Location, Location, Location

December 6, 2011

To understand what is happening in Durban today, especially if you are in another part of the world, it is essential to take a step back to understand the local, national and continental context. It would be unwise to assume that there is already a common understanding upon which these reports are being read. Therefore I will try here to provide the foundation for such a common understanding, and the result is the longest report of the series. Here we will zoom in on our geographical, historical, political, economic and ecological context, making three stops : Africa, South Africa, and Durban. But as we tighten our lens, we will find that our instrument of observation is less of a telescope and more of a kaleidoscope. Recent centuries have shattered lands, peoples and knowledges. It is impossible to speak in many instances without taking sides. Objectivity is an illusion not only in the natural but the social sciences as well. It would be foolish to imagine that this is an exhaustive investigation, and even more foolish to imagine that someone like myself could even attempt such a thing. But it would be most foolish of all to not make a beginning. As Maria Mies and Veronik Bennholdt-Thomsen write, “[t]he path is the end! The most important step is the first step!”

Location #1: Africa


The continent of Africa, origin of the human species, has been carved up in more ways than one. A turbulent storm of contesting narratives surround and saturate it, especially abroad, where Africa means so many different things to so many different people.

Today the two prevailing families of narratives about Africa can be divided roughly into the liberal and the neo-liberal. The liberal narrative was captured by Andrew Rice in an article in The Nation in 2005, when he asked, “[h]ow can one continent be so out of step with humankind’s march of progress?” The liberal understands Africa as a continent left behind in a more-or-less steady process of modernization, beginning with the Englightenment in Europe, eclisped briefly by the anomalies of slavery and colonization, but now for the most part back on track. Africa’s persistent troubles are something of a mystery for the liberal mind, explained not with a single coherent narrative, but with many distinct strands, forming a frayed tapestry with lots of holes.

The neo-liberal narrative on the other hand is more optimistic. Its understanding of Africa was captured by South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel in 2005, when he celebrated that “[r]ight now, the macroeconomic conditions in Africa have never been better.” (cited by Bond 2006, p4) The neo-liberal mind sees not only slavery and colonization as an anomaly, but history up until about 1980 as well. Since then, power has been rightly taken away from governments and given to markets. Now we can sit back and wait for the modernization of the continent that is still to come.

Old ideas about Africa still prevail as well, in more or less updated forms. For example, Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa, initiated in 2004, concluded that “internal factors have been the primary culprit for Africa’s economic stagnation or decline over the past three decades.” (cited by Bond 2006, p95) For Tony Blair’s commission, Africa’s troubles remain Africa’s fault. The implicit subtext is that Europeans were right about the White Man’s Burden all along. They don’t talk about civilizing the continent anymore, instead they use words like “modernization” and “development.”

But age-old judgements of Africa are not always disguised with politically correct terms. We must beware of the comfortable illusion that global perceptions of “the dark continent” have changed very much in the last century. They persist with a new vocabulary. But the veil is thin and the reality often pokes its colonial head through. In his book Looting Africa, Patrick Bond provides an example:

Thus it was disgusting but logical, perhaps, that African people were settled into a theme village at an Austrian zoo in June 2005, their huts placed next to monkey cages in scenes reminiscent of nineteenth-century exhibitions. In an explanatory letter, zoo director Barbara Jantschke denied that this was “a mistake” because “I think the Augsburg zoo is exactly the right place to communicate an atmosphere of the exotic.” (Bond 2006, pxi)

Disgusting, but logical. Behind much of the recent pro-Africa rhetoric, NGOs, and government foreign aid of recent years is a crooked but unbroken line which connects the 17th century to the 21st. To understand how and why this has come to be, we must take a frank look at the underlying political economy of the African continent.

In the second half of the 20th century, revolutionary movements swept Africa, expelling European governments and decolonizing the continent. However, as described by some of the leading revolutionary figures themselves, from Kwame Nkrumah to Frantz Fanon and many many others, direct political rule was almost immediately replaced with indirect economic rule. Neo-colonialism today holds the continent of Africa in a subservience which is in many ways as exploitative and lethal as the colonialism of previous centuries.

The looting of Africa’s resources continues. It takes many forms, some of which will be described here. But the biggest macroeconomic picture is one which economists call unequal exchange. Decades after decolonization, the fundamental structure of the African economy remains unchanged from colonial times: Africa continues to produce basic commodities for export to industrialized countries, which then sell back to Africa, at higher prices, the manufactured goods produced with African raw materials. Nancy Alexander explains that what most commentators describe as a “poverty trap” is really a “commodity trap”, “signified by long-term decline of commodity prices, especially relative to the cost of manufactures.” (cited by Bond 2006, p62) Africa is of course not alone. While there a million devils in the details, this is the prevailing form that neocolonialism takes throughout all of Asia and Latin America.

