Press Responses - December 2003

Africa: The struggle against privatization


by Paul Beaulieu


Those who sacrificed and struggled to bring down tyrannical regimes that enriched themselves, local elites, and foreign corporations while impoverishing the majority by stealing their resources, must now confront a new enemy.

   That was the theme of the two talks at McGill University in Montreal, on October 17, organized by the Social Justice Committee and the Halifax Initiative Coalition (of which we are a member of the steering committee).

   The two speakers were Richard  “Bricks” Makolo, founding member of the Orange Farm Water Crisis Committee in South Africa; and Sylvester Ejiofoh, General Secretary of the National Executive Council of the Nigeria Labour Congress. They described the harmful impacts of privatisation programs imposed on their communities by agencies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and how people are resisting them.

   In the case of Nigeria, popular mobilisation had just days earlier brought the country to the verge of a crippling general strike and the possibility of military intervention. The protest erupted against the latest government attempt to privatise and deregulate of fuel markets, resulting in steep price increases of fuels,

   Sylvester Ejiofoh spoke of how Nigeria’s political institutions, economy and infrastructure were ruined during thirty years of military dictatorship (1969-1999). Its oil wealth was siphoned off to enrich the military and its cronies. Corruption became endemic. The infrastructure was left in a shambles.

   The World Bank and International Monetary Fund concluded that this was proof that government can’t administer resources and services transparently or efficiently, and that they should therefore be privatised. Ejiofoh argued that such an approach is ‘defeatist’, and that what needs to be done instead is to make government transparent, efficient and responsive.

   While the idea behind privatisation is to open up resources and services to ‘market forces’, he predicted that “the market will not be adequate” in terms of dealing with the pervasive poverty that afflicts Nigeria. In fact, it is entrenching poverty and underdevelopment by depriving the poor of the resources they need to empower themselves and contribute to their own development.

   “In a state of poverty and regression,” he said, “privatisation means perpetuating poverty.”

   The cost of fuel exemplifies the effects of privatisation on the Nigerian people. The government has been trying to deregulate prices, which would cause prices would skyrocket. Nigeria imports 60% of its fuel despite being the world’s fifth largest oil producer. In the 1970s Nigeria built four refineries to provide domestic energy but they were allowed to deteriorate for lack of maintenance under the former regime and now support only 40% of demand.

   The government should invest in getting the refineries back up to full capacity before deregulating fuel prices, Ejiofoh argued.

   Bricks Makolo, for his part, spoke of his hope at the time of the 1994 elections that ended apartheid in South Africa and brought the African National Congress (ANC) to power, and how that hope was dashed two years later by the ANC government.

   He voted for the ANC in 1994, thinking that he was “voting for liberation, for changes in my country.”

   By 1996, however, the ANC shifted and adopted a policy of privatisation. Makolo attributes this change in policy to the requirement that the South African government repay debts taken on by the former apartheid government. Consequently, as part of his group’s struggle against privatisation, it is participating in the Jubilee South Africa coalition, which calls for the non-payment of those debts. 

   He also spoke of water delivery in his community of Orange Farm, in the area of Johannesburg, being sold off to the Johannesburg Water Company (a subsidiary of Suez, the multinational corporation). He was inspired to act by a Catholic priest who suggested that on Judgment Day people would be asked what they did for the poor when water was privatised.

   The poor people in communities like Orange Farm who are being hurt by the privatisation of water, the increases in fees and the installation of ‘pre-paid’ meters to force them to pay for water in advance of receiving it, Makolo said. People cut off from the supply are forced to travel long distances to get water.

People even have to buy tokens for the pre-paid meter to get the ‘free’ 6 000 liters of water per month promised by the government.

   Those suffering from HIV/AIDS are especially vulnerable. Their health depends on adequate amounts of clean water, but they are told that nothing can be done for them by the collapsing public hospitals.

   Makolo ridiculed the government’s argument that these meters are necessary for water conservation, noting that water use in his community is paltry compared to that in more affluent communities, where homes have multiple taps, lawns are watered and cars washed.

   Both speakers spoke of the confrontations with the government that come with opposing privatisation in their countries. In Nigeria, the union movement has taken the lead in mobilizing opposition, mainly, said Ejiofoh, because the political parties are still very weak and ill equipped to deal with substantive issues. More recently, though, a coalition of unions and civil society organizations came together to oppose the latest proposed increase in fuel prices. En masse, Nigerians responded to the call to withdraw money from their accounts and stock up for a two-week strike. The strike was averted by a last minute agreement with the government and the fuel marketers.

   For the Orange Farm Water Crisis Committee, the latest phase of the struggle has been a campaign to encourage people to destroy the meters in their homes, under the slogan “Break the meter and enjoy free water.” Their demand is for the local and national governments to get the private companies out of water, and for water to be free for all.

   This struggle is a dangerous one. Fellow activist Emily Nengolo was shot dead in her Orange Farm home in February in what appears to be a politically motivated killing. But Bricks Makolo said they are undeterred.

   “We are prepared to die. We are prepared to be arrested, to be tortured, for our demand.”