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Putting an end to the EU’s neo-colonial policies in the field of trade and investment: Economic pressures from above, social reaction from below
by Patrick Bond
22 September 2020

Summary: The European Union and Africa have had exceptionally conflictual relations even after slavery and colonialism ended. Still today, African-European civil society relationships from below are often arrayed against a nexus of state and capital from above. The latter still generally pursue neoliberal, extractivist modes of capital accumulation and seek geopolitical power advantages within a hostile multilateral system. In the specific case of South Africa, this results in a sub-imperial/anti-imperial dialectic full of extreme rhetoric and uneasy multilateral alliances. Yet from below, the situation resemblance the arguments made by Karl Polanyi in the market-versus-society-versus market ‘double movement’ but expanded to the inter-continental scale. So while most European forces that influence South Africa and the rest of Africa reinforce existing Western corporate hegemony, there is also periodic civil society resistance, dating back to anti-slavery activism two centuries ago. Recent examples include anti-apartheid solidarity, the battle against European firms’ water commercialization in Johannesburg, fights against European mining houses and consumers of minerals, and contestation of intellectual property applied to life-saving AIDS medicines, which with European NGO support led to a dramatic rise in life expectancy. The dialectic is not only, therefore, between European and South African elites, but between elites and increasingly angry citizens, some of whom have developed compelling activist initiatives that suggest a ‘globalization of people’ can truly contend with the globalization of capital. As shown by the 2020 Covit-19 coronavirus threat, there is a desperate need to reorient African economies to meet basic social (especially public health) needs. That requires amplifying the ‘localisation’ project, so that the subsequent period of ‘personal distancing’ and border restrictions does not prevent activists from engaging in virtual forms of social solidarity.


South Africa is a vital case study country for contemplating uneven European relations between elites and also between grassroots activists, in the spirit of Karl Polanyi’s (1956) double movement. Once market relations invade too many aspects of society and ecology, movements of people resist. Although one of the most urgent matters is some Europeans’ rejection of historic people-to-people solidarity because of rising xenophobia and waning refugee support, especially in Italy, few if any South Africans are directly affected. [1] However, South African xenophobic populism – against African immigrants – is just as virulent a strain as that found in Italy’s current government.

In contrast to the proto-fascistic, racist trends that appear to be rising across Europe and South Africa, British economist John Maynard Keynes (1933) offered one of the most generous of formulas, a sentiment upon which the arguments below are based:

  • I sympathise with those who would minimise, rather than with those who would maximise, economic entanglement among nations. Ideas, knowledge, science, hospitality, travel – these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible and, above all, let finance be primarily national.

In other words, Keynes was for the globalization of people and deglobalization of capital. Although social, political, economic, and environmental forms of people-to-people solidarity were not on his agenda, countless acts of civil society internationalism historically and at present are clear markers of the dissolution of artificial national boundaries. And likewise, South Africa reveals widespread damage done by flows of footloose globalized capital in search of higher profit rates under conditions of sustained ‘super-exploitation.’ As first systematically identified by Rosa Luxemburg in 1913 (in part based on reading accounts from the front by John Hobson, 1902), super-exploitation is still prevalent in South Africa. For multinational corporations, the economic merits of what she considered unequal ‘capitalist/non-capitalist’ relations include ecological degradation and migrant labour systems which have allowed wage levels to consistently remain below the cost of reproducing labour power, since women under both apartheid and post-apartheid conditions often made up the difference in faraway labour-sourcing sites (Bond 2019). As Luxemburg (2003, 327) put it:

  • Accumulation of capital periodically bursts out in crises and spurs capital on to a continual extension of the market. Capital cannot accumulate without the aid of non-capitalist relations, nor... can it tolerate their continued existence side by side with itself. Only the continuous and progressive disintegration of non-capitalist relations makes accumulation of capital possible. Non-capitalist relations provide a fertile soil for capitalism; more strictly: capital feeds on the ruins of such relations, and although this non-capitalist milieu is indispensable for accumulation, the latter proceeds at the cost of this medium nevertheless, by eating it up. Historically, the accumulation of capital is a kind of metabolism between capitalist economy and those pre-capitalist methods of production without which it cannot go on and which, in this light, it corrodes and assimilates.

However, there were also instances of profound solidarity in resistance. South Africa’s anti-apartheid movements relied upon international allies (especially from Europe) to radically change power relations during the 1980s, leading to the 1990–1994 negotiated settlement (Thörn 2006). This was accomplished in part through popular, bottom-up economic sanctions – originally emanating from progressive, anti-racist Europeans in the 1950s – which by 1985 dealt apartheid a decisive blow. Once a democratic South Africa re-entered the “international community” after 1994, the dynamic became dominant again: Reinforcement of international power (highly influenced from Europe) with South African state and corporate assistance, and vice versa.

Even though anti-imperialist rhetoric was retained by the ruling party, deal-making – sometimes termed “Faustian Pacts” (Kasrils 2017) – left South African leaders’ subservient to multilateral institutions, to regional/bilateral investment treaties (with especially high levels of conflict over the European trade and investment treaties), to FDI sources (at the same time South African corporations relisted in London), and to various sectoral relationships. Europeans have been central to these South African interfaces of state, business, and social organizations. On the other hand, harking back to widespread people’s sanctions against apartheid, there are inspiring examples of ways global power can be criticized and reversed by activists from below, with a positive rebound for South African governance.

Hence although this chapter divides the subject material in sections of pre- and post-1994, it starts from the premise that there has been a durable role played by Pretoria officials and Johannesburg business managers in relation to EU imperial practices. As we see below, these are often today disguised by anti-imperial political posturing. In several cases, however, Pretoria’s talk-left walk-right strategy was disrupted by global influences from below, including international activism with strong EU social solidarity activism. This linkage from below was needed to overcome adverse national political power relations in a post-apartheid South Africa where the state’s neoliberalism and fossil-centric ‘development’ projects worked on behalf of European corporations, much as did the earlier apartheid political economy.

