Durban’s World Economic Forum (WEF) Africa conference hosted some of the world’s most controversial politicians last week: not just Jacob Zuma and Malusi Gigaba, Robert Mugabe, Yoweri Museveni, King Mswati and Edgar Lungu, but also the most powerful man in Europe, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble.
At a lecture on Thursday at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Business School, Schäuble undiplomatically threatened Britain’s prime minister Theresa May at a critical moment in her election campaign: “The [Brexit] negotiations will become terribly difficult for the UK, they will see it.”
And the next day on the sidelines of the WEF-Africa summit, Schäuble sold his plan for revival of slowing multinational corporate investment in Africa. It is a priority, he said, because “in Europe, we have come to understand that Africa represents one of the most important issues for the growth and stability of the global economy.” (What cynics suggest, though, is that as a German national election nears in September, Schäuble’s boss Angela Merkel needs a rhetorical device to explain to voters how the million African refugees who entered her country over the last dozen years can be kept at bay in future.)
Schäuble was speaking on behalf of the G20 bloc – the world’s largest economies plus multilateral financial institutions (in which South Africa represents the continent) – which meets in Hamburg in two months’ time. Five countries have initially signed up to the Compact with Africa – Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal and Tunisia – with many more anticipated to join, so as to maintain aid and political favour with the European Union.
In contrast, the Donald Trump regime in Washington has proposed cutting the US aid budget dramatically, diverting funds to the military. There are already hectic, albeit low-profile, Pentagon “Africa Command” interventions against what it considers belts of Islamic extremism from the Maghreb across the Sahel to the Horn according to researcher Nick Turse, who last week analysed newly-declassified US army data.
On June 12-13, more Compact details will be shared with G20 finance ministers in a Berlin meeting reportedly to be co-chaired by Schäuble and Gigaba. In spite of the latter’s leftist rhetoric (and advisor), Gigaba’s record of white-elephant infrastructure promotion as minister of state enterprises suggests how prone Pretoria remains to massive public subsidies for construction and mining corporates – which overlaps well with Schäuble’s G20 aims.
Schäuble’s Compact – released in a German resort in March without African input (in contrast to Tony Blair’s 2004-05 Commission for Africa) – not only downplayed the much more generous ‘Marshall Plan’ strategy advanced by the German development ministry. It demanded African governments provide more public subsidies and take on much more risk for public-private partnership infrastructure, which often amount to profits, pilfering and – for consumers of infrastructures – pain.
In his new autobiography and a Guardian article last week, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis described Schäuble as a hypocritical economic dictator who admitted his ongoing squeeze should have been rejected by the Syriza government. The day he spoke in Durban, he was also busy imposing more austerity on Greece.
Though Schäuble was expelled from German politics (he was leader of the Conservative Party) for accepting the equivalent of R770 000 as a cash bribe from arms dealer Karlheinz Schreiber in 2000, his comeback via Angela Merkel’s generosity gave him first the Home Affairs and then the Finance portfolio. Another powerful agent of the G20 is IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, who last December was convicted in Paris courts of giving a €403-million payout to a major conservative party contributor when she was French finance minister – although she continues in her present job.
It is no surprise that the WEF-Africa hosted politicians like Schäuble and Zuma (still facing 783 corruption counts), South Africa’s corrupted state-owned enterprises (Eskom’s Matshela Koko is under investigation for R1-billion+ nepotism while Transnet’s Siyabonga Gama – a WEF-Africa co-chair – was found guilty of multi-million rand corruption by Transnet in 2010), and corporations whose fraud records are prolific and – especially in South Africa – largely unpunished.
WEF-Africa sponsor Hitachi was hired to build boilers at Eskom’s $15-billion Medupi power plant – but 7 000 welds needed redoing at the world’s largest coal-fired power plant under construction (with the World Bank’s largest-ever loan), a project now eight years behind schedule. Aside from the corruption with African National Congress investment company Chancellor House, Medupi’s main beneficiary will be the mining industry: BHP Billiton (the largest mining house in the world) gets electricity at 1/10th the price ordinary poor and working-class people pay, thanks to the continuation of apartheid-era deals.
Bubbling up from the WEF-Africa corruption swamp, the WEF-Africa issued some mild-mannered rhetoric about corruption and inequality – along with the standard neo-liberal pro-corporate pablum. Last year in Rwanda, WEF-Africa promoted a coming high-tech ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ – though only a third of the continent’s population has home electricity – and this year’s follow-up was a nod to the ‘internet of things’ which “could be the key to Africa’s development” (yeah right, unless Central Intelligence Agency hackerstake over).
One illustration of how the WEF’s technology fetish has harmed Africa is the virulent defense of Intellectual Property Rights and with it, corporate branding. Applied to life-saving medicines, this philosophy was debilitating, costing HIV+ patients more than $10 000/year at the turn of the century. Then, Treatment Action Campaign activists demanded free generic medicines for 40-million HIV+ people globally, of whom six million live in South Africa (and more live in Durban than in any other city on earth).
