South Africa: Satellite of the American Empire?

The Monthly Review is the most prestigious of the journals of American Trotskyism, and is one of the few that has not become a front organisation for neoliberalism, so it deserves our support. It is genuinely leftist and retains many of the values which motivated the Left in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before the anti-imperialist struggle was flung in the dust for a smile, a song and a Ho-Ho-Ho-Chi-Minh.

But for all this positive stuff there is, of course, a big, big but — the Monthly Review is often preposterously wrongheaded. One of its most recent trumpet-calls has been a declaration — not, so far as the Creator can see, based on any evidence — that American imperialism has, being weak, become obliged to rely upon satellite states to do its dirty work. The satellite states which the Monthly Review identifies, a notion which is being so widely spread about the Internet that it is even appearing here, are India, Brazil and South Africa.

On the face of it this is not an implausible position. If the United States is really growing weaker it makes sense for it to seek allies. Pakistan helped it attack Afghanistan. Britain helped it attack Iraq. France helped it attack Haiti. Ethiopia helped it attack Somalia. These are all fairly evident events and Britain and France, as well as, for instance, Canada, a spear-carrier for the US in the occupation of Afghanistan and of Haiti, might be considered natural allies of the United States. But is this true of the three countries specially singled out by the Monthly Review?

Brazil, of course, is a major American trading partner. It also, to its shame, assisted in the United Nations figleaf occupation of Haiti, and thus with the brutal repression of the democratic opposition in that trampled nation. However, if Brazil is really assisting the United States in its attempts to restore control over Latin America, it is not doing a tremendously good job. The populist-socialist states of Bolivia and Ecuador and Venezuela, and the social democracies of Argentina and Chile, have grown up under Brazil’s current government without Brazil doing anything very obvious to oppose or subvert them. It could surely do more if it wanted to — Brazil in the 1960s was a major promoter of the right-wing terrorism which eventually overwhelmed much of the continent in the 1970s, and if anything, Brazil is more powerful and influential now than it was then. It seems most likely, then, that Brazil is not attempting to directly serve American political imperialist interests.

India is another major American trading partner and a major beneficiary of outsourcing. Hence it is presumably in a position to serve as America’s spear-carrier in South Asia. For instance, it has, has it not, served American interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan? (Apparently not, judging by results.) Er — in that case, what American interests does it have the capacity to influence? In Sri Lanka? Bangladesh? Nepal? Burma? Abruptly, one sees that even if India were panting to bend the knee before American imperialism, it is not in a particularly good position to serve American interests; virtually all of the countries around it are either already American clients, or they are too feeble to be worth bothering about. However, there is little or no sign that India actually is doing this; even under the ultra-right-wing BJP government, which was avowedly more pro-American than the confused and bizarre Congress government at the moment, the Indians cheerfully trampled on the American shibboleth of nuclear non-proliferation and fought a bloody war with America’s ally Pakistan. This does not look like a promising country for subservience.

Of course, both countries have strong pro-American commercial elites. Hence both countries will sometimes act in the interests of the United States because those elites wish it so. Yet on the other hand one cannot guarantee that elites will always do this, just because they often do it. Especially when the United States is weak, elites might look elsewhere for their power-worshipping instincts to be satisfied, and also for their wallets to be filled up.

That leaves South Africa as the last survivor of the Monthly Review thesis. South Africa was originally part of the British Empire, which after the Second World War became a satellite empire of America. However, unlike Australia and Canada, which fell more or less directly under American influence, South Africa preferred to follow the British line; South Africa equipped itself with British weaponry until Britain could not get away with selling any more to it. But South Africa had no obvious role in the Cold War, except for symbolic acts like sending a squadron of fighters to Korea and promising to guard a Cape Sea Route which the USSR had no real intention of threatening.

It was, of course, true that from the 1970s South Africa troubled Southern Africa, destabilising virtually every country in the region. Some of this served U.S. interests; the obvious example was the South African support for Unita in Angola, which killed so many people to no final purpose. However, the South Africans were not doing this as American surrogates; they had, instead, developed Unita for their own purposes after the CIA abandoned them (the CIA had preferred the gutless and corrupt FNLA). Furthermore, given that there was virtually no Soviet presence in Mozambique, South Africa’s equally destructive destabilisation of Mozambique served no obvious American purpose; it was simply a continuation of South Africa’s Rhodesian policies and a dim dream of driving the ANC far, far away where they would no longer trouble Pretoria. South African aggression even disrupted U.S. client states like Botswana.

