South Africa’s Covid-19 economic stimulus plan: A chance to rethink or same old same old?

South Africa’s Covid-19 economic stimulus plan contains several of the features of a solid emergency plan, albeit cobbled together under the most unusual circumstances, at least on the surface. At 10% of GDP, far higher than Italy, Spain or the United Kingdom, it is one the largest stimulus packages in the world. To put this into further perspective the United States has committed 11% of its GDP to keeping the lights of its economy on.

President Ramaphosa’s announcement arrives at a time that global economic markets are haemorrhaging, a sad necessity of withdrawing large percentages of the working population from public spaces. Like so many components of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are presented with ongoing trade-offs and dilemmas all of which lead to their own paths of landmines. The largest fork in the road globally has been the cost of closing down the economy whilst livelihoods are increasingly precarious, many communities are restless, some families are starving to death. For countries in the Global South such as South Africa with lower welfare, this is all the more complicated by the uneven pace of dispensing relief to small businesses who employ the largest chunk of the employed workforce. The effort has been further hampered by the disgraceful diversion of food parcels to economically vulnerable communities by parts of the very state machinery that should be distributing relief.

That said, the plan offers clusters of intervention, many of which sound encouragingly social welfarist. It is not dissimilar to the basic income grant suggested by social policy analysts and formulated by several NGOS post 1994. As long ago as 2004, a coalition of NGOs, faith-based organisations and unions across SADC formulated well-researched funding models to finance this. They suggested that the Basic Income Grant (BIG) was affordable, particularly for South Africa, and noted that the political and economic history of South Africa would otherwise consistently reproduce the toxicity of racist and race based social and economic outcomes. These have produced the intergenerational, structural flaws in South Africa’s economy which no amount of foreign direct investment and market orthodox approaches of the past 22 years have resolved.

The proposals suggested a financing menu of diverse local taxes and strongly suggested that a universal grant would be part of a developmental social compact. So while painful, the Corona virus and the measures suggested by the President  might be bringing us closer to the recognition that structural deficits need to be addressed by investing into developing key sectors of the economy, enabling workers to remain in the economy and by cushioning those who are not able to participate in that economy.

Part of this compact is the R200 billion loan scheme to provide companies with relief to remain operational and to pay salaries. At a time when almost a third of the workforce have either been retrenched or are uncertain of their post lockdown future, a R50billion grant has been introduced to augment existing grants for a six-month period. Significantly, relief will be offered to people who are out of the current benefits matrix and receive neither Unemployment Insurance Fund benefits nor social grants.

The R100 billion grant to small businesses includes spazas and those often bypassed and ‘informalised’ by conventional market policy. These horizon industries, including chisa nyamas,   are largely bootstrap businesses that play a significant role in job creation,  community welfare and even a space to report domestic violence. They act as a meeting place for many, and the intimacy of the relationships represents an important part of community welfare in ways that larger supermarkets cannot replicate. During this virus, with limited transport, these outlets are the closest retailers. R70 billion in the proposal represents a tax respite for such businesses, including on skills development levies.

The second major fork in the plan is in the distribution of all this to various stakeholders. To be fully effective, cash transfers and relief subsidies must reach their intended targets including indigent communities, people in the parallel or ‘informal’ sector, and women who largely run household economics and are placed at the helm of social reproduction. They must also represent value for money. The modalities of transfer funds are risk-filled not least because the State itself has often been unreliable and corrupt. The perceptions around cash transfer programmes are often tainted with misinformation, poverty shaming and the idea that social grants or income support are for ‘free loading’ or ‘lazy’ social delinquents and ‘welfare queens’ rather than a recognition that these grants can enhance human capital and social engagement. It is also a form of risk sharing which potentially minimises the ongoing risk of huge parts of the population falling out of the social and economic compact, absent from the market economy. There is little evidence to support the view that child maintenance grants result in dependency.  This is the moment to reframe a socio-economic inclusiveness that is not biased towards corporates. If 2008 taught us nothing else, it’s that we cannot privilege companies over workers and families.

The strained and compromised SASSA machinery would require far greater capacity to minimise risk and maximise fast delivery. Conditional cash transfers linked to particular goods like school uniform, services like medical access or specific food items at listed outlets have often worked better than unconditional transfers in other developing economies to avert the flaws in the systems. The sustainability of these transfers and subsidies was debated as soon as the President mentioned the 6-month time horizon. Most economies, sectors, companies and families will still be on the difficult road to recovery beyond November 2020 and probably into the next 24 to 60 months.  

All this comes at a cost and herein is the final fork in the road, the IMF. The IMF presents a departure from South Africa’s correct historical aversion to securing their assistance. The IMF works on capital account liberalisation, removing barriers to flows of capital; and fiscal consolidation, or austerity. Structural conditions, or Structural Benchmarks (SBs), involve economic actions that require legislation and critical policy changes.

