The World Summit in Johannesburg: Notes from the Field

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On the drive from the Johannesburg airport to the wealthy white suburb of Sandton – host to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, the largest international conference ever – colorful billboards cajole Summit delegates to taste and enjoy the city’s tap water, boasting that it is as pure and clean as bottled water. Suspended above the airport freeway, Black township boys splash joyfully in an endless bath of fresh blue tap water. Unlike bottled water, the messages imply that Jo’burg’s water is free, clean, and for all to enjoy.

Yet, after a few days of swimming through murky Summit politics, one learns that these omnipresent billboards were not purchased to assuage the fears of European delegates that African tap water is unsafe. Rather, the ANC-led, post-Apartheid South Africa has been busy packaging all of its public goods – water, electricity, sanitation, health services, transport systems – for sale to any willing buyer. From billboards to policy statements to business transactions, the message of the World Summit was loud and clear: Welcome to South Africa, where Everything is for Sale. Of the 60,000 Summit attendees, many were in town to buy (i.e., bargain-hunting large firms), sell (i.e., cash-strapped Southern governments), or mediate (i.e., entrepreneurial NGOs) these deals.

Only ten kilometers down the road, in classic Apartheid-like geography, the rigidly segregated and decrepit township of Alexandra (“Alex”) houses Sandton’s underemployed labor force. Without good public transportation, health clinics, schools, or basic public services, Alex stands as a grim reminder of all that has not changed since liberation. Three hundred thousand people in Alex are packed into just over two square miles of land without access to affordable clean water, electricity, safe housing, or basic sanitation services. The key word is “affordable,” as many of these services have been provided but have now been shut off because people cannot afford to pay for them. In a dramatic political U-turn, the new politics of the post-liberation African National Congress (ANC) is one that conforms to the Washington consensus’ view of the market as “willing buyer, willing seller,” which has been imposed on poor (Black) South Africans in the most draconian fashion.

Today, South Africa is still reeling from a deadly cholera outbreak that erupted from the worst wave of government-enforced water and electricity cut-offs. At the outset of the epidemic, which has infected more than 140,000 people, the government cut off one thousand people’s (previously free) water supply in the rural Zululands for lack of a $7 reconnection fee. In addition, 43,000 children die yearly from diarrhea, a function of limited or no water and sanitation services. The Wits University Municipal Services Project ( conducted a national study last year that identified more than ten million out of South Africa’s forty-four million residents who had experienced water and electricity cutoffs. Epidemiologists say that these cutoffs were the catalysts to the national cholera crisis.

Township activists have struck back by forming by day the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) of the Anti-Privatization Forum (APF), the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, and the Concerned Citizens’ Forum in Durban and working by night with stealth teams re-connecting homes before dawn (“Operation Khanyisa”, as it is called in Soweto, which the ANC has called the new “criminal culture” of the townships). When a stealth team disconnected the Jo’burg’s mayor’s home from electricity in April, they were met with live ammunition and arrest, spending eleven days in the notorious Apartheid Diepkloof prison without a bail hearing.

What’s all this have to do with the World Summit on Sustainable Development? The changes occurring in the workers’ townships were mirrored in the agenda of this international forum. As a follow-up to the momentous Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the Jo’burg Summit’s mission was to assess the accomplishments and failures of the past ten years, and to agree upon a program of what should be accomplished over the next decade. The agenda emphasized five basic issues (or goods): Water, Energy, Health, Agriculture, and Biodiversity. After a series of preparatory committee meetings were held on each continent, with government officials, staff from major intergovernmental agencies, international environmental organizations, and respondents to “open” invitations to all members of so-called civil society, the agenda and its main policy document read like both a World Bank policy paper and a wish list for the world’s largest service sector firms (e.g., Vivendi, Suez, Saur, Bechtel, RWE/Thames Water). These firms, meanwhile, have spent these last few years signing large contracts with Southern governments to manage the basic public goods that can often make the difference between life and death for the poor majority.

The most prevalent actors at the Summit were the World Bank and the IMF, and their “environmental agenda” has become unambigously neoliberal. Their water policy, for example, has become a new condition for future financing and debt relief. The threat is that the capital spigots will be shut off for those governments refusing to consider privatizing their water services. As overwhelming debt has toppled governments and created dire social conditions such as poverty and the present famine in southern Africa, and as populist movements demand that their governments stop servicing these odious and unjust debts, the Bank and IMF are using the lever of debt relief to force water policy reform on borrowing-country governments. Hence, privatization has become much more than a policy that economically benefits a few transnational firms; it also increases the political roles of international finance institutions and transnational firms in the global South. Thanks to the Bank’s arm-twisting, indebted governments are allowing Northern firms to become institutionally embedded in the everyday lifeworlds of the people of the South: Northern firms now provide the people’s water, power, health care, and garbage pick-up, and firms now even send them a consolidated bill to collect their money. It is to these firms that one must go if one needs basic goods for household survival.

