When Nelson Mandela walked from prison seven years ago, it marked the success of one of the biggest grassroots international campaigns. Working together, we freed Nelson Mandela.
It also marked the beginning of a remarkable period of reconciliation and forgiveness. South Africans are working together to build a new and fairer nation, and to redress the heritage of nearly a century of apartheid. Most important, South Africans have decided that the best way to build and to move forward is to forgive the crimes committed by the apartheid and not to dwell on the past.
One group has refused to forgive, however — the international bankers.
When Mandela became president, they presented him with a bill for more than £10,000 million. In effect, the bankers said to Mandela: “It was expensive to keep you in prison, sir. It cost a lot to maintain apartheid, to keep white rule, to suppress the majority. The apartheid government borrowed a lot in order to get round international sanctions and import the oil and arms needed to keep you on Robbin Island.”
And the bankers went on: “In 1985 we were very understanding. We realised the high cost of maintaining apartheid, and we agreed that the white government could temporarily stop making debt repayments. But now that South Africa has majority rule, the bill must be paid.”
The majority government is expected to repay the debts run up by the apartheid state and which the bankers never tried to collect from the white minority. That £10,000 million would pay a large part of the African National Congress’s Reconstruction and Development Programme, providing houses, water, electricity and schools for most South Africans.
But the international bankers do not care about redressing the heritage of apartheid. They do not care if tens of thousands of South Africans live in shacks in squatter settlements. Instead, the banks want back the money they lent to white South Africa to help it keep Mandela in jail.
White South Africa used some of those loans to wage an horrific war of destabilisation against neighbouring Mozambique, in which 1 million people died and half of the schools, health centres and rural shops were destroyed. One third of the entire population was forced to flee their homes. To survive, Mozambique borrowed money. It now owes more than
£3000 million — most of that being interest on money borrowed to defend against the apartheid onslaught.
Now the bankers are demanding their money. Because of the apartheid war, Mozambique is the second poorest country in the world. This year it will pay £150 million in debt service and only spend £90 million repairing war damage. This year, 650,000 Mozambican children are not in school, because there is no money to repair the schools and nothing to pay the teachers. But the international bankers do not care about children growing up illiterate, so long as the debts are paid.
Apartheid is over, and the wars in southern Africa have ended. But Mozambicans and South Africans are still paying the price. An entire new generation who cannot remember apartheid cannot go to school and suffer poor health and squalid housing because Mozambique and South Africa must pay the apartheid debt before they rebuild.
There is a concept in international law known as “odious debt” — that is, debt which was imposed on people by force of arms and without their consent, and which cannot in law be collected. As early as 1982, lawyers of US banks were privately warning that a majority government in South Africa could refuse to pay money loaned to the apartheid state.
In fact, South Africa and Mozambique have not repudiated their debts. But it is surely immoral to ask ordinary Mozambicans and South Africans to pay for the war the white minority waged against them. Surely this is a debt which should be forgiven.
Nelson Mandela is not free so long as he and other South Africans are expected to pay the cost of his imprisonment. Mozambicans are not free if they cannot rebuild the damage wrought to their nation by apartheid.
We joined together to create a massive international campaign to free Nelson Mandela from jail. Let us create a new campaign to free Nelson Mandela from the prison of debt.
Joseph Hanlon was the coordinator of the Commonwealth Independent Expert Committee on Sanctions Against South Africa.
Joseph Hanlon, Jubilee 2000 UK, April 20, 1999