The struggle against apartheid has begun again in South Africa

10 April 2008

When I returned to South Africa following the fall of apartheid, I asked Ahmed Kathrada to take me to Robben Island. Known affectionately as Kathy, he wore dark glasses to cover eyes damaged by the glare of the limestone where he and Nelson Mandela had wielded a pick for decades. He showed me his cell, five feet by five feet, where "the light was burning bright, day and night". I wondered how he had emerged from a quarter-century of incarceration as a sane, rounded, tolerant and gracious human being. His reasons included the teachings of Gandhi and the support of his loved ones, but, above all, "there was the struggle, without which nothing changes".

This sense of struggle is back in South Africa. The other day, I met the writer Breyten Brey tenbach, who spent eight years in prison under the apartheid regime. Speaking at the Time of the Writer festival in Durban, he evoked the "dreams" of the great liberation fighters Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe. "How are we going to stop this seemingly irrevocable 'progress' of South Africa to a totalitarian one-party state?" he asked.

It is a question many ask in a country that now typifies an economic apartheid imposed across the world under a cover of "economic growth" and liberal, corporate jargon. For "democracy", read socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor. For "governance" and "modernity", read a system of division and plunder designed and approved in Washington, Brussels and Davos - a system in which, says the South African finance minister, Trevor Manuel, "winners flourish". And he speaks from a country where inequality and poverty are described as "desperate", where the ANC government has allowed the world's most voracious companies to escape reparations for poisoning the land and its people, and which has been suckered by British arms companies into buying 24 Hawk fighter jets at £17m each, "by far the most expensive option", according to a House of Commons report.

Britain's Department for International Development has played a notorious role. Although required by law not to spend money other than on poverty reduction, DfID is, in reality, a privatising agency that greases the way for multi nationals to take over public services. In 2004, the department paid the Adam Smith Institute, an extreme right-wing think tank, £6.3m for plans to "reform" the "public sector" in South Africa, promoting "business-to-business" links between Brit ish and South African companies whose singular interest is profit.

Once the wretched Robert Mugabe is gone, Zimbabwe will get the same treatment. Offering a billion pounds' worth of "aid", the British government will lead the return of capital, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to restore what was, long before Mugabe's wrecking, one of the most exploited and unequal societies in Africa. The new heist was outlined on 5 April at the amusingly titled Progressive Governance Conference in Britain, one of Tony Blair's legacies, where "left-of-centre" leaders pretend to be crisis managers instead of, as is often the case, the cause of the crisis. (In 1999, Blair flew twice to South Africa to promote the now scandalous arms deal.)

The South African president, Thabo Mbeki, is said to have been recruited to get rid of the obstacle that is Mugabe, but he is cautious, no doubt recalling that Mugabe, on his last visit to South Africa, received an embarrassing ovation from the black crowd. This was not so much an endorsement of his despotism as a reminder that most South Africans had not forgotten one of the ANC's "unbreakable promises" - that almost a third of arable land would be redistributed by 2000. Today the figure is less than 4 per cent.

Meanwhile, the evictions continue, along with urban dispossession, water disconnections and the ubiquitous indignity of begging. "Our country belongs to all who live in it," say the opening words of the ANC's Freedom Charter, declared more than half a century ago. Recently, the South African police calculated that the number of protests across the country had doubled in two years to more than 10,000 a year. This may be the highest rate of dissent in the world. Once again, like Kathy, they are calling it "struggle".

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library