In colonial times, resource extraction was for the most part enforced with guns and swords. Today it is done with money, and the most obvious form this takes is debt. As a whole, the debt of the global South rose from US$580 billion in 1980 to US$2.4 trillion in 2002. In 2002, the South paid the North a total of US$340 billion in interest alone, which puts the total foreign aid for that year, at $US37 billion, in necessary context. That was ten years ago, and the numbers have only grown higher. Interest payments are so high that debtor countries end up paying far more than they ever received. Adding up all the numbers, Eric Toussaint estimates that “since 1980, over 50 Marshall Plans (over 4.6 trillion) have been sent by the people of the Periphery to their creditors in the Centre.” (Bond 2006, p26)

Africa is at the center of this world of debt and usury. Bond estimates that between 1970 and 1996 alone, sub-Saharan Africa paid over US$100 billion more to the global North than it was ever loaned. This is of course business as usual, and “all’s fair in love and capitalism,” but we cannot allow numbers too big to imagine to confuse us about the morality of the whole affair. The global North not only colonized and pillaged the continent throughout the last several centuries, but using the economic power built on that same extracted wealth, it now loans money to Africa, at interest, to “develop” an economy built on continued resource extraction through unequal exchange. The effects are not only poverty and extreme ecological degradation, but also horrific wars over the scarce resources which remain.

Everything that I have described so far is above the counter. Follow the money; it’s not always obvious, but it’s not classified: The footprints can be tracked in the public record from the rapacious looting of Africa to corporations and governments in the global North. It is all perfectly legal. But this is not the whole picture. In addition to this official plunder, good old fashioned illegal robbery continues. In an article titled Africa’s Missing Billions, Khadija Sharife writes that every year, “more than $1 trillion exits developing countries, and more than $140 billion comes from Africa.”

How is all this possible?! asks the perspicacious reader. The answer lies in the dirty world of politics. What makes this politically possible is the system of international politics designed and brokered by the industrialized countries of the global North. In this system, controled by institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, Africa is treated as a continental Bantustan. In these institutions, Bond writes, “nearly fifty sub-Saharan African countries are represented by just two directors, while eight rich countries enjoy a director each and the US maintains veto power by holding more than 15 per cent of the votes.” (Bond 2006, p106) Africa is a second-class continent in international politics.

But even this doesn’t complete the ugly political picture. For there is no hegemony without consent. Africa’s subordinate position in the global economy, in history and today, cannot be explained only by the evil White colonizers and CEOs. No people can be dominated, on any scale, unless there are sell-outs among them. As Walter Rodney wrote in his seminal work How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,

The presence of a group of African sell-outs is part of the definition of underdevelopment. Any diagnosis of underdevelopment in Africa will reveal not just low per capita income and protein deficiencies, but also the gentlemen who dance in Abidjan, Accra and Kinshasa when music is played in Paris, London and New York.

To sum up, the neo-liberal narrative in a way has it right: from the perspective of global capitalism, things are looking up for the continent. Pesky revolutionary governments have been thoroughly eliminated and resource extraction is back on track. Politics have been transformed from the revolutionary luta continua to the new world order of “loot-a continua.” (Thiong’o 2007)

The old-fashioned liberal narrative is more naive. Africa has not been left behind by progress; in fact Africa has been and continues to be absolutely central to progress. African resources, human and natural, were the foundation for industrial and financial capitalism to grow into the all-inclusive world system it is today. It is not that humankind’s march of progress has left Africa behind, but that this very same march of progress is the central cause of Africa’s underdevelopment.

Location #2: Azania (South Africa)

South Africa

To speak the name of the country is to take sides. The anti-colonial name of this country is Azania. But strictly speaking Azania doesn’t exist yet. Azania was the project of Steve Biko and others; the creation of a new country and a new African subjectivity in the aftermath of colonization and apartheid. But Azania is not yet a reality. The economic, political, racial and psychological contradictions have not been overcome. Yet the beloved country grinds on, irresistably and irrevocably. “The land will make us one,” Olive Schreiner predicted in her short story, 1899. But over a century later, and two decades after apartheid, no one people can claim it. In old and new ways it is as divided as ever. “I write about South Africa,” wrote Breyten Breytenbach, “which is the quintessential No Man’s Land… The land shall belong to no one. Not even to the deads.” (p239)

South Africa is the richest country on the continent. The central state of Gauteng, which includes the cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg, has a GDP higher than the rest of Africa combined. The Johannesburg stock exchange is several magnitudes larger than than all the other African stock exchanges combined. But instead of mobilizing this incredible wealth for the equal benefit of its people, South Africa today is a neo-colonial beacon of tremendous inequality, exploitation, resource extraction and ecological ruin.

