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South Africa’s toll at the ‘gateway to Africa’

The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) that was launched in 2001 is revealing for showing the four other BRIC countries how South Africa seeks to serve as ‘a gateway for investment on the continent.’ From Nepad to Brics, South Africa’s toll at the ‘gateway to Africa’ is high, and there is very little to show for it.

Amongst Pretoria’s main objectives at the Brics summit in Durban, according to deputy foreign minister Marius Fransman, is to serve as ‘a gateway for investment on the continent, and over the next 10 years the African continent will need $480 billion for infrastructure development.’

By going back a decade, what can observers of Brics learn about the role South Africa may serve the four other countries as the gateway to Africa? The origins of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) and the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) are revealing. Their sponsor, South African president Thabo Mbeki, had embarked upon a late 1990s ‘African Renaissance’ branding exercise, which he endowed with poignant poetics but not much else.

The lack of content was somewhat remedied during 2000 in a powerpoint skeleton unveiled in Mbeki’s meetings with US president Bill Clinton in May, at the Okinawa G8 meeting in July, at the UN Millennium Summit in September, and at a subsequent EU gathering in Portugal. The skeleton was fleshed out in November with the assistance of several economists and was immediately ratified during a special South African visit by World Bank president James Wolfensohn.

By this stage, in early 2001, Mbeki had managed to sign on as partners two additional rulers from the crucial north and west of the continent: Abdeleziz Bouteflika of Algeria and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, both leaders of countries that suffered frequent mass protests and various civil, military, religious and ethnic disturbances. Later, he added Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade, who in 2012 had to be ousted from power by mass popular protest, when he attempted to change the constitution to allow further rule.


Addressing an international gathering in Davos, January 2001, Mbeki made clear whose interests Nepad would serve: ‘It is significant that in a sense the first formal briefing on the progress in developing this programme is taking place at the World Economic Forum meeting. The success of its implementation would require the buy in from members of this exciting and vibrant forum!’

International capital would benefit from large infrastructure construction opportunities, privatised state services, ongoing structural adjustment (which lowers the social wage and workers’ real wages), intensified rule of international property law, and various of Nepad’s sectoral plans, all co-ordinated from a South African office at the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA), a World Bank–styled institution staffed with neoliberals and open to economic and geopolitical gatekeeping.

Once Mbeki’s plan was merged with an infrastructure-project initiative offered by Wade, it won endorsement at the last meeting of the Organisation of African Unity, in June 2001. In 2002, the organisation evolved into the African Union, and Nepad was made its official development plan.

The actual Nepad document was publicly launched in Abuja by African heads of state in October 2001. In February 2002, global elites celebrated Nepad at venues ranging from the World Economic Forum to a summit of self-described ‘progressive’ national leaders (but including Britain’s Tony Blair) who gathered in Stockholm to forge a global ‘Third Way’.

Elite eyes were turning to the ‘scar on the world’s conscience’ (as Blair described Africa), hoping Nepad would serve as a large enough bandaid, for G8 leaders at their June 2002 summit in Canada had rejected Mbeki’s plea for an annual $64 billion in new aid, loans and investments for Africa. He was simply not a sufficiently reliable deputy sheriff for imperialism, at that stage.


The main reason for doubts about Mbeki’s commitment to neoliberalism and the rule of law was his repeated defense of the continent’s main violator of liberal norms, Mugabe. This loyalty was in spite of Nepad promises such as: ‘Africa undertakes to respect the global standards of democracy, the core components of which include political pluralism, allowing for ... fair, open and democratic elections periodically organised to enable people to choose their leaders freely.’

In reality, Mbeki would term Zimbabwe’s demonstrably unfree and unfair March 2002 presidential election ‘legitimate’, and repeatedly opposed punishment of the Mugabe regime by the Commonwealth and the UN Human Rights Commission. In February 2003, South African foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – now African Union chairperson – stated, ‘We will never criticise Zimbabwe.’

The Nepad secretariat’s Dave Malcomson, responsible for international liaison and co-ordination, then admitted to a reporter, ‘Wherever we go, Zimbabwe is thrown at us as the reason why Nepad’s a joke.’

In the meantime, South African capital’s drive to accumulate up-continent continued, as Johannesburg business sought out new opportunities especially in mining, retail, banking, breweries, construction, services and tourism.