In 2008, in 21 countries over two decades, researchers demonstrated that IMF programme conditionalities help produce worsening health outcomes. Whilst this Corona inspired compact is an opportunity to rethink our economic model, it is crucial to appreciate that this moment is partly a manifestation of historical neglect and a market orthodox model. The solution in form of IMF and World Bank funding models may in fact lead to even more indebtedness and invidious conditionalities in future. A full cycle of market led, corporatist potential disaster. The real pandemic.

(Image Credit: Medialternatives)

I write this from northeast London, in lockdown now for three more weeks, in a working class and diverse neighbourhood of people of colour, where government inaction has put fear in people’s eyes

Around April 10, 2020, it became all too clear that the UK Government had been advancing a faulty set of numbers concerning the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the population. Over the following week, it would backtrack, confess shortcomings, and curiously ‘discover’ that very old administrative and statistical procedures had not been factored into the death total numbers. The biopolitical crux of the problem was that, while deaths in hospital due to C-19 were being daily reported by the massively under-funded and austerity starved NHS, deaths out ‘in the public’ were being reported once a week and not being factored into the daily totals. Which meant that anywhere from 10-50% of C-19 deaths around the UK were not being reported or integrated into overall figures. 

The revelation of this bureaucratic glitch came as a bit of a shock to most people, as the mortality numbers for the UK were already grim, and well on track to match the numbers in Italy and Spain, European countries particularly hard it by the virus. But wait! Britons are not in the EU! “We gained our Independence from Europe with blessed Brexit!” Oh, wait, that’s right, viruses give fuck all for national borders, and nationalism. Even Boris, that prevaricating, racist side-kick showman who helped to gut the NHS and slash doctor and nurse salaries (he led the cheers in Parliament on the day the Tories won that vote)–even bouncy Boris had to admit that it was the NHS that saved his life, in particular two nurses, one from Portugal and the other from New Zealand. 

Many people in the UK just slightly older than the clown PM were not so lucky, as the many people who could have been saved if he and his government had acted swiftly and with care and solidarity with the most vulnerable perished needlessly. But today around 80% of the UK’s nursing homes and elderly care facilities have reported infections, and the death toll for these elders is rising sharply. On April 14ththe Financial Times published a piece that outlined the coming horror: “Britain’s care homes are struggling to cope with a wave of [C-19] cases, with thousands of residents at risk of dying as the disease spreads. Operators say official figures misrepresent the extent of the critis and complain that they are short of protective equipment.” The article noted that around 400,000 older people currently live in UK care homes, and up to two-thirds of the facilities are reporting that elderly and frail residents have contracted the infection. 

Statistical modelling–dodgy at the best of times, seriously flawed in the case of the UK’s mortality numbers–optimistically suggest that around a quarter of this elderly population, that is around 100,000 people, could die if C-19 ‘becomes endemic in care facilities’. But it is clear these are not real numbers, and the statistics we have for actual deaths are not real numbers precisely because of how the statistics are compiled. Coupled with the lack of resources and protective equipment for front-line workers, the situation in the UK continues to be very serious. As of today (April 16), while Boris continues to convalesce at his Chequers residence, the UK is reporting more daily deaths than either Spain or Italy. Of course, it is easy to say that this world health crisis could have been handled better, and that should be said and also strongly debated in parliament. But what is harder to grasp, very difficult to model, and easy to manipulate in populist talking points, is the long-term effects of austerity on a society structured in different kinds of racial, class, social, embodied, and regional domination. The numbers of front-line staff dying of C-19 are disproportionately people of colour…

I write this from northeast London, in lockdown now for three more weeks, in a working class and diverse neighbourhood of people of colour, where the government’s inaction and, specifically, Boris’s absurd bravado (a small nasty shadow against Trump’s looming idiocy) has put fear in people’s eyes, and (sometimes racist) anger in their distancing. Well, at least capitalism has been put on a kind of hold for a couple of months; we’ve all gotten a taste of what it would mean to overthrow it.    

(Image Credit: Steve Bell / The Guardian)

Covid Operations: How is this (not) unprecedented? Let us count the ways …

“They knew that their country’s devastation—before the earthquake as now—was not inevitable. They knew that traditional “recovery” would fail to recover much of anything except the previous inequities. They knew that reconstruction could be, had to be, grounded in democracy, where all had a say. And they were organizing.”
                                             Beverly Bell. Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti’s Divide

The emergence and efflorescence of Covid-19 has produced its own distinct discourse: social distancing, flatten the curve, social isolation, care mongering, and the list goes on. Words matter, rhetoric matters. One term that has been recirculated through the interpretive landscape of dismay, disorder and governmental dithering is to claim that everything is unprecedented … and so how could we have known? This claim of unprecedence has resulted in some curious contortions. For example, the stock market collapse is both unprecedented and the worst since 1987. The pandemic itself is unprecedented and the worst since the 1918 pandemic, the so-called Spanish flu. Well, which is it, unprecedented or the worst since? It doesn’t matter, because the claim of everything being unprecedented, rather than seriously and existentially dire, is always already an alibi. What is the alibi, and were we all really completely unaware?

For decades, political economist after political economist has warned that neoliberal models of development, and in particular austerity, would leave the world with severely diminished health care systems and seriously stretched economies. Four decades of slow to no growth and just in time production chains have produced “lean economies” which [a] only work for the very rich, [b] widen inequality rapidly and increasingly, and [c] increase risk. How did `we’ emerge from the infamous 1987 crash? The infamous Greenspan Put, in which the Fed “injected liquidity” into the market. What that means is that speculators are protected from risk and so are encouraged to take even riskier investments. The very opposite of no pain, no gain, this solution is All gain for a few, all and intense pain for everyone else. That was how `we’ emerged from 1987 … 1997 … 2000 … 2008. Unprecedented? Hardly.

Four years ago, Rob Wallace’s Big Farms Make Big Flu was published. Recently, Wallace noted, “The real danger of each new outbreak is the failure –or better put—the expedient refusal to grasp that each new Covid-19 is no isolated incident. The increased occurrence of viruses is closely linked to food production and the profitability of multinational corporations. Anyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production. At present, few governments, and few scientists, are prepared to do so. Quite the contrary. When the new outbreaks spring up, governments, the media, and even most of the medical establishment are so focused on each separate emergency that they dismiss the structural causes that are driving multiple marginalized pathogens into sudden global celebrity, one after the other … There are no capital-free pathogens at this point … The capital-led agriculture that replaces more natural ecologies offers the exact means by which pathogens can evolve the most virulent and infectious phenotypes. You couldn’t design a better system to breed deadly diseases … These companies can just externalize the costs of their epidemiologically dangerous operations on everyone else.” The other term for the Greenspan Put is moral hazard, “any situation in which one person makes the decision about how much risk to take, while someone else bears the cost if things go badly.” That’s Paul Krugman writing, in 2009, about the crash of 2008. Unprecedented? No.

Despite the experience, and warning signs, of both SARS and Ebola, the lessons for health care were ignored in favor of profit. Cut workers’ access to health benefits, both by directly slicing health care benefits and transferring large sectors of the labor force to precarious `self contractors’. Defund public health and privatize health care as extensively and deeply as possible. Invest in pharmaceutical research that generates maximum profits and whatever you do, stay away from research in preventive medicine. Big Pharma “loves to design cures. The sicker we are the more they earn.” Keep the system `lean’ and `efficient’, meaning no extra beds, no extra anything. This is the legacy of austerity, and it has been widely criticized, certainly 40 years ago at the beginning of the period of neoliberal development, but with greater insistence, research and documentation over the past ten years. Unprecedented? Nope.

The claim of “unprecedented” is an alibi to the same extent that it provides ideological cover for the same old same old. This is not about gotcha; this is about how we understand “reconstruction”. Many are, rightly, concerned that nation-State governments will declare a State of Emergency or a State of Disaster and thereby erode civil and human rights. Even if that does not happen, we must pay critical attention to those who call for a “return to normalcy”, which would mean a `return’ to growing inequality, decreasing access to decent health care, mounting evictions, increased incarceration, increasing hunger, and more and more unprecedented pandemics.

(Image credit: NPR)

In the Streets of Chile, the People are Singing: El Derecho de Vivir en Paz

Under the military dictatorship of Pinochet in the 1970s, economic austerity was placed on the people of Chile. Under the guise of reform, neoliberalist measures on the people of Chile were implemented, resulting in widespread economic hardship and massive wealth inequality. For thirty years, the working class and indigenous populations in Chile suffered under Pinochet’s market-driven economic model, which privatized pensions, health and education. Unions were decimated as was the public education system, and public services were shifted to private enterprises. Chile remains a country with the highest cost of living in South America and is considered one of the most unequal in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development group of nations. 

The recent uprising occurring in the country began as a protest against a hike in metro ticket prices and quickly escalated into a massive revolt against the significant income inequality in the country. The proposed transit fare rate would have risen to nearly 1.20 a ride, a 4% increase; a significant burden placed on low-income families who spend 13% of their budgets on transportation, and retirees who are forced to survive on a pension that is below the minimum wage. 

