Venezuela and South Africa:
Redistributive Policies vs. Neo-liberal
by Kim Scipes
www.zmag.org, September 28, 2006
Traveling to both Venezuela and South
Africa this past summer, through my work as an academic sociologist,
I was able to observe firsthand two radically different approaches
to "third world" development: a "redistributive
approach" in Venezuela, and a set of basically neo-liberal
economic policies in South Africa. Although this was not a consciously
designed research project, the comparison begged for comment,
as the differences were extremely obvious.
I was part of a group of North Americans
who traveled to Venezuela in June to see with our own eyes what
was going on in the country on a tour organized by the Marin Interfaith
Task Force on the Americas (MITF) of Northern California. I had
read quite a bit beforehand -- I had helped expose the AFL-CIO's
involvement in the April 2002 coup attempt against President Chavez
(see my "AFL-CIO in Venezuela: Déjà vu All
Over Again" in the April 2004 issue of Labor Notes) -- but
this was an opportunity to go to see the country with my own eyes.
I was fortunate to go with MITF, as I don't speak Spanish, and
our tour guide, Lisa Sullivan, had not only lived in Latin America
for over 20 years, but also provided excellent translations, as
other Spanish speakers on the tour readily confirmed.
In the 10 days we were in the country,
we visited parts of Caracas (the capital), a mountainous area
in the State of Lara (southwest of Caracas), and then the coastal
area of Barlovento (northeast of Caracas), which is the center
of the Afro-Venezuelan population. (Despite my many limitations,
I wrote a more detailed report that provides a more extensive
report of our tour, which is on-line at VHeadline.com).
What we observed was that, by using part
of the profits gained through their oil production, the government
of Venezuela was making a significant improvement in the lives
of the 80% of the population who are poor. There has been a massive
investment in health care provision, with over 8,000 clinics built
recently in the barrios, both urban and rural; thus, people are
able to access quality health care, 24 hours a day, in a nearby
clinic, and at no cost. Initially, these clinics were staffed
by Cuban doctors who provided services and trained Venezuelans,
but more and more Venezuelan health care workers now are providing
services. In addition, the Venezuelan government has been providing
cataract surgery to those who need it, by flying them and their
companions for free to Cuba for operations and high-quality care.
However, we were told that Venezuelan doctors had now been sufficiently
trained that the government was going to provide the surgery in
Venezuela -- and even that they had offered free cataract surgery
for 100,000 people from the United States!
We also observed some of the massive educational
effort taking place in the country, where illiteracy was eliminated
in little over a year according to the United Nations, where students
were excited about learning, and where pupils were no longer limited
to at most three years of elementary school in rural regions;
now, anyone who meets the academic qualifications can attend university.
It is not just young people who are taking advantage of the government's
educational "Missions"; people in their 40s, 50s, and
60s were returning to school to get the education they were denied
earlier in their lives. In fact, we even met a 76-year-old woman
who had just returned from getting one of her eyes repaired in
Cuba, and she told us about her now being able to go to school
to learn her letters and numbers!
The government has also massively expanded
the system of cooperatives across the country: from around 7,000
cooperatives a few years ago to over 108,000 now. The government
told the land owners that they had to sell to the state the land
on which they were not producing food, paying them market rates
in exchange. Land was provided to people, so they will have a
means to economically support themselves, while working towards
ending Venezuela's historic dependence on food imports. And at
perhaps the model co-op in the country, we were shown how they
were shifting into organic farming.
In short -- and we got this wherever we
talked with the poor -- the people had hope in their futures:
they really felt that President Chavez and his administration
were working to improve their lives. We certainly saw the changes
we had only heard about beforehand (and Ms. Sullivan told us that
these processes were taking place across the country).
Let's be clear: Venezuela is not a paradise,
as there are many problems. It is a very unequal country, where
approximately 80% of the population is poor. It is a country
that is very dependent on imports for its food supply. It is
recognizably over-dependent on oil. And one of the women on the
tour was told by a woman in one of the schools we visited that
there were extensive problems of male violence against women,
as well as abandonment, and the lack of legal support for the
women, after the courts had overturned progressive legislation
intended to address these issues. But the point I want to emphasize
is how the government is providing the services and the means
for people to take more power over their lives; people -- and
especially women in the barrios -- are taking advantage of the
opportunities; and as they are improving their lives, hope and
excitement about their futures is palpable. It was exhilarating
Compared to Venezuela, South Africa was
very disheartening. I spent most of my three and a half weeks
in the country in Johannesburg; although I did go to Soweto on
a couple of brief tours and get to Durban for a few days, my travel
was much more limited than in Venezuela. However, because I spoke
the dominant language in South Africa, English, and an extensive
range of high-quality books and articles about the country are
available, I had many more in-depth and extensive conversations
about what was going on in the country.
