Anybody who has read John Perkins’s book, The Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (or its sequel in title, The New Confessions, published in 2016) can attest to the existence of powerful opposing forces at play, especially in the global South, vying to define the future of humankind.
In his praise for the book, Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek Finance Minister, had this to say:
“When I read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, I could not have known that, some years later, I would be on the receiving end of the type of ‘economic hit’ that Perkins so vividly narrated. This book resonates with my experiences of the brutish methods and gross economic irrationality guiding powerful institutions in their bid to undermine democratic control over economic power. Perkins has, once again, made a substantial contribution to a world that needs whistle-blowers to open its eyes to the true sources of political, social, and economic power.”
Varoufakis’s observations came to mind as South Africa’s Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe, addressed the 3rd Southern Africa Oil and Gas Conference in Cape Town on 13 September 2023. In particular, I found Varoufakis’s reference to “the brutish methods and gross economic irrationality guiding powerful institutions in their bid to undermine democratic control…” most profound.
Mantashe’s was a frank and sober pitch for a balancing act between placing South Africa on a trajectory of growth and development, while keeping within the country’s low carbon emissions target parameters. He spoke lyrically about forces that are hellbent on derailing our country’s development, which go as far as instituting litigation against pre-exploration efforts (seismic surveys), which they mischievously term seismic ‘explosions,’ ostensibly to denote the supposed negative impact of surveys.
Mantashe has been singled out in the media and in other fora as a recalcitrant fossils conservative, for his stance on the need for South Africa to pursue an energy mix of fossils, nuclear, oil and gas and renewables as a means of addressing the country’s energy security challenge. Needless to say; this is the policy of the ANC agreed to at a conference which has been translated into a government programme in the form of the Integrated Resource Plan: 2010-2030 (revised in 2018, re-published in 2019, and now being updated again).
Conveniently, those who want him removed from the mineral resources and energy portfolio have ascribed the energy mix mantra to him, as opposed to the governing ANC. At some point there were even suggestions that he was contradicting President Cyril Ramaphosa on the country’s energy security strategy. This is all an orchestrated plan to create a wedge between them so that the President would either move him to a different portfolio or dismiss him from the national executive altogether. It is also part of the agenda of those who want South Africa to leapfrog from fossils to renewables, without due consideration for the negative impact this would have on our energy-generation capacity as well as those whose livelihoods depend on fossil sources of energy.
Like many other middle-income countries, South Africa is under the microscope of powerful global lobby groups who seemingly have carte blanche to deliberately repurpose their ‘charitable-industrial-complex’, using local NGOs and pressure groups, to dominate the country’s public development discourse and, in the process, set our national agenda. Collectively, these global lobby groups and the local NGOs and pressure groups that they use are the ‘economic hitmen’.
The economic hitmen’s proclivity to resist any efforts by South Africa to leverage oil and gas as part of its developmental mission do so not out of love or consideration for the wellbeing of locals. But rather, it is part of a grand plan to keep South Africa, and the entirety of the global South, from having independent policy making. It is about subjecting the country to the brute political whims of global hegemons, eroding our sovereignty, and perpetuating our economic subjugation – all under the guise of consideration for the local people and the environment.
The IRP base document clearly states that IRP is about the “preferred generation technology required to meet expected demand growth up to 2030. It incorporated government objectives such as affordable electricity, reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, reduced water consumption, diversified electricity generation sources, localisation and regional development”. It further states, “Energy security in the context of this IRP is defined as South Africa developing adequate generation capacity to meet its demand for electricity… [and that the country] continues to pursue a diversified energy mix that reduces reliance on a single or a few primary energy sources.”
South Africa is not the only country to pursue energy mix. The United States has oil reserves equivalent to 4.9 times its annual consumption, meaning that even without imports, the USA would have about five years of oil left (at current consumption levels and excluding unproven reserves). The United Kingdom’s official government forecasts suggest that oil and gas will remain an important and critical part of the country’s energy mix as it transitions to net zero.
Yet, it is somehow impermissible for South Africa to pursue an energy mix strategy by, among other things, leveraging oil and natural gas. The economic hitmen to which I have referred seem to suggest that it is well and good for South Africa to remain trapped in an endless energy supply constraint, with low economic growth rates, low levels of income and high levels of poverty, inequality and general underdevelopment.
The economic hitmen are an emerging and wanton system of undeclared but de facto government with formal coercive powers – as they tend to use our court system to strongarm an elected government into adopting policy positions that are at variance with the aspirations of the population.
