South Africa: Infrastructure ‘fast-track’ may trip up government and corporations

Source: Pambazuka

The ruling elite in South Africa combines the worst aspects of apartheid and post-apartheid nationalism with pro-corporate neoliberalism. Public interest and participation in the nation’s moneyed politics is purely tokenistic.

What we academics often term South Africa’s ‘Minerals-Energy Complex‘ (MEC) keeps getting away with murder, including economic strangulation. As just one example, in spite of a recent trade surplus, the balance of payments is going into extreme deficit largely because MEC multinational mining houses – especially BHP Billiton, Anglo, DeBeers, Lonmin and Glencore – vacuum out profits to their London and Melbourne financial headquarters. This leaves SA basking not in BRICS prosperity but instead leading the slide of the ‘Fragile Five’: big emerging markets suffering vast capital outflows. Witness the Rand’s crash by a third last year.

Yet the overwhelming bulk of taxpayer subsidies to the MEC will amplify this crisis, via the National Development Plan’s two main Strategic Infrastructure Projects: the Waterberg-Richards Bay coal export rail-line and the Durban port-petrochemical expansion, which are likely to consume far more than the roughly R500 billion now budgeted.

Parliament is preparing to make matters worse. Last week’s hearings on an Infrastructure Development Bill could give fast-track approvals for mines, oil pipelines and refineries, coal-fired power plants, ports, and new airports. Was the Bill’s mention of water/sanitation, clinics, and schools snuck in to make the mega-project bias more palatable?

The two types need to be separated, and the latter projects need a new sense of urgency, because unlike Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel’s remark last week – ‘Whether you are speaking to Mr Smith sitting in a Sandton boardroom or Mrs Xulu in Lusikisiki, both will need more infrastructure’ – installation of a R2300 township sanitation connector pipe is rather easier than digging a R23 billion Durban-Joburg multiproduct oil pipeline, whose price rose from R6 billion in part because, according to an audit, ‘securing authorisations (Environmental Impact Assessments, land acquisition for right of way, water and wetland permits) were not pursued with sufficient foresight and vigour.’

Pursuing fast-track projects, MEC corporations have infinitely more influence than the suffering residents of, say, Madibeng municipality just west of Pretoria, within which is Marikana’s Nkaneng township. Today Nkaneng looks exactly the same as it did 18 months ago, when 34 mineworkers were shot dead nearby while striking for a living wage at Lonmin. More recently, Madibeng was the site of four water protesters’ murder by police in Mothutlung township. Within Madibeng boundaries, the platinum mines, agribusiness, Jack Nicklaus Pecanwood golf club members and Hartbeespoort Dam mansion owners guzzle as much water as they want.

Even if in coming weeks (at least through election day), a little more money flowing into Madibeng lets taps turn leftward, the nexus of parastatal and private corporates lean in the other direction. New water lines will soon be interrupted by hated pre-payment meters, and the taps will again be pushed rightward. For the real national infrastructure priority was expressed by Business Day editor Peter Bruce in 2012: “mine more and faster and ship what we mine cheaper and faster.”

This requires that the power bloc led by corporate South Africa’s export-oriented wing open up to include more aggressive political nationalists, even those spanning an apparent gulf between a white former New Nationalist Party MP and a former ANC MK armed wing operative, both now in critical seats on Parliament’s Economic Development Committee.

This was the unlikely alliance I witnessed last Thursday, and while I was able to testify to that committee about the Infrastructure Bill’s deficiencies, a scrappy Durban community group was egregiously censored, proving the point that when it comes to the big bucks, Parliament really has no space for the masses.

South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) leader Des D’Sa was first to testify on Thursday. His insightful speech covered problems related not only to general infrastructure processes, but to the single largest site-specific project ever attempted in SA: Durban’s R250 bn port-petrochemical expansion. SDCEA and its allies (myself too) have tried to lobby for this project to be transformed into a []detoxed South Durban offering a Just Transition for workers, plus more housing and environmental amenities[/url] such as clean rivers and beaches.

Testifying about the state’s lack of consultation on mega-projects, D’Sa was three minutes into his powerpoint presentation before ANC committee member Francois Beukman asked chairwoman Elsie Mmathulare Coleman to shut him down, on grounds D’Sa’s arguments were irrelevant to the Bill. Beukman recently led the Independent Police Investigative Directorate but resigned on a telling date, 16 August 2012 (Marikana massacre day, two years before his contract ran out), soon after the Public Service Commission began investigating ‘alleged irregularities in the directorate.’

Last Thursday, Beukman had regained sufficient influence that Coleman – a 1980s Soviet trainee in guerrilla warfare – gave D’Sa just one more minute and then abruptly told him to leave the podium. The Beukman-Coleman tag-team attack on D’Sa was clear confirmation of his complaint that public participation in SA’s moneyed politics is purely tokenistic.

Coleman was also hostile to me, but the exchange of views was robust. Beukman said I was too biased to acknowledge that Patel had indeed taken ‘account of the lessons of the 2010 World Cup infrastructure and the growing experience in the build programmes for the Gautrain, the Medupi and Kusile power stations, the Freeway improvement programme and the major airport revamps.’

But Patel is unconvincing, I replied. Government keeps making the same mistakes: White Elephantism (overbuilding – such as for 20 million containers/year when the Durban port is the world’s most expensive while processing just 2.5 million now); fossil-fuel dependence; climate denialism both for extreme weather impacts and SA emissions; mindless export orientation into a sick global economy; and public-private partnerships fraught with corruption. And soon the Environmental Impact Assessment stage for mega-projects will be shortened dramatically, and tripping up Transnet for ignoring climate change when proposing major port redesign may not be so easy.

A genuine people’s Parliament would have an easy time rewriting this bill. It would make our economy far less vulnerable to globalization by stressing local connectivities. The mandate would be revised, to first and foremost meet basic human needs – itself a valid economic strategy because locally-oriented spending on small projects has a higher multiplier effect. Climate would be taken seriously, and infrastructure policy would promote renewable energy, public transport, and a decarbonised, de-smokestacked [url=[/url].

None of these suggestions will be seriously considered, we can reliably predict.

Though D’Sa’s and my appearances were a waste of time and taxpayer money spent on SAA flights, still, it was an opportunity to confirm my theory about how South Africa’s ruling elite rules: fusing the worst aspects of apartheid and post-apartheid nationalism with pro-corporate neoliberalism, lubricated by hundreds of billions of rands of subsidies spurring ever-greater MEC profits.

* Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society.