Free trade fiction & crumbs of hope By Terry Bell

16 June 2019 — Terry Bell Writes

As the world continues to stagger through ongoing social and economic instability, crumbs of hope are still being tossed to increasingly restive and increasingly unemployed working people. The latest large crumb concerning Africa comes in the form of the loudly trumpeted free trade zone.

Most of the continent’s 55 member states which, together, share a population of 1.22 billion, have now signed on to what the African Union hopes will become a market worth(R37.5 trillion). These are massive figures that, at the same time, stir memories of many pan African dreams of yesteryear.

But those dreams, as with others around the world that resulted in the arrival of new nation states, were part of the great post world war 2 insistence on democracy and freedom. The demand was for an end to wars, exploitation and oppression; for a fair and just world.

It was a time, as one writer noted, when the spectre of a world that could be free loomed large. It never happened. New countries emerged, each with their own elites, the right to vote was won, but the fundamental inequalities, and injustices persisted.

Then, in the decades following that last global conflict, the claw-back began in the name of global free trade. Privatised state entities, the free movement of goods, capital, profits, dividends and investments would be the answer to a better life for all.

Missing from this claim is one word: fair. And while working people were supposed to gain from the trickled down wealth of the rich, their freedom of movement was curtailed.

Of course, a borderless, united Africa would be a great advance. But only if it was based on fairness, on the democratic control by citizens of matters that affect them, of equal pay and conditions and the right to move.

Now with a putative African free trade zone on the cards, we are often encouraged, to look to the European Union (EU) as an example. We should look to the EU, but to draw the right conclusions.

The major economies of the EU owe much of their wealth to the exploitation of regions such as Africa. For centuries a free flow of resources, of capital, has gone north to Europe.

This exploitation, continues and is a significant factor in the devastation that is causing the northward migration by desperate Africans. But while capital may move where it will, working people may not: thousands have already died in the waters of the Mediterranean.

However, the economic crisis also affects the countries of the EU where unemployment and homelessness is growing. So too are calls to racially infused patriotism and nationalism as Britain tries to exit the EU and others rally to the union.

It is a classic case of “a hostile band of brothers” battling, sometimes viciously and destructively, with one another, but always in the interests of maintaining the economic system. Crucial to this is is the need to try to deflect EU workers from their common interests with workers everywhere.

However, there are already signs that working people are starting to see through the myth that the present system can be reformed. It has been a hard lesson. Students and workers who staged the “Egyptian Spring”, for example, sought reform by removing Hosni Mubarak and ended up with a worse tyrant in Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Today the protesting masses of Sudan have ignored the blandishments of the military. They want the majority to have direct, democratic, control of matters that affect them.

This struggle may only partially succeed or may be drowned in blood, but it has set an example.

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