Lessons from Latin America

To be the Brazil of Africa looks like a reasonable summary of the ambitions of the government of South African President Thabo Mbeki.

There is a strong sense that Brazil has turned the tide of what Mbeki derides in South Africa as “a psychosis of failure”. Like their African peers, Brazilians have confronted the rhetoric of a looming apocalypse.

A year after Workers’ Party leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva came to power, most Brazilians are still enthralled by the romance of a former shoe-shine boy becoming president.
His governing Workers’ Party, Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), is a restive alliance of capitalists, pragmatists, populists and the destitute. Uniting them looks impossible, but there is broad consensus even among the government’s opponents that it needs to be tried.

Brazil’s problems look much worse than South Africa’s — if only for their sheer scale. At 170m, Brazil’s population rivals those of Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe combined. The distribution of resources is skewed to Nigerian proportions, with at least 55m Brazilians living in poverty. The largest private estate is the size of Connecticut, while the landless peoples’ movement, Movimento Sem Terra (MST), is the world’s largest political pressure group. Popular politics is infused with an often nostalgic yearning for land, which any Zimbabwean would recognise. South America’s biggest country is hailed as a vanguard for the developing world, a role to which South African aspires.

An explanation lies in Brazil’s social cohesion. Half a millennium ago the first Portugese settlers threw themselves at the natives, and nobody has really stopped since. Immigrants from every corner of the globe — India, Italy, Japan, France, Spain, Russia and Arab states — have cross-bred through countless generations.

Brazilians boast that miscegenation is the country’s greatest asset. This is a wondrous condition to which, on their brightest days, SouthAfricans still aspire. Brazilians aren’t much bothered by variations in culture or colour or ethnicity. Portugese, the colonial language, is an authentic mother tongue. Despite huge economic disparities, political loyalties are largely non-racial. When there are no natives, no settlers, no lineage claiming to be purer than the next, transparently racial alliances have little resonance.

Knowing who you are is good for a nation’s confidence. Alas, it does little to resolve historic wrongs. After three centuries of slavery, racism is alive and singularly nasty in Brazil. You see it in the concentration of Afro-Brazilians in the outlying slums of industrial towns, and the maldistribution of resources that condemns the mainly black north to poverty. Yet racism in Brazil is substantially different from much of the racially-charged feuding in Europe or America.

Spared the lingering slights and sensitivities of apartheid, the scope for racially charged posturing is reduced. Politics in Brazil is not burdened by the sense of dislocation which weighs so heavily on South Africa, muddling real problems with old phobias. This is most apparent at times of crisis, when nations face a stark choice between unity and recriminaton. No crisis has loomed larger on either side of the Atlantic than Aids.

In the early 1990s estimates of the likely impact of Aids in Brazil were freighted with the same apocalyptic warnings that now frustrate Africa. A killer virus, barely understood, threatened a fledgling democracy. When AZT and other treatments emerged in the early 1990s, conventional wisdom among multilateral agencies held that such medicines were simply too complex, too expensive and too difficult to supply on any scale in developing countries.

Ten years on, the government claims that 99% of Brazilians who need antiretroviral drugs, get them, free — a measure of their confidence that the Aids programme reaches all corners of the country.

After long battles at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), state laboratories manufacture generic copies of 12 Aids medicines under licence from the patent holders. Arguments with the big pharmaceutical companies over intellectual property rights have been fierce, yet contrary to its reputation among some Aids activists Brazil has never broken a patent.

Far from antagonising Big Pharma, the principle of pricing essential medicines according to a country’s ability to pay is now accepted by drugs companies. Differential pricing is now recognised as a sustainable business model — making possible last year’s agreement at the WTO on trade in generic drugs.

“Brazil is moving towards greater intellectual property protection,” says Raymond Gilmartin, CEO of United States drugs giant Merck. “They see that as important for investment in the future”. Tellingly, Brazil’s response to Aids has been much more effective than its handling of more treatable epidemics such as tuberculosis or malaria. These tend to hit only the poor, evincing less clamour from the middle class.

Like South Africa’s, Brazil’s short experience of democracy has coincided with a massive programme of economic liberalisation. Exports are rising, trade barriers falling, and — after a sharp devaluation — industrialists worry at the renewed strength of the Real.

The architect of these reforms, former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, might loosely be dubbed a Brazilian Mbeki. Both are intellectuals with historic ties with the left, who endured long periods of exile. Both championed the economic orthodoxies of the 1990s, often at some political risk. To most foreign investors at least, they are two of a kind: savvy, sharp-suited diplomats who engineered an economic recovery only to watch their own popularity wane.

Brazil’s recent presidential contest may be an interesting portent for South Africa. “The way in which Lula won the elections was not a process of reascension of the mass movements, where the people demanded change,” observes Joao Pedro Stedile, the cerebral, bearded leader of the MST. “The people only voted against neoliberalism. So we are faced with a government that is not yet defined and doesn’t have a clear project.”

Both countries confront the dilemmas of jobless growth, and the possibly intractable hurdle of harnessing aggressive capitalism to a more populist programme which can deliver wider benefits.

ANC chiefs seem determined to reconcile their traditional goals as a mass movement with Mbeki’s strict economic creed. The fault line in this awkward unity is usually said to be the ANC’s zealously guarded pact with the trade unions. In Brazil, equivalent tensions surface around the PT’s historic commitment to agrarian reform, the basis of its close ties to the MST.

The political relationship, at least, is clearer in Brazil. “Lula’s government is our friend,” says Stedile, “but we are totally independent. Our role is to mobilise the people so that there are popular struggles ... If there is no pressure in the streets, the government won’t have enough strength to adopt measures of change.”

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) strives for an equivalent role, campaigning for jobs, access to anti-retrovirals and aspiring to represent the interests of the jobless alongside the employed. These ambitions surface in some of the points of conflict between Cosatu and the government, yet their competing claims to champion a popular agenda also have an unintended consequence. They discourage the wider, more open debate, which might ease these tensions. The relevance for South Africa is that the scope for disagreement is more fully explored in Brazil precisely because the bond between distinct political movements is not institutionalised in a formal alliance. The tensions that surface in the MST’s policy towards Lula reassure Stedile, who defines Brazil’s government as being in “permanent dispute”.

A close ally of Africa’s mass movements, Stedile is cautious about drawing lessons for Africa. The acid test of any democracy is that its politics should be in a state of flux. “Perhaps this was the mistake in some African countries. The trade unions in South Africa, the rural movements in Zimbabwe ... became dependent on the party and on the government,” he says.

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