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Bond, Patrick (2008) Civil society must confront abuse of power. The Mercury Eye on Civil Society : -.

THE past week has been a wild roller-coaster ride down the troughs of
capitalism and up the peaks of civil society activism.

Glancing around the world from those peaks, we can see quite a way
further than usual.

First, look to New York where Monday's stock market crash was worse than
any since the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, and where one
investment bank after the other faces ruin or bale-out.

Fourteen years ago, these same financiers put extreme pressure on the
new ANC government (when I worked in Jay Naidoo's reconstruction and
development programme ministry and saw this at first hand). Then deputy
president Thabo Mbeki ordered state officials to send the austerity
signals to the markets.

In the same spirit, just under a year ago, New York financiers Merrill
Lynch held what amounted to a job interview for Jacob Zuma in Sandton.

As Business Day reported at the time, Zuma's speech to the investors
was aimed at reassuring them that there was no need for the market to be
'jittery', no matter the outcome of the ANC's watershed December
elective conference in Polokwane, a Zuma aide said.

Now look what happened in the high court in Pietermaritzburg on Friday,
when Mbeki got what might be his comeuppance.

The coalition of forces, the trade unionists especially, who backed an
allegedly corrupt and sometimes feudal opponent did so in part because
of pain caused by Mbeki's pandering to the investment banks, as he and
Trevor Manuel raised unemployment and worsened inequality.

What has become of those financial markets for whom so many South
Africans were sacrificed? Gambling in real estate, Merrill Lynch has
lost 82% of its share value since early 2007, before Sunday's $50
billion (R407 billion) rescue by the Bank of America.

Also laden with bad mortgage bonds, Lehman Brothers appears bankrupt,
joining insurer AIG and the vast US finance agencies Fannie Mae and
Freddie Mac, which were only barely saved thanks to a huge increase in
Washington's budget deficit.

That deficit is also covering a $3 trillion (R24.5 trillion) war, whose
purpose was to loot Iraq of its oil, against the efforts of civil
society peace groups, including a protest by 15 million people in
February 2003.

Look north-west now to Nigeria. Also thanks to US fossil fuel addiction,
the leading NGO Environmental Rights Action (Era) in Port Harcourt
worries about the revival of a war harking back more than 15 years, when
Ken Saro-Wiwa's Ogoni survival movement intensified its non-violent
efforts to rid the Niger Delta of the super-exploitive Shell Oil.

Saro-Wiwa faced a repressive state whose army was called in by Shell to
execute him on a frame-up charge in 1995, in spite of appeals by Nelson

Last week, a powerful guerrilla force, the Movement for the Emancipation
of the Niger Delta, kidnapped two South African oil workers and on
Monday forced Shell to evacuate 100 employees from an installation,
demanding that all foreign firms leave the area.

Meanwhile, Environmental Rights Action director Nimmo Bassey spent the
past few days with dozens of African environmental OilWatch activists in
Durban, at a meeting organised by the Pietermaritzburg NGO groundWork,
Environmental Rights Action's partner in the Friends of the Earth network.

Bassey's strategy is to keep the oil in the soil. To pay for needed
development and environmental clean-up, Environmental Rights Action
demands ecological debt repayment by the north to the south.

Last Friday, before a seminar at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, these
ecologists ventured on the famous Toxic Tour hosted by the South Durban
Community and Environmental Alliance, stopping in on leaky refineries
and pollution hot spots that give the area such high leukemia and asthma
rates. That alliance will soon file an environmental impact assessment
complaint to halt Transnet's proposed R50 billion pipeline that will
double petrol flows to Gauteng.

Aside from environmental racism (the pipeline takes a 200km southerly
detour to avoid white-dominated areas) several other reasons have
emerged to rethink the pipeline: climate change, refining problems,
Johannesburg auto congestion and the lack so far of political will to
build an alternative public transport system aside from the elitist
Gautrain white elephant.

Far better to blow up the Gauteng petrol pipeline before it is built,
through legal, nonviolent means, South Durban activists reckon, than to
contend with Niger Delta-type disasters such as the series of major tank
fires at installations from the Bluff down to Wentworth and Merebank
that began a year ago. Then and now, municipal officials failed south
Durban residents, by keeping secret the evacuation plan.

Look a bit further south, to the Wild Coast, where a similar
confrontation between communities and an unresponsive, crony-capitalist
state seems to have backfired against the multinational corporations.

A few weeks ago, minerals and energy spokesman Bheki Khumalo claimed
from Pretoria that the government carefully weighed all the options. But
after receiving a stern lecture in Xolobeni last Friday, minerals and
energy minister Buyelwa Sonjica conceded that a multibillion-rand
titanium sands project suffered from flawed consultation.

AmaMpondo King Mpondomini Sigcau demanded Sonjica withdraw the licence
to mine the dunes, which she secretly granted Australia's Mineral
Resource Commodities and black empowerment partner Xolobeni Empowerment
Company in July.

Sonjica confessed last Friday that, I am disappointed because most of
the things said here today, I did not know. Like so many officials, she
had not listened to civil society, especially the Amadiba Crisis
Committee and the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa and
instead, a month ago, attacked the community's lawyer, Richard Spoor,
simply for the colour of his skin.

A final glance should be towards Zimbabwe, where civil society demands
have been systematically ignored by power brokers, especially the South
African president.

Instead of heeding suggestions for a neutral transitional authority and
RDP-type socio-economic interventions made by the National People's
Convention in February, a fragile deal was done to keep Robert Mugabe in
power and seduce back multinational investors.

Does Mbeki deserve high praise for this, as The Mercury editorialists
wrote yesterday?

Consider Zimbabwean civil society activist Elinor Sisulu's point of
view: If I was sitting in Mbeki's powerful position, I know that I
would have conducted myself very differently. I would never ever have
pulled out all stops and used my power and influence to keep a ruthless
and ageing dictator in power. I would never have turned a blind eye to
the violence meted out to citizens in Zimbabwe. I would never have sat
on a report by my own generals, not only failing to act on that report,
but doing everything in my power to stave off pressure on the perpetrators.

Should the Zimbabwean government follow the advice of Investec's Roelof
Horne for austerity from within (tighten those belts, Zimbabwean
workers!) or of Mercury editors, to introduce drastic policies,
including slashing government spending and freeing up price, currency
and other controls as conditions for receiving foreign aid?

No, not if civil society can wrench the country from the depths of
another dubious elite transition.

Patrick Bond is the director of the UKZN Centre for Civil Society.

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