The First Political Prisoners of Neo-Liberalism

Aug 15, 2002

On 15 August, Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee activists jailed for non-violent protest against the denial of electricity, water, housing and basic human rights will appear at Jeppe Court in Johannesburg. They are asking for your solidarity.

What is the Protest About?
South Africa’s state-owned electricity company, Eskom, is privatising, and to attract foreign investors is disconnecting poor people who cannot afford outrageous bills. Meanwhile, Eskom provides the “cheapest electricity in the world” to minerals mega-corporations which produce vast carbon and sulphur dioxide greenhouse gas emissions, and Eskom is developing a new generation of nuclear reactors for export. For demonstrating at the Johannesburg mayor’s suburban house in April – where a bodyguard shot eight live rounds into a peaceful crowd, injuring two Sowetans – 87 people are now facing charges of “public violence”, a serious crime in South Africa; about 40 of those charged are elderly and children. All of them face the possibility of a jail sentence – 50 were already imprisoned without bail for 11 days because of ruling-party interference in the judicial system.

Electricity is a right, not a privilege.

Our World is Not for Sale! Soweto is Not for Sale! Support the Protesters!

The Reality of Neo-Liberalism in South Africa
The protesters’ organisation, Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, led by Trevor Ngwame (left) has been fighting electricity cut-offs since 2000. SECC reports that twenty thousand houses were being disconnected from electricity in Soweto every month last year. After campaigning, the electricity company ESKOM finally surrendered. The march also protested against water cut-offs, evictions from houses and forced removals of squatter communities from land they have occupied for many years – all of which are still continuing.

One million jobs have been lost in South Africa since the 1996 introduction of a “neoliberal” (free market) macro-economic policy pushed by local and foreign banks, and drafted with the World Bank’s assistance.

“Full cost-recovery” became the mantra for even water—in August 2000 this caused disconnections which in turn led to more than 100,000 cholera cases, the worst outbreak in the country’s history. In many township and rural communities it is simply impossible for people to pay for water and electricity.

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, neo-liberal policies have meant:

  • 10 million South Africans have had their water and electricity cut off
  • Over 2 million have been evicted from their homes and 1.5 million have had their property seized
  • Tens of thousands of South Africans have died from cholera, diarrhoea, TB and HIV/Aids infections because of inadequate or unaffordable water and electricity
  • ANC promises of “free lifeline services” are, in most low-income areas of South Africa, a mirage.

Local and National Politicians Back Neo-Liberal Policies
Johannesburg Mayor Amos Masondo will host the UN’’s World Summit on Sustainable Development (“Rio+10″) on August 26. The ANC government, and the whole world, need a reminder that international support is growing for a human rights approach to environment and development.

The privatisation of Eskom is even more threatening because Thabo Mbeki’s controversial “New Partnership for Africa’s Development” – firmly supported by the World Bank, IMF and big business – proposes “public-private partnerships” for infrastructure investment across the continent: codewords for the sell-off of state enterprises, and for Eskom’s expansion.

Trevor Ngwane

Growing Protests
Disconnections, evictions and the seizure of property, often carried out at gunpoint, are being spontaneously resisted all over the country. As resistance becomes progressively more organised, with strong local, national and international networks forming between communities, labour, women’s, youth, environmentalists and other social movements, more repression is anticipated. The Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee and the Anti-Privatisation Forums in several SA cities are important symbolic targets of government, because the protests unveil the failure of the ANC’s neoliberal policies.

All of South Africa’s major trade unions, social movements and environmentalists oppose privatisation and the disconnection of basic services. Even though the SA water minister has termed disconnections “unconstitutional,” they continue unabated. The Congress of SA Trade Unions has called a two-day national anti-privatisation strike of millions of workers on October 1-2. On August 31, tens of thousands of South African activists will march against privatisation at the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Trevor Ngwame says “We are fighting against the privatisation of basic services such as housing, health care, education, electricity, water, etc. The government, inspired by the World Bank, the WTO and the IMF, has been implementing the cost recovery policy and charging cost reflective tariffs for basic services in a context where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Also, in a context where millions were deprived of basic services for decades due to apartheid policies. Furthermore, in a context where the democratic government’s neo-liberal macro-economic policy GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution plan) has led to more than a million jobs being lost since independence in 1994. The unemployment rate currently stands at 38% in South Africa according to government figures. There is also very little in the way of social security to cushion the poorest from the ravages of rising food prices, increasing interest rates and an attack on worker rights and benefits won during the struggle against apartheid.”

Municipal Workers Jailed for Striking – But Win Wage Rise
President Thabo Mbeki’s neo-liberal policies have also meant the jailing of hundreds of striking municipal workers, who are fighting for a minimum wage of R2200 (about £150) per month. Meanwhile, municipal top officials earn on average R600 000 a year (about £40,000). Update: in mid-July the workers’ union accepted an offer of R2100 (about £140, a rise from around £125.) They also won a higher pay rise for lower-paid, mostly black, workers than for higher-paid, mostly white, ones. Trevor reports that “I just spent a week-end in jail for spraying grafitti on a public building wall in support of the municipal workers’ strike. I shared my cell with 7 shop stewards arrested on trumped up charges which were dropped on Monday after they spent 3 days in jail. 334 workers are facing charges in Cape Town.”

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