Indeed, it is a moot point how far American support for the apartheid state was a strategic thing, and how far, like American support for Israel, it reflected simple reactionary power-worship and admiration for violence for its own sake. Certainly the Americans supported the apartheid state long after they ought to have abandoned it as an embarrassment, and did what they could to preserve it by lifting sanctions and offering other assistance. (A great deal of American support for South Africa came through Israel, of course — especially in ballistic missile weaponry.) But all this did not exactly make the U.S. beloved in Lusaka, even though by the early 1990s, with the disappearance of the USSR, it was dangerous to make any resentment obvious.

So what has South Africa done, lately, to merit attention as an American satellite? Well, it opposed the attacks on Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti and Somalia. It also opposed the surrogate attack on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and did what it could to defend the interests of Libya and the Sudan. It has been friendly to Iran, supported Fatah for as long as it could (actually longer) and more recently invited Hamas to Pretoria for discussions. It has been a staunch opponent of Western attacks on Zimbabwe, even though George W Bush described President Mbeki as his “point man” on the issue (which was a generous benison which President Mbeki undoubtedly did not want). On a couple of occasions — Lesotho in 1998 and Equatorial Guinea in 2004 — it acted to prevent minor destabilisation operations which almost certainly emanated from Western planning, despite subsequent counter-propaganda to the contrary. It played a major role in paralysing the last round of the World Trade Organisation. In short, in foreign policy it has been about as anti-imperialist as any anti-imperialist could reasonably expect a militarily, politically and economically weak state to be.

No doubt its domestic policy has been neoliberal in some ways, but it has certainly not been ostentatiously so. The GEAR policy may in some ways have resembled a structural adjustment plan, but nevertheless South Africa did not permit the IMF or the World Bank to simply dictate its policies. As a result South Africa managed to avoid some of the more catastrophic consequences of excessive subservience which have done so much damage to comparable economies in East Asia and Argentina. South African capital has certainly penetrated Africa — particularly mining, telecommunications and service industries. Some of the SADC countries are little better than South African economic satellites; the rand dominates the region.

Yet it is hard to see that in doing this it is necessarily dancing to Washington’s tune; if this is an imperialism it is a private imperialism of Pretoria’s own devising. Incidentally, it is worth noting that it does not appear to be a destructive imperialism; on the contrary, South African investment in infrastructure in the region has been fairly extensive. No doubt it serves the ruling class in the region to an unfair extent, but at least it has not been an example of Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism. Mines, hotels, cellphone antennas and highways are not automatically signs of potential calamity.

Of course, some, such as Dennis Brutus and Patrick Bond, will say that this is the case; that southern Africa would be far better off in resisting South Africa’s corruption, and would be happier in pursuing the traditional socialist path exemplified by — well, by absolutely nothing in Africa, any more. But this is in any case rather different from saying that South Africa is doing these things under American orders. There is remarkably little evidence for that. Instead it seems probable that South Africa is trying to build itself a niche, not so much as a superpower, but at least as a state capable of independent action in support of its own interests, and therefore enthusiastic about other states also being capable of independent action, even if only to act as distractions for the American superpower to pay attention to.

Then why the denunciation in the Monthly Review? One reason seems to have been the South African decision to support sanctions against Iran. This is probably a bad move on South Africa’s part, but on the other hand, South Africa had been patiently calling for Iran to be given more time to show its good behaviour, and the time had largely run out. The sanctions, in any case, are largely symbolic (though it is disturbing to see them being imposed; one recalls earlier United Nations interventions which America has used as pretexts for aggression).

Another, more important, seems simply to be that the Monthly Review does not like the governments of India, Brazil and South Africa. It feels that we ought to be more left-wing, which is fair enough. (In many ways it, like most Trotskyites, confuses anti-American rhetoric with anti-imperialist policy.) Therefore it concludes, apparently, that the best way to promote this view is to pretend that these governments are not merely moderate and occasionally conservative, but are reactionary toadies of Yankee imperialism. In order to do this the Monthly Review has to play fast and loose with reality, but sadly that is not usually a problem for Trotskyites.

It does seem obvious that having mildly left-wing governments in these major countries, and having these countries join hands in mutual defense against U.S. interference, is not necessarily a bad thing. It is, instead, something which leftists could exploit to their own advantage. However, a lot of leftists believe that nothing can ever be supported unless it is entirely worthy of support, and therefore anything not entirely worthy of support must be opposed with utmost power. Thus, paradoxically, the Monthly Review is in this case lining up with elements of the imperialism which it wishes to oppose, and which dearly would like to see South Africa, India and Brazil enlisted to radically oppose leftism in their respective regions. Doubtless the Monthly Review murmurs “The worse, the better”, to itself as it rocks itself to sleep at night.

But meanwhile, the rest of us need to be more wide awake than that.

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