Africa, anarchism & neo-liberalism

an Irish anarchist reports...

While neo-liberal reforms have certainly affected workers in the West, it is in Africa where they have had most impact. Neoliberal policies seek to reduce state control over the national economy in favour of private capitalists - the so-called 'free market'. These policies have been most widely applied in Africa for the simple reason that they are the policies promoted by the international financial institutions (IFI's), the World Bank, IMF and WTO.

Many African countries are chronically broke. They must regularly borrow money to finance the public sector and to service their existing debt. The IMF is willing to provide loans as long as the government will carry out a neo-liberal reform package, known as a Structural Adjustment Program (SAP).

The SAPs often impose harsh conditions which cause huge suffering amongst the poor. Such changes would never be tried by the ruling class in the powerful countries as they often lead to instability and violence borne out of desperation. Tellingly an SAP was one of the elements which contributed to the increased tension in the lead up to the Rwandan genocide.

Neo-liberalism in 5 steps

In concrete terms the neo-liberal policies which have been widely implemented in Africa over the last 2 decades are:

*Removal of state control over prices and money. This has meant that subsidies on basic goods such as food and fuel have been removed. In some countries even the most basic foodstuffs have become too expensive for the poor. Food riots against SAP measures have occured all over the continent, notably in Zimbabwe. In Nigeria in June 2000, an IMF-driven increase in the price of fuel provoked a week long general strike and mass resistance.

*Large cuts in public spending. These have caused massive layoffs of public sector workers in many countries. Hundreds of thousands of workers have been retrenched (made redundant) in Senegal, Zambia and Tanzania to name but a few. Other cutbacks in public spending have seen reduced social programs and increased charges. Current Structural Adjustment demands for Mozambique include a fivefold increase in health charges.

*Privatisations of state owned corporations such as electricity, water and transport. These privatisations have often merely replaced a state monopoly with a private monopoly which has generally led to price rises and the effective barring of the services to vast numbers of the poor. In South Africa, electricity and water cut-offs have become common in the townships of Soweto as part of the ANC's neo-liberal GEAR policy.

*Policies to promote a 'flexible' workforce. This essentially means the large scale subcontracting of labour and a reduction in workers' rights, wages and conditions. Workers at Wits University in Johannesberg recently saw their salaries cut by almost 70% and lost all of their benefits under a recent restructuring plan.

*Policies to promote competitiveness. This involves reducing tarrif barriers and reducing taxes on businesses and the rich to attract investment. As a result of this, local industries can be undermined by cheap imports causing massive job losses as happened to the South African textile industry. Sales taxes (VAT) are introduced as alternatives to company and income tax. This causes increases in prices of goods for workers and big increases in profits for bosses.

Anarchist Resistance

This opposition has normally come from community groups or independent trade unions. African anarchists have formed part of this resistance. In Nigeria the anarcho-syndicalist Awareness League was involved in the general strike against fuel price rises which succeeded in forcing the government to reduce the price significantly.

In South Africa anarchists have actively opposed the government's neo-liberal GEAR plan since its introduction in 1996. Most recently anarchists have been working in the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF). The APF is an alliance of left wing activists, some radical unions and mass-based community groups such as the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee whose constituency is numbered in millions. It was established to campaign against the privatisation of services in the government's IGOLI 2002 plan for privatising Johannesberg's municipal services. South African anarchists are committed to fighting privatisation every step of the way.

Chekov Feeney

A longer version of this article is available as part of An Irish anarchist in Africa

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Workers Solidarity'. We also provide a PDF file of the latest edition for you to print out and distribute locally

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This edition is No62 published in January 2000