The response to the simmering anger over the rising cost for the poor and old? That they just get up earlier and leave for work before seven in the morning to avoid paying the rush hour rate. Now after a million people took part in a demonstration on October 25th, thousands of other protests from poor, young, students, indigenous populations, and union workers, the government has finally realized that squeezing more money and work and time out of the poor may not be the most competent economic model. 

Piñera has walked back on the neoliberal policies that have entrenched inequality in Chile, but they are not enough. As the last nail in the coffin of Pinochet’s cruelty, his constitution is echoes the continuing destruction of working people and the elderly in the country. While Piñera has moved to raise the minimum wage and pensions, demand pay cuts from government officials, and fired his entire cabinet, many see these gestures as token and symbolic at best – Pinochet’s constitution is still in play – and have demanded a truly democratic society, where the power is not vested only in the hands of the wealthiest and the out of touch. And the people are not backing down, even after the president’s paltry promises.

Meanwhile, how are American citizens reacting to our overwhelming inequality; where are the uprisings that should have been in place after the NYC’s fare enforcement? Where is the anger when poor men and women are tackled and tased for not paying $2.00 while the city employees four cops at almost $80,000 a year to brutalize them? Will we ever be as revolutionary, or will it happen too late?

(Photo Credit: CanalC)

In Ecuador, Indigenous people shut down the austerity program. Women were key

Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day! In the future, this day should be remembered as the day in which Indigenous peoples of Ecuador stopped cold an IMF-sponsored austerity program. Today, October 14, 2019, Lenín Moreno, Ecuador’s President, and leaders of the Indigenous Peoples’ movements announced that they had reached a deal to cancel the austerity package. It took almost two weeks of protest and seven deaths, but in the end Indigenous peoples and their allies succeeded. As Rosa Matango responded to the news, “I am happy as a mother, happy for our future. We indigenous people fought and lost so many brothers, but we’ll keep going forward.” Jaime Vargas, President of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations, added, “From our heart, we declare that we, the peoples and nations, have risen up in search of liberty. We recognise the bravery of the men and women who rose up.” Indigenous women have been key to the success of this mass mobilization against austerity and for dignity and decency.

What happened? On October 1, Moreno cut a deal, known familiarly as “el paquetazo”, with the IMF. The IMF insisted on austerity if Ecuador wanted loans and `assistance’. This package included a frontal assault on public sector workers: 20% wage cuts; decrease in vacation pay; and the `donation’ by public sector works of one day a month to the government. What the IMF calls donation, the rest of the world calls wage theft. Additionally, the package included an end to fuel subsidies, that had been in place for 40 years. Within hours, diesel fuel prices doubled, and regular fuel prices shot up 30 percent.

On October 2, labor unions, women’s groups, student unions, and Indigenous peoples’ groups announced their intent to protest. On October 3, the protests began, with transportation unions striking. Ecuador was shut down for two days, October 3 and 4. After talks between the government and transportation unions, the strike was called off. On October 4, Moreno declared a state of emergency. Mass protests continued and intensified. From October 3 to Saturday, October 12, protests grew and intensified. The country was at a standstill. Moreno moved his government from the capital city, Quito, to Guayaquil, on the coast.

Where are the women in all this? Everywhere and at the forefront.

From the moment the Indigenous masses began pouring into Quito, people started noticing the large presence of women and children in the protests. Indigenous women from all parts of the country made it clear that they were in for the long haul. They made this clear in words and actions. Many brought food and cooking utensils and set up kitchens to feed the ever growing populations. As Marta Chango, provincial coordinator for the political movement Pachakutic in the Tungurahua province, explained, “We are here to resist to the last moment, we are mothers, women and daughters who have come from provinces from across the country to proclaim that the State, in its abuse of power, will not succeed in murdering our people. We will not let that happen.”

They came by the tens of thousands and continued to shut down the country. When the State attempted to respond with severe repression, with bullets and tear gas, the women organized, and on Saturday, they organized a women’s march which linked State violence and repression with State austerity. Indigenous intersectionality was everywhere, as women explained their choices in clothing to why they brought children. Repeatedly the answer was the same: this is women’s resistance, this is the community’s resistance. We will not be massacred, exterminated, or erased. When Indigenous women marched, they were joined and supported by a variety of non-Indigenous women’s movements. Together, women, led and organized by Indigenous women, filled the streets of Quito, filled the sky with their chants, “No more deaths!” “Not one more bomb! Not one more rock!” On Saturday, as State and Indigenous leaders began to meet, Indigenous women turned Quito into an Indigenous women’s temporary autonomous zone, and they threatened to make it last for as long as necessary. On Sunday, the talks continued. Today, a pact was announced. 

As has happened frequently in Ecuador, the Indigenous women are united. When they say, “No!”, they mean, “NO!” The people united and demanded attention, dignity and justice. They demanded that the State belongs to the country’s residents, and not to the IMF. They demanded peace. And they won. Women were key to this victory. Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2019!