The largest South African corporations benefited from Nepad’s lubrication of capital flows out of African countries, yet most of the money did not stop in Johannesburg, as was the case prior to 2000. The financial flight went mainly to London, where Anglo American Corporation, DeBeers, Old Mutual insurance, South African Breweries, Liberty Life insurance and other huge South African firms had relisted at the turn of the Millennium (thanks to permission from Mbeki).

In spite of a high-profile mid-2002 endorsement of Nepad by 187 business leaders and firms, led by Anglo American, BHP Billiton and the Absa banking group, there were no investments made in twenty key infrastructure projects two years later, only vocal corporate complaints that the peer review mechanism had insufficient teeth to discipline errant politicians. According to the chief reporter of (pro-Nepad) Business Day in mid-2004, ‘The private sector’s reluctance to get involved threatens to derail Nepad’s ambitions.’

But would the corporates have contributed to Africa’s genuine development? To illustrate drawing upon a telling incident associated with household water provision in 2012, the Johannesburg parastatal firm Rand Water was forced to leave Ghana after failing – with a Dutch for-profit partner (Aqua Vitens) – to improve Accra’s water supply, as also happened in Maputo (Saur from Paris) and Dar es Salaam (Biwater from London). Rand Water had long claimed its role in Ghana was part of both the Nepad and Millennium Development Goals mandate to increase public-private partnerships in water delivery.

The problem of overreach was a more general one. In July 2003, the Johannesburg Sunday Times reported from the African Union meeting in Maputo that Mbeki was viewed by other African leaders as ‘too powerful, and they privately accuse him of wanting to impose his will on others. In the corridors they call him the George Bush of Africa, leading the most powerful nation in the neighbourhood and using his financial and military muscle to further his own agenda.’


These critics of Mbeki were joined by African intellectuals who demanded better from their leaders as well, including those who understand Pretoria’s continental ambitions. To illustrate, at a joint conference in April 2002 in Accra, Ghana, the Council for Development and Social Science Research in Africa and Third World Network-Africa identified the ‘most fundamental flaws of Nepad’ as follows:

• the neoliberal economic policy framework at the heart of the plan ... which repeats the structural adjustment policy packages of the preceding two decades and overlooks the disastrous effects of those policies;
• the fact that in spite of its proclaimed recognition of the central role of the African people to the plan, the African people have not played any part in the conception, design and formulation of the Nepad;
• notwithstanding its stated concerns for social and gender equity, it adopts the social and economic measures that have contributed to the marginalisation of women;
• that in spite of claims of African origins, its main targets are foreign donors, particularly in the G8;
• its vision of democracy is defined by the needs of creating a functional market.

It did not take long for the pessimists’ predictions to come true, for even on its own terms, Nepad was fundamentally flawed. As Wade stated in October 2004: ‘I am disappointed. I have great difficulties explaining what we have achieved when people at home and elsewhere ask me... We’re spending a lot of money and, above all, losing time with repetition and conferences that end and you’re not quite sure what they’ve achieved.’

In June 2007, at the World Economic Forum meeting in Cape Town, he acknowledged that Nepad ‘had done nothing to help the lives of the continent’s poor’. Later that year, Wade was even more frank: ‘The redirection of the project has become inevitable, because nobody has yet understood anything from Nepad and nobody implemented Nepad.’
As Mbeki himself confessed a few weeks after his ouster from power, in December 2008, ‘I am afraid that we have not made the progress we had hoped for. Indeed, and regrettably, I believe that we have lost some of the momentum which attended the launch and detailed elaboration of the Nepad programmes.’

Mbeki’s African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) itself was conceived so that African regimes – including South Africa’s, to great internal consternation – would essentially review themselves with kid gloves, and when civil society critique emerged, this was repressed.

According to Bronwen Manby from AfriMAP (a pro-APRM NGO), ‘Although each country that has undergone the APRM process is supposed to report back to the APR Forum on its progress, there is no serious monitoring exercise of how effectively this is done. Nor any sanctions for failure to act.’ She concluded, ‘Without this sort of integration into other national planning systems, debates and oversight mechanisms, the APRM process seems doomed to become little more than a cosmetic exercise without effect in the real world of policy and decision making.’

In sum, the imposition of Nepad’s neoliberal logic soon amplified uneven development in Africa, including South Africa. Adding to the invasion by Chinese firms – specializing in neo-colonial infrastructure construction, extractive industries and the import of cheap, deindustrializing manufactured goods – and the West’s preparations for military interventions from the oil- filled Gulf of Guinea in the west to the Horn of Africa in the east, Africa is being squeezed harder than ever in its history.