Though the call was made in 2000, at the Durban international Aids convention, it took another 18 months before World Trade Organisation leaders consented to the supply of much cheaper generic drugs to Africa, and another four years before the South African government agreed to roll out treatment. But thanks to perseverance by those activists, SA’s life expectancy rose from 52 in 2005 to 62 today. Yet in 2010, nine activists who peacefully protested for sustained public funding for treatment at that year’s WEF-Africa summit in Dar es Salaam were arrested and deported.
Another faddish narrative is ‘inclusive growth’, in part because international charity Oxfam is playing a co-hosting role. The WEF website now includes ideas like a guaranteed Basic Income Grant. Such rhetoric notwithstanding, WEF-Africa stands accused of exclusivity, which was proven to me (in a trivial way) when my media application to cover the event (for Cape Town-based Amandla!) was simply rejected, with no explanation.
Several protests against WEF leaders like Lungu and Mugabe were held at Speaker’s Corner last Thursday. On Wednesday, led by Durban anti-pollution activist Des D’Sa, a People’s Economic Forum (PEF) march of several hundred activists on Wednesday morning recalled protests held against the same meetings here in June 2002 and June 2003. (During the 2003 protest, police horses knocked down poet Dennis Brutus.)
PEF protesters included a stop to protest at the US consulate near City Hall; Durban activists had also offered solidarity marches with US women fighting Trump’s misogyny on January 21 and with US scientists fighting defunding on March 22.
The previous day, May 2, Oxfam officials had explained to dozens of concerned community activists why its international chairperson, Winnie Byanyima, had decided to enrol as one of five co-chairs of the WEF-Africa, thereby giving the 1% elite renewed legitimacy. The charity’s insider route was unconvincing, and even Oxfam staff ruefully conceded the truth of the open letter signed by Byanyima three years earlier, when top international NGO officials confessed the dangers of insiderism at a South African meeting co-convened by Durban activist and former Greenpeace leader Kumi Naidoo.
“We are the poor cousins of the global jet set. We exist to challenge the status quo, but we trade in incremental change. Our actions are clearly not sufficient to address the mounting anger and demand for systemic political and economic transformation that we see in cities and communities around the world every day…
“A new and increasingly connected generation of women and men activists across the globe question how much of our energy is trapped in the internal bureaucracy and the comfort of our brands and organisations. They move quickly, often without the kinds of structures that slow us down. In doing so, they challenge how much time we – you and I – spend in elite conferences and tracking policy cycles that have little or no outcomes for the poor.”
WEF-Africa’s divide-and-rule tactic of providing invited spaces for civilised society supposedly representing oppressed people, versus disregard for those not considered worthy of being inside, is well-known from the apartheid era. After much PEF complaining about WEF spokesperson Oliver Cann’s refusal to meet the marchers, eventually a South African Treasury spokesperson accepted the memorandum, again signifying how close the WEF is to political power.
In contrast to Oxfam International’s ineffectual WEF-assimilation strategy, PEF activists (many of whom were generously supported by Oxfam South Africa, itself led by battle-hardened activists) will continue uncompromising resistance to multinational corporate predators’ attacks on African societies and ecology.
In addition to ExxonMobil, some of the worst are fracking in the Western Cape’s sensitive Karoo region (by Shell) and Drakensburg mountain range (by Rhino from Texas), the still-desired $100 billion nuclear reactors of Moscow-based Rosatom (now already benefiting the notorious Gupta brothers and Durban’s Vivian Reddy patronage networks), the $25 billion plan for a new Dig Out Port plus container-trucking depot, mega-refinery and doubling of the main oil pipeline (see video below), and the extraction and export of 18-billion tonnes of coal (benefiting Anglo American, ArcelorMittal, Exxaro, Sasol and other multinational corporations).
The latter is Transnet‘s and the National Development Plan’s first mega-project, but the network of Mining Affected Communities United in Action, led by Matthews Hlabane (founder of the South African Green Revolutionary Council) and Zama Ntuli (from one of the main coalfield struggles), pointed out the combined local devastation of the $60-billion plan to local lungs, water, land, air and climate change.
In practicing their arguments against the world elite’s pro-corporate event last week in Durban, PEF activists will inexorably also confront the G20 – the throne behind the power of capital – when Schäuble’s Compact with Africa becomes more widely known. And such contradictions must also make leftist-sounding Pretoria politicians squirm when describing imperialist power dynamics to their constituents, when simultaneously South Africa is meant to loyally represent Africa’s best interests within the G20, but when in reality Zuma and Gigaba will end up doing the opposite.
Patrick Bond is professor of political economy at Wits and honorary professor of development studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal