‘Global sustainability’ wilts in South Africa’s political hot air

By Patrick Bond, Durban

February 15, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The latest acts in South Africa’s’s intensifying political drama include a sizzling summer-long battle between young and old within the African National Congress (ANC), the February 10 State of the Nation speech by President Jacob Zuma and the release of the ANC’s “research” on alternatives to mining nationalisation, a demand by the ANC Youth League which is now one of the main issues dividing the ruling party.

Amid the chaos, stepping over the political corpse of ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema (about to be expelled for “throwing the ANC into disrepute”), Zuma apparently also wants to be considered a world eco-visionary. As co-chairs of the United Nations’ High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, he and Finland’s President Tarja Halonen published an article last week entitled “Seizing sustainable development”. Zuma and Halonen ask, “How do we begin to tackle the massive challenge of retooling our global economy, preserving the environment, and providing greater opportunity and equity, including gender equality, to all?”

From the panel’s report, Resilient People, Resilient Planet, comes answers that include neoliberal fixes – “Pollution, including carbon emissions, must no longer be free” – and obvious reforms: “Price- and trade-distorting subsidies should be made transparent and phased out for fossil fuels by 2020.” Plus sanctimony: “We need to place long-term thinking above short-term demands, both in the marketplace and at the polling place. Promoting fairness and inclusion is the right thing to do – and the smart thing to do for lasting prosperity and stability.”

Two days later, in a speech to parliament considered the finest in his blooper-filled career, Zuma declared, “Let me take this opportunity to congratulate the inter-ministerial committee on COP17 for making the conference a huge success. The final outcome of COP17 was historic and precedent setting, ranking with the 1997 conference where the Kyoto Protocol was adopted.”

But who won at Durban’s climate summit? The biggest polluters, it turns out, who got off scot-free on emissions cuts as well as on global North-South fairness. According to the New York Times, at the recent World Economic Forum in Switzerland, a top aide to chief US State Department negotiator Todd Stern remarked that “the Durban platform was promising because of what it did not say”. After all, revealed Trevor Houser, “There is no mention of historic responsibility or per capita emissions. There is no mention of economic development as the priority for developing countries. There is no mention of a difference between developed and developing country action.”

Zuma’s sell out

Zuma’s “huge success” was in reality a sell-out of the UN’s tradition of differentiated responsibility between rich and poor countries. As climate chaos hits, Africa will be the worst-affected continent. (And so who can blame the African Union for its majority vote hostility to Pretoria’s leadership candidate in a hung election last week?) The only Africans who smiled when leaving Durban were those from South Africa’s mining and electricity-guzzling industries – along with oil extractors – blessed by COP17’s failure to make binding emissions cuts.

Zuma’s State of the Nation address expanded his to-do list of climate-destroying investments. Already Pretoria is constructing the world’s fourth-largest coal-fired power plant with the World Bank’s largest-ever project loan, at Medupi in the beautiful Waterberg mountains where there is insufficient water for cooling it. Not far away, contracts are being signed for the world’s third-largest coal-fired plant, Eskom’s Kusile.

The main Eskom beneficiary is BHP Billiton, which consumes more than 10 per cent of South Africa’s electricity and still gets the world’s cheapest power deal at Richard’s Bay, where the workforce has been shaved back by increasingly capital-intensive aluminum smelters to now fewer than 1500. The other beneficiary is the Japanese firm Hitachi, which in 2010 pretended not to know that its owners included the ANC’s Chancellor House, and whose supply of boilers – for which they are paid a mind-boggling R40+ billion – is so far behind schedule that more Eskom electricity black-outs loom.

Zuma’s speech unveiled yet more eco-destructive capital-intensive projects: “First, we plan to develop and integrate rail, road and water infrastructure, centred on two main areas in Limpopo: the Waterberg in the western part of the province and Steelpoort in the eastern part. These efforts are intended to unlock the enormous mineral belt of coal, platinum, palladium, chrome and other minerals, in order to facilitate increased mining as well as stepped-up beneficiation of minerals.”

There is much more: “Among the list of planned projects is the expansion of the iron ore export channel from 60 million tons per annum to 82 million tons per annum …, development of a new 16 million-tons-per-annum manganese export channel through the Port of Ngqura in Nelson Mandela Bay … and expansion of the iron-ore rail line between Sishen in the Northern Cape and Saldanha Bay in the Western Cape.”

Speaking to CityPress newspaper after the speech, Zuma elaborated: “By 2014, I’d want to see the cranes, building, digging everything. I’d like to see people employed. We are looking at a new kind of city at Waterberg. That’s how Johannesburg began, as a mining town.” Set aside that Johannesburg is the world’s least sustainable city, does Zuma know that there’s a vast national housing shortage and a vast surplus of unemployed people, and that building homes doesn’t require cranes, but does create far more jobs per unit of capital spent?

Did he notice that the largest platinum operation, Implats, fired 17,000 workers just a week before his speech, whom when rehired will suffer a substantial cut in their pensions? Did he read the National Planning Commission’s finding that “South Africa needs to move away from the unsustainable use of natural resources”?

Nationalisation rejected

As for non-renewable resources now being drawn from South African soil with only a pittance for communities, workers and the government coffers, Zuma protected multinational mining capital from Malema’s populist nationalisation demands by setting up a commission whose report is already drawing ridicule.

