South Africa pushed to the limit: The political economy of change | by Colin Bundy

by Mar 15, 2012Magazine

Hein Marais, London: Zed Books, 2011 Reviewed
Hein Marais has produced a sustained, rigorous and compelling analysis of the political economy of post-apartheid South Africa. It is has no rival as an overview of the country’s trajectory since 1994. The first five chapters reprise and update material covered in his earlier South Africa: Limits of change (1998 and 2001). Anyone seeking to understand, say, the accommodation of national liberation with global capital, the extent of capital flight and disinvestment after 1994, the new salience of the financial sector, or the structural causes of joblessness, will benefit from Marais’s deft grasp of the material realities and dynamics underpinning policies and the public sphere.
But in addition to these staples of political economy, subsequent chapters provide an outstanding overview of the Aids and tuberculosis epidemics, trenchant accounts of social welfare, health and education policies, the prospects of a South African developmental state, and – in perhaps the most original and provocative chapters of the book – a Gramscian assessment of the ANC, its alliance partners, and new social movements operating largely outside the ANC’s orbital pull. It is difficult to convey the scope and sweep of the book or its command of existing scholarship (one measure is a 56-page bibliography in small type!) and it might seem perverse to note gaps and omissions. Yet by comparison with the depth of treatment of other topics, there is only perfunctory coverage of land and agriculture; of crime, policing and the courts; and of cities, their new social geography, governance and politics. There is no index entry for cities or provinces: the state apparently exists as an object of analysis only at the centre.
What is covered, however, more than compensates for these lacunae. Take for instance the treatment of inequality and poverty, their mitigation by social spending, and the ideologically and politically contested proposal for a universal income grant. Most students of South Africa are familiar with data that reveal a breathtakingly unequal society: the wealthiest 10% taking 51% of total income, while the share of the poorest 20% was1.4%. They are equally aware of the fact that among middle-income countries South Africa is an unusually big social spender: welfare spending in 2009/10 amounted to 3.5% of GDP. The major forms of social protection are pensions, disability and child support grants. But they may be surprised by Marais as he lays bare official thinking on such welfare protection. Notions of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor are retained together with hand-wringing about ‘dependency’. This undergirds the ANC’s resistance to a universal income grant: as former minister Alex Erwin was reported to say, it was ‘not the money but the idea’ that offended. ‘A Presbyterian aversion to “giving money to the poor” endures’.
There is an outstanding chapter on Aids and tuberculosis (not surprising, as Marais was formerly chief writer for the Joint UN Programme on Aids.) He argues all too convincingly that in addition to the ‘vivid and shocking’ impact already registered, Aids is changing South Africa in subterranean and cumulative ways whose full effects will take decades to measure. The chapter covers the history of the Aids epidemic, the Mbeki government’s response, morbidity and mortality trends and projections, and the strain on already stressed health and education systems. It demonstrates how the same dynamics that govern the distribution of wealth, opportunity and power in society also dissipate and redistribute a good deal of the impact of Aids: ‘This is not a “democratic” epidemic’. The chapter ends with a chilling prognosis. ‘Polarisation, implosion, erasure and the dismantling of the social – all this forms the undertow of these epidemics, their secret thrust. Folded into this horror is the prospect that epidemics this intense, layered atop a reality this unjust, imprison vast numbers of people in a kind of eternal now, corroding the ability and perhaps even the desire to imagine a different, better world.
The darkness of this vision is not lightened by Marais’s sense of the capacity or will of the ANC to ‘imagine a different, better world’ more generally. The party hosts an assortment of interests, ideologies and ideals that smother its progressive impulses. Its senior members are deeply involved in profit-grabbing ventures; powerful sections of the movement have ‘a reflexive sympathy for policies that put the market ahead of society, and that push the pursuit of social justice further into the shadows. These tendencies accelerated during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency, scarred as it was by the arms deal, by the stance on HIV and Aids, and by a macro-economic policy (GEAR) so obeisant to ‘Washington consensus’ orthodoxies. Mbeki, in Marais’s persuasive account, was a conviction politician: he embraced structural adjustment and subdued the organised left because he believed that ‘old’ left ways blocked progress. His African Renaissance project ‘was Kwame Nkrumah meets Tony Blair’.
The ANC became increasingly ‘polluted with intrigues and feuding’. Jacob Zuma adroitly appropriated the movement’s awareness of its failings and directed them against the incumbents. The run-up to Polokwane pitted an ‘indefatigable Zuma against an impenitent Mbeki’ – and, crucially, the ANC’s alliance partners mounted the Zuma bandwagon. COSATU and the SACP saw this as the vehicle best suited to a left turn: it was a short cut to progressivism. The left ‘wilfully chose the route of theatrical campaigning around a half-baked messianic figure over the painstaking slog of building a genuinely left democratic movement that could challenge for hegemony’. Instead of a revitalised left, the Zuma presidency provides a new embrace of ‘custom’ and ‘tradition’ and a drift away from reliance on the constitution. The ANC under Zuma, suggests Marais, is dabbling with a normative framework combining social conservatism, an unbridled acquisitiveness and populist nationalism.
It is a pretty bleak horizon. Marais ended Limits to Change, a decade ago, with a call for ‘new levels of invention, new forms of courage and a new appetite for risk’. The concluding chapter of Pushed to the Limit lacks this tone, this zest for left renewal. Its tone is set in an epigraph quoting Slavoj Zizek: ‘The first step towards liberation is, in a way, the awareness of defeat.’
Professor Colin James is a South African historian and former Principal of Green Templeton College, Oxford.
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