Reading the Summit Script
The rise of this World Bank-style green neoliberal politics can be clearly read in the script of the 2002 Jo’burg World Summit. On one level, the storyline typical of these international forums remains the same: unenforceable targets, goals, heartless steamrolling by the U.S., and last-minute heroics by a few fearless Southerners. The defensive World Bank generates press releases that decry Europe and the U.S. for their huge subsidies for agribusiness; a Bank vice president even apologizes for the Bank’s role in the famine in southern Africa, by forcing highly indebted countries to eliminate subsidies to their farmers who could not afford the inputs to produce this season. Perhaps millions will starve as a consequence. The Bank’s presence can also be felt in the final agreements of the Summit. The official negotiations concluded like this: Under the category of water, government leaders agreed to halve by 2015 the number of people – now an estimated 2.4 billion – who live without basic water and sanitation (a guideline doggedly opposed by the U.S.). Under the category of energy, the U.S. and OPEC would not allow targets to pass for renewable energy, especially the Brazilian proposal endorsed by most countries to quadruple the world’s use of clean energy by 2010. The EU pushed a more modest plan for a 1 per cent increase over the next decade.

Under the category of agriculture and fishing, the World Bank’s Global Environmental Facility (GEF) was given the authority to fight against desertification and to rebuild fish stocks “where possible” by 2015, all in very vague language that critics argue may undermine existing and more concrete agreements. U.S. and European delegates refused to phase out their own agricultural subsidies, support organics, or restrict genetically modified crops. Under the category of biodiversity, the Summit took a big step backwards in watering down existing wording to “stop and reverse the current alarming biodiversity loss” to language that could satisfy the U.S. The big news was under the unexpected category of corporate accountability: Due to a well-constructed campaign by North-South pressure groups, governments accepted that binding rules could be developed to govern the behavior of multinational companies, language which the U.S vigorously fought, even after the agreement had been signed. No timetable, however, was set for such negotiations.

Finally, there remain the two most significant elements to the official World Summit. One was the “consensus” or the widespread acceptance by NGOs, foundations, governments, intergovernmental organizations, and of course corporations, of the mechanism of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) or the leasing of traditionally public services to private firms and the circumventing of international agreements and agencies that have often mediated between strong firms and weak states. In other words, as a complement to UN Secretary General Kofi Anan’s Global Compact with firms, no longer are the transnational corporations the silent partner and discrete beneficiary of the “world of development”; now, they become the legitimized main driver. The second, equally as pernicious, is the agreement to give the World Trade Organization (WTO), which seeks to eliminate all obstacles to “free trade,” the power to override international environment agreements. This marks the re-ascendancy of the WTO when some thought, post-Seattle, that the hubristic WTO was withering away.

Cracks in Summit coalitions, however, showed during some decidedly anti-Summit events in town. Jo’burg was jammed with large public forums on land reform; on privatization of water and electricity; on fisheries and the rapidly decreasing access to fish resources by fishing communities; on evictions and poor housing conditions; on World Bank boycott campaigns; and on environmental issues such as GMO foods and nuclear power. Across the board, southern African-based groups were busy organizing across national borders throughout southern Africa, but also more widely as they brought together movement leaders from Brazil, India, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Mexico, and more.

On the day the heads of state arrived to sign the World Summit’s final agreement, 20,000-30,000 marchers took to the streets under the banners of “Africa is Not For Sale” and “Phansi W$$D, Phansi!” (the Zulu command for “away with!” plus the initials of the World Summit). It was the first show of independent-left opposition since the ANC took power, and it reflected not just a politics of anti-ANC but a politics of anti-neoliberalism from around the world. From Bolivia to Ghana to Hungary, people’s movements are responding. In Jo’burg last month, perhaps we saw a glimpse of what’s to come, with tens of thousands of people organizing to resist what is officially called “sustainable development,” but is unambiguously a greened-over neoliberalism that has captured indebted Southern governments with few options but to comply.

Michael Goldman, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the U of I, came here four years ago from Berkeley, CA and is currently teaching Transnational and Environmental Sociology. He is involved with an international network of scholars and activists educating people on the role of the World Bank and IMF in the global economy and in people’s lives. His books include Privatizing Nature: Political Struggles for the Global Commons and the soon to be completed Imperial Nature: The New Politics and Science of the World Bank.

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