Malema, who became exceptionally wealthy in recent years, allegedly by influencing Limpopo Province tenders for large payouts, was predictably hostile. As he explained February 10, the lead researcher, Paul Jordaan, was “compromised” for opposing the 1955 ANC Freedom Charter’s nationalisation promises: “Jordaan and the research team visited 13 countries and the only conclusion they could come up with are the opinions held by Comrade Paul Jordaan in 2010. It is possible that the research was a smokescreen to legitimise the personal opinions of Comrade Paul Jordaan and that is not how the ANC works.”

Other critics were just as harsh. Explained University of Cape Town political scientist Anthony Butler, a leading commentator, “The document’s intellectual quality is uneven. The research “methodology” involves lots of foreign travel and ‘stakeholder workshops’. The study team also makes unacknowledged use of ‘less scholarly’ resources, such as Wikipedia and answers.com. The credibility of the report is damaged by long passages that bear a remarkable resemblance to the work of retired North American mine-tax expert Charles McPherson.”

As Butler complained, in one of many “unfathomable coincidences of word selection and arrangement (such borrowings are far too extensive to set out fully here) both [the ANC and McPherson] call for ‘the explicit recognition in budgets and planning documents of the financial and fiscal costs and risks associated with state participation’. Did McPherson help draw up the ANC’s report? If so, was the ANC’s national executive committee aware that a former oil-industry executive, who only recently ended his career in the fiscal affairs department of the International Monetary Fund, was commissioned to contribute to its study?”

Butler worries that the report still supports elements of Malema’s “phoney nationalisation drive”, such as transferring mineworker pension funds “into special purpose vehicles in the service of developmental objectives. In reality, such instruments would be abused to fund corporate welfare for the politically connected.”

Indeed under conditions of neoliberal nationalism, the outcome of most public policy in South Africa is inevitably crony capitalism rife with corruption. A major ANC-initiated forensic audit into corruption in the second-largest city, Durban, revealed massive illegalities especially in US$400 million worth of privatised housing construction contracts under the 2002-11 leadership of city manager Mike Sutcliffe, who claims he will soon rebut the charges.

The overall problem is not housing, though, which remains an area of vast underinvestment. It is the incessant construction of white elephants and prestige projects. These were what the former trade union leader Ebrahim Patel – now minister of economic development – was reduced to celebrating, in justifying the vast infrastructure investments. In his parliamentary response to Zuma, Patel remarked, “We took account of the lessons of the 2010 World Cup infrastructure and the growing experience in the build programs for the Gautrain, the Medupi and Kusile power stations, the Freeway improvement program and the major airport revamps.”

But to continue along this track is suicide. The World Cup stadia are nearly all losing money on operations and maintenance. The Gautrain’s speedy trips from the Johannesburg airport to the financial district and government buildings in Pretoria are too expensive for the masses. The power stations have already raised the price of electricity by more than 150 per cent, with another 25 per cent increase scheduled in April. The public-private highway tolling partnership with an Austrian firm is so unpopular that on March 9 the trade union movement is threatening a national strike. The utterly unnecessary airport revamps are, again, for elites only.

Pandering to mining

Zuma’s pandering to mining houses is especially galling. As if to celebrate the state’s renewed orientation to big business interests, the “Mining Indaba” – Africa’s biggest trade fair – in Cape Town last week was capped with a keynote speech by an extremist climate-change denialist, David Evans. The “performance” was “well received by an audience of miners, who come from an industry that often feels the pinch of climate control in the regulation of their industries”, reported the Mail&Guardian.

Zuma’s crucial challenge, under such influences, is to continue opposing the rhetoric of his Global Sustainability Panel, insofar as nearly everything he and the big corporates are doing here place short-term demands above long-term thinking, both in the marketplace and at the polling place, promoting unfairness and exclusion, and thus preventing lasting prosperity and stability. It’s from such accumulation dynamics that South Africa has come to specialise in “talk left, walk right” politics. Whether it is the “black economic empowerment” fronting scams, such as Hitachi and Chancellor House, or the greedy corporations’ influence, the ruling party appears addicted to unsustainable underdevelopment hyped by big-business cheerleading.

From Zuma’s main political base, for instance, Toyota South Africa CEO Johan van Zyl last week argued, “Durban as a brand is not strong enough to simply say ‘come and invest in Durban’. What it needs to attract investors are big projects.” At a seminar of the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science and Business Day newspaper, van Zyl insisted, “Durban needs to keep ahead of the competition. China is building ports they don’t even know when they will use. If return on investment is the line of thinking we may never see the infrastructure.”

In other words, please supply more public subsidies to the high-carbon fat cats. In that very spirit, Durban’s new city manager S’bu Sithole inherited a secretive $32 billion “back-of-port” plan to expand what is already Africa’s largest harbour, in the process demolishing the 150-year old neighbourhood of Clairwood and expanding the deadly petrochemical industry.

Also at that seminar was former Durban mayor Obed Mlaba, criticised in the forensic audit for illegally hijacking a $400 million waste-energy infrastructure tender at the Bisasar Road landfill, site of a high-profile carbon-trading pilot project. Complained Mlaba, “Big projects or even creating clusters around them are hampered by small-town mentality.”

Typical of a big-town mentality was this banal command to Zuma by Business Day editor Peter Bruce on February 12: “Mine more and faster and ship what we mine cheaper and faster.”

If we do so, then bye-bye resilient people and resilient planet.

[Bond authored Politics of Climate Justice (UKZN Press), edited Durban’s Climate Gamble (Unisa Press), and directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society http://ccs.ukzn.ac.za]