At a time when the United States and South African presidents Donald Trump and Jacob Zuma personify controversies over crony capitalism, corruption, populist rhetoric and self-serving economic strategies, will big business calm down the politicians — or just egg them on?
Business elites are confused, even while mass opinion against rancid rulers consolidates: huge marches against Trump in Washington by scientists on April 22 and climate activists on April 29; and in the central South African city Mangaung, where Zuma was forced to rapidly retreat from a May Day speech with his fellow trade union and Communist Party allies (who now demand that he resign) due to mass jeering by the majority of workers there. Collaboration with Zuma and his patronage machinery is now seen as fatal for political longevity.
To be sure, partial business sanctions against Zuma and consumer boycotts against Trump are already well underway.When global corporate leaders and African rulers visit Durban this week, they might end up tripping into the country’s and world’s political potholes.
The Swiss-based World Economic Forum (WEF) meets not only in Davos each January but also gathers a few thousand elites in each of the main regions annually. In 1992 in Davos, Nelson Mandela was persuaded by both East Asian and Western leaders to drop the Freedom Charter’s call to share South Africa’s mineral wealth, and instead agree to pro-corporate policies once he took power in 1994.
This week the WEF-Africa returns to the seaside city of Durban’s convention center, the continent’s largest. Last year in Rwanda, WEF elites waxed eloquent on benefits to Africa from the high-tech ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ — even if only a third of the population has home electricity.
This year WEF-Africa is giving a follow-up nod to the ‘internet of things’ — which “could be the key to Africa’s development.” Another faddish narrative is ‘inclusive growth,’ in part because the international charity Oxfam is playing a co-hosting role. The WEF website now includes ideas like a guaranteed Basic Income Grant, though attendees in Durban are not known fighters against poverty.
Competition in corruption
WEF-Africa delegates this week include tyrants such as King Mswati of Swaziland, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Zambia’s Edgar Lungu, as well as Zuma and 17 of his cabinet ministers. Then there are the CEOs of State-Owned Enterprises, such as WEF-Africa co-chair Siyabonga Gama, against whom his employer Transnet — South Africa’s transport parastatal — commissioned a 200-page report in 2010, declaring him guilty of helping Communications Minister Siphiwe Nyanda commit multi-million dollar fraud.
South Africa’s corruption-riddled state firms Telkom (phones) and Eskom (electricity) are also at the WEF-Africa, along with the Japanese company Hitachi which, in 2015, paid a $19 million corruption fine to the U.S. government after confessing illegal collusion with the ruling party’s Chancellor House. They were hired to build boilers at Eskom’s $15 billion Medupi Power Plant — but 7000 welds needed redoing at the world’s largest coal-fired power plant under construction (with the World Bank’s largest-ever loan), a project now eight years behind schedule.
From the private sector, WEF-Africa partners that have recently been found guilty of serious corruption include banksters at Barclays, Citi (which to its credit last week paid the first fine — $5.2 million — for gaming the local currency, the rand), Credit Suisse, HSBC, Investec, Morgan Stanley, Standard Bank, and StandardChartered Bank. Other WEF-Africa financiers with terrible ethical reputations include the “Development Bank” of Southern Africa, Old Mutual and Swiss Reinsurance corporations.
Here and everywhere, the construction industry is full of swindlers, and those gravitating into the WEF-Africa this year include the Swiss-Swedish firm ABB and Nigeria’s Dangote Group, joining controversial local mining houses African Rainbow Minerals and AngloGold Ashanti. WEF-Africa’s partners in the business services, media and high tech fields also boast prodigious records of fraud: Accenture, Baker & McKenzie, Boston Consulting, Cisco, Ericsson, Ernst & Young, Google, Microsoft, McKinsey, MTN, Naspers, PwC and Toshiba. Other WEF-Africa multinational corporate sponsors —Dow Chemical, Honeywell, Mitsubishi, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, and Royal Philips — have bribed politicians across the world.