(Photo Credit: Al Jazeera / Fernando Vergara / AP) (Photo Credit 2: BBC / Matías Zibell)

The politics of suffering, a growing project in Europe

In France, the yellow vests movement, some of whom are inspired by nationalistic racism and others need community and support, continues to monopolize the attention of social media, forging a large variety of opinions. Some talk about the suffering that pushes them to hit the roundabouts, others talk about shattering the government, all are the product of the neoliberal austerity creed. 

The trigger was the implementation of a new tax on diesel fuel that was going to impact mainly the population who has older cars in the outskirts of big city suburbs and the rural population. 

Additionally, diesel fuel was once subsidized to serve the interest of oil companies and is now officially identified to be responsible for premature death due to deadly micro particles released in the air after combustion. 

Should the concerns be also about climate change with the building of a disaster? Should the perpetuation of economic interests be questioned? Instead of asking these questions, the official discourse from a large political spectrum revolves around consumer purchasing power and unemployment. In this European setting, the term suffering is largely used to depict a large range of social situations. 

What does it mean to be suffering in France and elsewhere? Who is suffering? 

Here is Trump’s understanding of the notion of suffering: “On behalf of our nation I want to apologize to Brett and the entire Kavanaugh family for the terrible pain and suffering you have been forced to endure.” The suffering endured by Salvadorans, Hondurans and Guatemalans who were facing death at home and now are facing repression going north does not qualify as suffering for Trump and his cronies. 

In Europe, the suffering of 49 migrants who had been rescued by humanitarian ships in January has been ignored. This came after the closure of many ports of access, decided arbitrarily by the Italian Government against sea-rescue organizations. These organizations, such as SOS Mediterranée, were created after the end of Mare Nostrum to compensate for the absence of official rescue ships. Now, it is the turn of these non-governmental organizations to be dismantled by the authorities. 

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, just released a report about refugees/migrants arriving in Europe and at European borders. Reports come with numbers. With an estimated 2,275 people drowned in 2018 in the Mediterranean Sea, the year is a record of deaths compared to the number of arrivals in Europe.  More than 1500 people have already died attempting to reach Europe since the beginning of 2019. This situation casts doubt on the decisions by nation-states to remove rescue ships and close land routes rendering traveling to safety very dangerous. 

The UNHCR’s Director Pascale Moreau declared: “With the number of people arriving on European shores falling, this is no longer a test of whether Europe can manage the numbers, but whether Europe can muster the humanity to save lives.”

Saving lives would be a good idea, but there is a good deal of suffering awaiting the saved lives when they face asylum process. Incarceration of migrants is on the rise in Europe; that is the project of the Italian minister of interior, Matteo Salvini. 

There is another way, leaving them in the streets with the increasing homeless population, thanks to neoliberal austerity. Women are particularly vulnerable when homeless.  Every year, the Abbé Pierre Foundation sarcastically rewards the best initiatives to impede the homeless from finding a place to rest in cities. The award called “Les Pics d’or” (golden picks) goes to municipalities, metro stations, even banks. They render public spaces uninviting and uninhabitable with all kinds of devices, picks, individual seats instead of benches, rocks, and massive planters. And then there are the police raids slashing tents given to migrants by humanitarian helpers. 

So much work done by the neoliberal technocrats to make the Wretched of the Earth  suffer, while the richer are thirsty for help and assistance for their leisured life. Although it seems cliché, this reality of asymmetry is well described in the most recent World Inequality Report.   

There is no crisis of migration: only 3% of people migrate, 97 % stay where they are, 70% of African’s migrants remains on the continent, and, in 2017 only 10 % of migrants migrated for economic reasons. In France, only 0.5% of the population is undocumented; although they are eligible to free health care some are dreaming to create administrative devices to impede their access to health care services.

So much confusion about suffering generated by economic austerity, migration.  Let’s remember:  “Sapiens Africanus was born not in a lattice of sharp borders but rather an open ecosystem, punctuated by climates, shortages, abundances, droughts, and floods, ruptures and junctions, alliances, parasitisms, antagonisms, sharing, and exploitation….” Patrick Chamoiseau in Migrant Brothers, imagine migrant sisters! 

(Photo Credit: SOS Mediterranée / Laurin Schmid)

Women are Tunisia’s revolutionary guards: What are we waiting for? Fech Nestannew?