All these cases reflect the constant ebb and flow of power between internationalisms from above and from below. It is to a brief history of how these international and regional power relations – especially involving Europeans – played out across South African political economy that we turn next.

Pre-1994 international repressive influences linking SA-EU power struggles

European and other international influences on South African public policy since 17th-century colonization are varied, and geopolitical interests shifted dramatically over time, with many contingencies. But while no generalizations have been offered, at least in terms of documenting incidents of global-local relations there were distinct pulses of power that reflected international and regional processes spurring on (mostly white, capitalist) hegemonizing forces, creating contradictions that led to new power configurations.

While regional in-migration of Bantu-speaking peoples cut swathes through informally settled Khoisan territories beginning around 300 ce, it was the European invasion beginning in 1497 that most decisively created South Africa. The Dutch and French were South Africa’s original settlers following Portuguese exploration, but then Britain took over colonial control more than two centuries ago. The continent’s national boundaries were only conceptualized in 1884–1885 at the Berlin “Scramble for Africa” conference, itself a result of pressures of capital overaccumulation emanating from the London and Paris financial markets (Phimister 1992). However, this was well before relationships with profit-seeking or religious-missionary Europeans profoundly distorted South Africa’s political, economic, social, and environmental history. In addition to repeated bouts of economic crisis that amplified South Africa’s uneven development (Bond 2003), international geopolitical processes generated various conflicts.

For example, Portuguese explorers led by Vasco da Gama entered South African waters in 1497, but it was Jan van Riebeck’s Dutch East India Company’s 1652 settlement of Cape Town that not only allowed a way station on the Asian route but soon attracted Dutch, French, German, and Belgian settlers, especially religious refugees – later the core components of the ‘Afrikaner’ people. Looting, dispossession, and slavery characterized their early rule, with indigenous people subject to forced labour, along with those taken from Holland’s Asian sphere of influence, including Malaysia. There were subsequent waves of British colonial settlers, especially after the Napoleonic War of 1803–1815 which led to Britain’s 1806 takeover of the Cape, as commercial agriculture there was becoming increasingly profitable. Portuguese merchants in neighbouring Mozambique and in Angola embraced slave trading well into the 19th century, and hence substantial pressures from Maputo markets were felt in what became Zulu King Shaka’s residential territory, contributing to consolidation of Zulus through the ‘Mfecane’ upheavals, which in turn pushed the Ndebele people northwards into Zimbabwe.

But resistance was important, too. As the power of global (especially British) and local anti-slavery campaigners grew during the 1810s to 1830s, the Cape Afrikaners (later known as ‘Boer’ farmers) rebelled geographically, and trekked north as far as the Limpopo River. In the sugarcane fields of KwaZulu-Natal near the port of Durban, British merchants’ recruitment of Indian indentured labours provided workers from 1860 to 1914. The British army’s involvement in local politics was formalized in 1870 with conflict against the Boers in the newly sovereign Orange Free State. Exceptional mineral discoveries (Kimberley diamonds in 1867 and Johannesburg gold in 1884) led to the rapid inflow of opportunistic London financial capital as well as mass immigration from the Southern African region, Europe, and as far away as China, leaving the country’s economy ‘resourced cursed’ forever after.

The centralizing economic power of a specific English immigrant, Cecil John Rhodes, and his fealty to Queen Victoria, expanded the British Empire far to the northeast, encompassing what are now Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi by 1900. The Berlin conference of 1884–1885 – the “Scramble for Africa” – set the overall map of colonial conquest, including South Africa’s borders (Africans were not present in Berlin). After increasing Boer guerrilla-war resistance to Britain, the 1899–1902 South African civil war was waged mainly between whites. It had an enormous impact on world anti-imperial sentiments, given widespread sympathy for Afrikaner victims in the world’s first concentration camps. The result was the Union of South Africa in 1910, as London made political concessions to the larger white ethnic group. Mahatma Gandhi was the first prominent Indian critic of apartheid, yet his initial (1894–1906) appeasement-based role in relation to British colonialism gained only marginal concessions for Indians. It also had the adverse effect of decisively dividing Indians from Africans, especially during the Zulus’ unsuccessful Bambatha Rebellion of 1906. But once Gandhi’s satyagraha strategy became more insistent, in 1914 the leading Afrikaner politician Jan Smuts (then colonial secretary) made minor concessions to Gandhi, although the latter soon left South Africa, never to return.

The first South African engagement in World War I (1914–1918) followed the German genocide of neighbouring Namibian Herero people (65,000 out of 80,000 were killed from 1904 to 1907) and allowed the 1915 re-colonization of “South West Africa” by Pretoria until its independence after an armed struggle and international solidarity in 1990. The world stock market crash of 1929 had adverse implications for luxury diamond consumption, and was followed by the Great Depression and World War II. In line with ‘dependency’ theory, these had extremely positive implications for generating a more balanced (‘import substitution industrialization’) economy in South Africa.

The Second World War (1939–1945) drew a multitude of South Africans into combat, with one faction of whites aligning with Nazi Germany. The victory of these much more conservative Afrikaners in the 1948 (whites-only) election was followed by intensely nationalist policies. Yet the Afrikaners’ 1948-94 National Party rule ultimately allowed for strong Cold War alliances with the United States, Britain, and Israel, among other Western powers, and the welcoming of new European and US corporate investment. The 1944 Bretton Woods conference that restructured world finance aligned Johannesburg’s gold-producing interests with US post-war economic hegemony in the West, while diamond-miner De Beers’ relations with the East included, surreptitiously, sharing cartel spoils with the Soviet Union.