One illustration of how elites threaten the world is the WEF’s virulent defense of Intellectual Property Rights and corporate branding. Applied to life-saving medicines, this philosophy was debilitating, costing HIV+ patients more than $10,000 a year at the turn of the century. Then, Treatment Action Campaign activists demanded free generic medicines for 40 million HIV+ people globally, of whom six million live in South Africa (and more live here in Durban than any city on earth).
Though the call was made in 2000, at the Durban international AIDS convention, it took another 18 months before World Trade Organisation leaders consented to the supply of much cheaper generic drugs to Africa, and another four years before the South African government agreed to roll out treatment. But thanks to perseverance by those activists, South Africa’s life expectancy rose from 52 in 2005 to 62 today. Yet in 2010, nine activists who peacefully protested for sustained public funding for treatment at that year’s WEF-Africa summit in Dar es Salaam were arrested and deported.
A dual loyalty dilemma between profits and politicians
Then as now, WEF-Africa’s cozy relationships between brutal state rulers and the corporate elites they serve don’t need the celebration the mass media is giving them this week in Durban. Where there are fissures, they need to be opened up further; for example, in the debate about how best to apply economic pressure against Trump and Zuma.
With 200,000 marching against Trump’s climate policies in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, the U.S. government will be targeted even more by the likes of Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, journalist-campaigner Naomi Klein, and even former French president Nicolas Sarkozy; all of whom support some form of financial resistance to the Trump regime, such as taxes on U.S. carbon output and consumer boycotts. On the boycott front, the consumer movement #GrabYourWallet is leading the way.
Capitalists attending either WEF in Durban or in Davos need to be challenged to stop enabling politicians like Trump, so that anti-United States climate sanctions can become a wider movement — like the one that brought down apartheid 30 years ago. As for Zuma, not only was he awarded ‘Junk’ credit rating status after firing his finance minister and deputy finance minister last month. At least one corporate chief, AngloGold chairperson Sipho Pityana, leads a ‘Save South Africa’ movement aiming to topple him, joining liberals and a few progressives in civil society.
From the local financial industry, the most courageous voice is Magda Wierzycka of Sygnia (whose critique of World Bank super-exploitation within the welfare system makes her the vocal conscience of South African capitalism): “Business can call on the international investment community to stop propping up the South African government until corruption has been rooted out and proper governance has been restored. This is as simple as making some phone calls to large international asset managers.”
WEF-Africa elites are apparently not on board, for its website likes to tell little white lies: “The host country — the only African G20 economy — is championing reforms to eradicate extreme poverty and promote shared growth nationally, regionally and globally. The host city, Durban, which has the busiest industrial port in sub-Saharan Africa, offers insights on how trade in regionally manufactured goods can strengthen economic resilience and create jobs.”
Reality check: since pro-corporate policies were adopted here in the mid-1990s, official unemployment soared from 16 percent to 27 percent and poverty rose from 45 percent to 63 percent, along with deindustrialisation and extreme ecological destruction. As for ‘shared growth,’ last week The Guardian revealed that South Africa is unequivocally the world’s most unequal country. As for Durban’s reliance on the port for trade, sorry: container traffic shrunk from 81.2 million tons in 2014 to 79.8 tons in 2015 to 76.8 tons last year.
The most dangerous of WEF types may well be absent: Rex Tillerson, a frequent attendee who ran ExxonMobil before Donald Trump made him the U.S. Secretary of State in January. He is, the Rand Corporation’s elite analyst James Dobbins observed, “the personification of the Davos Man: powerful, worldly and well connected.”
Under Tillerson’s direction, ExxonMobil went into exploration overdrive from Alaska to Siberia, and in 2014 began seeking oil and gas two miles km deep directly offshore Durban, in spite of repeated objections by the South Durban Community and Environmental Alliance. The site is in the middle of the Agulhas Current, the world’s second most turbulent, near a priceless coastline. ExxonMobil has no ethics. In 1982, its scientists discovered that climate change would cause “some catastrophic events” but Tillerson and other Exxon bosses funded climate-denialist propaganda for the next three decades.
