Obama in South Africa: Washington tells Pretoria how to ‘play the game’ in Africa

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Protesters greet Obama, June 28, 2013.

[For more on South Africa, click HERE. For more by Patrick Bond, click HERE.]

By Patrick Bond, Durban

July 1, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – US President Barack Barack Obama’s weekend trip to South Africa may have the desired effect of slowing the geopolitical realignment of Pretoria to the Brazil-India-Russia-China-South Africa (BRICS) axis. That shift to BRICS has not, however, meant deviation from the hosts’ political philosophy, best understood as “talk left, walk right” since it mixes anti-imperialist rhetoric with pro-corporate policies.

Overshadowed by Nelson Mandela’s critically ill health, Obama’s implicit denial of a US imperial agenda could not disguise Washington’s economic paranoia. As expressed on June 25 by White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, “What we hear from our businesses is that they want to get in the game in Africa. There are other countries getting in the game in Africa – China, Brazil, Turkey. And if the US is not leading in Africa, we're going to fall behind in a very important region of the world.”

Over a century earlier, another Rhodes – Cecil John – explained that very game: “We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labour that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories.” Although there is no longer formal slave labour within formal colonies, this sentiment readily links the neoliberal agenda of both the BRICS and the US.

Perhaps embarrassed, Obama himself retracted Ben Rhodes’ confession of inter-imperial rivalry when asked by the White House press corps: “I want everybody playing in Africa. The more the merrier. A lot of people are pleased that China is involved in Africa.”

This must have raised cynical eyebrows, because he added, “China's primary interest is being able to obtain access for natural resources in Africa to feed the manufacturers in export-driven policies of the Chinese economy.”

Washington evades Pretoria’s gateway to Africa

How best to obtain access to Africa’s mineral and petroleum wealth? If Libya-style operations become too blatant, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma’s government has, like his predecessor Thabo Mbeki’s, presented South Africa as the optimal “gateway” to the continent.

Zuma’s two major political victories – hosting the BRICS summit in Durban three months ago and ensuring that a Pretoria diplomat, his ex-wife Nkozozana Dlamini-Zuma, controversially won leadership of the African Union last year – were accompanied by Johannesburg capital edging out Chinese firms in terms of the size of their 2012 foreign investments north of the Limpopo River.

BRICS is not a mirage, because even if a new $50 billion extraction-oriented BRICS Bank is behind its start-up schedule, there are growing interrelationships between Johannesburg-based accumulation and high-volume Chinese and Indian land grabbing, along with Brazilian mineral exploitation – such in Mozambique where thousands of peasants are resisting the Rio-based Vale Corporation’s coal grab – with Russian energy firms pounding on the doors.

This leaves many to ask whether Pretoria is ready to ditch its traditional subservient (subimperial) “deputy sheriff” role to Washington’s (imperial) sheriff. This is one way to read the recent talk-left, walk-right interview by Zuma in the Financial Times: “I’ve said it to the private sector from the western countries, ‘Look, you have got to change the way you do business with Africa if you want to regain Africa. If you want to treat Africa as a former colony, then people will go to new partners.’”

Adding to the complications, Pretoria’s neoliberal coordination activities have been disappointing by all accounts. For example, George W. Bush’s State Department labelled Mbeki’s 2001 continental strategy known as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) “philosophically spot-on”, and yet there was precious little to show for the subsequent dozen years of African appeals for Western foreign investment and increased aid, beyond the super-exploitative extractive industries.

Mbeki had requested a quintupling of annual Western donor aid, and that it flow through an intermediary NEPAD office near Pretoria. Fat chance. To illustrate, G8 and International Monetary Fund (IMF) debt relief in 2005 left the poorest African countries repaying old loans at a rate 50 per cent higher in relation to export revenues than before, according to the IMF. (Africa’s unrepayable loan principal was “forgiven”, to be sure, yet the poorest countries were squeezed even harder as a result, to pay overdue interest.)

And funding even for AIDS medicines has been chopped in austerity budgets, such as Obama’s recent $200 million cut to Bush’s Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which resulted in the closure of the three main hospital-based drugs dispensaries for HIV here in Durban, the world’s leading city for the number of HIV+ residents.