As Cold War rivalries rose, the increasingly ‘subimperial’ role of Pretoria first temporarily shored up Rhodesian and Portuguese colonial neighbours to the northeast and northwest through the 1970s. But following the 1975 liberations of Mozambique and Angola, the apartheid regime attempted a 1979 “Constellation of States” among bantustans and more conservative neighbouring African states (‘Zimbabwe-Rhodesia,’ Namibia as ‘South-West Africa,’ Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland) and also engaged in subsequent outreach to right-wing dictators in Malawi, Kenya, and Zaire. But this project failed, thanks to a 1980 backlash against the failed Constellation of States, in the form of the Southern African Development Coordination Conference between the region’s frontline states (reformulated as the Southern African Development Community after apartheid ended). Unfortunately, this anti-Pretoria regionalism was shaped by Western states’ aid, largely so as to promote export-oriented corporate accumulation (e.g. through alternative transport routes such as Mozambique’s Beira Corridor). By the 1980s Pretoria began switching from its increasingly costly direct military interventions in the region to support for the Western-proxy guerrilla destruction of Mozambique and Angola by the Renamo and Unita movements. The two main Cold War hotspots in Africa left approximately a million civilian casualties on each battle front until the main hostilities ceased in 1992 and 2001, respectively.

Within Pretoria, there was finally a transition from ‘securocrat’ to ‘econocrat’ ruling-class strategies as a result of the 1985 financial crisis. From 1989, this entailed a sudden re-entry of the Bretton Woods Institutions into South Africa, bringing technical assistance and policy advice (e.g. value added tax implementation in 1991 and many World Bank ‘reconnaissance missions’ in various development sectors), culminating in a 1993 International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan of $850 million which cemented neoliberal macroeconomic policy. After the African National Congress (ANC) and Nelson Mandela were unbanned in 1990 as the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, he was embraced by former tormentors in the US Republican and UK Conservative Parties, especially once he rejected nationalization at the 1992 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

These incidents cover the main tipping points between various European and local forces during the periods of slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism, prior to the era of world neoliberalism into which post-apartheid South Africa rapidly sunk. These were some of the most important hegemony-reinforcing international influences forces at work before 1994, leaving such an adverse balance of power that the full-fledged liberation of South Africa was highly unlikely.

Pre-1994 international liberatory influences linking SA-EU power struggles

In contrast, there were also anti-colonial and anti-apartheid precedents for a potential progressive influence upon post-apartheid governance from international sources, especially solidaristic Europeans whose conscience and solidarity overwhelmed their countries’ economic self-interest. These were often muted and confusing, but invoking a one-sidedly heroic anti-colonial struggle history is important for all national liberation movements. South Africa is more than capable of forever generating different inventions of nationalism to suit the purpose. These often have extremely important international implications, such as in 2004 when then president Thabo Mbeki paid eloquent tribute in Port-au-Prince to the 1804 Haitian revolution, reminding the world about bottom-up agency in relation to early 19th-century anti-slavery campaigning. A month later, Washington and Paris supported a coup d’état against Mbeki’s host Jean-Bertrand Aristide – probably because of renewed Haitian demands for reparations from France – and to their credit, Mbeki and his successor Jacob Zuma then hosted the exiled president from 2004 to 2011.

These historic processes are vital, encompassing anti-colonial struggles from Khoisan resistances in the Western and Northern Capes, the Eastern Cape border wars and indigenous resistance movements and rebellions during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the founding of the ANC in 1912, and the long local organizing and ultimately international solidarity campaigning that proved successful in removing the apartheid government in 1994. The memory of South Africa’s local-to-global resistance process necessarily also entails pan-African politics of liberation, some of which transpired in Europe where exiled leaders gathered periodically. From the early 20th century onwards, efforts were made to forge racial unity across vast geographic distances, such as the earliest recorded African solidarity conference, which was organized in London by Trinidadian lawyer Henry Sylvester-Williams in 1900 (three years before he moved to Cape Town).

Subsequent efforts to build African diasporic politics were made by Marcus Garvey, George Padmore and W.E.B. du Bois, and also lesser-known stalwarts like Anna Julia Cooper and Anna Jones in New York and Charlotte Manye Maxeke in South Africa. Although the South African role has not yet been analysed, there were further PanAfrican Conferences in Paris (1919), London, Paris, and Brussels (1921), London, Paris, and Lisbon (1923), New York (1927), and Manchester (1945), which brought forward the internationalist anti-colonial movement. These were followed by meetings in several sites in post-independence Africa (Accra, Dar es Salaam, Lusaka, Harare, Kampala) – cities whose intelligentsia and political activists provided longer-term perspectives on PanAfricanist strategy (even if today that movement appears to have petered out).

Still, Europe hosted the most important African liberation movements, including the ANC. European and North American solidarity activity included military, oil, athletic, cultural, academic, and economic boycotts that grew dramatically at the grassroots during the mid-1980s, culminating in several national laws (even one in the United States which required a congressional override of President Ronald Reagan’s pro-apartheid veto). In Europe, the Thatcher and Kohl governments were parallel supporters of apartheid’s alleged ‘reform’ process during the repressive 1980s. Most important was probably the mid-1985 financial sanctions squeeze which caused Pretoria’s notorious debt crisis, ‘standstill’ payment default, closure of the stock market and imposition of exchange controls. (That crisis, in turn, highlighted Swiss banking facilitation of South Africa’s international economic relations.)

