SOUTH AFRICA: Activists condemn Bush's imperial agenda

July 23, 2003


JOHANNESBURG — The petro-military-commerce safari to Africa that US President George Bush embarked upon July 7-12 may well succeed in the areas that progressive critics fear most. However, those critics, who protested in several African cities during Bush's visit, are not shy about continuing to campaign against Washington's imperial agenda.

First, US imperialism's alliance with the South African and Nigerian governments will tighten. Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Olusegon Obasanjo are pro-Western in terms of obeying the logic of multinational corporate privilege. Mbeki and Obasanjo are the key boosters of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), the neoliberal manifesto considered by the Bush regime as "philosophically spot-on", as chief US Africa diplomat Walter Kansteiner told Institutional Investor magazine last month.

Second, US military activity on the continent will increase in some areas (bases in West Africa and the Horn of Africa to guard oil fields) and lessen in others (potential "peace-keeping" activities). South Africa and Nigeria will pick up the latter duty, in places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi, both of which have seen recent "peace" agreements — in reality, elite deals with no durable means of addressing long-standing local grievances — followed immediately by intense fighting and bloodshed.

Third, US corporations are increasingly profitable because of the US Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA); an even further-reaching free trade deal with pliant Southern African leaders is also making progress. This trend leaves less revenue for states like Namibia and Lesotho which used to count on funds from larger import tariffs, and leaves all of Africa more susceptible to Washington's arm-twisting. The Bush regime is already notorious for linking its geopolitical agenda with trade preferences and debt relief. Washington's aid and trade concessions are conditional on African governments adopting poverty-inducing neoliberal economic policies, privatising state assets, facilitating Western investments, removing subsidies and price controls, and ending incentives for local companies.

Fourth, Bush needed the trip to project a more compassionate public image (especially to African Americans in advance of the 2004 US presidential elections). That entails promoting a very slight rise in highly conditional donations to Africa, as well as the misleadingly promoted, yet-to-be funded "$15 billion" HIV/AIDS fund, which was announced in the Bush's January State of the Union speech.

The fund will be run by a pharmaceutical corporate executive and a third of the pledged funds must go to organisations that promote the dangerous strategy of abstinence from sex rather than condom use.

Meanwhile, Washington perseveres with policies that make the import or local production of generic AIDS medicines much more difficult. Poor Africans simply cannot afford to buy the patented US brand-name drugs.

That, of course, is the point of the new spending, which in any case is likely to be much less than the US$15 billion that Bush has bragged about.

As Africans die from AIDS at the rate of more than 5000 every day (the continent is home to 30 million of the world's 42 million people living with HIV/AIDS), Bush's 2003 US budget requests just $1.9 billion for the fund — far short of the $3 billion required to meet its five-year timetable. That amounts to a lousy $450 million increase above what was spent by the US on AIDS prevention in Africa in 2002. Congress has yet to approve the funds, and Republicans in Congress are working overtime to cut the amount.

On top of that, Washington has slashed its 2003 contribution to the UN's global fund to fight AIDS from $350 million to $200 million (and even that is conditional on European governments matching every $1 contributed by the US with at least $2). Little wonder that African-American lobbyists have described Bush's AIDS fund as "fictitious" and a "cruel hoax".

To put Bush's real priorities into perspective, Washington is spending almost $4 billion a month to maintain its occupation of Iraq. Washington will spend the equivalent of the entire budgets of both the US and UN anti-AIDS funds ($25 billion) in just six months!


There were a few complications and these were on display in Pretoria, where Bush spent 18 hours after his opening photo-opportunity at Senegal's infamous Goree Island slave-trading post on July 8.

For example, anti-imperialist sentiment in South Africa had prevented Mbeki from openly joining Bush's "coalition of the willing" to attack Iraq. Former South African president and anti-apartheid legend Nelson Mandela has remained a staunch and vocal opponent of Bush's war (hence Bush's failure to arrange a meeting with him was widely considered a symbolic slapdown of the US leader).

