Monday, 19 November 2007

Monday 19 November

From Vicky, WDM:

It’s now Monday and most of the Africa Water Network delegates have left. I’m staying on just for a day or two more to do a bit of research and to talk to a few other South African activists.

Lebohang Pheku works for the Trade and Gender Network and I meet her just before she heads off for Botswana to track the ongoing negotiations on EPAs (Economic Partnership Agreements) that the EU wants to sign with countries in Africa and the Caribbean. I show her some of the evidence which WDM has been collecting about the impacts of the 1999 free trade agreement between the EU and South Africa.

We’ve found that the South African producers of processed fruits, agricultural products and textiles or garments have been especially badly hit by the reduction in import duties on EU goods coming in. She points out that women are heavily employed in these industries – working in clothing factories or on farms, mostly as low-skilled workers.

She spoke of one case that she knew where one garment factory worker worked in 6 factories in 5 years – not through choice – but because the textiles sector has been so weakened in recent years. This is partly through cheap imports of clothes from places like China, but the reduction of tariffs on EU-exported clothes can’t have helped either.

“Also hit”, she said, “has been the wine sector which has taken a heavy beating in recent years. Again, this is a sector which predominantly employs women and the crisis facing the SA wine industry has impacted negatively in terms of labour rights and standards as well as overall employment levels. This is an industry which is already full of inequalities eg. over land, and these power deficits are now being reinforced.”

When I tell her that the EU wants to open up markets in other countries like India, Korean and those in Latin America, like they have done in SA, she says “Free trade agreements are evil and must be stopped. Don’t sign!”

Next I meet up with Trevor Ngwane from the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee. Trevor talks about how the SECC was formed in 2000 on the model of the Education Crisis Committee in the 1980s which raised consciousness and mobilised young people losing educational opportunities during apartheid.

SECC is part of the Anti-Privatisation Forum and they have had a major programme to informally re-connect those cut-off from electricity because they can’t afford the bills. The system is very iniquitous – big industry uses up 85 per cent of the electricity but pays a fraction of the costs that households pay. At one point in the early years, 20,000 people a month were being cut off!

“Poverty is at the heart of this matter, where the poor pay more than the rich!”

Far fewer disconnections take place now as the SECC’s Operation Khanyisa (turn on the light) has successfully demanded a wipe-out of previous debts and an improved tariff structure by the provider ESKOM. This struggle is part of the many struggles, especially in Soweto other black townships, to bring housing, education, water and electricity services to the black townships.

Now it’s Monday night and I have just a couple more meetings with people before heading back. Jo’burg and South Africa ore generally are places in flux and there is a lot of disaffection and disappointment with the African National Congress leadership of the country.

I asked Trevor’s colleague Zanele Bheneki if she was positive for the future of her country, “Yes, most definitely” she said. “We are winning the arguments and change is happening. It takes time, but we are winning.”

Viva South Africa, Viva!

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