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In an interview with the Inter Press Service (IPS), Patrick Bond discusses the failings of South Africa’s drive towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the extent to which the country’s government continues to operate against the interests of its poor majority.

IPS: Of the eight MDGs (Millennium Development Goals), which has South Africa made the most progress on? What has enabled this?

PATRICK BOND: 6 – Combat HIV and AIDS, malaria and other diseases. How? Access to ARV (anti-retroviral) treatment became available in South African public health facilities in 2004, after a heroic battle was waged by the Treatment Action Campaign and its allies against President Thabo Mbeki, the world's largest pharmaceutical corporations and the US government. Anti-retroviral drugs that used to cost US$10,000 a year per person now are free for poor and working-class South Africans, and the medicines are available generically, made locally in Africa, not only by Big Pharma in the North. This is a miraculous change from a decade ago, and probably saved more lives than any single initiative anywhere since the end of apartheid.

IPS: Which goal has been most difficult to pursue? Why?

PATRICK BOND: There's a three-way tie, for MDG goals 1, 7 and 8:

1) Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. South African urban poverty increased from 1993–2008 according to latest official stats, and rural poverty declined only because more poor people moved to the cities and the welfare grant system was extended. Why? The South African economy is structured so as to generate poverty-expanding 'growth' of GDP (gross domestic product). As accumulation of capital occurs in much of South Africa, the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer. That structuring happens in ways familiar to anyone following the speculative, financial-driven and profit-exporting character of capitalism nearly everywhere these days, interrupted only briefly by the great crash of 2008. Most of Pretoria's economic policies amplify this because of their neoliberal (pro-business) character.

7) Ensure environmental sustainability. South Africa's climate, land, water, mining/smelting, petro-chemical, fisheries and timber sectors are experiencing ecological disasters on a more regular scale. Why? The large corporations mainly responsible for these problems have a tight-knit 'crony capitalist' relationship with the ruling party, bordering on outright corruption (for example, the huge US$3.75 billion World Bank loan to Eskom this year which directly funds the ruling party for a vast coal-fired power plant so the world's biggest mining/metals firms get the world's cheapest electricity). At minimum, the revolving door between state officials and capital confirms laxity in environmental regulation, and even Pretoria admits the state of the South African environment is in perilous decline.

8) Develop a global partnership for development. Under Mbeki's influence, Pretoria's international representatives tried valiantly to stitch together a global elite with concern for African 'development', starting with South Africa's hosting of the 1996 UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) conference, but to no avail. Why? There has been a deficit of good governance on every single global-scale problem – not just poverty – for at least the last decade, what with the Bush/Obama regime's fusion of neoconservative ideologues and neoliberal institutions in the UN, Bretton Woods institutions, World Trade Organisation, UN Security Council and environmental bodies, such that since the 1996 ban (in the Montreal Protocol) on ChloroFluoroCarbons (causing ozone hole growth), there's been no global-scale elite solution to global-scale problems.

IPS: Within five years, which goals can South Africa be confident in achieving? Which goals do you think will not be achieved? Why?

PATRICK BOND: South Africa cannot be confident of making progress on any MDG goals, given the coming austerity associated with a failing global and national 'Keynesian' (deficit-based) macroeconomic strategy that was largely based on white-elephant infrastructure investments. Such spending – especially for now empty soccer stadiums costing R22 billion – plus declining state revenues (as profits and taxes fell) moved the national budget from a surplus of around 1 per cent of GDP under Trevor Manuel to a deficit of more than 7 per cent since the crisis began, and as Pravin Gordhan took over as finance minister. What is therefore likely, within five years, is a similar turn by the Treasury to the kind of austerity now being felt in many other countries which ratcheted up their deficits to deal with the crisis. As shown in the recent civil servants' strike, the state is willing to put services mainly utilised by the poor majority – public schools, clinics and hospitals – at risk to maintain some semblance of fiscal discipline, which does not bode well for future state expenditure on MDG-related needs.

IPS: What specific plans are in place to promote gender equality and women's empowerment?

PATRICK BOND: Given the fact that during economic crisis and rising mass unemployment – which still characterise South Africa – women typically suffer most, and given the apparent rise in patriarchy experienced in South Africa since President Jacob Zuma's 2006 rape trial and his curious 'Moral Regeneration Campaign' leadership, I suspect that gender equity will suffer and only a few women in political and bureaucratic leadership or Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) positions will be empowered.

IPS: Each year, the African Union summit theme relates to a different MDG. Civil society has lauded the statements issued as a result, but been critical of follow-through and implementation. How have the resolutions at the last three summits helped to shape South Africa's programmes for water and sanitation and investment in agriculture?

PATRICK BOND: As was learned from the failed New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) and the failing Africa Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), there is a great deal of rhetoric at the African Union not matched by implementation, because as most in civil society soon realised, the promises of good governance are a 'talk left, walk right' manoeuvre. How else would one explain the fact that tyrants have held continental leadership positions in recent years (e.g., AU leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, NEPAD/APRM/climate leader Meles Zenawi and MDG summit co-chair Paul Kagame). Civilised society in Addis Ababa will eventually have to join the more observant, critical forces in African civil society and stop praising the AU's empty rhetoric, given that such praise simply encourages corrupt, repressive elites to continue posturing and distracts the society from the elites' dictatorial practices at home and, especially, their destructive alliances with global power-brokers (e.g., Zenawi and Kagame with George W. Bush and Tony Blair, and Barack Obama and David Cameron for that matter).

IPS: 6 – Reducing poverty and hunger is the first, and perhaps most basic development goal. What will the government's programme to create jobs and sustainably reduce poverty look like?

PATRICK BOND: Given the neoliberal orientation of policy-makers in the Treasury, Pretoria still appears religiously opposed to subsidising food or even zero-rating Value Added Tax for most nutritious goods. As for improving food security through land redistribution, Pretoria did pledge to finally ditch the failed Willing Seller Willing Buyer land reform policy (the 1994 promise of 30 per cent redistribution of good land within five years resulted in less than 1 per cent, a figure that may have only now, 16 years into liberation, risen to 5 per cent).

The rural power structure remains extremely biased towards white farmers, so durable malnutrition even among farm workers is an indication of the prevailing semi-feudal social relations. Pretoria's job-creation programme was limited to a half-million so-called jobs in short-term public works programmes, and the only change proposed in 2010 was to develop a two-tier entry-level labour market with capital subsidised by the Treasury to employ young workers at rates below the minimum wage. Fortunately, that idea of Gordhan's has been blocked by labour. In sum, the job creation strategies are merely tokenistic, and it is a tribute to the South African economy's destructive tendencies that while a mild 'recovery' is allegedly underway with 2 percent plus GDP growth recorded in the first half of 2010, another 150,000 more jobs were simultaneously lost. The state is also losing its so-called 'war on poverty', and instead, given that South Africa boasts amongst the world's highest protest rates per person, what is more apparent is Pretoria's war on the poor: repression and disconnections of water/electricity to people who cannot afford their fast-rising utility bills, especially in the wake of Eskom's price increases (at least triple the inflation rate for the foreseeable future). This state of affairs will generate a growing hostility to politicians, but it will take a break between labour and genuine communists on the one hand, and the ANC's (African National Congresses) 'predatory' leadership (as COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) calls them) on the other, before genuine electoral politics can finally begin.


* Patrick Bond is based at the Centre for Civil Society within the University of KwaZulu-Natal's School of Development Studies.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.