Nonetheless, Pretoria profited nicely by selling millions of dollars worth of arms to the US and British militaries. Meanwhile, in January Mbeki ignored widespread calls to withdraw permission for three Iraq-bound US warships to dock and refuel in Durban harbour, and to halt sales of sophisticated armaments to the US and Britain. In the months before the war, the state-owned arms manufacturer Denel contracted to deliver $29 million in ammunition shell-casings, $169 million in artillery propellants, and 326 hand-held laser range finders to the British army. Denel also sold the US Marines 125 laser-guidance sights.

However, ruling party officials also cynically attempted to play up to the anti-US sentiment. At a February 19 demonstration at the US embassy in Pretoria, African National Congress (ANC) general secretary Kgalema Motlanthe pronounced, "Because we are endowed with several rich minerals, if we don't stop this unilateral action against Iraq today, tomorrow they will come for us." Likewise, health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang declared: "South Africa cannot afford drugs to fight HIV/AIDS partly because it needs submarines to deter attacks from nations such as the US."

The high-tech weaponry Tshabalala-Msimang referred to will cost South Africa US$5 billion and make it possible for Pretoria to engage in US-endorsed military interventions across the subcontinent.

If these "tensions" with Washington were largely a "talk-left, act-right" dance of the sort South Africans are so accustomed to, another tiff — over Bush's demand that governments exempt US citizens from prosecution for human rights abuses before the International Criminal Court — at least gave Mbeki the chance to look principled. Losing roughly $7 million in military aid from Washington was not a terribly high price, and kept alive the fiction that Pretoria can stand firm against Washington.

Genetically modified food

Another example of Washington's imposition of unsustainable development on Africa is the controversy over genetically modified (GM) food. The European Union, Japan, China, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have banned GM trade and production, so Bush is desperate for new markets in Africa, as he revealed to the US-Africa Business Summit shortly before his trip: "To help Africa become more self sufficient in the production of food, I have proposed the initiative to end hunger in Africa. This initiative will help African countries to use new high-yield bio-tech crops and unleash the power of markets to dramatically increase agricultural productivity. But there's a problem... At present, some governments are blocking the import of crops grown with biotechnology, which discourages African countries from producing and exporting these crops. The ban of these countries is unfounded; it is unscientific; it is undermining the agricultural future of Africa. And I urge them to stop this ban."

The Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference replied, "We do not believe that agro companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century. On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves."

As in the case of US opposition to the local production or import of cheap generic anti-AIDS drugs, Bush's underlying concern is the penetration of capital into all areas of African life where it can make a profit — no matter what the impact on poor Africans.


South Africa was one of the key sites of protest during the US-led war against Iraq and these continued during Bush's visit, notwithstanding a worsening divide between ANC-aligned groups and the independent left. The Anti-War Coalition drew thousands to marches in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban that called for Bush to get out of Africa. Actions called by the ANC, major trade unions and the Communist Party could muster only hundreds; they issued a confusing message that called on Bush to listen to Mbeki, but not cancel his visit.

The last word should go to the largest collection of anti-capitalist groups in South Africa, the Social Movements Indaba. In a communique, issued on July 10, the SMI announced that it "rejects the dominance of the United States and the other G8 countries and calls for the shutting down of their instruments of domination, including the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organisation. The SMI also opposes those leaders and governments in Africa that are complicit in imposing this neoliberal global order...

"It is no small surprise that the G8 has refused to fill the begging bowl. It chooses only to support military intervention in the continent. George Bush is visiting Africa to secure oil resources, in other words to take what he wants whether NEPAD is there or not. The African Union [the regional organisation of African governments] has been formed on the basis of NEPAD as its fundamental policy. It thus compels us to stand up to the AU and demand that it jettisons NEPAD before we give consideration to engaging with its structures."

Not all African social movements are as tough, but the more they see of the Bush agenda, the greater the distance will grow between those perpetuating international minority rule and its African victims. The leaders of African nations who chose to play the comprador role for Bush during his trip are not unaware of the US president's agenda, and they remain on notice that their legitimacy will also continue to suffer.

[Patrick Bond is a Johannesburg-based academic and activist.]

From Green Left Weekly, July 23, 2003.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.