Neocolonialism and Omicron’s Politics in South Africa
Driven by the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, South Africa has entered its fourth wave of COVID-19 infections. As economic, public health and political crises merge, the lingering legacy of apartheid and colonialism has a lot to answer for in a country that has suffered more than 230,000 additional deaths.
Last November, in response to South African scientists identifying the variant, countries in the Global North imposed travel restrictions in the region. The EU, US, UK and other major economies have targeted countries in southern Africa, many of which had not recorded any cases of Omicron, while western countries, where the variant had detected, remained free from travel bans. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa denounced these measures as “punishing African excellence”. Faced with such restrictions, the country’s tourism industry suffered as it entered its busiest months, a blow to the much-needed recovery after last year when more than 300,000 people lost their jobs. in the area. With an economy characterized by inequality and high unemployment, South Africa is particularly vulnerable to these discriminatory policies.
“South Africa’s political economy has its roots in colonialism and apartheid”
South Africa’s political economy has its roots in colonialism and apartheid. The extraction of mineral resources by mining conglomerates for the benefit of imperial capital and the country’s white settler elite is a defining feature of the country’s history. The super-profits were made possible by the exploitation of a low-wage black labor force, depreciated by the dispossession and displacement of the peasantry to indigenous reserves where the means of subsistence were partly maintained by the subsistence agriculture. This trend was codified in the Natives’ Land Act of 1913, where 87% of the land was allocated to the white minority, the African population being confined to the “Bantustans”. Widespread poverty and unemployment that coexist with great wealth, generated by mining companies like Anglo-American, have plagued South Africa ever since. Unfortunately, even with the remarkable success of the African National Congress liberation struggle and the transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994, this fundamental structure of the South African economy has remained unchanged.
The party in power since 1994, the African National Congress (ANC), has historically relied on a tripartite alliance with the Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). While the Mandela government’s initial adoption of the Reconstruction and Development Program attempted in part to implement the promises of economic and social transformation set out in the Liberation Movement’s Freedom Charter, while the ANC continued to to exercise power, the party was moving away from its radical tradition. Under Mbeki, the Growth, Jobs and Redistribution Program enacted World Bank-approved fiscal discipline, relaxation of regulations on capital flows, and privatization of state utilities; unemployment soared to 30% in the early 2000s.
“The global response to the pandemic has demonstrated more clearly than ever that imperialism, far from being a thing of the past, remains an important force in shaping international policy”
Like democratization in Latin America, political liberation has failed to shake the colonial foundations at the heart of South Africa’s political economy, leaving the population particularly vulnerable to current crises. Although Mbeki’s black economic empowerment policy raised a small class of the African elite, the glaring inequalities in the distribution of lands inherited from apartheid have remained largely unchanged. Indeed, the very organizations that once served as a national vehicle for social justice have been distorted to the point of being unrecognizable by the lack of a corresponding economic liberation. Alienated by austerity, COSATU and SACP backed pariah Jacob Zuma against Mbeki, a Faustian deal that backfired during a decade of authoritarianism, state capture by oligarchs and attacks on the labor movement, including the 2012 police shooting against 34 minors in Marikana. The tripartite alliance has disintegrated, embodied in the expulsion of the National Union of Metallurgists Militant from COSATU in 2014, and the ANC’s unprecedented fall to less than 50% in last month’s elections is the point culminating in the failure of the liberation movement to challenge the vast legacy of colonialism in the post-apartheid era. In this period of international crisis, the results of the last thirty years have been revealed, as external actors have exercised arbitrary power over South Africa with disastrous consequences for the population of the country.
Over the past two years, the global response to the pandemic has demonstrated more clearly than ever that imperialism, far from being a thing of the past, remains an important force in shaping international policy. For more than a year, as millions of people died from the virus, wealthier WTO members, including the UK, blocked South Africa and India’s proposal to an exemption from TRIPS. The requested patent suspension would have facilitated the local production of vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics in developing countries. Instead, the failure of the Covax program has left the African continent with a vaccination rate of just 7.5%, a crime Ramaphosa has called “vaccine apartheid.”
While Ramaphosa’s strong stance against vaccine inequality is a welcome development, like previous ANC governments, his administration has failed to address the underlying structural conditions inherited from apartheid. Worth $ 450 million and accustomed to serving on the advisory boards of international companies such as Coca-Cola and Unilever, Ramaphosa is a far cry from his union years fighting for liberation and was implicated in the Marikana massacre when he was on the board of directors of the Lonmin platinum mine. Despite a 44% rise in unemployment, Finance Minister Godongwana’s recent budget has resisted calls to increase social spending and introduce a basic income allowance, opting instead for fiscal austerity.
As South Africa’s hospitals continue to fill up and an economic crisis envelops the country, the conduct of many wealthy countries in the Global North has remained in keeping with their colonial past. The legacy of imperialism and apartheid must be comprehensively targeted by economic and social transformation; challenging the international order and entrenched capitalist interests is a necessity.
University is the independent journal of the University of Cambridge, established in its present form in 1947. In order to maintain our editorial independence, our print journal and news website do not receive any funding from the University of Cambridge or its colleges constitutive.
So we depend almost entirely on advertising for fundraising and expect to have a few tough months and years ahead.
Despite this situation, we will be looking for inventive ways to serve our readership with digital content and of course in print!
Therefore, we ask our readers, if they wish, to donate from just £ 1 to help us cover our running costs. Thank you very much, we hope you can help us!