The debt crisis caused Anglo American Corporation chief executive Gavin Relly and other leading white businessmen to visit the ANC in Zambia, from which power-sharing negotiations finally began in earnest. Other important European business interventions with ANC leaders during the transition occurred quietly in boardrooms and hotels in London, Zurich, and Geneva. These deals raised the spectre of neo-colonialism, a political danger that the ANC learned during the era of exile, from 1962 to 1990. Long afterwards, South African leaders like Mbeki continued to warn against what Fanon considered to be the widespread ‘false decolonisation’ then underway in Africa, as he predicted so accurately in 1961 on his deathbed in his last work, The Wretched of the Earth. Mandela’s release from 27 years in prison in early 1990 was not only due to the South African popular movement and allied European and North American sanctions activists, but also to imperial powers who by then had come to understand his role as the icon of reconciliation (local political and international economic), no matter the contradictions.

Post-1994 South African ‘talk left, walk right’ applied to EU-South Africa relations

Apartheid in its most obnoxious legal form was overthrown in 1994. This was in part because during the Cold War, non-Western foreign states – notably the Soviet Union and Cuba (and to a lesser degree China) and the front line states Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Tanzania, along with European outliers Sweden and Norway – were instrumental in aiding liberation movements.

In contrast, most European states were apartheid’s economic allies, and their leading banks and firms enjoying lucrative investments and trade (Seidel 1986). The main multilateral institution influenced by Europe was the IMF, a financier which gave apartheid generous credits, notably when Pretoria had trouble repaying debt in 1976 after the Soweto uprising and in 1982 after the gold price crashed. As the transition to democracy neared, IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus drew Mandela into the world financial system with an $850 million credit in December 1993, in part so that his new government would repay $25 billion in inherited apartheid debt. That loan is often cited as one of the ‘Faustian Pacts’ that locked in subsequent neoliberal policies (Bond 2014; Kasrils 2017; Terreblanche 2012), in spite of a growing Jubilee South Africa movement calling for its repudiation.

The majority of South African society and their international allies had called for sanctions since the early 1960s so as to cripple the racist economy. This was accomplished in mid-1985 once Western banks came under massive popular pressure to pull out of South Africa. After they recalled billions worth of short-term loans to major Johannesburg firms, Prime Minister P. W. Botha declared a temporary foreign debt default, closed the stock market, and imposed exchange controls to halt massive capital flight.

In early 1986, the former Swiss central banker Fritz Leutweiler put together the bailout coalition that restored Pretoria’s credit lines, against the anti-apartheid movement’s entreaties not to. Nevertheless, the spectacular success of sanctions had decisively split white business (mostly English-speaking) from the white regime (mostly Afrikaners). The leading South African corporations finally recognized the ANC as the legitimate representative of the majority and opened up discussions in 1985–1989, before Mandela was freed from 27 years behind bars in 1990 (Bond 2003).

The society’s memory of who were apartheid-era friends and who were enemies will endure in the South African consciousness for decades to come. Still today, Swiss and German banks continue to face accusations of having facilitated pre-1994 arms and oil deals against United Nations General Assembly orders, and an “Apartheid Debt and Reparations Campaign” continues, based in Basel (van Vuuren 2017; People’s Tribunal on Economic Crime 2018). There remain strong resentments against that era’s European right-wing political elites, particularly Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, as well as the many corporations and banks that continued to do business throughout the apartheid era, giving the Pretoria regime a longer life span.

But while the ANC eschewed reparations demands – to repay democratic South Africa the corporate profits made illegitimately during a UN-certified crime against humanity, thus pleasing Western capitals – nevertheless more recently, fresh tensions have risen with the imperial powers. Senior ANC leaders have repeatedly alleged that, thanks to kith-and-kin ties to white settler-colonists, the West still poses a threat to majority-ruled South African sovereignty, as well as to the prosperity of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) bloc, which Pretoria was invited by Beijing to join in 2010.

In February 2019, a spectacular instance of this sentiment was displayed by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s foreign minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, after a front-page report in the main Sunday newspaper (Munusamy 2019) cited a memo written to the president’s economic advisor by the Pretoria-based ambassadors of five Western powers: The United States, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. Seven months earlier, these ambassadors had penned a policy paper that reminded Ramaphosa about rule of law, transparency, accountability, “policy certainty, regulatory certainty and regulatory clarity,” expressing concern about black empowerment investment requirements in mining and telecommunications, as well as a vague land reform programme and their desire for relaxation of visa blockages for skilled immigrants working for Western firms. The reaction by Sisulu in a press statement was swift: “This is a departure from established diplomatic practice. . . . In terms of acceptable diplomatic practice, protocol and convention, diplomatic missions are expected to communicate to the receiving state by means of a note verbal [diplomatic note] conveyed through the department.” She issued a “démarche to the concerned ambassadors” and dressed them down. To be sure, the four European ambassadors and US official represent companies which have a very poor record of economic practices in South Africa, as discussed below. London, Amsterdam, and Zurich banks are notorious hot money centres for illicit financial flows. But aside from a few pro-business commentators, the incident was well covered and discussed in the press and public and the sense was indeed that hypocritical Western elites were violating South African sovereignty. In an election year, Sisulu’s ability to rebut them publicly was a populist gesture, one that disguised underlying power relations. (Partly because of her clumsiness as a diplomat, she was redeployed to be housing minister in 2019.)

As a rule, African nationalists readily fuse long-standing public hatreds against international financial discipline, Western corporations, and neo-colonial military power, a point Frantz Fanon (1963) identified as useful for rabble-rousing. Zimbabwe’s 1980–2017 leader Robert Mugabe excelled at this (Bond and Manyanya 2003). Pretoria has often expressed anti-EU sentiments in relation to Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) and Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) (Claar 2018). In 2014, South Africa exited many of the BITs, especially with European states, in part because of a desire to retain sovereignty over a (dubious) racial remedy for economic inequality: Enforced racial co-ownership (Mbeki 2009).