Obama also intensified Bush’s Africa Command (AfriCom) military support to the continent’s dictators. Moreover, Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing about the US National Security Agency’s internet snooping this month recalled WikiLeaks revelations from State Department cables liberated by Bradley Manning during Hillary Clinton’s reign. In 2009, while helping prepare Obama’s speech about good governance in Accra, Clinton asked 11 of Washington’s embassies in Africa to collect fingerprints, DNA, iris scans, email passwords, credit card account numbers, frequent flyer account numbers and work schedules of local political, military, business and religious leaders, including United Nations officials.

Since then, Obama has been criticised for military interventions in oil-soaked Libya and AfriCom’s fight against Islamic fundamentalists in Somalia, for mercenary support and torture-rendition activities in several African countries, and for gifts of drones and US troop deployment in authoritarian Uganda.

Babysitting Africa investments but returning in coffins

Zuma may be too diplomatic to have raised these matters, because he needs to project strength after his own foreign-policy failings have come to light. In the Central African Republic in March, just three days before the BRICS gathered, a firefight with the Chad-backed Seleka rebel movement left 13 South African army troops dead. They were defending not only the resident tyrant, François Bozizé, but also Johannesburg businesses, including some with crucial links to leaders of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

With Mandela on his deathbed, the worsening degeneration of the ANC is an enormous tragedy. Zuma’s own family and close friends have gained countless crony-capitalist benefits from a patronage-obsessed state apparatus. Mentioning “Number One” (Zuma) gave his pals the Gupta family sufficient clout to use the Waterkloof airforce base for a wedding party’s landing of a jet from India last month, to society’s great shame.

The president’s notorious nephew Khulubuse recently wrecked a major Johannesburg mining house, Aurora, with vast collateral damage to thousands of workers and the natural environment. He subsequently shifted into the oil business in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where another 1350 South African troops were recently deployed.

Their mission is to “babysit”, according to defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula last month. The verb underestimates the severe danger of running interference for pro-Pretoria corporations against the M-23 guerrillas, who are looting the eastern DRC on behalf not only of Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, but ultimately of Western minerals consumers.

Speaking at a University of KwaZulu-Natal seminar last week, leading Congolese intellectual Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja condemned both South Africa and the Western re-occupation of the DRC, reminding of Frantz Fanon’s assessment of the neighbourhood: “If Africa were a revolver, the Congo would be its trigger.

Since the DRC was drawn into the Southern African Development Community by Mandela in 1997, Zuma probably believes this trigger-happy terrain is Pretoria’s “backyard”, more so than it is US, French and Belgian neo-colonial territory. That means tensions will inexorably rise between the competing mineral extraction strategies of Western multinational mining houses and oil companies, Chinese state firms, Zuma’s crony-capitalists and the formerly Johannesburg-based corporates like Anglo American (now financially headquartered in London) who have the most extraction experience.

‘How much stays in Africa?’

But it is the US corporate record in many African countries that, most remarkably, left Obama offhandedly uttering one of his most hypocritical-ever remarks, during the June 29 honorary doctoral degree ceremony at the University of Johannesburg in Soweto: “When we look at what other countries are doing in Africa, I think our only advice is make sure it’s a good deal for Africa. Somebody says they want to come build something here: Are they hiring African workers? Somebody says that we want to help you develop your natural resources: How much of the money is staying in Africa?”

Good question! The answer is absolutely critical for the South African economy, because our balance of payments has been demolished by the late 1990s’ overseas flight of Anglo, De Beers, Old Mutual (the biggest financial institution), South African Breweries (now the world’s second largest after a merger with Miller), the largest IT firm Didata, the bank Investec, the pulp-and-paper corporation Mondi and others which relisted on the London and New York stock markets. (Earlier in the decade, one of the founding firms behind the world’s largest mining house, BHP Billiton, had escaped South Africa, as had the luxury goods company Rembrandt and the insurer Liberty Life.)

These firms left with Mandela’s permission. Along with his 1996 World Bank-designed structural adjustment policy featuring trade and financial liberalisation, corporate capital flight caused South Africa to be far more unequal, with far higher unemployment, a foreign debt five-fold bigger, and far worse ecological conditions than in 1994.

