Making a new world – Part Three: Apartheid: the sequel

Paul Kingsnorth
19 May 2003

openDemocracy: The third chapter of your book describes a journey to South Africa. It is titled Apartheid: the sequel. There’s a striking quote: “political freedom without economic freedom is meaningless”. What is the point here?

Paul Kingsnorth: I was more startled by what is going on in South Africa than any other place I went. Most of those in the west who regard themselves as vaguely liberal – and I include myself in this – tend to have warm feelings about the African National Congress (ANC), which led the liberation of South Africa and now governs the country. But what I found in South Africa was that many of the people who had suffered under apartheid and fought against it are now ferociously angry. They say – and at first I found this quite hard to believe – that their lives are now actually worse than they were under apartheid, in the material sense.

Yes, they have the vote, yes they have democracy. But what’s happened – and I interviewed a senior ANC official who told me this very frankly – is that the government has bought into all the presumptions of the Washington consensus. They have accepted the starkest model of globalisation – multinational capitalism and privatisation – because they want to position South Africa as an emerging nation that will attract investment.

The result is bleak. I spoke to people in Soweto and Chatsworth (a township in Durban) where, for example, people have had their electricity and water supply cut off because they cannot afford to pay. They can’t pay. They don’t have jobs. There is 70% to 80% unemployment. School fees have been imposed where they didn’t have to pay before. Many people have been thrown out of their homes because they can’t pay rent – and we are not talking about work-shy people.

The view from Soweto

openDemocracy: How did Michael Sachs, the ANC head of policy and research, explain the situation to you?

Paul Kingsnorth: He said we don’t like the state of the world but that’s the way it is; we’re in a unipolar, capitalist, globalised world, and there’s nothing we can do unless we shut ourselves off like North Korea or Cuba. So we’re going to try and make the best of this.

A lot of activists in South Africa now seem to think that the ANC is malicious. It didn’t look that way to me. I think they’re trying to make the best of the situation as they see it. They genuinely feel that they can’t do much at a national level at the moment, because the minute they try anything radical then the investment will flee and the economy will collapse.

The land reform programme was a classic example. This would have redistributed farmland to black people. It stalled because the World Bank, international investors and South Africa’s own financial community won’t allow them to do it.

Many supposedly left-wing parties around the world, including Britain, are facing a similar conundrum. They have decided to try and make the best of living within global capitalism, to redistribute a few crumbs from the table.

It’s very clear from South Africa that there aren’t any easy answers to that approach. Activists are not saying, right, what we need is a good old-fashioned socialist state, or a global communist revolution. The idea that if you come along and seize the state for the people then everything will be alright clearly does not work any more.

openDemocracy: So what are the activists you visited in South Africa proposing instead?

Paul Kingsnorth: It varies depending on who you talk to. What you might call the ‘old left’ is still very strong in South Africa. But many others – what looks to me like a new generation of people – are realising that that cannot be enough in such a globalised world – precisely the same point that the ANC made to me. They are focusing more on decentralising power, redistributing wealth and influence from the bottom up – in essence, taking what the powers-that-be will not or cannot give them.

A good example is Trevor Ngwame an ex-member of the ANC, a former councillor in Soweto who was thrown out of the party because he opposed the plans for privatisation of water there. He and others are still looking to the day when a ‘real’ grassroots party can take power at national level.

As in the other countries I visited, it will be a long hard struggle. There are answers and there are solutions – some of them are in place already. But none of them are total, and none of them are easy to achieve.

Next: Brazil and West Papua

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