A double agent enters the Cold War in South Africa


Union protesters rallied outside the May 9 meeting of an antitrust tribunal in Tshwane (Pretoria) that had just begun hearings into Wal-Mart’s proposed takeover of local wholesaler Massmart.

AFP/Newscom

When Mr Gorbachev tore down that wall, the world started a new decade, the last of the 20th century without a cold war; the Cold War had lasted over 40 years.  It had framed and defined most, if not all, international relationships, drove the economies of the United States and the Soviet Union through military and financial aid spending.  It also framed the future; no one on the planet could safely contemplate a long-term future.  The future was at risk in the battle for control of the non-aligned world and the ideological soul of every person in the world; at any moment that war could have burst into flame and possibly even destroyed all of human society.  The Berlin Wall was a symbol of the Soviet states;  the fall of the wall also symbolized the fall of the soviet states.  Without the  communist block to create the dynamic tensions with the western powers  the world could breathe a sight of relief.  For the first time since the end of the Second World War, a world war that threatened the planet did not appear to be an immediate possibility.

The Cold War was fought on several fronts; it was fought on the military front in the form of an arms race, where each side tried to keep ahead of the other in military and nuclear power.  The Cold War was also fought in the non-aligned world, as each side tried to convert the non-aligned nations to their side.  That front included military and economic aid and capital investment.  The Middle East was the primary battle ground, but Africa was also part of the war, as was Southeast Asia and even South and Central America.   No one was safe from the pressure of the competition between the “West” and the “East.”

It was not all negative, not all of the money spent by the major powers in those regions was spent on the military, nor did it all fall into hands of corrupt politicians; some went to economical development that helped the average citizen. When the Cold War ended its strategies did not all go away, the United States and some European countries are still trying to buy political alignment with economic aid – at the moment, in  the Middle East it is being highlighted by current events.

Off to the side during the Cold War and today, is Africa; not since the 19th century has Africa been the primary focus of the major powers, but it had never been totally neglected either.  In the last few years, quietly Africa has become a second front in an undeclared, economic war, not unlike the old cold war.  China has been at work in Africa building its base of influence with trade agreements and economic investments.  As we speak, Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China, is on tour in South Africa.  The Chinese navy dropped by to share its knowledge of dealing with pirates, but the primary purpose was economic.  According to the Chinese People’s Daily “Zhong said the two countries helped one another through the global financial crisis in 2009, and China became South Africa’s biggest trade partner as bilateral trade hit a historic high of more than 16 billion U.S. dollars that year, while trade in 2010 exceeded 20 billion U.S. dollars. In addition, a number of powerful Chinese enterprises, including Industrial Commercial Bank of China, Sinosteel Corporation and Huawei, set up shop in South Africa and have become important forces for the local economy.”

Not to be outdone, we are sending in one of our major strike-forces – Wal-Mart.  Of course, the company makes its own decisions and is not an arm of the government of the United States, but it does bring our values and business practices.   Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and Starbucks are seen in the rest of the world as being representative of “American values” and as such are sometimes welcomed and sometimes not.  In South Africa there is a protest movement underway, resenting a proposed takeover of Massmart, the South Africa equivalent of Wal-Mart by Wal-Mart.  And here we find the irony – the protest focuses on foreign ownership of a South African business and the sale of cheaper goods made in – yep, you guessed it – China.  So is Wal-Mart really a secret agent of China, a kind of economic double agent?

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