On December 17,2010, Mohammed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, set himself on fire and ignited Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. It was a desperate act that lit the sky and the world. His act reflected a general sense of despair, and in that reflected despair, people saw transformative change as their only hope. Within a month, on January 14, 2011, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali dissolved his government. From its first flicker, the Jasmine Revolution was more than the ouster of a dictator. It was an assault on patriarchy that emerged from decades of women and youth organizing. Seven years later, it still is. Ask the women who have ignited the current wave of protests across Tunisia, protests that demand a practical, material response to their question: “Fech Nestannew?” “What are we waiting for?” “Qu’attendons-nous?” “فاش نستناو ؟”

For Tunisia, the past seven years have been “interesting,” and particularly for women. The government has seesawed repeatedly on its position vis-à-vis women’s rights, equality, and roles. The State and parts of Civil Society have colluded in trying to diminish the significance of women’s work and contributions. And women have pushed back. In this last round of push-back, women have responded to an IMF-imposed budget, agreed on in December and implemented as of January 1. This budget follows the tried and true, or better failed and false, austerity menu: increase taxes, slice subsidies, subject the civil service to “efficiencies”, raise food prices, stop recruiting and hiring for public sector jobs. The IMF declared the new budget is bold and ambitious. Tunisian women thought otherwise. They asked, “When do we get the jobs we struggled for and were promised? When will food become generally affordable? Where is our housing? What are we waiting for?” Women demanded a better menu than that offered by the IMF: “Travail, pain, liberté et dignité” “Employment, bread, liberty, and dignity”.

The Fech Nestannew? movement describes itself as horizontal, but it does have spokespeople, most notably Henda Chennaoui and Warda Atig. Warda Atig explained that Fech Nestannew? activists held their first action on January 3: “We were waiting for the government to make the law official and we chose the date of our first action to be January 3. The date is very symbolic because, on January 3, 1984, there was the Intifada al-Khubez (bread uprising) in Tunisia [over an increase in the price of bread]. On January 3, we made a declaration in front of the municipal theatre [on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis] and we distributed pamphlets with our demands. We were about 50 activists.” On January 3, they were about 50 activists. As of Monday, mass demonstrations, and small ones as well, have rocked Tunisia from one end to the other. As Atig explains, while the activists are demanding that the State “end the increase in prices, cancel the moratorium on recruiting in the public sector, provide security and healthcare, end privatisation and put forward a national strategy to counter corruption”, at its heart, it’s a bread uprising. Austerity targets the stomach, and in so doing, always targets women first, most directly and most intensely.

Henda Chennaoui contextualizes the current situation: “Gas oil has increased by 2.85 percent which has an impact on the price of food. The minimum wage has not changed for years. It is 326 dinars ($131) per month. That equates to about two weeks of groceries for a family of four. To understand the fed-up, we must know that after 2011, a kind of contract was made between Tunisians and politicians. The latter were committed, after the political transition, to satisfy all the demands of the population, especially to improve the economic situation. We waited. In 2014, nothing happened. In 2015 either, neither in 2016, nor in 2017. The political class showed no sign that it was doing anything. That’s why we called our campaign ‘What are we waiting for?’.”

Thirty-three years ago, Tunisian women led the January Bread Revolt. Seven years ago, Tunisian women led the Jasmine Revolution. Today, Tunisian women are in the streets, and everywhere else, organizing, pushing, demanding, rocking the country, rejecting corruption, and taking on the fundamental tenets of austerity as development. Women are saying that any budget in which “the poor pay the bill” is no budget at all. The time is now. What are we waiting for? Fech Nestannew?

Warda Atig

 

(Photo Credit 1: Jeune Afrique / Sipa AP / Hassene Dridi) (Photo Credit 2: Jillian Kestler-D’Amours / Al Jazeera)

#SistersUncut: In England women reject austerity’s gendered death sentence

On Sunday, November 20, women shut down major bridges in London, Bristol, Newcastle and Glasgow, to protest recent drastic cuts in domestic violence services, a decade of cuts in domestic violence services, and, more generally the State’s pogrom against Black and Minority Ethnic, or BME, women, lesbians, immigrant and migrant women, poor and working women. Sisters Uncut organized the action to put the State on notice: “Theresa May claims she wants to end violence against women and girls. To do that we need an awful lot more than refuges. We need a long term, sustainable funding plan for all domestic violence services. We need universal access to benefits so survivors have the resources to escape, rather than policies like the benefit cap which are making it even harder when already 52% of survivors report that they can’t afford to leave. We need domestic violence support services for black and brown, disabled and LGBT+ survivors – a `one size fits all’ generic approach might save money but it doesn’t meet needs. We need funding for outreach workers who are able to slowly build up survivors’ confidence over time and support survivors before the danger escalates, rather than a focus solely on crisis response. We need an end to gentrification and the devastating effects it has on communities; not all survivors want or are able to access support services, and it is their neighbours that provide their lifeline. And we must see the links between violent, racist government policies and the increased risk for black, brown, Muslim and migrant women experiencing domestic violence. We demand a secure, long term plan to support ALL domestic violence survivors, regardless of immigration status, with specialist services for black and brown, disabled and LGBT+ survivors.