In order to understand South Africa today, it is necessary to understand its political system. The African National Congress, which has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid, has a highly ambiguous position locally and internationally. Understood as the leaders of the struggle against apartheid, many see the ANC as a revolutionary government. However, in the aftermath of apartheid, Nelson Mandela’s “long walk to freedom” has not been followed. Well into the second decade of the 21st century, the cards are very much on the table to any discerning observer. The policies of the ANC in recent history and today have been described most succinctly as “talk left, walk right.” Using the language of the freedom struggle, the ANC today presides over an economic apartheid and some of the worst ecological devastation in the world.

This reality is highly contentious and uncomfortable, especially abroad. Already, I am probably losing some readers. To explain further, perhaps it will be useful at this moment to give a few quotes from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography:

“The ANC has never at any period of its history advocated a revolutionary change in the economic structure of the country, nor has it, to the best of my recollection, ever condemned capitalist society.” [spoken in court in which he was on trial] (p366)… “The cynical have always suggested that the Communists were using us. But who is to say that we were not using them?” (p121)… “the Freedom Charter was not a blueprint for socialism but for African-style capitalism. I told them I had not changed my mind since then.” [about his negotiations with apartheid leaders while still in jail] (p538)

The possibility that the revolutionary ANC was headed toward what it has become today was not a complete surprise to many in South Africa. Breytenbach, who briefly shared the same jail with Mandela at the time when Mandela first started his private negotiations with the apartheid state, wrote in his prison memoirs: “it is conceivable that the present totalitarian state will be replaced by one which may be totalitarian in a different way, and intolerant of alternative revolutionary schools of thought — more hegemonic but minus the racism.” (p359) Breytenbach of course was not alone in his criticism of the ANC. But you must really search to find these voices. History books, after all, are written by the victors.

The legacy of the freedom struggle is very much alive in South Africa, and the South African people are some of the most militant in the world. The last two decades have seen thousands of mass protests of different kinds against the ANC. Nonetheless, there is a remarkable tendency for foreign journalists, activists and analysts to overlook this. About this trend, Ashwin Desai writes of “the epistemological wall that hides evidence of South Africa’s failed revolution.” In his 2002 book We Are the Poors, Desai describes some grassroots perspectives of the ANC leadership: “One APF [Anti-Privatization Forum] member commented that marching with ANC bigshots for “the hopes and dreams of a better life for Black people is like marching with J. Edgar Hoover for civil rights .” (Desai 2002)

Some readers may question my prerogative here. What right do I have to criticize the party that beat apartheid? Is this my battle to fight? I am only following the lead of the militant opposition to the ANC that has been pervasive in South Africa for over a decade. Forinstance, at a rally in 2001, anti-apartheid freedom fighter and poet Dennis Brutus was uncompromising:

“It is pure hypocrisy for this government to parade around as if it is the champion of the anti-racist struggle. It is hypocrisy because its very own economic policies continue to hurt Black people, in the most callous fashion. And what’s more, the stance of the people with whom I broke stones on Robben Island or waved placards in exile, on international forums is just as disgraceful. They make common cause with naked imperialism and oppose policies that could free the South from global apartheid.” [quoted by Desai, 2002]

It is not only the celebrities but the common people who hold this view. In the same year, a 58 year old woman named Mohapi had this to say:

“all of this globalization garbage our new black government has forced upon us has done nothing but make things worse… But we will unite and we will fight this government with the same fury that we fought the whites in their day.” (Quoted in the Washington Post, November 2001)

What is the grounds for this widespread resentment toward the ANC? It is not uncommon to hear people in South Africa today use the phrase “worse than apartheid.” Such a statement must obviously be investigated. For the answers we must once again look into the underlying political economy.