Patents, marketing restrictions and inadequate state-financed research made life-saving medicines unreasonably scarce. Genetically modified food threatened peasant farming. Trade was also increasingly exploitative because of the ‘Singapore issues’ advanced by the G8 countries: investment, competition, trade facilitation, government procurement. The new conditionalities amplified grievances of developing nations over the G8’s vast agricultural subsidies, unfair industrial tariffs, incessant services privatisation and intellectual property monopolies.

Together, they prompted African–Caribbean–Pacific withdrawal from the ministerial summit of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Cancun in September 2003, leading to its collapse, with no subsequent improvements in the following years. Although there was talk of ‘Africa Rising’ thanks to high GDP growth in several countries – mainly those that benefited from the commodity boom or civil wars ending – the actual wealth of Sub-Saharan Africa shrunk dramatically during the 2000s once we factor in non-renewable resource depletion, with the height of the boom recording a -6 percent annual decline in ‘adjusted net savings’ (i.e., correcting GDP for ecological and social factors typically ignored).

In sum, from Nepad to Brics, South Africa’s toll at the ‘gateway to Africa’ is high, and there is very little to show for it. Having failed to coordinate continental economic activity in the interests of the World Economic Forum, Mbeki retired in shame in September 2008, tossed out of power in Pretoria, eight months before his term ended. Nepad played no role in his own decline, which was most spectacular in terms of local and international delegitimation when it came to Mbeki’s denial that HIV and AIDS were related and hence that medicines would assist the six million HIV+ South Africans. He is still considered a genocidaire for that, but after he was defeated and medicines flowed, the country’s life expectancy rose from a low of 52 in 2004 to 60 in late 2012.

Just as destructively, Mbeki in Africa was doing work – promoting Nepad – considered by the Bush regime’s main Africa official to be ‘philosophically spot-on’. Just prior to the 2003 G8 summit in France, former International Monetary Fund managing director Michel Camdessus explained Nepad’s attraction in a telling remark: ‘The African heads of state came to us with the conception that globalization was not a curse for them, as some had said, but rather the opposite, from which something positive could be derived… You can’t believe how much of a difference this makes.’

Will South Africa make a similar ‘difference’ when it comes to gateway service for the other Brics countries’ looting of Africa? This time, will Brics endorse Pretoria’s role for the sake of legitimation, or instead like Nepad, is it all purely symbolic diplomacy, and ultimately a waste of time and effort?

* Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society and recently authored Politics of Climate Justice.

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1. M Fransman, ‘South Africa: A strong African Brick in Brics’, Stellenbosch, University of Stellenbosch, 21 November 2012.
2. T Mbeki, ‘Briefing at the World Economic Forum meeting: Millennium Africa Renaissance Program - implementation issues,’ Davos, Switzerland, 28 January 2001,
3. P Bond (Ed), Fanon’s Warning, Trenton, Africa World Press, 2005.
4. Ibid.
5. Financial Times, ‘G8 vows to “fully commit” to developing African nations,’ 2 June 2003.
6. R Rose, ‘Companies “shirking” their Nepad obligations’, Business Day, 24 May 2004.
7. J Amanthis. ‘How the private sector didn’t solve Ghana’s water crisis’, Pambazuka, 27 July 2012.
8. R Munusamy, ‘The George Dubya of Africa,’ Sunday Times, 13 July 2003.
9. Council for Development and Social Science Research in Africa, Dakar and Third World Network-Africa, ‘Declaration on Africa’s development challenges,’ Resolution adopted at the Joint Conference on Africa’s Development Challenges in the Millennium, Accra, 23-26 April 2002, p.4.
10. BBC, ‘Africa’s big plan “disappointing”‘, London, 22 October 2004.
11. L Ensor, ‘South Africa: Get down to brass tacks – Mbeki’, Business Day, 18 June 2007.
12. Daily Observer, ‘Wade: Nepad has failed,’ 4 October 2007.
13. Sapa, ‘Nepad losing momentum: Mbeki’, 12 December 2008.
14. Patrick Bond, ‘Removing neocolonialism’s APRM mask: A critique of the African Peer Review Mechanism’, Review of African Political Economy, 36: 122, 2009, pp.595-603.
15. B Manby, ‘African Peer Review Mechanism: Lessons from Kenya’, Pambazuka News, 362, 15 April 2008.
16. D Gopinath, ‘Doubt of Africa,’ Institutional Investor Magazine, May 2003.
17. summit/2003evian/ briefing_apr030601.html