Through massive sacrifice and mobilization
during the struggle for liberation, "ordinary" people
(mostly black, but not all) had battled the South African state
to a standstill: they couldn't overthrow the racially-based apartheid
regime, but the regime could not control the insurgency. Ultimately,
both sides entered into negotiations: various people's forces
(including the African National Congress, the Pan African Congress,
and the South African Communist Party) were unbanned; long-serving
political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela were freed; political
exiles were allowed to return; and, ultimately, elections were
held in 1994, which elected Mandela and the ANC to lead the country.
The system of apartheid was discarded, and it looks like the
ANC will continue to control the government for the foreseeable
What I saw -- and remember, I only saw
a tiny bit of the country -- surprised me. There was much less
racial tension than I had expected to find. There was almost
none among the political activists that I met. It was somewhat
mind-boggling as an American white male to be hugged by blacks
after they had been only told I was a "comrade," but
it happened a couple of times. And even when it didn't, it seemed
to take almost no time at all to create bonds solid enough for
deep and critical conversation about the current situation. Among
the general public, too, whether on the street or in a few malls
that I ended up visiting, the level of overt racial tension was
amazingly low (at least to my eye, though the blacks in the same
situations might notice what I didn't. Nevertheless, while this
was my first trip to South Africa, I have lived most of my adult
life in multiracial, if not people of color-dominated, areas in
the US, in both African-American and Latino communities, so I
have some experience on which to make these observations.) Needless
to say, not a nirvana by any means, but the closest way to describe
it is that it is similar to what I see daily in Chicago: blacks
and whites don't generally mix in society, but when they do mix
publicly, they do so with a minimum of obvious resentment or conflict,
though blacks are much more likely to go into white areas than
are whites to go in black areas. And this, quite frankly, I did
not expect. So, qualitative political changes have been made
from the past.
However, that leads me to the economic
situation. The negotiations between the apartheid regime and
the liberation forces, which overthrew the political regime, left
the economic regime untouched. Key to the negotiations, for the
whites, was that there be no effort to redistribute economic resources
to the black, "colored," and Asian populations once
the new government assumed power. The white leaders claimed that
the best way to overcome poverty was to not shackle them; they
argued that, once the global economic boycott against South Africa
was ended, they could lead the economy to such growth that poverty
could be overcome and that economic opportunities would be available
for all; i.e., they claimed the economy could "grow"
its way out of the problem. Thus, no redistribution of economic
resources should be considered, corporate power should be left
intact, and taxes on white assets should not be raised.
The leadership of the ANC bought the argument.
Apparently, the fear was that if compromises were not made by
both sides, the country would plunge into a civil war that would
be terrible, whose burden would be borne mostly by blacks and
other peoples of color, which should be avoided at all costs.
How valid the argument was is something that South Africans will
have to settle over time, although I can appreciate being in a
very difficult position can force people to take positions they
would rather not take.
When the ANC got into power, it began
to institute the RDP, the Reconstruction and Development Program,
which had been advanced by its political allies, COSATU (Congress
of South African Trade Unions -- the largely black, but non-racial
labor movement), and the SACP (South African Communist Party).
They began to initiate at least some social programs. There
were a number of problems with the RDP, especially a lack of specificity,
which allowed multiple interpretations and created conflict among
proponents, but it was a serious effort to address the long-standing
problems of the country that had developed out of white racial
Yet, by 1996, the RDP was history, replaced
by a program called GEAR (Growth, Employment, and Redistribution).
This was a set of basically neo-liberal economic policies that
aimed for economic growth by dropping tariff barriers and competing
internationally in the global markets. This approach meant getting
rid of workers and cutting labor costs and social programs. It
also meant privatization of public services, cutting even more
jobs and weakening unions. Sampie Terreblanche, in his acclaimed
History of Inequality in South Africa, 1652-2002 -- arguably the
most informed historical study to date on inequality in the country,
written, interestingly, by an Afrikaaner -- described GEAR accordingly:
the strategy was aimed at providing the
country with a comprehensive and well-integrated macroeconomic
framework. GEAR'S point of departure is that higher levels of
sustained economic growth requires a competitive, out-ward oriented
economy. Its immediate aim was to reassure potential -- especially
foreign -- investors that the government was committed to the
neo-liberal orthodoxies of the 'Washington consensus'. Decorated
with all the trimmings of globalization, GEAR represents an almost
desperate attempt to attract FDI" [foreign direct investment].
