President Zuma was hob knobbing at the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Heads of State Summit in Maputo while our country went up in flames a fortnight ago. Sadly, the 32nd Session of the SADC Summit turned out to be just another uninventive event where governments discussed more of the same - economic growth driven by the extraction of natural resources and infrastructure development to facilitate the expansion of corporate interests.
Top of the agenda was the SADC regional infrastructural plan called the "Regional Infrastructure Development Master Plan Vision 2027" and the SADC Regional Development Fund, as the finance mechanism to provide seed funding for implementing the infrastructure plan.
An SADC Communiqué states that the plan will "serve as a key Strategic Framework to guide the implementation of an efficient, seamless and cost-effective trans-boundary infrastructure network in an integrated and coordinated manner in all the six sectors namely, energy, transport, tourism, ICT and postal, meteorology and water."
To finance this, ministers of finance are responsible for raising capital for the SADC Regional Development Fund from member states, the privates sector and development partners. Seed capital of US1.2 billion is to be raised as soon as possible.
Some of the of the projects in the pipeline include: 1) the Kazungula Bridge linking Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, 2) power transmission (ZiZaBoNa) Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, 3) the Benguela railway line through Angola and Zambia - as well as more big dam projects.
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, in her newly elected position as Chairperson of the African Union Commission, said in her address to the SADC Summit, "Only through the building of sustainable infrastructure in the form of integrated rail, air, roads, telecommunications and electricity between and among the regions can we succeed in ensuring inter and intra-African trade between all our peoples."
The SADC Summit also approved and signed a protocol on 'Trade in Services'. This agreement will be to the advantage of the South African financial services sector as well as international banks that own a large share of South African Banks. For example, Barclays UK has a majority stake in ABSA. In addition, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Limited has acquired a 20% stake in Standard Bank. Banks from the region look set to be disadvantaged.
Many would hail these priorities as positive developments and say that they will create jobs, attract foreign direct investment, and improve intra-regional trade and export-led growth as well as address underdevelopment in the region.
However, government representatives came across as extremely uninformed at the summit. This unfortunately had a bearing on the kinds of projects they identified. For example, leaders blamed food insecurity and the overall cereal deficit on poor rains, low growth in the region and the Eurozone crisis. No mention was made of speculation in the food market, land grabbing and the diversion of food crops into bio-fuels production.
There was little by way of identifiable projects to address the deep socio-economic deficit that affects the ordinary citizens of the region directly. Ours is a region that suffers from food insecurity. Eighty percent of the region's people are dependent on biomass (wood, spent coal and cow dung), land grabs have escalated, unemployment levels are high, unskilled workers earn poverty wages, rural woman and those living in urban slums have to walk kilometres to fetch water, and education levels are low.
Against this backdrop, the SADC has prioritised economic growth based on market fundamentalism. Our leaders are obsessed with global integration on the basis of neo-liberal capitalism. In this they have become agents of privatization, labour exploitation, trade liberalization and financial deregulation.
Worse, they argue that there is no alternative - as they continue to offer tax breaks to corporations and give them the right to exploit our people and our natural resources while using public money to build infrastructure that benefits narrow private interests associated with the minerals-energy complex.
Sadly, there is perceived economic progress associated with South Africa, as it is the largest economy in the region. However, Sampie Terreblanche's recent book "Lost in Transformation" shatters this illusion. He points out that since 1994, "the income of the poorer 40 per cent of Africans has declined by at least 35 per cent, while the per household income of the top 20 per cent of Africans increased by more the 35%." Terreblanche stressed that socio-economic conditions in the country have deteriorated considerably since 1994.
The South African model of development and economic growth is not something that should be emulated by the rest of the region. Ours is the minerals-energy complex on steroids. It has demonstrated most visibly to the world the strife of the Lonmin miners and bequeathed us the "Marikana massacre".
Community activists are all too familiar with the struggles and tragedies that play themselves out in the daily lives of poor communities as a result of the misguided development decisions of our leaders. Many came together to make alternative demands for the region's economic growth in the run up to the SADC Heads of State Summit. Rural activists, mining activists, women's movements and small-scale farmers from all over the region came together under the banner of the People's Summit, organised by People's Dialogue and the Southern Africa People's Solidarity Network (SAPSN) under the theme "Reclaiming SADC for People's Development - A People's SADC: Myth or Reality?"
Their demand was the need to meet people's basic needs as opposed to investing in mining and mega projects that benefit elites without any hope of benefits trickling down. Land grabbing in this era of bio-fuels production and agri-business for foreign destinations were also major concerns of the SADC People's Summit.
Governments were urged to embark on wealth redistribution through, for example, the removal of investment incentives and tax holidays for corporations.
However, grassroots activists are also aware that the challenges they face to tip the balance in favour of people-oriented development are huge. Simply making demands of government, they have realised, is insufficient.
Ismael Ossemane, a founder member of UNAC (National Farmers Union) stressed that the oppressed need new strategies to confront the changing terrain of capitalist power and "we should not repeat strategies of trying to get the attention of government." The idea that gained currency at this event was a massive education programme to reach people in churches, schools, places of work, and in communities. He emphasised that we are entrenched in a capitalist system, which most people think is part of human nature and where a consumer society is normal. In this regard, a massive re-orientation is desperately required.
Marikana has illustrated the power of capitalist interests that have no face. Forces behind interests need be uncovered and in the Southern African region, the forces behind the minerals-energy complex require exposing.
Michelle Pressend coordinates the Trade Strategy Group (TSG) at the Economic Justice Network and Global Network Africa at the Labour Research Services in Cape Town. She is also an independent socio-political analyst on global issues related to trade, environment and climate change.