TCS Daily

'A Fairer World'

By James Pinkerton - August 29, 2002 12:00 AM

JOHANNESBURG - The biggest rally I've seen here at the World Summit on Sustainable Development was a protest in favor of free markets. No, it wasn't the Fortune 500; it was several hundred "hawkers" - street peddlers struggling for the right to sell their wares in the teeth of a local bureaucracy that would rather keep them out of sight. They sang in Zulu: "Even if we die, we're not going anywhere."

OK, that's one group seeking the freedom to make a living. But the hawkers' market-oriented message is echoed in the newspaper Sowetan. That's as in Soweto, the "township" southwest of Jo'burg where the cycle of protests that ended apartheid began in 1976. So what do post-revolutionary Africans think about world markets? One indicator is an op-ed by Thoko Didiza, the government's minister of agriculture and land affairs, which ran on Tuesday. Under the ominous headline, "Trade Rules Bring Threat of Famine," Didiza laid out her solution.

"In a fairer world," she wrote, "countries would produce goods that would give them a comparable advantage in exporting." That is, "In theory, industrialized countries should manufacture and process goods for export and developing countries should supply the raw materials at fair prices." That's a theory with a history that traces back to the father of free-market economics, Adam Smith.

In his 1776 landmark, "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations," Smith argued, "If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage." This idea of "comparative advantage" is the core of market capitalism: If one person produces milk and the other person produces breakfast cereal, they are both better off if they trade their products.

But theory aside, Didiza continued, the unfortunate reality is that "the hegemonic powers dominate the export market on basic staple foods because the farming sector is highly subsidized by their governments." What was needed, she concluded, was the "phasing out" of such rich-country subsidies, so that poor nations can get into the world market with their foodstuffs - exactly the prescription that Smith would have ordered.

Lotsa luck. As World Bank Vice President Ian Johnson observed, agricultural subsidies by the "North" - including the United States, which this year ramped up its own farm program - amount to $350 billion a year. By contrast, total development aid to the "South" is about $50 billion. In other words, the North spends seven times more on its own farmers than it does on the poor of the Third World.

To be sure, South Africans are not doctrinaire libertarians. Rather, they are desperate. As South African President Thabo Mbeki declared, "A global human society based on poverty for many and prosperity for a few is unsustainable." So Mbeki calls for more aid, even as his agriculture minister wants more trade - anything that helps.

Which brings up another question: Are the foreign protesters here helping? Sowetan editorialized its answer, "The anti-globalizers are very good at pointing out the ills of the present capitalist system. But their solutions are suspect." That is, "They claim to represent the poor," the paper opined, but "their only bosses appear to be the prime-time news bulletins." Who, for example, was Greenpeace assisting when it trespassed the Koeberg nuclear reactor to hang a banner proclaiming, "Nukes out of Africa"? The government's safety and security minister, Charles Nqakula, warned against future disruptions: "We will act very firmly against any anybody who wants to undermine the laws of this country."

The same spirit is visible in a Sowetan cartoon strip, "Jojo." A woman is asleep in bed, tossing and turning. When she wakes up, her husband says, "It's OK, Rosie, you were having another one of those vivid dreams where you welcome visitors to South Africa." She replies, "And

Right-wing Northerners say South Africa needs trade, not aid. Left-wing Northerners say it needs aid, not trade. South Africans themselves - the hawkers, as well as Didiza and Mbeki - say they need both, at the same time. But few in the North are really listening to them, hearing both messages.



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