South Africa Limits to Change: The Political
Economy of Transformation. 1998. Hein Marais. London and New York: Zed
Press. 284 pp. $25.00 paperback.©
Many observers of South African politics
are dismayed by the economic policies recently adopted by the African
National Congress (ANC) government. These analysts fear that the promise
of the struggle has been sacrificed to a market-oriented economic policy
that is tailored to the demands of national and global capital. In other
words, the ANC has been captured by capital.
Arguing in this vein, Hein Marais offers
an analysis of the process of transformation in two parts. The first
portion of his book outlines South Africa's social and economic structure
under apartheid, and discusses the vicissitudes of the popular struggle
against that system. The second portion of the book builds on this foundation
to argue that the ANC's doomed strategy led the party to dispense with
an emphasis on state-led growth and social expenditure that was at the
core of the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP). The promise
of the RDP was rejected in favor of the pro-business Growth, Employment
and Redistribution (GEAR) program, betraying the ANC's core constituency,
the working class poor.
Marais's discussion of South African
political economy serves as a fairly standard "radical" analysis
of the unholy alliance between South African capital and the apartheid
state. Not much is new here, although it does serve as a helpful condensed
summary of this approach. In contrast, Marais's interpretation of popular
resistance offers a relatively new scholarly trend that might be called
the "radical revisionist" history of the struggle. In this
view, the ANC has consistently betrayed the black working class, its
true constituency. Rather than emphasizing class-based mobilization,
the ANC has relied on a nationalist approach that has relegated the
labor movement to a secondary role, and encouraged a futile "insurrectionism,"
or what Robert Fine has called "boycottism."
The ANC certainly deserves some pointed
criticism. There is no shortage of histories that "celebrate"
the organization, lionize its leadership, and generally rely on sycophancy
rather than historical analysis. With the benefit of hindsight, many
of the ANC's tactical and strategic blunders become clear. Marais points
out, for example, that resistance in the 1950s remained fragmented,
and that the ANC failed to capitalize on popular militancy in this period.
Marais also criticizes the ANC for its decision to embark on armed struggle
in the 1960s. This position makes less sense, resting in part on the
very dubious claim that the ANC might instead have moved into a Gramscian
"War of Position," which would have entailed an attempt to
create a proletarian mass movement. Virtually all discussions of the
1960s suggest that the state's extraordinary repression in this period
squelched even hints of public dissent, so a "War of Position"
was not really an option. Marais's brief discussion of the 1970s emphasizes
the importance of trade unions early in the decade, and generally downplays
the importance of Black Consciousness ideology.
In his account of the 1980s, Marais is
most critical of the ANC and the loosely allied United Democratic Front
(UDF. He argues that the ANC and the UDF failed to build on the growing
strength of the labor movement in this period, relying instead on a
rudderless strategy of insurrectionism that had no real hope of transforming
South African society. By the late 1980s, Marais argues, the UDF/ANC
alliance had achieved only a stalemate in which it was forced to broker
a settlement with the National Party and white capital. Overall, this
assessment reflects a trend in radical scholarship that has emerged
since the 1990s that seeks to imagine an alternative past in order to
create an alternative present. This view seems to suggest that if the
ANC had been more committed to working class mobilization during the
resistance years, it might have been possible to achieve a more sweeping
transformation, even socialism, in South Africa.
This analysis sets the stage for the
second portion of Marais's book, in which he discusses the formation
of a "class compromise" between the ANC and capital. In this
view, because the ANC had failed to build a sufficiently strong and
disciplined popular movement, it was unable to wrest control of the
economy from white capital. Instead, the ANC was forced to focus its
efforts on control of the state and to appease capital. This balance
of forces led the ANC to reject its initial strategy of "growth
through redistribution" as outlined in the early versions of the
RDP. Instead, the ANC bent over backwards to accommodate the demands
of national and global capital. These interests forced the ANC to reject
the ambitious social policies of the RDP in favor of the neo-liberal
market based policies of GEAR, even though most analyses suggested that
such a program would do little to improve the rampant social inequalities
created by apartheid capitalism. Further, Marais argues, the GEAR policy
of export-orientation is likely to fail in its own right because of
South Africa's weak global economic position.