As an even more extreme example, then President Zuma spoke to his main constituency in KwaZulu-Natal province, in November 2016:

  • The socialist countries came to our aid. It was Russia who trained us and helped us with the tools to fight. China and other socialist countries helped us... [Now, Western powers] are fighting us because we joined BRICS. They know that Russia and China are not only the biggest economies in BRICS but they are permanent members of the [UN] Security Council whose vote can veto decisions. And us being part of that does not sit well... South Africa was also the one that pushed for the BRICS bank. They do not love us and that is why they want to destroy South Africa. (cited in Agence France Press 2016)

In August 2017, Zuma repeated the charge: “I was poisoned and almost died just because South Africa joined BRICS under my leadership... Since we fought for freedom why can’t we fight for complete freedom. We are being attacked because we are asking for economic freedom” (Matiwane 2017). He repeated the claim in November 2017 and a month later, his ally Gayton McKenzie (2017) released a book with more details of an alleged Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) ricin attack on Zuma in mid-2014 via his fourth wife.

This paranoid-conspiratorial line of argument, no matter how outlandish, is important. One reason is that residual pro-Zuma sympathy remains in a large section of the ruling party. From early 2018 his replacement Ramaphosa – a pro-Western business tycoon – has very slowly attempted to clear away ‘Zupta’ (Zuma plus Gupta) elements riddling the state and parastatal agencies. Zuma’s reliance on the Gupta immigrant brothers from India for predatory activities was profound, reaching deep into not only Indian, Russian, and Chinese networks of corporate corruption but also catching up major Western consultancies including McKinsey, KPMG, Gartner, Bain, SAP, and Liebherr. Hence Ramaphosa moved gingerly, in part so as not to disrupt ANC ‘unity’ ahead of the 2019 election, but the depth of ANC corruption was formidable, a ‘state capture’ commission revealed in 2018–2019. Ramaphosa’s own ties to local and global corruption, as revealed in the 2017 Paradise Papers, were also notorious.

In this context, as demonstrated repeatedly by Mugabe’s rhetoric (until his downfall in a November 2017 coup), the role of anti-Western narratives can be crucial in a local leader’s intimidation of local opponents (Phimister and Raftopoulos 2004). This was evident in South Africa in the 2010s under Zuma’s rule. By mid-2016, Pretoria had become such a threat to multilateral financial power, according to the fantasies of the then Deputy Defence Minister Kebby Maphatsoe, that international banks and their credit ratings agency allies had begun a decisive stage of state capture:

  • They do not think twice about disinvesting from developing countries [like ours] if our macroeconomic policies do not serve their purpose . . . [and] from a distance and through their local proxies, continuously force their way to determine our economic policies and how we govern our society. They assert and arrogate their power on how we should do certain things [to] ensure that their interests are secure. (cited in Stone 2016)

If a country’s leaders don’t serve the interests of the Western credit ratings agencies, Maphatsoe continued, the result is:

  • severe and brutal punishment, ranging from economic blackmail to political destabilisation and attempts that often succeed at regime change. We have observed [this] with the recent isolated counter-revolutionary activities that are taking place in our country. It is part of the foreign intelligence community’s plan to have a regime change in South Africa. (cited in Stone 2016)

Maphatsoe was referring to allegations made a few days earlier, by then ANC Secretary General (and now chairperson) Gwede Mantashe:

  • As we mobilise our people, we must say be vigilant. You must see through anarchy and people who are out there in a programme of regime change. We are aware of the meetings taking place regularly at the American embassy. Those meetings in the American embassy are about nothing else other than mobilisation for regime change. We’re aware of a programme that takes young people to the United States for six weeks, bring them back and plant them everywhere in the campuses and everywhere. (cited in Stone 2016)

Mantashe was referring to meetings of the Nelson Mandela Scholars programme set up by Barack Obama. Absurd as this all may sound at first blush, it did reflect a conjuncture in which leaders of the ANC “talked left” (and walked right by repressing dissent) so as to protect their power in an increasingly fluid geopolitical situation.

Pretoria’s role in the BRICS bloc is illustrative. In November 2016, after Donald Trump’s surprise US presidential victory, the BRICS’ two most conservative leaders – Narendra Modi from India and Michel Temer from Brazil – as well as Russia’s Vladimir Putin signalled they would open up potentially much more collaborative economic and military relations with Washington. Although in 2017–2019 Putin was repelled by a much stronger force than Trump – the rest of the US establishment – the trend towards ‘centripetal’ geopolitics within the BRICS was amplified in late 2018 when (the pro-Trump) Jair Bolsonaro was elected Brazil’s president by a wide margin over the Workers Party candidate, albeit while the most popular candidate, former president Lula Ignacio da Silva, was unfairly imprisoned (Bond 2017; Garcia and Bond 2018).

So while there is a temptation to critique (or even ridicule) Zuma, Maphatsoe, and Mantashe, it is vital not to bend the stick too far in the opposite direction by assuming that international markets operate in harmony with rational economic logic, and that Western political and commercial elites are either unable or unwilling to work with their South African counterparts. After all, while no one can take Mantashe’s critique of the scholars’ programme seriously, the spectre of US military imperialism in Africa certainly grew dramatically during the Obama years, as Nick Turse (2017) has documented. Moreover, some of Maphatsoe’s observations are perfectly reasonable, albeit not including the last three sentences cited above. As reflected in these comments, African nationalists can and do readily fuse their hatreds against international financial discipline and against Western colonial and neo-colonial military power. As discussed below, however, in the case of the ANC leaders, they can also simultaneously serve both.

