|Whether in bustling cities or remote villages, the 1880s and 1890s were years of terrifying upheaval for Africans. Fleet upon fleet of foreign soldiers armed with new weaponry – and a sense of entitlement – descended, seemingly overnight.
In the space of just 20 years, 90 per cent of Africa was brought under European occupation. Europe had captured a continent.
Europe was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. The advent of the machine was transforming the cities there into the workshop of the world – a workshop in need of raw materials. It was the dawn of industrial-scale production, modern capitalist economies and mass international trade. And in this new industrial era the value of Africa rocketed – not only for its materials and as a strategic trade route, but also as a market for the goods Europe now produced in bulk.
But the scramble for Africa was not just about economics. Colonialism had become the fast-track to political supremacy in Europe. Rival European powers convened in the German capital and in February 1885 signed the Act of Berlin – an agreement to abolish slavery and allow free trade. The act also drew new borders on the map of Africa, awarding territory to each European power – thus legalising the scramble for Africa.
But with the Second World War – which saw the peak of Europe’s dependency on African troops – a powerful genie was released from a bottle – African nationalism. The tipping point came on February 3, 1960, when Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, gave his ‘wind of change’ speech. Within 10 months, Britain had surrendered two key African territories and France 14. The rate of decolonisation when it arrived was breathtaking.
Seventeen African nations gained their independence in 1960, but the dreams of the independence era were short-lived. Africa … states of independence tells the story of some of those countries – stories of mass exploitation, of the ecstasy of independence and of how – with liberation – a new, covert scramble for resources was born.
BRICS bloc’s rising ‘sub-imperialism’
Is this the latest threat to Africa?
2012-11-29, Issue 608
Like Berlin in 1884-85, the BRICS Durban summit is expected to carve up Africa more efficiently, unburdened – now as then – by what will be derided as ‘Western’ concerns about democracy and human rights.
The heads of state of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) network of governments are coming to Durban, South Africa, in four months, meeting on March 26-27 at the International Convention Centre (ICC), Africa’s largest venue. Given their recent performance, it is reasonable to expect another “1%” summit, wreaking socioeconomic and ecological havoc. And that means it is time for the first BRICS countersummit, to critique top-down “sub-imperialist” bloc formation, and to offer bottom-up alternatives.
After all, we have had some bad experiences at the Durban ICC.
In 2001, in spite of demands by 10,000 protesters, the United Nations World Conference Against Racism refused to grapple with reparations for slavery and colonialism or with apartheid-Israel’s racism against Palestinians (hence Tel Aviv’s current ethnic cleansing of Gaza goes unpunished).
The African Union got off to a bad start here, with its 2002 launch, due to reliance on the neoliberal New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) promoted by Pretoria.
The 2003 World Economic Forum’s African regional meeting hastened governments’ supplication to multinational corporate interests in spite of protests.
In 2011, Durban’s UN COP17 climate summit – better known as the ‘Conference of Polluters’ – featured Washington’s sabotage, with no new emissions cuts and an attempted revival of the non-solution called ‘carbon trading’, also called ‘the privatisation of the air’.
Like Berlin in 1884-85, the BRICS Durban summit is expected to carve up Africa more efficiently, unburdened – now as then – by what will be derided as “Western” concerns about democracy and human rights. Reading between the lines, its resolutions will:
– support favoured corporations’ extraction and land-grab strategies;
– worsen Africa’s retail-driven deindustrialisation (South Africa’s Shoprite and Makro – soon to be run by Walmart – are already notorious in many capital cities for importing even simple products that could be supplied locally);
– revive failed projects such as Nepad; and
– confirm the financing of both land grabbing and the extension of neocolonial infrastructure through a new ‘BRICS Development Bank’, likely to be based just north of Johannesburg where the Development Bank of Southern Africa already does so much damage following Washington’s script.
The question is whether in exchange for the Durban summit amplifying such destructive tendencies, which appears certain, can those few of Africa’s elites who may be invited leverage any greater influence in world economic management via the BRICS? With South Africa’s finance minister Pravin Gordhan’s regular critiques of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), there is certainly potential for BRICS to “talk left” about the global-governance democracy deficit.
But watch the ‘walk right’ carefully. In the vote for World Bank president earlier this year, for example, Pretoria’s choice was hard-core Washington ideologue Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Nigerian finance minister who with IMF managing director Christine Lagarde catalysed the Occupy movement’s near revolution in January, with a removal of petrol subsidies. Brasilia chose the moderate economist Jose Antonio Ocampo and Moscow backed Washington’s choice: Jim Yong Kim.
This was a repeat of the prior year’s fiasco in the race for IMF managing director, won by Lagarde in spite of ongoing corruption investigations against her by French courts, because the Third World was divided and conquered. BRICS appeared in both cases as incompetent, unable to even agree on a sole candidate, much less win their case in Washington.
Yet in July, BRICS treasuries sent US$100 billion in new capital to the IMF, which was seeking new systems of bail-out for banks exposed in Europe. South Africa’s contribution was only $2 billion, a huge sum for Gordhan to muster against local trade union opposition. Explaining the South African contribution – initially he said it would be only one tenth as large – Gordhan told Moneyweb last year that it was on condition that the IMF became more “nasty” [sic] to desperate European borrowers, as if the Greek, Spanish, Portuguese and Irish poor and working people were not suffering enough.
And the result of this BRICS intervention is that China gains IMF voting power, but Africa actually loses a substantial fraction of its share. Even Gordhan admitted at last month’s Tokyo meeting of the IMF and world Bank that it is likely “the vast majority of emerging and developing countries will lose quota shares – an outcome that will perpetuate the democratic deficit.” And given “the crisis of legitimacy, credibility and effectiveness of the IMF”, it “is simply untenable” that Africa only has two seats for its 45 member countries.
Likewise, South Africa’s role in Africa has been “nasty”, as confirmed when Nepad was deemed “philosophically spot on” by lead US State Department Africa official Walter Kansteiner in 2003, and foisted privatisation of even basic services on the continent. In a telling incident this year, the Johannesburg parastatal firm Rand Water was forced to leave Ghana after failing – with a Dutch for-profit partner (Aqua Vitens) – to improve Accra’s water supply, as also happened in Maputo, Mozambique, (Saur from Paris) and Dar es Salaam (Biwater from London) in Tanzania.
As a matter of principle, BRICS appears hell bent on promoting the further commodification of life, at a time when the greatest victory won by ordinary Africans in the last decade is under attack: the winning of the Treatment Action Campaign’s demand for affordable access to AIDS medicines, via India’s cheap generic versions of drugs. A decade ago, they cost $10,000 per person per year and only a tiny fraction of desperate people received the medicines. Now, more than 1.5 million South Africans – and millions more in the rest of Africa – get treatment, thus raising the South Africa’s average life expectancy from 52 in 2004 to 60 today, according to reliable statistics released this month.
However, in recent months, Obama has put an intense squeeze on India to cut back on generic medicine R&D and production, as well as making deep cuts in his own government’s aid commitment to fund African healthcare. In Durban, the city that is home to the most HIV+ people in the world, Obama’s move resulted in this year’s closure of AIDS public treatment centres at three crucial sites. One was the city’s McCord Hospital, which ironically was a long-standing ally of the NGO Partners in Health, whose cofounder was Obama’s pick for World Bank president, Jim Kim.