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Violence In South Africa: Courtesy of the World Bank and IMF

This article in the New York Times about violence in South Africa is not qualitatively different than the one by Reuters — lingering conflicts between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the African National Congress, right wing apartheid supporters and of course poverty are looked to for responsibility.

But no attention is given to the cause of that poverty. One of the most gut-wrenching parts of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine was the brutal vivisection of how so-called "free market" forces conspired in the final days to saddle South Africa with crushing financial burdens — forcing the victims of apartheid to pay the debts of their oppressors, quite literally:

In the first years after the handover, it cost the new government 30 billion rand annually (about $4.5 billion) in servicing — a sum that provides a stark contrast with the paltry total of $85 million that the government ultimately paid out to more than nineteen thousand victims of apartheid killings and torture and their families. Nelson Mandela has cited the debt burden as the single greatest obstacle to keeping the promises of the Freedom Charter. "That is 30 billion [rand] we did not have to build houses as we planned, before we came into government, to make sure that our children go to the best schools, that unemployment is properly addressed and that everybody has the dignity of having a job, a decent income, of being able to provide shelter to his beloved, to feed them…We are limited by the the debt that we inherited."


[B]etween 1997 and 2004, the South African government sold eighteen state-owned firms, raising $4 billion, but almost half the money went to servicing the debt. In other words, not only did the ANC renege on Mandela’s original pledge of "the nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopoly industry" but because of the debt, it was going the opposite — selling off national assets to make good on the debts of its oppressors.

Then there is the matter of where, precisely, the money is going. During the transition negotiations, F.W. de Klerk’s team demanded that all civil servants be guaranteed their jobs even after the handover; those who wanted to leave, they argued, should receive hefty lifelong pensions. This was an extraordinary demand in a country with no social safety net to speak of, yet was one of several "technical" issues on which the ANC ceded ground. The concession meant that the new ANC government carried the cost of two governments — its own, and a shadow white government that was out of power. Forty percent of the government’s annual debt payments go to the country’s massive pension fund. The vast majority of the beneficiaries are former apartheid employees.

In the end, South Africa has wound up with a twisted case of reparations in reverse, with the white businesses that reaped enormous profits from black labor during the apartheid years paying not a cent in reparations, but the victims of apartheid continuing to send large paychecks to their former victimizers. And how do they raise money for this generosity? By stripping the state of its assets through privatization — a modern form of the very looting that the ANC had been so intent on avoiding when it agreed to negotiations, hoping to prevent a repeat of Mozambique. Unlike what happened in Mozambique, however, where civil servants broke machinery, stuffed their pockets and then fled, in South Africa the dismantling of the state and the pillaging of its coffers continue to this day.

And of course, the government has their hands virtually tied in trying to ameliorate the situation:

Need more money to build more and larger houses for he poor and to bring free electricity to the townships? Sorry — the budget is being eaten up by servicing the massive debt, passed on quietly by the apartheid government. Print more money? Tell that to the apartheid-era head of the central bank. Free water for all? Not likely. The World Bank, with its large in-country contingent of economists, researchers and trainers (a self-proclaimed "Knowledge Bank"), is making private sector partnerships the norm. Want to impose currency controls to guard against wild speculation? That would violate the $850 million IMF deal, signed, conveniently enough, right before the elections. Raise the minimum wage to close the apartheid income gap? Nope. The IMF deal promises "wage restraint." And don’t even think about ignoring these commitments — any change will be regarded as evidence of dangerous national untrustworthiness, a lack of commitment to "reform," an absence of a "rules-based system." All of which will lead to currency crashes, aid cuts and capital flight. The bottom line was that South Africa was free but simultaneously captured; each one of these arcane acronyms representing a different thread in the web that pinned down the limbs of the new government.

It’s a pretty neat racket, no?

Articles like the Reuters or NYT one make you feel like you entered the story rather late in the plot, and since there is no attempt at backfill the impression is that the problems of South Africans are isolated and home grown.

They’re not.

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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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