For example, one high-profile international arena where Pretoria has often (rhetorically) expressed anti-EU sentiments is in EPAs and BITs. In 2014 South Africa exited many of these, especially with European states. But the reason was not ultimately a radical delinking strategy, for as the main official responsible – the Department of Trade and Industry’s Mustaqeem de Gama (2014) – wrote at the time, “All foreign investors are protected irrespective of whether a BIT exists between their home country and South Africa. The draft bill also embeds non-discrimination by providing national treatment for all foreign investors.”

What can be learned from these talk-left narratives and walk-right moves, if not that the South African government persistently uses the global stage for drama, while simultaneously lubricating relations favourable to the prevailing power balance? Anti-imperialist rhetoric can be traced to the fight against the apartheid regime, but after 1994 the ANC regularly demonstrated its willingness to strengthen multilateral institutions and transnational corporations. For example, in spite of occasional claims that the BRICS New Development Bank and Contingent Reserve Arrangement would offer an alternative, the Bretton Woods financiers and parallel private institutions remain dominant and South Africans typically assist in their legitimation. At the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, Pretoria allied with EU officials (and the corporations they serve) by endorsing a ‘neoliberal nature’ strategy that, at the Paris Climate Agreement, ensured inadequate emissions cuts with no binding provisions, plus a prohibition on affected countries claiming a climate debt from high-pollution countries which include the EU and South Africa (Bond 2002, 2012, 2016). At the World Trade Organisation and in related investment treaties, South Africa generally supported the core EU stances. And EU firms’ FDI was desperately sought by Pretoria, despite growing evidence of transfer pricing, misinvoicing, and other tax dodges costing an estimated $10–25 billion annually (Planting 2019). In all these vital multilateral and neoliberal respects, South Africa was better considered a subimperial and not an anti-imperial power (Bond and Garcia 2015).

Post-1994 European-SA civil-society internationalism against EU-SA corporations

The late Samir Amin (1990) and other African political economists have argued for an ideology and economic strategy of ‘delinking’ since the 1960s. Today we might term such an effort the ‘globalization of people and de-globalization of capital,’ a slogan that – consistent with Keynes’s views above – captures sound short-term economic strategy, at a time when the rates of growth of trade (especially shipping), FDI and north-south financial and aid flows are stagnant or even shrinking (McKinsey Global Institute 2019). With European allies, South African civil society took up this delinking strategy after 1994 with a variety of campaigns against Western (and later, BRICS) corporations. They illustrate moral outrage and concrete power gathered at the grassroots and transmitted from South Africa to northern allies.

The most inspiring single example of this approach is the 1999–2004 struggle for generic AIDS medicines, once costing $10,000/year per person but now supplied free on a generic basis. Thanks in part to a combination of international alliances involving the Treatment Action Campaign – including Europe’s Medicins Sans Frontieres and Oxfam (as well as militant activists in groups like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) – an audacious demand was advanced: That tens of millions of low-income people, mostly in Africa, be given free AIDS medicines through the public sector. Thanks to extraordinary local and internationalist activism, in 2001 the World Trade Organisation summit in Doha explicitly exempted essential medicines from its excessive protection of intellectual property rights (Bond 2014). The result was a dramatic subsequent rise in life expectancy; in South Africa, from 52 in 2004 to 65 by 2020.

In the same period, Soweto activists led resistance to European (Suez, Vivendi, Biwater) commercialization of South Africa’s water supply, starting in Johannesburg where a French firm had the main management contract from 2001 to 2006. They were expelled in part because of the strong countervailing power that French and other European civil society activists helped to generate, as part of the overall world pushback against municipal services commodification. Although problems remain, the activists also won a guaranteed free basic water supply of 25 litres per person per day (Bond 2002).

The civil society critique of Pretoria’s $5 billion arms deal – for navy corvettes, submarines, light utility helicopters, lead-in fighter trainers, and advanced light fighter aircraft – began during the late 1990s, and also included tough critiques of European firms (BAE Systems, Thales, Siemens, Saab, and others) accused of corrupting ANC leaders. The pressure was maintained at a sufficient level that even 20 years after Thales’s bribery of Zuma (revealed in encrypted faxes), the former president faced 783 counts of corruption in 2019 (van Vuuren 2017).

Widespread fraud was also associated with the Swiss soccer empire FIFA, whose top officials compelled South Africa’s World Cup Local Organising Committee to pay a $10 million bribe as part of hosting the 2010 games. That bribe caused outrage in South Africa once it was revealed that a recipient, Jack Warner, was arrested in 2015. But a full accounting of the various ways South Africans protested numerous aspects of FIFA’s predatory rules would run into numerous pages (Smith 2015).

Another more recent case in which a European corporation attempted to make profits at the expense of South African society, and was repelled in the process, is an Austrian company (Kapsch TrafficCom), which runs the electronic tolling system for highways in the greater Johannesburg region. The trade unions and a middle-class good-governance network (the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance) promoted a formal boycott of the payment system, achieving an 80% non-compliance rate. Another Austrian construction firm, Strabag, was told in mid-2018 by community activists near the Indian Ocean’s ‘Wild Coast’ to halt work on the country’s highest bridge (Mtentu). In January 2019, following sustained protests, Strabag cancelled its role in the massive project, which ground to a halt.

