THE EARTH Summit in Johannesburg is generally agreed to have been an enormous flop. There is also widespread agreement about the cause. The United States and the other leading capitalist states refused to budge from their free market agenda.
There are other explanations. According to Malcolm Dean, writing in the Guardian's Society section last week, 'The Earth Summit suggests the emergence of a new civil society. One of the biggest contingents was the 20,000 delegates registered by 3,000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from 120 states. 'Yet on almost every front the summit has ended in disappointment.'
The reason lies, according to Dean, in the nature of NGOs like Greenpeace and Oxfam: 'They are not driven by their members, but by the professionals and specialist advisers back at head office. Politicians can ignore such organisations.' NGOs that are run from the top and willing to fit into a media-driven political agenda shaped by the interests of big business can be ignored or co-opted. Many of the NGO delegates were excluded from the Johannesburg conference centre to make room for corporate interests.
There was an alternative focus in Johannesburg. This was represented by the coalition of mainly South African social movements that organised a series of protests against the neo-liberal agenda culminating in a 25,000-strong demonstration on 31 August. This has to be set in context. The government of President Thabo Mbeki is still based on the Tripartite Alliance - the African National Congress (ANC), the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party - that brought apartheid to an end in 1994. Mbeki is firmly committed to neo-liberal policies, dressed up as the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). The ANC mobilised to isolate and weaken the 31 August protest, including organising its own march.
In the event, only between 2,000 and 5,000 people took part in this rival pro-government march. The Johannesburg Weekly Mail and Guardian commented: 'The success of the social movements march does highlight a new war for the allegiance of the urban poor, rural landless and others who have not benefited from the government's transformation agenda. That this was likely the largest anti-government protest since 1994 confirms that the ANC is losing at least some battles on what used to be its own turf.'
The forces behind this protest are very different from the NGOs. Chief among them are the Anti-Privatisation Forum, which has been in the forefront of opposition to Mbeki's policies, and the Landless People's Movement. This is a coalition of forces very similar to those behind the development of the anti-capitalist movement in Europe and the Americas. Many of the same debates go on, for example, between socialists who stress the role of the organised working class and autonomists who counterpose the actions of small minorities.
Nor is it true that the politicians simply ignore what the activists are saying. One of the most remarkable moments at the Johannesburg conference came when President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe obtained a standing ovation. The British media focused on Mugabe's attack on Tony Blair. But Mugabe also developed a critique of globalisation and of the neo-liberal policies being imposed by the West.
Of course the old hypocrite doesn't really care about the plight of the world's poor, any more than he really wants to emancipate the landless in Zimbabwe. Mugabe is a very clever politician who recognises that there is a worldwide upsurge against neo-liberalism. He is unlikely to be the last ruling class figure, North as well as South, who will try to exploit this movement for his own interests. Johannesburg was an important stage in the development of the anti-capitalist movement. It provided another demonstration that this movement really is global.
The next step will come with the first European Social Forum, when it meets in Florence on 7-9 November. This will be an opportunity for the movement in Europe to hammer out its strategy for new challenges, above all the coming war with Iraq and the G8 summit in France next year.