The basic economic indicators cannot be ignored: the Gini coefficient, measuring basic economic inequality (on a scale of 0 to 1), soared from below 0.6 in 1994 to 0.72 by 2006. In the same period, the unemployment rate doubled, from 16 percent in 1994 to around 32 percent by the early 2000s. (Bond and Ngwane) Today the unemployment rate is over 40%. (Amandla, Oct. 2011) This inequality is highly racialized; the black majority remans poor and the white minority remains rich. There are some rich blacks, and just like under apartheid there are some poor whites. But South Africa remains one of the most racially divided places on the planet. The state which condemns its people to a post-racial economic apartheid, which spends three times as much on private security as it does on public housing, also plays a role in the international arena, which has been described by many as subimperial.

In the arena of international trade agreements, South Africa has opposed not only the demands of the grassroots global justice movement, it has also consistently undermined the unity of African states. It has embraced many of the most exploitative and extractive trade agreements, promoting privatization and huge development projects that displace the poor and benefit the rich. Also in opposition to grassroots movements and other African states, the ANC government has been outspoken in its opposition to debt cancellation, and has also rigorously rejected the idea of reparations for both the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and Apartheid. The leading financier of the continent, South Africa has also been the major force behind capital flight and financial crisis in Africa. Immediately after apartheid, the ANC government opened its currency to the international market, and allowed the largest corporations to move offshore. (Bond 2006, p51)

Sub-imperialism is not only economic but also military. Despite some brief rhetorical opposition by ANC heads of state to the US invasion of Iraq, Bond writes that

in early 2003… the ANC government permitted three Iraq-bound warships to refuel in Durban, and the state-owned weapons manufacturer Denel sold US$160 million worth of artillery propellants and 326 hand-held laser range finders to the British army, and 125 laser-guidance sightes to the US marines. (Bond 2006, p112)

But South Africa is not only a tool for foreign imperialism. It has ambitions of its own. South African corporations with government complicity have done their share of pillage on the continent. In the years right after apartheid, the UN Security Council accused a dozen South African companies — including the huge former parastatal Iscor — of illegally ‘looting’ the DRC during the late 1990s turmoil which left an estimated three million dead, a problem that went unpunished in Pretoria. (Bond 2004)

South Africa is an ideal case study of the two-edged sword of capitalism, both of them lethal: economic crisis and ecological catastrophe. Speaking recently at the Dirty Energy Week conference prior to COP17, Nnimmo Bassey, author of To Cook a Continent described the political ecology of the African continent with an appropriately violent metaphor: If Africa is shaped like a gun, he said, then Nigeria is the trigger, and South Africa is the nozzle.

It is a nozzle in the very literal sense, whose target is the atmosphere. Per-capita carbon emissions in South Africa are the highest in the entire world. They are twenty times higher than even the United States. (Bond 2006, p150) The South African Air Quality Act doesn’t consider greenhouse gases to be a pollutant, so there is no legal remedy to this rampant contamination. With not only some of the largest oil refineries and coal plants in the world, South Africa is also the only country in the continent with nuclear reactors. And if it seems as though things couldn’t get any ecologically worse, South Africa is also the gateway for the entrance of genetically modified crops into the continent, despite widespread local opposition. In a way it is the perfect place COP17: Bond describes South Africa as a “poster-child for elite mismanagement of the climate threat.” (Bond 2006, p144)

To wrap up this chronology of South African political economy and ecology, it needs to be emphasized that these are not just the collected ramblings of a foreign radical:

In June 2004, a Cape Town meeting of Jubilee members from Angola, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, the DRC, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, and partners from Brazil, ARgentina, and the Philippines, all working on a comprehensive Illegitimate Debt Audit ‘expressed deep concern with South aFrica’s sub-imperialist role and its use of NEPAD [New Partnership for Africa's Development] to promote the neo-liberal paradigm to further dominate the rest of the African continent politically, eocnomically, cutlrually and militarily, serving the interests of transnational corporations. (Bond 2004)

And yet this account of South Africa should not be swallowed as a glass half-empty. The ANC government does not represent the interests or desires of the vast majority of the South African people. At every point there is and has been mass opposition. The legacy of the anti-apartheid struggle is very much alive — mobilization never stopped! South Africa currently has the second highest rate of social protests in the world (after China). As the contradictions of economy and ecology develop, there can be no doubt that the South African people will struggle with their world-renowned indominitable spirit for liberation. The path will be long and hard, and the many deep contradictions that pervade the society will not be overcome except through arduous struggle. But the promise of Azania is still very much alive.