When it comes to services for domestic violence services, the grimness of the numbers is only exceeded by the viciousness of the program that has established them. In September, Women’s Aid reported the Government’s plan would force 67% of specialist domestic abuse refuges in England to close, and that 87% of refuges in England would be forced to reduce their current level of provision. In Wales, 69% of refuges would be forced to close, and 100% would have to seriously reduce their current level of provision. Because migrants are restricted from using public funds, migrant non-binary people women are turned away from refuges, social housing, benefits or healthcare. How do you want your pain and suffering, slow and torturous or fast and torturous? Welcome to the economies of torture.

Marcia Smith, a domestic violence survivor, remembered: “When I went to the police with bruises, they said they couldn’t see my bruises because I was black. People don’t see black women as victims, and we get racism instead of help. With black services, you don’t have racism, you have the trust and support you need.” Is it any wonder that 90% of BME survivors prefer to receive support from a specialist BME organization?

Sisters Uncut declared an end to the destruction of women’s lives: “We will not stand by as black and brown survivors are left stranded in abusive homes without the bridges to safety provided by specialist domestic violence services, whilst migrant survivors with ‘no recourse to public funds’ find all of their bridges blocked by the government’s immigration policies.”

You block our bridges, so we block yours. Just prior to Theresa May’s Autumn Statement, where she will reveal the new budget, Sisters Uncut declared it time for Women’s Spring, and in doing so, joined women in the past few months in France, Argentina, Poland, South Africa who themselves joined the women water protectors at Standing Rock in the United States and Grassy Narrows in Canada, and beyond. It’s time, it’s way past time: “To those in power, our message is this: your cuts are sexist, your cuts are dangerous, and you think that you can get away with them because you have targeted the people who you perceive as powerless. We are those people, we are women, we will not be silenced. We stand united and fight together, and together we will win.”

 

(Photo Credit 1: Broadly / Alice Zoo) (Photo Credit 2: The Fader / Holly Falconer)

 

 

 

 

From `service delivery’ to #FeesMustFall, protests target decades of neoliberal austerity

According to Ivor Chipkin, the FeesMustFall movement runs the risk of being coopted by the politicians and business people around Jacob Zuma who are stripping state owned enterprises like Eskom to the tune of billions. This after some student activists called for protests targeting the National Treasury and academic Kelly Gillespie pointed to the role of the treasury in making higher education unaffordable for the majority of Blacks.

Chipkin provides no evidence that there is a real danger that the student movements will inadvertently support the looting of the state, which seems to be the project holding the Zuma group together. In fact, he can only make his point by ignoring the politics of the FeesMustFall movement, which on the whole is diametrically opposed to that of both the Zuma and the Gordhan group. Chipkin’s political agenda is not so much that he seriously believes the students are about to support Zuma; he wants FeesMustFall to support the Gordhan group, even if only by not targeting National Treasury with criticisms and protests.

In order to support his political point, Chipkin argues that the National Treasury has not had a policy of neo-liberal austerity over the last 16 years. But the evidence he provides is as weak as his political framing of no possibilities outside of either Zuma or Gordhan.

To review the evidence, we need an idea of what ‘neo-liberal austerity’ is. Is a simple rise in spending on ‘social protection’, even a doubling over a thirteen-year period, proof enough that there is no neo-liberal austerity? This is what Chipkin suggests, but it is simplistic.

Cutting social welfare spending has been a burning ambition of neo-liberal treasuries everywhere. They have not always succeeded, because they had to contend with the balance of forces. Where there was strong resistance to such cuts, all they could do was keep this kind of expenditure as low as possible. In these cases, it does not mean they are no longer neo-liberal; it means they are neo-liberals who are not getting their own way one hundred percent.

The political essence of neo-liberalism is using the state to create the conditions for maximum wealth transfer from everyone else to the richest elite among business corporations. This is exactly what the ANC has been doing over the last two decades. This is precisely why the elite among the capitalist class is showing Gordhan so much love. From water to land to minerals to investment to monetary matters and agriculture, the ANC’s policies have included privatization, deregulation, commodification and all the other building blocks of neoliberal politics around the world. These long words all mean the same thing – state policies that protect and create opportunities for giant business corporations to make profits at the expense of everyone and everything else.

It is laughable to argue that in the middle of this general neo-liberal approach of the ANC, the treasury stands as the lone exception. Yes, expenditure on social grants has risen (though not in Gordhan’s last budget where it dropped in real terms). But these rises were never driven by what the actual needs for poverty relief and eradication were. It was carefully framed to be affordable while the tax regime leaves the wealth of the big corporates untouched and growing. A treasury that was pro-poor and against neo-liberal austerity would not have dropped taxes on these billionaire corporates as Gordhan and his predecessors have done. Instead they would have taxed them heavily not only on profit but also on accumulated wealth, which is the only way to seriously move towards ending poverty and inequality.