In the most decisive punishment of a European firm by anti-corruption activists, in mid-2017 the British public joined infuriated South Africans to destroy a London public relations company, Bell Pottinger, whose exploits on behalf of the Gupta family included creating Twitter bot armies and memes to distort local politics. Within weeks it was pushed into bankruptcy. Another European company engaged in systemic fraud through the same networks is the German software firm SAP, which faced intensive criticism and prosecution. The Guptas also used the bribery-related services of the Swiss firm Liebherr when providing cranes for Durban’s harbour in 2015–2016. Indeed, port deepening at the same berths was halted in late 2018 when it transpired that Italian firms CMC di Ravenna and CMI Infrastructures were implicated in tendering irregularities. The entire Transnet expansion has been opposed by the South Durban Community and Environmental Alliance, working with numerous European allies, including against Italy’s ENI and Norway’s Statoil for their offshore gas drilling plans. In a case with enormous symbolic value, the Swedish clothing retailer H&M was criticized strongly in 2018 for racist use of a “coolest monkey in the jungle” logo advertised by a young black child in an ill-advised marketing campaign; Johannesburg shop protests by a leftist political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, forced the firm to repent.

But the most controversial firms are mining houses and smelters. When South African workers in Luxemburg-based steel titan ArcelorMittal suffered continual retrenchments and foundry closures during the late 2010s, the labor movement demanded the firm’s nationalization. High-profile British ‘Foil Vedanta’ solidarity was waged against investors in London-based Vedanta Resources. At peak in 2018, the pressure caused the firm’s delisting from the London Stock Exchange (back home to India) when it appeared that Zambian pollution victims (near the Konkola mine) and survivors of an Indian massacre (at its Sterlite copper smelter) could successfully sue in British courts. Vedanta’s leader Anil Agarwal had by then also become the largest shareholder (more than 20%) in Anglo American. For most of its century-long existence, Anglo was based in Johannesburg and grew to become the continent’s biggest mining house and main apartheid beneficiary. Another intense target of South African and allied activists was the titanium firm MRC, based in Perth but with a major London owner (Graham Edwards). He divested after persistent solidarity protests by the London Mining Network in 2017, because the Australian mining house had created chaos in a world-famous anti-apartheid struggle site, Pondoland (specifically, the Xolobeni community), where activists resisted MRC’s extraction of titanium from beach sands, leading to several assassinations.

Without doubt, the highest-profile global corporate target – also partly thanks to the London Mining Network – was Lonmin, after it called on the South African Police Service to end a wildcat strike at its Marikana platinum mine in mid-2012, resulting in a massacre of 34 workers (Desai 2014). The key individual who ensured that the police force would use a “more pointed response” against workers (for in prior conflicts with the miners, round rubber bullets were used), according to emails he sent the police minister Nathi Mthethwa 24 hours before the police killings, was the main local owner of Lonmin: Ramaphosa. It is a relationship that will haunt him the rest of his life. In 2008, at peak valuation worth $28.6 billion, Lonmin had collapsed so much that it was swallowed by a Johannesburg gold mining firm for just $383 million a decade later. Campaigners also consistently attacked German firms BASF and Volkswagen, which purchase Lonmin’s platinum output (Becker et al. 2018). The purchase of platinum by Volkswagen and other car companies suddenly collapsed in 2015, contributing to the near death of the sector and tens of thousands of worker layoffs. The reason was that VW was then revealed to have cheated on its diesel engines’ emissions exhaust tests aimed at limiting greenhouse gases that cause climate change and local pollution, so the demand for diesel cars collapsed (in part causing Lonmin’s own death).

Financial firms are also targets. In 2017, 17 international and local banks were charged with manipulating the South African currency, including European institutions Barclays, Barclays Capital, BNP Paribas, Commerzbank, Credit Suisse Group, HSBC Bank, Investec, and Standard Chartered; in February 2019, the latter paid a $40 million fine under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), although not to South Africans.

It is ironic and tragic that the firms above – and others like Hitachi, which bribed the ruling party and in 2015 paid a $19 million fine (also to the US government) – are most effectively prosecuted under the FCPA, so no proceeds go to South African victims. The World Bank’s vice president of ‘integrity’ – who from 2008 to 2017 was a controversial South African, Leonard McCarthy – debarred hundreds of European and South African firms guilty of fraud on bank projects (albeit not Hitachi, in spite of an opposition leader’s complaint to McCarthy that the bank was ignoring the CPA prosecution). Yet neither European nor South African state capacities and political appear sufficient to discipline these malevolent influences. For example, the OECD’s guidelines on illicit financial flows are merely tokenistic, unable to halt London bank fraud.

And while European competition regulators successfully targeted one South African drug company (Aspen, in 2018) for price gouging on cancer medicines in Italy, systematic EU-South African corporate corruption has not become the scandal that all these incidents suggest it should be. After all, Johannesburg is considered the world’s leading hub of corporate crime, according to biannual surveys by PwC (2018), with Paris usually second or third (though in 2020 Shanghai and Mumbai jumped ahead of Johannesburg in the PwC poll). The World Economic Forum’s (2017) Global Competitiveness Report rated the South African working class the least cooperative in the world from 2012 to 2017 (and third in 2019-20). Inequality is the highest on earth in South Africa, according to the World Bank (2017) while Johannesburg is the world’s most unequal major city according to Euromonitor (2017).

In short, all the conditions that appear ripe for an anti-corporate revolt are in place and, unlike in the West (and Brazil, Turkey and the Philippines), there is no right-wing populist leader and movement to distract South Africa’s political attention. As for allies, the historical links between South Africans fighting for economic justice and Western internationalists are much more developed than with logical allies in the other BRICS. But the overarching problem here (and everywhere) remains: Fragmentation and single-issue politics. This legacy, as much as that of ongoing European elite oppression of South African people and nature, remains to be overcome, in the spirit of Luxemburg, Keynes, Polanyi, and Amin.

