Although I will have some critical comments to make about the mindset that went into the making of the documentary “We Are Together”, I strongly urge everyone to see this totally affecting documentary now playing at the Cinema Village in New York. It tells the story of an orphanage in South Africa made up of children who have lost parents to the AIDS epidemic. In order to cope with their losses and also to connect to the outside world, they take part in traditional choral singing of the kind that Ladysmith Black Mambazo made famous.
The children live at the Agape orphanage, which was founded by Gogo “Grandma” Zodwa. When she was working as an HIV counselor, she found that many of her clients were worried about what would happen to their children when they were gone. So she established Agape to look after these children.
One of these children, a featured singer in the chorus, is a 12 year old girl named Slindile Moya who is really the star of the movie. With a smile that lights up the entire screen when she is on camera, you marvel at her ability to endure such a hard life. Not only has she lost both parents, her brother is sick with AIDS and dies during the movie. During the burial ceremony, Slindile and her siblings, both those living with her at the orphanage and those old enough to look after themselves, console each other with a beautiful hymn about the eternal life to come. Until every human being lives in a world free from poverty and horrible diseases like AIDS, it is understandable that religion will continue to provide solace against a heartless world.
Like an old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movie, “We are Together” is about children performing in order to save the day. In movies like “Babes in Arms”, Rooney and Garland put on a show to help their unemployed parents. In “We are Together”, the kids use their singing talents to raise money to replace Agape, which has been destroyed by fire during the filming. A trip to New York puts them in touch with singers Alicia Keys and Paul Simon who perform in a benefit with them. The movie has a happy ending with a new orphanage much larger and better equipped than the original Agape.
Nearly 20 years ago I saw a musical called “Sarafina” on Broadway that featured the same kind of music that you can hear in “We are Together”. “Sarafina” was the name of the main character, a girl about Slindile’s age who took part in the Soweto uprising. The music and the politics were enormously uplifting.
Two years later I found myself in Lusaka, Zambia meeting with leaders of the African National Congress who were still in exile, not including those like Nelson Mandela who were still in prison. One of the leaders we met with was Thabo Mbeki, the current president of South Africa.
Unfortunately, the spirit that animated “Sarafina” soon disappeared from the ANC like air from a punctured balloon. The rebelliousness of the Soweto slums continued as the ANC found ways to maintain the social divisions of the past under a post-apartheid framework. Instead of marching in the streets to demand an end to apartheid, the poor focus on the right to have water to drink and proper medical care, including protection against the ravages of AIDS.
When confronted by the challenge to lift up the poor, Mbeki failed miserably. He was content to open up the doors of the millionaire’s life style to long-time activists in the ANC rather than to break them down entirely as most people expected in 1988.
As disappointing as the ANC has been in reducing inequality, Mbeki’s role in allowing AIDS to maintain its grip on the population has even been worse. For most of his entire presidency, Mbeki was one of the world’s most prominent AIDS denialists. Even when he was forced to back down from this shocking and dangerous stance, he still demonstrates an unwillingness to come to terms with the epidemic. The latest incident involves his firing of Deputy Health Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge who spearheaded the HIV/AIDS national strategic plan and who is a member of the South African Communist Party.
Patrick Bond, a South African-based academic and activist, has written eloquently about Mbeki’s mishandling of the AIDS epidemic in a Foreign Policy in Focus article titled “Thabo Mbeki’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development: Breaking or Shining the Chains of Global Apartheid?“:
But the primary contradiction involved the regime in Pretoria. In February 2004, TAC attacked President Thabo Mbeki in the wake of more government prevarication on AIDS treatment. Claiming that Mbeki ‘misrepresented facts and once again caused confusion on HIV/AIDS’ on national television, TAC’s Zackie Achmat accused him of ‘denialism.’ Moreover, Pretoria had originally promised to distribute AIDS medicines to at least 50,000 people within a year, and to reach everyone in need of treatment within five years. Tshabalala-Msimang blamed slow drug procurement – Pretoria’s own fault – and the lack of qualified health personnel. TAC strategist Mark Heywood commented, ‘Many hospitals have the capacity, they just don’t have the medicines.’ The finance ministry also cut the budget dramatically for medicine purchases in February 2004.
At the same time, Tshabalala-Msimang suggested that while HIV-positive people waited for medicines, a diet of lemons, beetroot, (extremely expensive), olive oil and garlic would improve the body’s immune system. A week earlier, the minister had come under fire by the SA Medical Association, whose chairperson Dr Kgosi Letlape accused her of ‘dividing the profession when we have gone to great lengths to unite it.’ The minister unsuccessfully attempted to halt a protest march of 2,000 medics against poor conditions in public health facilities by implying that the demonstrating doctors were white, whereas black medics supported the government.