Research by Nandi Vanqa-Mgijima and Christopher Webb of the International Labour Research and Information Group (Ilrig) further exposes the claim that social grants is a sign that there is not a regime of neo-liberal austerity at the treasury. They explain how the payment and distribution has been outsourced to a company listed on the stock exchanges of Johannesburg and New York. Furthermore, all along the chain of the distribution and spending of the grants, micro-lenders and giant supermarkets are set up to make profit at the expense of the poor grant beneficiaries. Undoubtedly grant recipients have benefited, but the neo-liberal manner in which the grants have been distributed have benefited the usual shareholders and creditors for whom neo-liberalism is designed.

Quoting percentage increases in spending on social protection allows talk of ‘more than double’ and ‘well above inflation’, which has the sound of opulence rather than austerity. But the word austere means having no comforts or luxuries. To suggest a child grant of R350 per month means there is no austerity is fucking sick. The thing is that the grants started from such a scandalously low base, that even these large percentage increases still leave grant recipients in poverty. If this is not neo-liberal austerity, then the concept has no meaning.

Finally, Chipkin’s own account of the situation in higher education reveals that the treasury has deployed a strategy that is quite common for neo-liberal treasuries and has been used by Trevor Manuel with regard to local government. This is the strategy of ‘unfunded mandates’. An explosive increase in the number of tertiary students, without a corresponding increase in funding, pressured universities to raise the extra funding through fee increases and corporate funding that further subordinate knowledge production to neo-liberalism. The one is a direct consequence of the other and confirms the neo-liberal orientation of treasury beyond doubt.

Vice-chancellors now find themselves in a similar position to mayors. In the Manuel era funding for municipalities were cut by 90% at the same time that their service delivery responsibilities were increased manifold. Hence we had the ‘service delivery’ protests similar to the FeesMustFall protests, both ultimately caused by neo-liberal austerity policed by the treasury.

It is these community protests that won the increases in social spending, just as the student protests has already won increases in higher education spending. Both are up against the neo-liberal regime of the ANC, of which both Gordhan and Zuma are part. FeesMustFall is completely correct in targeting them both.

 

(Photo Credit 1: City Press / Ndileka Lujabe) (Photo Credit 2: Time / Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters)

#NiUnaMenos: In Argentina, women declare a general strike against all violence against women

For the past two years, women in Argentina, and elsewhere, have been organizing and mobilizing to end violence against women, gathering under the banner, Ni Una Menos. Not One Woman Less. Today, Wednesday, October 19, 2016, they are organizing a general strike to address and end violence against women, from sexual to cultural to economic violence. The torture and murder of Lucía Pérez is the most recent spark, but the flame has been ongoing and growing. In the streets, alleys, and rooms of Argentina, women dressed in black have declared today is Black Wednesday, #MiércolesNegro: “In your office, school, hospital, law court, newsroom, shop, factory, or wherever you are working, stop for an hour to demand ‘no more machista violence’.” As Ingrid Beck of Ni Una Menos explained, “We’re calling it Black Wednesday because we’re in mourning for all of the dead women, all of the women killed simply for being women.”

Florencia Minici, also of Ni Una Menos, added, “With our rage at the femicide of Lucía in Mar del Plata, at the hatred of the mother who murdered her lesbian daughter, at the stabbing of teenagers in La Boca and with our anger at the repression of the National Congress of Women in Rosario, we call on everyone to come out from our workplaces and our homes … to make visible the femicide and the precarization of women’s lives.”

A communiqué from Ni Una Menos further noted, “Behind the rise and viciousness of the femicidal violence lies an economic plot. The lack of women’s autonomy leaves us more unprotected when we say no and so leaves us as easy targets for trafficking networks or as `cheap’ bodies for both the drug and the retail markets … While the average unemployment in Argentina is 9.3 percent, for women it is 10.5.”

The women of Argentina know and are signaling that violence against women is part of the current government’s neoliberal economic structural adjustment `development’ program. Leaving women without a say is as vulnerable to economic exploitation as to physical violence. Both are part of a political economic program of spectacular death for women. That’s why today’s mobilization is called a work stoppage and is thought of as a general strike, “the first national women’s strike in the country’s history.”

Two weeks ago, on October 4, the women of Poland, dressed in Black, filled the streets. Today, October 19, the women of Argentina are doing the same. For women around the world, Black is the new Black.

#NiUnaMenos #VivasLasQueremos #MiercolesNegro

(Image Credit 1: Le Monde) (Image Credit 2: Twitter / @NiUnaMenos)