Terreblanche went on to remark that "[i]deologically,
GEAR falls squarely within the supply-side/neo-classical paradigm,"
that it is "openly Thatcherite in content and tone,"
and that it "envisages a worldwide capitalist economic system
in which market forces reign supreme, rewarding those countries
that obey its imperatives and deservedly punishing those that
do not." Then, this professor of economics summed up the
practical ramifications of such an approach: "By retreating
into the fantasy world of economic textbooks, the compilers of
. . . GEAR lost contact with the imperfect reality of and deep-seated
inequalities in South Africa."
GEAR has not addressed the long-standing
problems of the vast majority of the people of the country: it
has allowed a small group of blacks, along with white colleagues,
to become incredibly wealthy, but for approximately 60% of the
population, the economic situation has certainly not improved
since apartheid and has gotten worse for many. (While in South
Africa, I had recommended to me Ashwin Desai's 2002 book from
Monthly Review Press, We Are the Poors: Community Struggles in
The result of this is a rapidly increasing
inequality among the people of South Africa. As could be expected,
crime -- at least in Johannesburg -- was rampant. Everywhere
I went, I saw houses of both the rich and the rest surrounded
with high walls, topped with spikes or glass shards, and equipped
with alarm systems -- my favorite was a house that had "Mi
Casa Su Casa" (my house is your house) on an outside wall,
with an "Armed Response" sign right next to it! -- and
then they still required visitors to pass through two or three
metal gates to get inside a house.
Some people also have anti-hijack devices
on their cars. That way, should certain processes not be followed
correctly after starting the car, the car will "freeze up"
and not move. There is no sense of security on the streets of
Johannesburg. A personal friend of mine had been hijacked prior
to my arrival, and another person I met while there had his house
entered into the night before.
The most interesting thing about the neo-liberal
economic policies of the ANC government is that COSATU, their
key Alliance partner, still generally accepts them. Yes, COSATU
has had demonstrations against these policies, and one person
told me that COSATU had made over 230 interventions at the legislative
level against them. The government has responded in certain limited
ways to the protests, so one cannot accurately describe the government's
neo-liberal policies as "classic" -- rather, they are
neo-liberal with a few efforts to reduce their harshest impacts.
Nonetheless, the reality is that COSATU has not launched a determined
campaign against them.
There are clearly forces within COSATU
and labor-supportive academics that are challenging this acquiescence.
I met a number of people who were thinking/acting against them
from within labor. One interesting development: I was one of
three speakers for an opening night "public debate"
that preceded the first international labor history conference
in the country since 1994, and it turned out that all three of
us (with no discussion among us beforehand) challenged continued
acceptance of neo-liberal economic policies! (I spoke about the
experiences of workers in the Philippines -- see my "Global
Economic Crisis, Neoliberal Solutions, and the Philippines,"
Monthly Review 51.7, December 1999: 1-14 -- and in the United
States, a piece I'm currently working on.)
The long and short of it, though, is that
neo-liberal economic policies have been a disaster for the large
majority of people -- both black and white -- in South Africa.
And, they offer no realistic way forward: a country simply cannot
grow its way out of 350 years of racist colonialism and neo-colonialism!
The trips to both Venezuela and South
Africa gave me a perspective I would never have gotten by visiting
only one of them: I can compare two countries taking two radically
different approaches to their social development -- Venezuela
trying to redistribute social services and opportunities, and
South Africa trying to hold on to the failed economic policies
of the past, in efforts that benefit the small elite of both whites
and blacks but come at the direct expense of 60% or more of the
population of all racial groupings. In Venezuela, I saw hope
among the poor; in South Africa, dejection and dissatisfaction.
The choice in the way forward seems obvious:
we've got to reject neo-liberalism in all its forms, wherever
it raises its ugly head.
Kim Scipes is a member of the National
Writers Union and a long-time global labor activist in the US.
He currently teaches sociology at Purdue University North Central
in Westville, Indiana. The Worker to Worker Solidarity Committee
has just published Scipes' latest piece, "The AFL-CIO Foreign
Policy Program and the 2002 Coup in Venezuela: Was the AFL-CIO
Involved?" which can be found at www.workertoworker.net.
His on-line bibliography on "Contemporary Labor Issues"
can be accessed at faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/LaborBib.htm. He can
be contacted at <email@example.com>