Now one can’t blame the makers of “We are Together” for ignoring this dimension of the unfolding health tragedy in South Africa, but surely they are obligated to think through the question of whether charity is the answer to the continent’s problems. For every success story like the new Agape orphanage, there are countless other sacrifices at the altar of neoliberalism.
In the concluding credits of “We are Together”, the viewer is advised to support a group called the One Campaign that is involved in a “campaign to make poverty history” as their website states. One is just the latest in a series of campaigns that seeks to raise money from wealthy donors and the average citizen in the West on behalf of the world’s poor, especially in Africa which has excited the interest of celebrities like Bono, Angela Jolie, and Jennifer Anniston.
One is a coalition of some of the world’s largest donor organizations like CARE and Oxfam, as well as major Christian and Jewish social service agencies. It receives major funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Some of the Christian groups aligned with the One Campaign are in it to pursue missionary goals, packaging sermons with their food and medicine handouts.
Bill Gates believes that Africa will lift itself up from poverty by using new technology, presumably from Microsoft. On July 11, 2006 he announced some new initiatives with NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, that was largely the brainchild of Thabo Mbeki.
As part of his keynote, Gates also highlighted the necessity for communities to deal with the workplace of the future and the importance of education. Microsoft joined NEPAD’s Information Society Partnership for Africa’s Development (ISPAD) Initiative as a foundation partner and platinum member in December 2003 and is an active participant in the e-Schools Initiative. Microsoft is leading a consortium of industry partners to support 25 schools in eight African countries — Cameroon, Kenya, Lesotho, Mauritius, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda and Senegal — with a PC lab per school, software, teacher training, networking, connectivity, maintenance and support.
“This is the first time that African governments, NEPAD and the private sector are cooperating on an ICT project of this scale and scope in the NEPAD framework, developed and driven by Africans, and for African people”, said Dr Henry Chasia, Deputy Executive Chairperson for the NEPAD e-Africa Commission. “This technology will enable young people to tap into the global mainstream of information and knowledge, where they will learn and play, expand their imagination and creativity, collaborate with peers across the African continent and across the world, and generally participate in defining the future of their world.”
Returning once again to Patrick Bond’s article, we find a useful corrective to Bill Gates’s Pollyanna notions of Africa joining the G8 nations aloft on the wings of a Windows Vista operating system.
Thus even though, symptomatically perhaps, power relations are skewed, the driving force of globalization boils down, in Mbeki’s neutral story, to little more than technological determinism. According to NEPAD: “The current economic revolution has, in part, been made possible by advances in information and communications technology (ICT)… We readily admit that globalization is a product of scientific and technological advances, many of which have been market-driven.”
The technology-centric “admission” is fundamentally apolitical and disguises the reality of dramatic changes in class relations, especially the resurgent power of U.S. and EU capital in relation to working classes there and across the world (as reflected in stronger state-corporate “partnerships” and the decline of the social wage during the Reagan, Thatcher, and Kohl administrations). Ironically, in contrast, a far more insightful explanation of globalization came from the ruling party of South Africa in October 1998, at a time when it needed to engage in left-wing rhetoric so as to pull its political alliance (with trade unions and communists) together in preparation for a forthcoming national election:
The present crisis is, in fact, a global capitalist crisis, rooted in a classical crisis of overaccumulation and declining profitability. Declining profitability has been a general feature of the most developed economies over the last 25 years. It is precisely declining profitability in the most advanced economies that has spurred the last quarter of a century of intensified globalization. These trends have resulted in the greatly increased dominance (and exponential growth in the sheer quantity) of speculative finance capital, ranging uncontrolled over the globe in pursuit of higher returns.
If this assessment is valid, then in addition to technological change–which facilitated but did not cause or catalyze globalization–the more fundamental factors would include:
* profound changes in the incentive structure of investments, especially the decline in manufacturing profits during the late 1960s and, consequently, the geographical search for new markets and cheaper inputs and a switch by many major firms of productive reinvestment into financial assets;
* institutional factors associated with financial sector deregulation, concentration, and centralization, which permitted banks and other financiers to escape national boundaries and search out far-flung borrowers;
* the decaying power of nation-states and the increased power of the Bretton Woods institutions and trade agencies; and
* shortened investor time horizons.
All of these factors can, and should be, reversed. None are inevitable. Tellingly, none are even mentioned in NEPAD. The analysis, thus, is wanting–and so too are the mildly reformist strategies that Mbeki subsequently endorses.
Notwithstanding these objections to the broader policy issues that frame the human tragedy depicted in “We are Together”, I once again urge you to see the movie at the Cinema Village or order the DVD from the film’s website (as well as the CD that contains the great music you can hear throughout the film).