This background makes Obama’s next remark all the more spiteful: “I do think that it’s important for Africans to make sure that these interactions are good for Africa. There has been a long history of extracting resources from Africa – you take raw materials, you send them to someplace else where they get used processed, sometimes sold back to Africa. The profits stay there the jobs stay there and not much stays in Africa.”

Duh! It is the economic abuse of Africa by Western corporations with US links that a decade ago led Jubilee South Africa and the Khulumani apartheid victims’ support group to invoke the US’s 1797 Alien Tort Claims Act. That law, which the Supreme Court recently weakened to the point that Khulumani claims may be dismissed, was originally meant to help address piracy. If there were justice in Washington, it should still be applied to a variety of pirate-like crimes still committed by extractive-oriented corporations in Africa.

After all, 30 years ago, Obama himself lobbied against investments in South Africa-related multinational corporations, when he studied at Occidental College and Columbia University, where Mandela had inspired a sanctions and divestment movement. So his lecturing to the Soweto audience was fraught with bitter ironies. Everything that the US government has done to Africa these past five years has fostered outflows of both minerals and finance.

The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) that Obama promoted here – in which Pretoria will apply to continue membership if US Congress extends the law in 2015 – is replete liberalisation conditions. As the Heritage Foundation has argued, AGOA aims to “encourage governments to open their economies and build free markets” – which, translated by Michael Besha of the Organization of African Trade Union Unity, means “coercing African countries into total trade and financial liberalization”. Remarks Riaz Tayob of the Southern and East African Trade Institute, “standard US policy to debtor countries is to open financial markets, which increases South African vulnerability”.

To put some numbers to our capitalists “not staying much”, South Africa alone suffered a 2008 outflow of natural resources valued at $245 per person greater than national income measured as GDP, according to the World Bank’s 2011 book The Changing Wealth of Nations. The continent as a whole lost 6 per cent of its gross national income in a wealth measure adjusted for the outflow of minerals and petroleum resources that year, the latest data available.

“Africa Rising”? No, actually crashing, thanks to resource-related looting.

And here in South Africa, the outflow of profits, dividends and interest far exceeds even the worrisome trade deficit, leading to an Economist rating of most risky out of 17 emerging market economies in 2009. During the 2002-08 commodity boom, South Africa’s current account plummeted from a 1 per cent surplus to a 7 per cent deficit mainly because of the more rapid outflow of profits to London and New York.

Against imperialism and sub-imperialism

The situation is even worse in other settings because US-backed dictators – such as Obama allies Kagame and Museveni – take no prisoners. Terrible conflagrations will probably continue in Central Africa; in the resource-cursed Great Lakes region a conservatively estimated 5 million people have died over the last two decades.

Responding appropriately will require mobilisation of anti-war consciousness and activism in South Africa just as much as in other source-sites of African conflict, including the US. Encouragingly, a small anti-imperialist movement has emerged here, announcing three protests against Barack Obama – in Pretoria on June 28, Soweto on June 29 and Cape Town on June 30 – especially because of ongoing US meddling in the Middle East, what with Palestinians under the thumb of an Israeli occupation largely approved and subsidised by Washington.

Several other grievances were expressed by hundreds who marched to the US embassy in Pretoria and hundreds more who – before being attacked with stun grenades by Johannesburg police – objected to the honourary doctorate given Obama in Soweto. These complaints included the Cuban Five’s imprisonment in Miami and US blockade of Cuba, the ongoing Guantanamo torture chamber operations, warmongering in Syria, AfriCom, support for Israeli apartheid, the kangaroo court trial of Bradley Manning, email and phone call snooping, AIDS medicines cutbacks, Obama’s close ties to African dictators, Washington’s ongoing structural adjustment philosophy and neoliberal AGOA conditionality.

With both Obama and Zuma on the back foot in terms of their justification for looting Africa, this is an ideal moment for a new solidarity movement to make its case.

[Patrick Bond directs the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. An earlier version of this commentary was published by Al Jazeera.]