In “The Mandela Barbie,” BBC journalist and investigative reporter Greg Palast’s eulogy of Nelson Mandela provides a rare breath of sanity in the media stampede to remake a legendary Marxist revolutionary into an icon of free market capitalism. According to Palast, “The ruling class creates commemorative dolls and statues of revolutionary leaders as a way to tell us their cause is won, so go home.”
Al Jazeera America also offers a fairly balanced assessment of Mandela’s accomplishments. In “Mandela Sought Balance Between Socialism and Capitalism,” Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson acknowledge that Mandela and the African National Congress totally failed to deliver on economic provisions – freedom from poverty, genuine equality of opportunity and a fair share of national wealth – in the ANC’s 1955 Freedom Charter. They also note that despite the advent of majority rule, poverty and living standards are much worse for black South Africans under the ANC.
I frankly expected Democracy Now, the Nation, Mother Jones and other “alternative” media outlets to do a better job of distinguishing between superficial ballot box democracy and the genuine freedom that can only come from true economic democracy. Instead they were all happy to ape CNN and the New York Times in celebrating the cosmetic reforms masking the reality of brutal South African living conditions.
Naomi Klein and The Shock Doctrine
Naomi Klein has an excellent chapter on the Freedom Charter and South Africa’s worsening economic apartheid in her bestselling 2007 The Shock Doctrine. In “Born in Chains: South Africa’s Constricted Freedom,” she offers a blow by blow description of the secret negotiations between the ANC and the outgoing apartheid regime. In her view, the ANC was clearly outmaneuvered at the negotiating table. This happened in part due to political naïveté, in part due to the threat of civil war (the South African police were continuing to massacre ANC leaders and white industrialists were arming black gangs to terrorize the black townships), and in part due to the ANC’s misplaced confidence in Thabo Mbeke, a London-trained admirer of Margaret Thatcher (who would succeed Mandela as president in 1998).
The Trap of “Trickle Down” Economics
The economic package Mbeke accepted at the negotiating table contained standard “trickle down” provisions aimed at attracting foreign investment, in the hope economic benefits would “trickle down” to the black townships. Among its provisions were
- establishment of a private, independent (unaccountable) central bank to issue and control South Africa’s money supply. This was a classic Chicago School neoliberal move the ANC took against the advice of their economic adviser Vishnu Padayachee. When Padayachee subsequently learned that the white finance ministers from the apartheid regime would run both the central bank and the treasury, he knew the economic provisions of the Freedom Charter could never be enacted and refused to serve in the ANC government.
- an agreement to honor the $14 billion IMF debt the apartheid government had racked up.
- an agreement to sign onto the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades (GATT), the precursor to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
- an agreement to guarantee (and pre-pay) lifelong pensions of former white officials under the apartheid regime.
Because the apartheid regime and Mbeke minimized these economic concessions as merely “technical” and “administrative,” they received no serious examination by either the media or ANC loyalists. Only in 1994, after ANC leaders assumed positions in government, did they recognize this economic stranglehold left them with no real power.
Between 1994 and 1996, the ANC government attempted to make good on the Freedom Charter’s promises of wealth redistribution through government investment in 100,000 new homes and subsidies to connect millions of households to water, electricity and phone services. In the end, however, mounting government debt forced the ANC to raise rents and utility prices, as well as evicting families and cutting off services when poor residents couldn’t make their payments.
A Missed Opportunity
Once the threat of civil war abated, Klein feels the ANC missed a historic opportunity to launch a second liberation struggle against economic apartheid. Instead, under the neoliberal stranglehold of an independent central bank, the IMF and the WTO, the economic welfare of black South Africans steadily worsened. Instead of creating new jobs, the ANC was forced to shut down hundreds of auto plants and textile factories because of WTO rules outlawing government subsidization of manufacturing. They were also required to abide by WTO intellectual property rules which prevented them from providing generic drugs to millions of AIDS patients.
Poverty and Living Conditions Worse Under ANC
After three decades, there is no longer any doubt that neoliberal trickle down economics benefits wealthy corporations at the expense of people and always increases income inequality. South Africa is no exception. As Klein notes, the effects of economic apartheid were already brutally clear after only twelve years under a majority black government. By 2006
- the number of South Africans living on less than $1 per day had doubled (from 2 million to 4 million) under the ANC.
- unemployment among black south Africans had more than doubled, from 23-48%.
- close to 1 million people had been evicted from farms under the ANC.
- despite the 1.8 million new homes build by the ANC, 2 million black South African had lost their homes.
Klein’s website also has links to some of the source documents she used in compiling her chapter on economic apartheid Shock Doctrine Resources