Anti-WEF resistance and the backlash against Oxfam assimilationism
In contrast, the People’s Economic Forum (PEF) of local social, environmental, youth, student and labor movements has been meeting daily at the Durban University of Technology since April 27. They marched against the WEF-Africa on Wednesday morning and I was reminded of protests held against the same meetings here in June 2002 and June 2003, when, during the latter, police horses knocked down poet Dennis Brutus. Wednesday’s march included an anti-Trump stop at the U.S. consulate. Durban activists have also offered solidarity marches with U.S. women fighting Trump’s misogyny on Jan. 21 and with U.S. scientists fighting funding cuts on March 22.
The previous day, Oxfam officials tried to explain to several dozen community activists why its international chairperson, Winnie Byanyima, had decided to enroll as one of five co-chairs of the WEF-Africa, thereby giving the 1 percent elite renewed legitimacy. The charity’s insider route was unconvincing. Oxfam staff ruefully acknowledged an open letter signed by Byanyima three years earlier, when top international NGO officials confessed the dangers of insiderism at a South African meeting co-convened by Durban activist and former Greenpeace leader Kumi Naidoo.
“We are the poor cousins of the global jet set. We exist to challenge the status quo, but we trade in incremental change. Our actions are clearly not sufficient to address the mounting anger and demand for systemic political and economic transformation that we see in cities and communities around the world every day. . . A new and increasingly connected generation of women and men activists across the globe question how much of our energy is trapped in the internal bureaucracy and the comfort of our brands and organisations. They move quickly, often without the kinds of structures that slow us down. In doing so, they challenge how much time we — you and I — spend in elite conferences and tracking policy cycles that have little or no outcomes for the poor.”
The Oxfam insider strategy is especially dubious in view of WEF-Africa’s official response to the PEF’s protest on Wednesday morning. Not only were civil society activists not allowed inside the convention center, some of us reporting for progressive media (in my case Amandla!) found our applications for press accreditation were simply rejected, with no explanation. And when local activist Desmond D’Sa (a 2014 Goldman Prize winner) wrote a respectful letter to WEF communications leader Oliver Cann requesting someone from the WEF accept the memorandum of complaint, Cann replied, “Owing to the small size of our team, and the fact that our meeting starts tomorrow, I regret it won’t be possible to acknowledge and receive your memorandum. We wish you luck with your peaceful endeavors.”
Unintimidated by Cann’s stonewalling, and in contrast to Oxfam International’s assimilation strategy, PEF activists (many of whom were generously supported by Oxfam South Africa) will continue resisting WEF predators’ attacks on African societies and ecology.
The worst such attacks include fracking in the Western Cape’s sensitive Karoo region (by Shell) and Drakensburg mountain range (by Rhino from Texas), the still-desired $100 billion nuclear reactors of Moscow-based Rosatom (now already benefiting the notorious Gupta brothers and Durban’s Vivian Reddy patronage networks), a $25 billion plan for a new Dig Out Port in Durban plus container-trucking depot, mega-refinery and doubling of the main oil pipeline, and the extraction and export of 18 billion tons of coal (benefiting Anglo American, ArcelorMittal, Exxaro, Sasol and other multinational corporations).
The latter attack is Transnet’s and the National Development Plan’s first mega-project. The network of Mining Affected Communities United in Action— led by Matthews Hlabane (founder of the South African Green Revolutionary Council) and Zama Ntuli — has long pointed out the combined local devastation to water, land, air and climate change wrought by coal extraction.
As Financial Times columnist Gillian Tett conceded at the 2017 WEF, “[The] Davos Man has no clothes… the annual celebration of global capitalism once represented the inevitable arc of human progress. No longer.”
In Durban too, as capitalism continues to fail the South African majority, the WEF-Africa convention center bubble stands a good chance of bursting. In part, this will be the result of excessive hot air rising this week from both the ‘Zupta’ and ‘white monopoly capital’ camps within. But angry activists are also a reason for unusually strong turbulence.
An earlier version of this article appeared at counterpunch.org.
Photo (top): (Clockwise from left) President Jacob Zuma, his wife, Bongi Ngema, Naspers executive Koos Bekker and Jabu Mabuza, Executive Chairman of Sphere Holdings, at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland in 2016. Credit: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS.