Officials of the United Nations and the host South African government looking hard in the mirror this weekend will have to judge the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) a failure. The only remarkable step forward for human and environmental progress taken in the ultra-bourgeois Johannesburg suburb of Sandton was the widespread adoption of the idea of “global apartheid,” at President Thabo Mbeki’s suggestion.

Anyone contemplating this phrase immediately identifies not a natural condition of rational economic relationships, but instead a structured system of oppression. How else do the globe’s winners advance, if not because of the economic and political chains holding down the poor, the women, the people with darker skins?

The chains of global apartheid are unaccountable institutions, which came under intense criticism over the past two weeks: the World Trade Organization (WTO), World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and multinational corporations. Because of the power these undemocratic institutions wield, most WSSD plans to address poverty and ecological degradation will actually amplify the world’s problems.

Vandana Shiva described the outcome simply: “What happened in Johannesburg amounts to a privatization of the Earth, an auction house in which the rights of the poor were given away.” Friends of the Earth cited backsliding on the Convention on Biological Diversity. Complained the NGO Energy and Climate Caucus, “The agreement on energy is an outright disaster, with the dropping of all targets and timetables.” The Gaia Foundation called the final summit document “an incredibly weak agreement.” Australian Green Party senator Bob Brown concluded, “like ostriches, the wealthy nations have stuck their heads into the sand and have let down the next generation in an appalling way.” Even the establishment NGO Oxfam called the WSSD “a triumph for greed and self-interest, a tragedy for the poor and environment.”

In the five key fields of water, energy, healthcare, agriculture, and biodiversity, the Geneva-based WTO considers essential state services to be, simply, typical commodities. Pushed hardest by the European Union and U.S., the WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services aims to open up South African and all Third World markets for penetration by privatizing firms.

Those firms’ record in South Africa and elsewhere has been abysmal, and in the case of the Paris-based Suez water company, which runs Johannesburg’s system, the ongoing refusal to install humane sanitation systems is already contributing to dangerously high counts of the deadly E.Coli bacteria, even in the Sandton water table. And in its main South African pilot project, Nkonkobe, Suez was thrown out by the mayor last year for failing to serve the poor: the hated bucket system–in which excrement is physically collected in unsanitary small pails by municipal workers each morning–is still in place eight years after Suez took over the town’s water provision.

Yet the WSSD continued to promote Public-Private (or “Type 2”) Partnerships as a privatized replacement for intergovernmental agreements and actions. Meaningful environmental agreements have been scarce since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, and global elites appear to have given up on each other. Veteran bureaucrat Kofi Annan, who since Rio has permitted an unprecedented transnational corporate takeover of the United Nations through the so-called Global Compact, advanced the argument that if poor countries are more open to trade of this sort, the poor will benefit.

This is a misperception also advanced strongly in Pretoria, especially by trade and industry minister Alec Erwin. In May, the main official in South Africa’s environment ministry and local manager of the WSSD, Chippy Olver, confirmed to me that removing European agricultural subsidies was South Africa’s main goal for the WSSD. Aside from yet another non-binding political declaration to lower subsidies, no progress can be reported.

But what if a breakthrough had occurred? Would the strategy of allowing further corporate domination of our economies, for the sake of free trade, eventually trickle benefits down to the poor? Critics argue that, to the contrary, increasing globalization is the core reason for growing poverty, inequality, and environmental damage.

We can illustrate with an example that many of us enjoy every morning: a cup of coffee. When South Africa became free in 1994, the world market price of coffee was $1.82 a pound. Today, it’s just $0.47, for the simple reason that all Third World countries have been pushed by the WTO, IMF, and World Bank to export more, particularly so as to repay debt often inherited from previous dictatorial regimes.

The coffee price at the supermarket has not come down, however, nor have the profits enjoyed by the main packagers and distributors–Proctor&Gamble, Philip Morris, Sara Lee, and Nestle–which control 40% of the world market. These middle-men rake off 85% of the $55 billion in annual world sales. Misery for coffee workers has increased, with a recent International Migration Organization study recording that 70% of Guatamalan coffee sector workers intend to migrate to the U.S.–illegally–because of the price crash.

Competition amongst the lowest-paid people in the world is intensifying. At the very bottom, Vietnam raised its share of world coffee output from 1.2% to 12.3% during the 1990s. Huge areas of tropical forest required by humanity and nature for the sake of biodiversity have been sacrificed so wretched Third World countries can export coffee and similar products, mainly so as to service foreign debt.

The Third World’s tendency to overproduce, thus flooding markets and driving down prices of cash crops and minerals, is the main structural feature of world trade. Repaying the debt is the main catalyst. The WTO, IMF, and World Bank are the guiding forces. Multinational corporations are the main beneficiaries. Low-income people and the environment are the victims. This is global apartheid.

Ending European and U.S. agricultural subsidies will do nothing substantial to change the structural features of global apartheid, unfortunately. Last week, even Bank economist Branko Milanovic admitted that 1990s trade liberalization by countries with incomes of less than $5,000 per person per year (including South Africa) increased internal inequality. According to Milanovic, “at very low average income level, it is the rich who benefit from openness. It seems that openness makes income distribution worse before making it better.”

On the civil society front, the WSSD’s other important feature was the global-local linkage of protests against privatization and services disconnections, landlessness, and many other neoliberal development policies that Pretoria has adopted since 1994, partly at the behest of the World Bank. August 31 was the major day for protest. In contrast to the smaller (5,000-person) rally addressed by Mbeki, the unprecedented 7-mile march of 20,000 local and international activists from the impoverished Alexandra township to Sandton, against both the WSSD and government, showed the depth of popular anger.

Total disrespect was shown by workers, the unemployed, and the rural poor for Mbeki’s envoy, minister Essop Pahad, who was denied by acclaim the opportunity to address the protest rally. The same sentiment emerged against U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell at the Summit’s final session on Wednesday, led by progressive U.S. NGOs and joined by delegates from most countries: “Bush, Shame, Bush, Shame!” The hearty heckling of Powell comes on the eve of a U.S. attack against Iraq, and reflects frustration at countless other infringements of international agreements on environment and development.

Both locally in South Africa and globally, critics say, the ruling elites remain intent not on breaking the chains of global apartheid, but on polishing them.

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