Location #3: eThekwini (Durban)

The name Durban comes from the colonizer Lieutenant-General Sir Benjamin d’Urban. The original Zulu name of the city is eThekwini, but like Azania it is not used. Partially this is because the contradictions of settler colonialism are not resolved, but it is also because the name is uncomfortable; named after the geographic shape of its bay, its name means literally “one bull’s testicle.” We laugh, but it is important to make the original name present. Like Azania, eThekwini is not a political reality in any meaningful sense, so we will use the word Durban, the name used by the vast majority of its residents. Durban is at the center of this year’s contradictions: immense ecological devastation, but also popular uprising.

Durban is the largest port in Africa. It is a city of 3.5 million people, with the demographic breakdown at 63 percent African, 22 percent Indian, 11 percent white, and 3 percent colored, or mixed race. It has the continent’s biggest shopping mall, and also the biggest landfill. Like its population, its history, and its probable future, the narratives that construct the meaning of Durban are divided.

The continent’s largest landfill, for example, is known by the UN as the largest “Clean Development Mechanism”. The UNFCCC will take you on a tour of it, “where you’ll learn about the achivements and challenges of this gas-to-electricity project” (COP17 Durban City Guide). It is unlikely that among the challenges they’ll include the militant resistance of the surrounding communities to it, including that of renowned freedom fighter Sajida Khan, who died fighting it.

The landfill is only one of many ecological disaster zones. The COP17 Durban City Guide claims that “Durban has always set high environmental standards.” But the city is literally saturated and surrounded by toxic waste:

Emissions Map

[image courtesy of Patrick Bond]

The city is a model of neoliberal privatization, a trend accelerated greatly by the recent World Cup. The public transport system is in shambles. At the piers along the port, fisherfolk have been evicted to make way for surfers. But no one can escape the contradictions; the water is polluted for both.

In some narratives, Durban appears to be a tranquil tourist destination. Lonely Planet recently ranked Durban in the top ten family beach resorts in the world. The COP17 Durban City Guide says that the the city “is renowned for its relaxed nature.” History tells quite a different story. The history of resistance and revolution in the city is truly unparalleled; from Shaka Zulu who repelled the British Army, to Mohandas Gandhi, who developed and pioneered satyagraha here, to John Langalibalele, the founding president of the African National Congress, to Albert Luthuli, another ANC president, to martyred communist leader Johannes Nkosi, to Monty Naicker who first allied Indians with the ANC in the 1940s, to Steve Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, to United Democratic Front leader Victoria and Griffiths Mxenge, to the dockworkers who launched the modern South African labor movement with their historic strike in 1973, to freedom fighter and poet Dennis Brutus, it is difficult to think of a city in the world with a more politically militant history. This history is far from over, and it is not only the big names with big theories who write it. For example in 2008, the South African Unemployed People’s Movement staged an “eat-in” at two major downtown food-stores, resulting in 200 arrests. From satyagraha to the mobilizations surrounding COP17, Durban is far from relaxed.

We have finally arrived. “The temptation,” wrote Breytenbach, “when writing about No Man’s Land/Azania, is to pour forth visions of apocalypse. Or to give way to the temptation of trying to be a prophet. Or both.” (p358) Today, apocalypse and prophecy are not temptations, but the territory and vocation thrust upon us. It remains difficult to say with certainty how Durban and COP17 will go down in history. But there is no doubt however that this history will be the future of the entire world. Nothing less is at stake.

Stay tuned!


Looting Africa, The economics of exploitation, by Patrick Bond, University of KwaZulu Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, and Zed Books, London and New York, 2006

The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, by Breyten Breytenbach, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 1963

Long Walk To Freedom, by Nelson Mandela, Little Brown and Company, New York and Boston, 1995

How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, by Walter Rodney, Howard University Press, 1981

Wizard of the Crow, by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Anchor Books, New York, 2007

We Are the Poors, Community struggles in post-Apartheid South Africa, by Ashwin Desai, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2002

1899, (short story, published in various collections) by Oliver Schreiner

Why Is Africa Still Poor? by Andrew Rice, The Nation Magazine, October 2006

Africa’s Missing Billions, by Khadija Sharife, Foreign Policy, May 2009

We are the Poors, by Ashwin Desai, Monthly Review Press, 2002

Community Resistance to Energy Privatization, by Patrick Bond and Trevor Ngwane, presented to the Gyeongsang University Institute for Social Studies

Unemployment: Who’s To Blame? editorial staff, Amandla, Issue No. 21, October 2011

The ANC’s ‘Left Turn’ and South African Sub-imperialism, by Patrick Bond, Review of African Political Economy, December 1, 2004

COP 17 South AfricaThis post is part of a series. A delegation from Ecosocialist Horizons is in Durban, South Africa, bringing you reports from the United Nations conference on climate change, known as COP 17.