Op-Ed: G20 protests are symptomatic

Posted on July 26, 2017


For the umpteenth time, the G20 Summit was marred by protests on the streets that have also turned violent as armed riot police clamped down on the protests. Protests have become a common scene outside air conditioned halls where the leaders of 19 major national economies and the European Union meet behind closed doors to discuss world's economic governance issues and socialize.

How does this affect the fashioning of the futures that institutions like the G20 are designed to explore? The mainstream voices in the media and in governments throughout the world easily demonize and dismiss protests as a display of mindless anarchy and thuggery by extreme left or right wing groups. The coverage of these protests is therefore designed to project these protests as an aberration to the norm, a sort of barbarism on the sidelines of respectable meetings convened to solve the very problems that protesters are worried about.

While the media is generally vigilant about excesses of government behavior in response and take a critical look at government decisions on public policy issues, on the matter of protests largely ordinary people on the streets the mainstream media portals are complacent in demonizing and trivializing. This does not help us fully understand what this dichotomy between cool-headed negotiations in boardrooms and actions of seemingly hot-headed protesters in the streets around the G20 summits mean, what they entail for the future of global governance.

We simply cannot ignore this dichotomy nor wish it away nor minimize its significance without undermining our ability to understand the true state of global governance today and its future. I want to argue that both the negotiations inside auditoria and protests outside carry more significance than we realise. I want to suggest that there are two areas in which their significance needs to be understood urgently if this dichotomy of doing global governance is to be harnessed for a better futures.

The first is that the dichotomy between formal negotiations by leaders of G20 member states/organizations and the work of protesters in the streets is about a division of perspectives about how to bring about change in global governance, but both are concerned about the same sort of issues. Both are concerned about speedy economic recovery out of the current crisis though the protesters are looking for more radical and speedy resolutions than G20 leaders can contemplate. They, for instance, want a fundamental transformation of the system of economic globalization because it has tended to reinforce the age-old inequalities between industrialized countries and former colonies, between the poor and rich in countries, between rural and urban areas, between men and women.

They want drastic decisions to end climate warming, alter industrial models, and cease monopoly capitalism that excludes billions from its material benefits. The G20 leaders have spoken in vague and general terms in this regard, such as agreeing openly on the need for speedy economic recovery but not how it will be achieved and consensus on the need for a resilient and inclusive global economy but not what drastic decisions will be taken to bring that about.

Protesters want the writing off of external debt that has become a huge burden on developing countries' economies. They want the G20 to force big economies to forgive debt that has accumulated over decades. The G20 leaders merely recognize the problem and urge for innovative solutions to solve this, but no clear set of decisions on practical measures to bring about these desired ends are made. It then seems that leaders are paying lip service to issues that concern the poor most, from poverty to social security, employment to climate justice. It seems that they minimize troubles that ordinary people and the poor face on the daily basis.

The second point is that the negotiations and protests dichotomy is about the battles between insiders and outsiders, and thus a battle of perspective that have to be in dialogue in order to bring about inclusive futures. Though some of the countries in the G20 come from the periphery of the world system being developing countries, the constant re-arrangement of global power results in them being included in the centre and thus becoming quasi-insiders. They become what Immanuel Wallerstein calls a semi-periphery or what Patrick Bond refers to as sub-imperial powers. In the big scheme of geopolitics the G20 members from the South have become somewhat insiders working with the centre of global power to maintain the status, working for reforms rather than fundamental transformation. The protesters in the streets, coming from or representing the periphery in countries and in the globe, position themselves in opposition to these shades of insiderness. They do not make a clear distinction between the US and Brazil, UK and South Africa, when it comes to global structures like the G20. They thus launch principled struggles in the sense that they are efforts to achieve the principles of fairness, equity, equality, justice and inclusion even if it means they do not distinguish between political and economic elite from the south and the elite from the north.

In turn, the G20 elite vaccinate from a sense of awareness of this voice in the wilderness and almost complete deafness towards what it is saying. They recognize formally the need to emphathize with the excluded. They commit formally to address the issues social movements bring to the fore on the sidelines of G20 summits. They undertake to pursue inclusion in the form of consultative platforms often ahead of summits, but tend to limit this to a carefully selected section of the civil society elite made up mainly of professional associations, Think Tanks, NGOs and such. Those that remain excluded therefore have one realistic option: to protest, to undertake public campaigns to have their voices heard. They are forced to rebel and undertake activities of sabotage against G20 Summits.

The G20 elite responds with violence of its own, from deafening silence on the issues the poor and their representatives raise publicly to unleashing the brutal force of riot police to tear-gas, water-cannon, shoot, and beat up protesting citizens. The Inclusion of a few developing countries in global governance as designed by the West for its good does not undo the inherent injustice.

Until there is a good understanding of the conditions that give rise to every growing protests on the sidelines of the summits of leaders of the G20 and other structures of global governance, we will miss the opportunity to fashion a new inclusive system of global governance and economy. Until drastic and serious actions are taken to reverse global economic, social and ecological injustice, protests will grow with every G20 summit. The pursuit of justice, equity, equality and fairness is the best response to protests. Dialogue and inclusion of the poor is the best containment strategy against protests.


Siphamandla Zondi is professor and a member of the Institute for Strategic and Political Affairs in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria. Until August 2016, he was the head of the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD), a South African-based foreign policy think tank.

This article was originally published on News24 Voices. Read the original article.



- Author Prof Siphamandla Zondi

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