Amandla! Awethu! Africans Fight Corporate Greed
With fist in the air, Virginia Setshedi shouts “Amandla!” The crowd gathered in a University of Alberta classroom raises fists in the air and responds “Awethu!” – “Power to the People,” the cry of South Africa’s liberation movement. But this cry is in opposition to a new form of oppression – privatization.
Virginia Setshedi, a founding member of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee in South Africa, and Rudolf Amenga-Etego, the national campaign coordinator of the Coalition Against the Privatization of Water in Ghana, visited Edmonton as part of a cross-Canada speaking tour organized by the Halifax Initiative. Setshedi and Amenga-Etego spoke of the detrimental effects of the privatization of electricity and water services and other neoliberal policies foisted on poor countries by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Ghana, a country of 20 million people in West Africa, is a Highly Indebted Poor Country. From 1980-90 the country went trough a Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) imposed by the World Bank and IMF, which required privatization. The government sold mines, farms, public transportation and the railways. By 1992 the state had sold its major sources of financing for social services. In 1990 a second SAP began requiring privatization and deregulation of education, health, water and electricity. The World Bank imposed the doctrine of full cost recovery for water services. The result has been that water now costs as much as 25 percent of household income in urban areas. To cope with these costs, parents are withdrawing their children from school as they can no longer afford school fees and uniforms. Water born diseases such as typhoid, cholera and guinea worm have shot up – in the case of guinea worm, Ghana became the second most endemic country in the world. Amenga-Etego notes, Ghana borrows money from the World Bank to repair the water system, then sells the system to foreign corporations to run at a profit. Foreign corporations are “stealing directly from the public purse for private profit.”
In another example of the intrusion of World Bank and IMF neoliberal policy, Amenga-Etego noted that these institutions, while spouting the need for increasing democratization, actually undermine democracy. The World Bank demanded that Ghana remove subsidies for the rice and poultry industries. These industries collapsed – Ghana now imports rice from the US and poultry from Poland. In response, Parliament passed a law to protect these industries. Two weeks later the IMF instructed the President that the law was unacceptable as it discriminated against a fair market. The President, without Parliamentary approval, was forced to make an announcement on radio reversing the policy. Amenga-Etego continued, “Privatization, deregulation, liberalization has not only brought poverty, it has undermined our democracy, it has undermined our dignity as human beings, eroded our sovereignty and it has made us completely, not only marginal, but very vulnerable. We feel almost as if we are not human.”
Setshedi spoke of the South African struggle. In 1994, the apartheid regime was replaced. “We thought we got freedom, but instead we have a free market.” The government, under the influence of the World Bank, self-imposed structural adjustment with a full dose of liberalization and privatization. South Africans were told it would bring efficiency, access to services, job creation, low prices and development. But South Africans see the opposite. In preparation for privatization, Eskom, the Electricity Supply Commission, became a company under the Company Act and laid off 40,000 of its 85,000 workers.
Eskom implemented a full cost recovery policy, with the result that many township and rural residents were unable to pay their bills. Residents were also billed for arrears, much of which derived from not paying bills as a show of resistance in the anti-apartheid struggle. Failure to pay bills resulted in a massive cut off from services – estimates are that 720,000 people a month were cut off in 2001 – 10 million across the country experienced electricity cut offs. In Soweto 61 percent of households experienced disconnections. If bills were paid following cut off, some could not afford the reconnection fees. Setshedi spoke of a 76 year old woman surviving on a meager pension, who was assessed a bill of R96,000 (Cdn. $19,200). This year the price of electricity has gone up from R16/unit to R38. The hardships imposed by electricity cut off include people being unable to refrigerate their food and medications such as insulin, resorting to the use of paraffin which causes lung problems, children being unable to study properly, and a greater burden placed on women who do the cooking and look after the sick, including the many who have AIDS.
In response Sowetans formed the Soweto Electricity Crisis committee which resorted to actions such as Operation Khanyisa, ‘Let There be Light,’ which involved protests and illegally reconnecting people to the power system.
Amenga-Etego and Setshedi encouraged their audience to join the international boycott of World Bank Bonds. The Bank raises US $20 billion on capital markets each year. They are regarded as a safe investment as they have a AAA credit rating and are backed by governments. The goal of the boycott is to lower the AAA bond rating and decrease their desirability as investments, thereby forcing the Bank to respond to public pressure over its policies. The boycott campaign has been in operation since 2002 and over 100 institutions, municipalities and organizations, including the largest pension fund in the US, have committed to purchasing no new bonds.
The campaign is a concrete action of North-South solidarity which is required, as Amenga-Etego put it, “to end corporate greed that is impoverishing the world and endangering all of us.”
Further information about the Halifax Initiative’s anti-privatization tour and the World Bank Bond boycott can be found at www.halifaxinitiative.org.
Nancy Hannemann is Global Education Program Coordinator at the University of Alberta’s International Centre