Having set out the manner in which the
ANC has adopted an economic policy that shuts out the working class,
Marais spends the final chapters of the book discussing how political
forces might be arrayed to compel the ANC government to adopt policies
that put the working class in the favored position rather than capital.
There is little doubt that the ANC has
moved away from the redistributive orientation of the RDP, and even
further away from the social democratic vision of the Freedom Charter.
The critical question is why did it make the shift? Marais doesn't offer
a complete explanation: "It is difficult to pinpoint the factors
that led to the conversion of ANC economic thinking to orthodoxy"
(p. 150). Yet this seems to be a critical question. Why would senior
ANC leaders, most of whom have spent their entire lives fighting the
social, political, and economic injustices of apartheid, turn about-face
and abandon this cause? If GEAR serves the interests of capital at the
expense of the working class, then why did the ANC adopt it?
Marais offers two major possible explanations,
but neither seems satisfactory. In one section he describes an elaborate
program of neo-liberal indoctrination mounted by South African corporate
conglomerates and international actors led by the International Monetary
Fund and the World Bank. Marais explains the shift to orthodoxy as resulting
from the "bewildering assortment of seminars, conferences, workshops,
briefings, international 'fact-finding' trips'... financed by business
and foreign development agencies" (p. 150). He also offers a related
argument that leftists in the ANC could not match the technical savvy
of the pro-business elements inside and outside the organization. This
meant that the leftists could not defend the RDP against the blizzard
of technical data, models, and forecasts offered by the advocates of
neo-liberalism. A more compelling argument might simply be that the
ANC leadership concluded that South Africa's serious economic problems,
precarious international position, and the sometimes shrill fears expressed
by domestic capital made it impossible to go ahead with the statist
orientation of the RDP without raising the threat of massive capital
flight and shrinking trade. Marais dismisses this view as too pat, relying
on the claim that there was simply not enough technical expertise in
the Department of Economic Policy to back the RDP.
The key problem with Marais's account
of popular opposition is that even if the reader accepts his criticisms
of the ANC during the struggle, there is no real attempt to suggest
viable alternatives. If we accept, for example, the claim that the UDF
and the ANC led a more or less pointless insurrectionist movement in
the 1980s (and it is far from clear that such a characterization fits),
one is left wondering what alternative Marais would have endorsed. A
close reading of this portion of the book reveals some hint of the alternative
strategy that Marais might have prescribed. He generally heaps praise
on the trade union movement for its role in the resistance struggle,
at times implying that it offered a model for other organizations, but
he never makes it clear if this is in fact his argument, and if so,
how exactly the diverse elements of popular resistance (e.g. churches,
soccer clubs, student groups) might have used the model of shop-steward
based trade unions while also facing the might of the apartheid security
Marais is more concrete in his discussion
of the ANC's economic policy, offering a suggestion that parts of the
RDP can be used as the starting point for a new "progressive"
agenda to bring the ANC back to its working-class roots. But Marais's
failure to offer a satisfactory explanation of the rejection of the
RDP puts this strategy in doubt. If the ANC leadership has already decided
that the RDP is economically unfeasible, then it won't do much good
to put it at the center of a progressive agenda. Marais does not attempt
to establish whether the RDP is in fact a feasible approach for South
Africa. More troubling is Marais's hint that some form of "inward-looking
industrialization strategy" (p. 131) is the most viable alternative
to the ANC's export-oriented policy. He never says exactly what this
might look like. Nationalization of key industries? Investment in sectors
that produce for a domestic market? The reader is left with only hints,
such as "progressive macroeconomic and industrial policies"
(p. 193). Ironically, Marais's language suggests that he would propose
some variant of import-substituting-industrialization (ISI), the very
policy that contributed to the chronic economic crises of the South
African economy under apartheid.
Many readers will agree with the book's
overall theme that the ANC should have been closer to its working class
roots during the resistance years, and that since 1990 it has gone too
far to accommodate capital while making only modest social investments.
But readers will be frustrated by Marais's general reluctance to explicate
alternative paths, either historical or contemporary. It is essential
that the ANC face penetrating criticisms such as those offered by Marais,
but such criticisms won't build houses, improve schools, or provide
better health care in South Africa. What should South Africa do? What
can South Africa do? Those are the key questions today.
Political Science Department
University of California at Berkeley