In this regard, it may be worthwhile to quote in extenso British academic, Professor Catherine Hall. In her 2002 book, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830-1867, Hall commented on a British Christian missionary who wrote of the people who resided in what later became Nigeria, that, “The entire population stands intellectually at zero”.
She postulated, “The notion of a population ‘intellectually at zero’ depended on the assumption that there were only Western forms of knowledge. Other knowledges, customs and traditions were dangerous or irrelevant, ‘the hereditary advantages’ of Africans non-existent. British missionaries and abolitionists believed that Africans had been literally born anew in the dual moments of emancipation and conversion. They had to begin from the beginning, learn everything…The negroes came from nowhere and carried nothing with them. Africa was vacant.“
The import of Professor Hall’s postulation, and in the context of the resistance to oil and gas exploration of which Mantashe spoke, is that local communities in South Africa and elsewhere in the global South, have no sense of what they want, what kind of development they need, and how they should realise it; that only a well-resourced foreign funder can and must dictate to them what is truly in their best interest.
In these circumstances, the battle of ideas about the kind of development that locals need becomes a battle between an elected government (which in truth carries the mandate of the people) and the well-to-do elite in the countries of the Northern Hemisphere. The latter tends to find local NGOs and pressure groups to engage in the battle on their behalf.
One of the most common weapons that economic hitmen use is money – large sums of it – to buy political power and capture policy making. They bribe and co-opt leaders they consider to be a hindrance to the pursuit of their agenda. Perhaps they have not been successful with Mantashe.
The other is a gamut of slurs and slander to weaken those, like Mantashe, who dare to contest the prevailing narrative that exploration is bad for local people and the environment. They are ridiculed and called many derogatory names. For his part, Mantashe’s standing and worth in the estimation of the ANC, government, and the South African society is being deliberately diminished, so that he can be seen just as a plunderer-in-waiting of the largesse of oil and gas, just as he has been deliberately linked (albeit with no evidence thus far) to many coal supply-related corruption scandals, and as environment’s Number One enemy.
The worst measure that economic hitmen devise is brutal; they remove leaders from their positions of influence and annihilate their legacy, as they have done in many parts of the world. As Perkins forcefully recounts in his book, economic hitmen have literally killed those who dare to oppose them, they have orchestrated many forms of coup d’état, and effected regime change. Iran, Indonesia, Ecuador, Panama, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burkina Faso are some of the countries which have had direct and brutish experiences with economic hitmen.
It is thus not unthinkable that Mantashe’s very life may be in danger from these economic hitmen, the same way that former President Thabo Mbeki became a target of Big Pharma for his stance – whether right or wrong – on HIV/AIDS, and of some Western countries because of his insistence on African solutions in Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali and South Sudan, among others. There is anecdotal evidence that Mbeki was dislodged from the ANC leadership and hounded out of the Union Buildings by the systematic convergence of certain national elements and international forces, including Big Pharma.
Given the vast wealth that oil and gas would unleash for South Africa, leaders like Mantashe are being targeted.
Petroleum Agency South Africa estimates that South Africa’s coast and adjoining waters have possible resources of 27 billion barrels (bbls) and 60 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of prospective oil and gas resources on the south, west, and east coasts. Combined, these can give South Africans hundreds of years of consumption.
Just as the first diamond and gold discoveries between 1867 and 1886 transformed the profile of the South African economy, so too can oil and gas propel our country into a 21st century high-income earner. Our oil and gas resources can go a long way to support efforts to capacitate the state and other economic players to drive national development. These resources are an important lever to lessen South Africa’s dependence on foreign markets for accessing oil and gas. They can also improve our balance of payments via less imports, as oil and gas imports make up a significant portion of our foreign account.
It would therefore be an extremely idle and dangerous delusion to pretend that this discovery of potential wealth will not put us on a collision course with those opposed to our possible emergence as a force to be reckoned with in the global economy and body politic. Thus, the challenge to define what our future should look like will remain a contested and bruising affair.
Through their economic muscle, the economic hitmen seek to occupy every available public platform, and in particular the mainstream media, to assert their dominance. It is therefore important, to provide alternative information to the public to juxtapose the data available to them for their benefit against the sponsored information of the economic hitmen, which is churned out to the detriment of our sovereignty and much-needed economic development.
We owe it to ourselves to jealously guard our space, even if it means publicly siding with Mantashe for honestly and faithfully defending our sovereignty, so that we create more policy independence for our country and craft development strategies without too much external interference.
Itumeleng Makgetla is an Independent Political and Public Policy Analyst