As the Executive Secretary for the Gore-Mbeki Commission Environment Committee, I sat at the negotiating table while the newly elected government of Nelson Mandela formulated its environmental policies. This position provided a unique vantage point for an African-American woman who had marched in front of the South African embassy against apartheid. I was privy to both the U.S. and South African dialogues. I observed that EPA managers felt a solidarity with white Afrikaner officials and were suspicious of the new African National Congress (ANC) leadership. From conversations with colleagues from other departments, I learned that this EPA/Afrikaner solidarity was widespread. The U.S. was giving lip service to the Mandela government while back channeling support to the old-guard Afrikaner hard-liners.
From that perspective in 1998, it was hard to see how the horrific economic situation in South Africa would be any different with the U.S. and the global community fighting to maintain the status quo. Today, largely owing to the success of having bolstered the status quo, there is a 50% unemployment rate among African youth, white families possess five times the income of black families, continued multinational corporate control of the economy and the mining sector, African Economic disenfranchisement—and most notably—the abandonment of the Freedom Charter.
I observed former South African Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs General Bantu Holomisa and his predecessor the late Deputy Minister Peter Mokaba valiantly resist U.S. determination to re-define the goals of the Gore-Mbeki Commission from one of humanitarian assistance to a private sector feeding frenzy. In public meetings, the U.S./EPA was most accommodating but behind closed doors a different strategy was in play. Although I was the Executive Secretary of the environment committee, EPA—without my knowledge—dispatched a white EPA official to South Africa to consult with former apartheid leaders and to enlist their help in opening markets to the U.S. private sector. The EPA official, in an unclassified memo lays out the problems posed by Black South African Department of Environment and Tourism (DEAT) officials concerning EPA’s private sector proposal:
“As you are aware, DEAT (ANC) officials have been resistant to the co-operative agreements we have signed with the U.S. Environmental Training Institute…They have raised concerns that the involvement of the U.S. private sector in these programs threatens the development of South Africa’s fledgling environmental industry and would do more to increase U.S. exports than achieve South African environmental and economic goals.”
The memo indicates that EPA through back channels had contacted Afrikaners still operating inside the Environment Department (per a negotiated agreement) and requested guidance as to how to proceed. The memo also informed EPA that whites inside the Department had been identified who would work with U.S. officials to advance U.S. economic interests. The paternal relationship between the U.S. and the minority whites in South Africa was still operational although forced underground in the immediate aftermath of South Africa’s independence. An EPA official was dispatched to South Africa to collude with Afrikaners and develop a strategy to pressure the new Mandela government to open its economy to U.S. environmental industries. This information was confirmed in court testimony during my 2000 trial in which I prevailed. (Carol Browner v. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo 2000)
A sympathetic colleague observing the fireworks between me and the agency on its back channel dealings with former apartheid officials anonymously slid a document under my office door. I had not been copied on it. The memo stated that a colleague and I were not in support of EPA’s back channel dealings with apartheid era holdovers—clearly signaling that we could not be trusted with sensitive information and that we would oppose efforts by the U.S. government to pressure South Africa to accept unfavorable private sector programs. Recall that Gore-Mbeki was suppose to provide humanitarian assistance:
“Kathy Washington and Marsha Coleman-Adebayo have expressed concerns that moving ahead with these programs outside the Gore-Mbeki framework could undercut other work they are planning with DEAT under Gore-Mbeki.”
Despite concerns voiced by the ANC in which they opposed U.S. private sector initiatives, the EPA sent officials to South Africa to strategize with Afrikaner old guards still operating inside the Mandela government and devised a plan to impose pressure points from both inside the South African government and outside from the U.S..
EPA was not operating in isolation from the U.S. and the global community. The goal was to strengthen the long-terms allies of the U.S. government, namely the white hang-overs from the apartheid regime and to seek “friendly” allies within the new ANC government that might be amenable to U.S. economic (and ultimately their personal) interest.
What tragic challenge confronted the ANC as they attempted to implement the Freedom Charter immediately post independence:
“Want to redistribute land? Impossible – at the last minute, the negotiators agreed to add a clause to the new constitution that protects all private property, making land reform virtually impossible. Want to create jobs for millions of unemployed workers? Can’t – hundreds of factories were actually about to close because the ANC had signed on to the GATT, the precursor to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which made it illegal to subsidize the auto plants and textile factories. Want to get free AIDS drugs to the townships? That violates an intellectual property rights commitment under the WTO, which the ANC joined with no public debate as a continuation of the GATT.” – Naomi Klein,The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
The ANC had been trapped through its commitments to international monetary organizations whose goals were in complete opposition to the Freedom Charter. The South African Freedom Charter—penned by thousands of South Africans under the vicious oppression of white supremacy—expressed the deepest goals and visions of a new South Africa. Adopted on June 26, 1955 at the Congress of the People, the Freedom Charter begins with the declaration: “The People Shall Govern!” The declaration demands that:
“The People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth – The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people, the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole; All other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the wellbeing of the people. The Land Shall be Shared Among Those Who Work It! Restrictions and land ownership on a racial basis shall be ended, and all the land re-divided amongst those who work it to banish famine and land hunger“
Mandela must have understood the difference between fighting a national liberation struggle and fighting the forces of global capital. Had he attempted to implement the Freedom Charter, he would have had a target on his back and his name would still be on the U.S. terrorist list. Mandela and his colleagues were aware that moving forward to implement the Charter would be considered an act of aggression against global capital. They decided to adopt neo-liberal economic policies that have exploded the inequalities within South Africa. In fact, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki signaling a complete surrender to the demands of global capital referred to himself as a “Thatcherite”– identifying himself with the conservative economic policies of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who was a critic of Mandela and the ANC.
It is hoped that with the passing of Mandela, a new generation of Black South Africans will re-commit to the spirit and implementation of the Freedom Charter’s declaration “The People Shall Govern”. Without a re-distribution of wealth and the nationalization of the banking and mining sectors, poverty among Black people will continue to spiral out of control and another generation of Black South Africans will continue to suffer exploitation as cheap labor. For my part, I blew the whistle on the EPA looking the other way while a U.S. multinational corporation subjected South African vanadium mine workers to lethal working conditions. Anything less would have betrayed the blood sacrifice of countless everyday people who gave their lives for freedom in South Africa.