New social justice movements in a changing reality

Linked with Mohau Pheko – South Africa, with The WDM Death Counter, with The International Gender and Trade Network IGTN, and with The World Development Movement WDM.

By Mohau Pheko, co-ordinator of African Gender & Trade Network (GENTA).

I will try to address the following questions (in October 2002, but still fully valuable):

  • Why should Africa and African feminists be concerned about Europe’s move to the right?
  • How are right-wing policies influencing the trade & economic discourse in Africa?
  • What are the policy implications, in terms of gender justice?
  • What is the response from the African women’s and feminist movements, as well as emerging African social movements in general?
  • Where are the strategic points of engagement for feminists in Europe?
  • The African context.

First of all, it is important to point out that right-wing policies from overseas impacting on Africa is not a new historical phenomenon. The Republican Party, in collusion with the Christian right, has influenced US foreign policy for decades. Indeed, the Christian right has even influenced Democratic policy to some extent. This has had a detrimental impact on African people as a whole.

What about Europe’s move to the right? Before analysing the impact on Africa, and in particular African women, it is critical to set the stage by showing the trends Africa is going through:

In the last twenty years there has been a dramatic decline in economic growth in most of Africa. In fact, many African countries have recorded negative growth. This has had the result of increasing women’s reproductive role, and making women less visible to policy-makers. This is evident in the decline in social spending. The assumption is that women will be ‘flexible’ and take on the role that the state is abdicating, but there is neither explicit recognition, nor any questioning, of women’s role.

In recent years there has been an enormous growth in unemployment in Africa. Meanwhile, the informal, or ‘survival’, sector of the economy comprises mainly women. This is because the informal sector is relatively open to women, compared with formal employment. High levels of unemployment have created an environment where African policy-makers are vulnerable to certain agendas coming from the North, in particular, the mantra of foreign investment as a perceived solution.

The growing globalisation of African economies is marked by an inflow of transnational corporations taking over, through the privatisation of public assets. The effects on women’s access to basic services and assets, such as water, electricity, health care, land, education and housing, are being felt throughout the continent.

The role of the state in Africa is changing. The emerging partnership of states and private capital, exemplified in privatisation, is introducing growing social polarisation and conflicts. The shift from the developmental state to the neo-liberal state has created a narrow, tense and often antagonistic relationship between the state and African women.

African governments have little incentive to preserve women’s rights, and African feminist discourse around democracy and citizenship now has very little influence on policy. Historically, African women have gained whatever progress they have been able to make through the state. The shrinkage of the state, and its inaccessibility, has narrowed the space where African women can articulate their concerns.

Some characteristics of the European right:

It is important that we analyse the European right carefully. There is sometimes a trend in the feminist movement, that has created an intellectual consensus that concludes that the ultra-right is self-evidently and simply fascist and that inquiry into it will only prove what we have always known and understood about the right.

But one generalisation we can make is that the right is very good at global networking. However, apart from this uniting factor, the right is very diverse and multi-faceted. Yet, although the right has many faces, it can also contradict this multiplicity whenever it is convenient.

The right agenda in Europe has common characteristics that vary in form and intensity but nevertheless exist in almost every political manifesto. The right in Europe addresses an ensemble of problems.

  • The globalisation of capital and free trade;
  • The conception of democracy;
  • The increasing internationalisation of culture;
  • Racial suicide;
  • The continued threat of communism & Godless socialism;
  • Illegal immigration;
  • Linguistic multiplicity;
  • Educational degradation;
  • Declining spirituality;
  • Terrorism and crime;
  • Family & moral values.

There is no doubt that the US right has exported a national security model that argues that it is imperative to trade civil liberties and privacy for protection against crime and terrorism. This US model of national security is rooted in the theory of counter-subversion the idea that dissent is caused by outside agitators and lunatic grievances. In this regard then, periodic waves of state repression are justified through fabricated claims that networks of subversives are poised to undermine the government. US-style elections, dominated by the media, have also caught on in Europe, and this has played a part in the rise of the right.

It is a model that favours style over substance, argument over debate, slogans over issues. As such, it aids those politicians who can raise the most funds, as well as right-wing demagogues who use scape-goating to whip up votes.

Indeed, scape-goating – blaming outsiders for everything that is wrong with Europe – has become a very effective strategy. It prevents important historical, social and economic issues being viewed from an international perspective. Instead, right-wing parties have brought with them extreme anti-immigrant and nationalist ideas. The right’s obsession with immigration has become the focus of Europe’s worries and frustrations.
What underlies the concerns that the European right so successfully exploits? In my view, such anxieties are linked to the following trends:

  • The gradual shift in power from nation states to the central authorities in Brussels is causing concerns about national identity and autonomy, and a sense that European national governments are having to accept orders from ‘outside’;
  • Neo-liberal economic reforms, designed to make Europe more competitive in the era of globalisation, are having painful effects on some members of Europe’s working classes;
  • The European Union is increasingly an elitist project, with which ordinary Europeans are out of step. The right feeds on public resentment against political elites in general, and the EC in particular;
  • These anxieties are heightened by the way in which governments have had to tighten their budgets, in order to pass the entry test for the Euro. Within the Eurozone, tight controls on budget deficits and inflation have restricted the ability of social democratic parties to implement social welfare policies.

What is the position of Europe’s right on international trade policies? One element champions is ‘economic nationalism’, characterised by protectionist trade strategies that favour the North. But another promotes free trade, in recognition of the fact that some members of the elite are prospering beyond their dreams in the global economy. To illustrate the apparent paradox, Europe’s business sector finds it expedient to relocate manufacturing to the global South, in order to take advantage of women’s low wages there, while another section of the right deplores the loss of European jobs to low-wage economies.

It is interesting to compare the attitude of the European right towards international trade agreements with that of the populist right in the USA. Both Cotonou Agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are essentially free trade arrangements that have eroded the industrial base of countries in the South. But, just as the European right to a great extent abhors the Cotonou Agreement with Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific regions, so does the US right deplore NAFTA. According to the US right, NAFTA represents a threat to the so-called ‘American Way’, in particular North American culture and work organisation. The right views the NAFTA Agreement as anti-freedom. Is seen by the Right as 1, 200 pages of rules, regulations, laws, fines, commissions that increase bureaucracy for big business and in the words of the US right this is not good for Americans.

European nationalists reproduce these basic arguments. Current corporate mentality is seen as weakening national borders. Both the North American & European right see their economic vitality draining away, into a wilderness of emerging markets, outsourcing, reduced job security and employment rights for their constituencies. Yet their position is deeply hypocritical, because it amounts to advocating protectionism for the North combined with free trade for the South.

Impacts and responses in Africa:

Policy that has profound effects on the day-to-day lives of African women is being developed, not in Africa itself, but in Brussels and Washington. For instance, the Cotonou Agreement is already shaping ‘MAI-like’ investment policies that not only erode African workers’ rights, but also intensify the impact of trade and economic liberalisation on women’s unwaged work, employment and livelihood opportunities. NEPAD, too, embodies a deeply neo-liberal approach, and is not a homegrown strategy. Looking beyond trade policy, African women, particularly in the informal sector, are struggling to survive against a background of cuts in health and social services, privatisation, attempts to limit and control migration, and the rolling-back of the state, linked to an accompanying reassertion of traditional patriarchy.

How are African feminists and social movements responding to all this? Just as the European right is not homogenous, neither is the African political discourse, or even the African feminist movement. There are complexities and diversities in both that resist generalisations. Rather than focussing on these internal differences, I will look at common themes and concerns that have emerged in the last decade. Many of these themes are common to African social movements generally, as well as to feminists in particular:

  • A growing concern around economic liberalism and its impact on economic development. The right is pushing for deeper and faster trade and finance liberalisation. African countries cannot cope with this, nor do they have the necessary social safety nets to protect women;
  • The question of sovereignty, specifically, the way in which the right has pushed policies of privatisation and faster liberalisation around the General Agreement in Trade & Services (GATS). States are losing their ability to resist the negative impact of WTO agreements, including in the area of social spending;
  • It is becoming more difficult for states to be participatory in their decision-making processes. States are less transparent, and women are not able to engage with it as key players. There is a realisation that Africa must discover her cultural heritage in order to reinvent the African state in favour of its peoples;
  • The neo-liberal drive to downsize the labour sector has been highly problematic. Even in countries where workers have legal protection, labour rights are being rolled back, as private capital dictates who does and does not work.

The issue of governance is particular mainstream governance has and is being interrogated by feminists.
The centralisation of governance, which lies at the heart of much of the dissatisfaction, (is) expressed by African social movements:

  • The issue of women’s citizenship, against a background of neo-liberal reform of government institutions and the dominance of the market in the development discourse;
  • The collusion among traditional, colonial and now neo-colonial cultures that shapes women’s exploitation in the labour force;
  • The way capitalism is transforming, restructuring and realigning local production systems, and creating an environment that is deepening political exclusion;
  • Neo-liberalism is ignoring or undermining the legal framework protecting women’s rights, as well as rights enshrined in our constitutions around the provision of basic services: women are paying the price.

At the heart of the critique is a recurring question: Global governance for whose benefit? Should African social movements and feminists accept that the WTO is now the key institution for global governance?

The debate centres on how best to react: in other words, progressive elements in African societies have been forced into a defensive stance. The response of African social movements to the neo-liberal onslaught takes a variety of forms. For instance, in the face of privatisation, they are reclaiming what belongs to them, e.g. land, housing and water rights. They are challenging the way that economic policy takes no account of social needs, for instance, around the issue of income grants.

Other African struggles focus on issues such as evictions, genetically modified organisms, hawkers’ rights and the rights of landless people, all of which express resistance to the neo-liberal agenda. How can feminists in Europe link up with these movements in Africa? We need to:

  • Define clearly who and what we mean when we talk about the European ‘right’;
  • Deconstruct the fears that make the right attractive to European voters;
  • Deconstruct neo-liberalism, an important element in right-wing ideology;
  • Analyse the right’s idea of ‘development’;
  • Analyse the EU and the nature of Europe: how is the European state changing?;
  • Show that there is an alternative, by spelling out our vision of a socially just world;
  • Build new platforms and alliances.

Keynote speech – WIDE consultation – Europe moving to the right – where lie the alternatives for transnational feminism? October 2002.

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