As an update to this analysis, the most extreme example of elite irresponsibility became obvious in March 2020, with the transmission of the coronavirus Covit-19, which occurred when scores of travellers returning to South Africa mainly from Europe – starting with nearly a dozen who had been in north Italy – infected the general population. On 16 March 2020, the 62 cases documented were those who had travelled mainly on Lufthansa, Alitalia, Swiss Air, British Air, Virgin Air, Iberia, Emirates (from Dubai, which had become the main hub to Europe) and South African Airlines. They had, by 17 March, infected another 23 South Africans. An exponential rise was then anticipated in the general population given the state’s failure to establish effective personal distancing and social solidarity systems, in part because of extreme fiscal discipline. The credit rating agency Moody’s was clamping down with an anticipated ‘junk’ rating on South African securities in late March 2020.

The elites’ love of Europe and hatred of the African continent was remarked upon by one of the country’s leading commentators, Steven Friedman (2020):

  • In a society as divided as this one, the panic quickly prompts people to blame those they see as a threat. Before the first case was identified here, talk radio was deluged with callers warning that our “porous” borders would be the death of us all. It was clear that they were not worried about affluent people returning from Italian ski holidays. They were, rather, reviving that old urban legend, invasion by the disease-ridden hordes who are imagined to inhabit the rest of the continent. Racism directed at Chinese people has been added to the toxic brew.

There was, at the same time, an obvious class-apartheid reaction to coronavirus social distancing at the workplace by European and South African elites. In mid-March, several firms – Volkswagen Toyota, Peugeot, Citroën, Fiat, Renault and Ford – announced the closure of European. According to a report in South Africa’s main business newspaper,

  • Volkswagen, whose multiple brands include VW, Audi, Bentley and Porsche, says it is halting production because assembly-line layouts at its car plants do not keep workers far enough apart to avoid coronavirus contagion. In principle, the same applies at SA’s assembly plants, which are based on those in Europe. However, National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa CEO Mike Mabasa says that by using small teams of four or five workers on each assembly station, who have no direct contact with other teams, risks are controlled. (Furlonger 2020)

This example reflects the profound differential in the relative value of protecting worker lives, between Europe and South Africa. On the other hand, such racist savagery could always be contested, as shown in the AIDS treatment controversy discussed above. That was potentially a profound precedent in civilising Europe, insofar as the German government reportedly told Donald Trump in mid-March 2020 that he could not simply purchase Tübingen-based biopharmaceutical company CureVac so as to acquire monopoly control over a likely coronavirus vaccine. The German health minister rejected Trump’s attempt because it would be “only for the United States” whereas the whole world was more desperate for universal access to medicine than at any time in history, especially in Africa where health system breakdown had in prior years resulted in Ebola outbreaks that were difficult to contain. But credit should go to the earlier generation of South African and allied European activists who campaigned so hard – and successfully – for a World Trade Organisation exemption from Intellectual Property, and for a medicines-deglobalization strategy that allows African generic production, locally. As the world economy – especially global value chains – broke down in 2020 and deglobalization (already underway since 2007) began in earnest, such strategies hark back to Keynes’ suggestion of “homespun” import substitution “whenever reasonably and conveniently possible” – but not as a luxury of economic policy makers exercising state sovereignty by fending off footloose multinational capital; instead now as a survival necessity.


The scores of cases of EU-South African elite collaboration and popular resistance considered in this chapter can be readily divided into the eras of pre-1994 collaboration in a crime against humanity and post-apartheid exploitation. The struggles between top-down alliances of elites and bottom-up critiques of excessive market power represent Polanyi’s (1956) double movement. The European state-corporate agenda was generally to pursue profits with little regard for ethics. The general model of neoliberal, extractivist accumulation processes was displaced into capital/non-capitalist super-exploitation, just as occurred during apartheid. And the politics of resistance ranged from divestment to a corporate death sentence (in the case of Bell Pottinger).

What we have considered is a long-standing set of power relations that can be considered in dialectical terms, thanks to the ways that Western-South African imperial/subimperial politics unfolded over time. The South African apartheid regime’s 1970s–1980s subimperialism was brutal, as argued earlier. Yet the abilities of the anti-imperial forces in the liberation movements and their allies within the imperialist countries grew. By 1985, they weakened the ties of international capital to apartheid sufficiently, that a break point was reached and a new dialectical contradiction opened. That particular strategy – subsequently termed boycott-divestment-sanctions – also gave hope for reversing adverse north-south power relations characteristic of multilateralism and world economy during the neoliberal era, for example in relation to Israel and fossil fuels, which by the 2010s were also subject to popular sanctions.

The need for sanctions against the Trump government in Washington – as recognized by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Nobel Prize economics laureate Joseph Stiglitz and journalist Naomi Klein (who all advocated a carbon tax) – in the wake of Trump’s sabotage of the Paris Climate Agreement, could help define resistance politics globally, especially given Washington’s intrinsic need for war (against Venezuela, Iran, or whichever country appears fortuitous now that North Korea’s nuclear weapons appear too intimidating for Trump).

Meanwhile, in sketching the power relationships between Europe and in South Africa, the precedents explored above suggest that the material basis of the relationship will continue to be south-to-north value flows through transnational corporations, and an imperial/subimperial role within multilateral institutions. Such influences will continue to create profound contradictions between those holding power and the vast majority of their citizenries as the dialectic of repression and resistance continues to unfold.

(A version of this analysis was published as European-South African Elite Collaboration, balanced by Civil Society Solidarity, in R.Marchetti (Ed), Africa-Europe Relationships: Multi-stakeholder perspectives. New York, Routledge, 2020)


Footnotes :

[1On the other hand, the Schengen visa deters South African (and indeed all African) travel to Europe, and the traditional apartheid-era visa-free travel to Britain was withdrawn after democracy dawned, in part because of widespread corruption at Pretoria’s Department of Home Affairs.

Patrick Bond

is professor at the University of Johannesburg Department of Sociology, and co-editor of BRICS and Resistance in Africa (published by Zed Books, 2019).