Book review – Lost in Transformation by Sampie Terreblanche

by Sep 13, 2012Magazine

patrick-bond-book-reviewSampie Terreblanche’s brief (150pp) new book Lost in Transformation adds to our understanding of the ‘Americanisation’ of South Africa’s economy and forces new questions about a future, necessary transition to socialism.

Though the eloquent 79-year-old is an absolutely invaluable ally to SA’s independent left, that’s not what Terreblanche wants, is it – he’s a ‘social-democratic capitalist’ (he declares). His heart is apparently broken: in spite of a few welfarist gestures and corporatist-oriented labour laws, the African National Congress elite made policy and alliance choices that strengthened the minerals-energy complex (MEC), introduced financialisation and allowed capital flight, hastened deindustrialisation and amplified poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Together, these ‘introduce almost unbearable tensions into the viability of our democratic system,’ he argues. True, and the book was published at exactly the same time as the Marikana massacre. But can those tensions and social forces now mobilising, be marshaled into structural changes? To arrive at an answer may require a different analysis.

But we can go a long way with Terreblanche’s book because he brings two special talents, aside from a fluid writing style. (The book feels like a down-to-earth lecture to his Stellenbosch economics students, an antidote to all the orthodox arguments they imbibe.) The first talent is his sweeping view of long waves of accumulation. The second is his insider perspective on our transition from racial to class apartheid.

His periodisation of SA political-economic history emphasises the leading political power blocs and their accumulation strategy: the Dutch East India Company rule until 1795, British colonialism until 1910, the MEC prior to and then after 1948. The latter era witnessed the emergence of verligte (enlightened) Afrikaners, in part through changing self-interests. Terreblanche observes, ‘When one of the major Johannesburg mining houses, the General Mining and Finance Corporation [Gencor], got into difficulties in 1964, Oppenheimer’s Anglo-American took it over and offered it to Sanlam’ to win friends in Pretoria.

(In a blazing conflict of interest, Gencor was later allowed to escape SA by Finance Minister Derek Keys, to purchase Shell’s Billiton and merge with Australian-based BHP – and is now the world’s largest mining house, responsible for SA’s energy crisis thanks to its guzzling Richards Bay aluminium smelters, which receive the world’s cheapest electricity. This is just one durable residue of this verligte economic agenda.)

While verkramptes in the civil service, agriculture and labour-intensive businesses opposed reform, says Terreblanche, ‘From the mid-1960s there was growing cooperation between the emerging Afrikaner corporate sector and the established English business sector under the leadership of the MEC. In the 1980s the white business sector co-opted the National Party in its desperate attempts to solve its accumulation crisis.’

Why 1986 as the break-point for apartheid? Terreblanche notes four geopolitical conjuctures: the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster unveiled Soviet incompetence and thus hastened the end of the Cold War, PW Botha’s comprehensive state of emergency, US Congressional anti-apartheid sanctions, and the Reagan/Gorbachev summit in Iceland. Recalls Terreblanche, Gorbachev then ‘put pressure on the ANC in exile to seek a negotiated settlement’.

Another critical moment was after Botha’s stroke in mid-1989, when Margaret Thatcher arm-twisted FW de Klerk to release Nelson Mandela and unban liberation movements. De Klerk kept the lid on the pressure cooker during the country’s longest-ever depression, from 1989–93, by more than doubling the budget deficit.

This was the period of rapidly-declining East Bloc power and Ronald Reagan’s reassertion of Washington’s imperial project, resulting in our ‘lost transformation’, says Terreblanche: ‘The Americanisation of the SA politico-economic system during the transformation of 1994–96 was based on the wrong ideological premises, on the wrong power structures, and put SA on the wrong development path… integrated into the criminalised global structures.’

What, though, about the social-democratic aspirations of the ANC government as reflected in the Constitution? ‘It is sad that the realisation of these important social and economic rights has been made dependent on the judgment of technocratically-orientated ministers of finance,’ Terreblanche rebuts.

Genuine change would cost more and, to his credit, Terreblanche has always argued for a wealth tax, along with reparations to be paid by foreign companies that profited from apartheid. But he refuses to tackle the ownership of the means of production – a shame, given how quickly the word ‘nationalisation’ got back into mainstream discussions after the ANC Youth League’s recent campaign. But no mention here, much less the rigorous discussion we hunger for.

As do most social democrats, Terreblanche offers a moral critique of ‘the conspicuous consumption, the wastefulness, the greediness’ by both elite whites and a few blacks: ‘judged against the misery and deprivation of so many poor people, we have no alternative but to be shocked at the vulgarity and the repulsiveness of the lifestyle of the rich.’

But a Marxist critique would go much deeper. For Terreblanche, ‘The economic problems experienced by the US from 1968 until the early 1980s could be regarded as the result of imperial overstretch, as the country’s commitment to public expenditure became so great that it had an impact on the continued productive vigour of the private sector.’

No, the Marxist position is the opposite: declining rates of profit and stagnation (and declining competitiveness) in the private productive sector – an ‘overaccumulation crisis’ – underlie the broader processes of globalisation (i.e. intensified imperialism), renewed class war and neoliberal public policies.

By citing Giovanni Arrighi, Jim Blaut, Ferdinand Braudel and David Harvey on global trends, and drawing on Samantha Ashman, Ben Fine and Dan O’Meara for local economic critique, Terreblanche is certainly not unfamiliar with Marxist analysis. But his next great work, a world-historical survey of inequality, should more explicitly grapple with Kapital’s crisis theory, instead of leaving it entirely alone.

Still, the critique of SA capitalism is otherwise sound, the moral outrage is uplifting. And the timing could not be better to remind SA’s 1% that Sampie Terreblanche has again unveiled how and why they got lost in transformation.

Lost in Transformation: South Africa’s search for a New Future since 1986, by Sampie Terreblanche, was published by KMM Review Publishing Company, Sandton. 2012

By Patrick Bond

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