Nothing in modern times has symbolized the scourge of racism–and the potential for overcoming it–more than South Africa’s recent history. For this reason, the choice of Durban as the venue for this week’s United Nations World Conference Against Racism has deep and deliberate resonance. But South Africa has, perhaps unintentionally, now provided an even more powerful symbol for what the discourse of racism is really about: a national strike, organized by the labor federation Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), that took place on the eve of the Durban conference.
The Cosatu strike is a protest against the African National Congress government’s “neo-liberal” economic policy, specifically, its plans for privatizing state assets and the consequent loss of jobs and potential decline of essential services to poor people. What Cosatu and the ANC are really fighting about is how to engage with the process of globalization. The government insists that it has formulated economic policy in congruence with international trends so as to make South Africa a significant global player, thereby attracting resources that will enable the economy to grow and the lives of ordinary people to improve. The labor federation, on the other hand, is striking a blow against this model, declaring that it is tailored strictly to the designs of the suits in Frankfurt and Washington, and that it has demonstrably increased–rather than decreased–the poverty levels of poor people in the south.
The ANC, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party have traditionally prosecuted the liberation struggle in alliance and now putatively govern the country together, but the trading of insults between former comrades has been so severe that it is difficult to imagine the alliance pulling through intact. Each side has publicly called the other a liar and a traitor. Cosatu–buttressed by the SACP–accuses the government of kowtowing to the global designs of IMF and the World Bank and of enriching a small, black, capitalist elite (the prime beneficiaries of privatization) while riding roughshod and arrogantly over the wishes and aspirations of the South African majority.
The government counters that “state restructuring,” as it terms privatization, has been part of ANC policy since the early 1990s, and that its popular majority has actually increased since it released the contentious Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macro-economic policy to which Cosatu is so implacably opposed. Furthermore, it accuses its alliance partners of irresponsibly washing South Africa’s dirty linen in public–and of engaging in gross opportunism–by launching the strike on the eve of a conference that is meant to be a showpiece for South Africa’s potential to overcome the conflicts of the past. In so doing, the state says, Cosatu has distracted attention from the fight against racism that is the conference’s core business.
However correct Thabo Mbeki and his government might be in their other assertions, they are wrong in this last one. For the national strike–and the intense fallout that it has caused in South African politics–is a semaphore for what this conference is really about: not so much the fact of racism, but the gross global inequities it has created between North and South, rich and poor, light and dark; and the potential strategies for reconciling a world increasing polarized into “developed” and “undeveloped.”