Apartheid Still Matters
Posted: Saturday, September 27, 2003
by Peter Hardie, www.blackcommentator.com
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A recent editorial chastised African Americans for being "stuck" and "isolated", "not part of the global village." The writer was reviewing the recent events in Liberia, and the lukewarm attention of the African American community. Liberia is not the only thing about which we are lukewarm. We are lukewarm about political parties, though perhaps for good cause. We are lukewarm about the neoliberal debate. We are lukewarm about other people of color. We are lukewarm in our embrace of the critique of economic globalization. We are lukewarm about all of Africa.
In our defense, we continue to confront some of the worst conditions forced upon citizens of this country. I need not go into detail. Our level of mobilization around our immediate concerns underwhelms at times, especially at the national level. We have seen too much death, and we are tired of crying, tired of dying.
As chronic as the treatment of African Americans has been in this nation, the cry for internationalism has been as consistent. It is that cry that got Malcolm and Martin killed, Robeson blacklisted, Garvey destroyed, DuBois' right to travel revoked. In a Zen way, it may be that we are inspired to our greatest clarity, unity and level of organization by looking outward, de-focusing on our own concerns, and remembering our true place, globally and historically.
African Americans have historic connection and partnership with the nations of Africa. From DuBois who helped initiate the first five Pan-African Congresses beginning at the turn of the century, through leaders like Garvey and Malcolm X, we have recognized that we are one people, separated only by a few hundred years of kidnapping and slavery. Our historic connection to the cause of African liberation and the linkages of our leaders to leaders on that continent helped forge us as a political force in the U.S. We understood liberation, we understood land as a political goal, and we understood the sharp analogies between slavery and colonialism, between sharecropping and neocolonialism.
Understanding the political arena as a global one is the best solution to the ongoing plight of African Americans today. We will not solve our employment problem until we understand labor as a global phenomenon, employers as global actors, and much of the wealth in our country (and the world) as the plunder of corporate thieves, rinsed in the blood of Africans and other indigenous peoples. The ability of the corporate agenda to dominate the American landscape is directly dependent on their strength as global competitors. Depressed wages, the increased gap between rich and poor, the sale of the public domain (schools, water and utilities, roads, prisons) to privateers, the lack of political challenge to the two headed beast we call a democracy—all these are features of the tableau before us. As corporate wealth and power grow unfettered, Africans throughout the world share a special place of exploitation, regardless of their nationality. African Americans need a much greater presence in the growing movement against corporate globalization; that movement could use some color. We need better and deeper connections to popular movements and organizations in other countries. And there are many such opportunities.
In the fall of 2002, Jubilee South Africa and the Khulumani Support Group filed suit in US circuit court for damages suffered by plaintiffs during the apartheid period in South Africa. Jubilee South Africa is a part of the growing global movement for economic justice, particularly focused on issues of debt relief. The Khulumani Group is a support group, made up of victims and the family members of victims of murder, torture, disfigurement, and disability—the signatures of apartheid rule.
The lawsuit is part of a broad campaign that combines trade union federations, land reform activists, anti-privatization forces, churches, and civic and other non-governmental organizations. Their basic principle is that all who benefited from apartheid should pay. This includes business, foreign and local, and foreign governments who supported apartheid and business activity in contravention of sanctions.
The resolution of apartheid, like the resolution of colonialism in the rest of Africa, was not completed when the government changed hands. Indeed, US and European complicity and interference in the post-colonial affairs of African states grew worse. Independence has been costly for Africans, presaged when a newly free Haiti was saddled with compensation debts to their former slaveholders two centuries ago. In largely all cases, the ownership of the land, the operations of corporations, and the location of wealth changed little. The abandonment of colonialism in the face of popular resistance did not prevent the imperialists from using political and military means to ensure an economic status quo favorable to business. Indeed, as Egyptian economist Samir Amin has researched, much of the so-called developing world has been kept at the margins of the global market to allow manipulation of the local governments and economies in the interests of the stronger global trading entities.
During the transitional negotiations for control of the state, the African National Congress (ANC) made a tactical decision to avoid naked confrontation with the forces of national and international capital. The current chaos in Zimbabwe and the international vilification of Mugabe gives the neoliberals/pro-corporate sector in the ANC comfort; they can point to Mugabe's current plight, and argue that South Africa could have been Zimbabwe. This is quite possibly the best example of a Pyrrhic victory.
Apart from the reins of government, little of the wealth of South Africa changed hands; articles in the national South African press suggest that the gap between rich and poor has increased. Social forces in South Africa are beginning to see the severe downside of the "peaceful accommodation" with capital: minimal land reform, growing poverty and joblessness, the privatization of national resources such as water and electricity, and constricting social services. It is a tale told many times over around the world. Imperial manipulation has changed its modus operandi, but not its ultimate end: the theft of resources, the exploitation and cheapening of labor.
Corporations with large economic stake continued to do business in South Africa after the imposition of sanctions, and continued to do business with the apartheid government. Oil, automotive, banking – multi-national industries had too much at stake, and as the president of a large Swiss bank said in 1960, apartheid was very good for business. As well, the apartheid government needed capital: they needed armored vehicles, they needed arms, they needed oil and petroleum products, and they needed financing to stay afloat.
For the people of South Africa, the struggle against apartheid is not yet over. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission completed its monumental task this spring, and recommended the payment of reparations to the acknowledged victims of apartheid. The government, in a transparent nod to international finance capital, ignored the findings of the Commission, and announced vastly reduced payments of R30,000 to only 19,000 victims (in a population of more than 35 million non-whites). Consider losing your son or father or sister, or your ancestral land, or years of your primary and secondary education, and being offered the equivalent of US$4000 in compensation.
The lawsuit argues that the most egregious supporters of apartheid, foreign multinationals who closed their eyes to the crimes of apartheid, have a debt to pay to the people whose lives they damaged. The profits made during that time were illegal. The financial support they provided to an illegal and immoral regime was illegal and immoral. And while the people of South Africa continue to struggle to own land, to find work, to find solace at the loss of loved ones, the cold-blooded capitalists get richer off the theft of labor and resources.
While the domestic battle for distribution of the nation's wealth belongs to the people of South Africa, the complicity of corporations with which you and I do business, in which you and I invest our savings, and which you and I patronize for goods and services – that complicity is our business.
Our efforts here during the colonial era of the recent century did not go unnoticed; a recent visitor to South Africa was asked what became of the support of African Americans for liberation in Africa. It is not only the South Africans who need us; it is we who need them. By standing up to their enemies, to their plunderers and murderers, we may have a clearer understanding of our own struggle.
Peter Hardie is Vice-President for Campaigns and Labor Affairs for TransAfrica Forum. He is father of three, husband, errant poet and sailor, with a history of activism in labor, public education, community advocacy, and the issues of youth.
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