global social justice is to fell the agencies which most directly negate our claims of universal access to decommodified, destratified, degendered and environmentally-responsible "rights," such as essential drugs and clean water. It is here that evolving grassroots activity in Africa has lots to teach the international movement.

(By the way, I'll be presenting a longer version of this article in New York, at Columbia University's Institute of African Studies at noon on October 19--11th floor of the International Affairs building--in the event anyone wants to stop by and check it out.)