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South Africa Pushed to the Limit: The Political Economy of Change

South Africa Pushed to the Limit: The Political Economy of Change

by Hein Marais

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Since 1994, the democratic government in South Africa has worked hard at improving the lives of the black majority, yet half the population still lives in poverty, jobs are scarce, and the country is more unequal than ever. For millions, the color of a person's skin still decides their destiny. In its wide-ranging, in-depth and provocative analysis, South Africa


Since 1994, the democratic government in South Africa has worked hard at improving the lives of the black majority, yet half the population still lives in poverty, jobs are scarce, and the country is more unequal than ever. For millions, the color of a person's skin still decides their destiny. In its wide-ranging, in-depth and provocative analysis, South Africa Pushed to the Limit shows that although the legacies of apartheid and colonialism weigh heavy, many of the strategic choices made since 1994 have compounded those handicaps. The economy remains dominated by a handful of large conglomerates that are now entwined in the circuitry of the global economy. The government, meanwhile, has squandered its leverage over their decisions in a series of miscalculations and errors. The social costs have been punishing.  Marais explains why those choices were made, where they went awry, and why South Africa's vaunted formations of the left failed to prevent or alter them.
Shedding light on a variety of South Africa's most pressing issues -- from the real reasons behind President Jacob Zuma's rise and the purging of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki to a devastating critique of the country's continuing AIDS crisis -- South Africa Pushed to the Limit provides a unique, benchmark analysis of the long journey beyond apartheid.

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South Africa Pushed to the Limit

The Political Economy of Change

By Hein Marais

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Hein Marais
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-860-5


The making of a polarised society

A wealthy country by continental standards, South Africa is also one of the most unequal societies on Earth. It has more luxury-car dealers than any country outside the industrialised north, yet almost half of its population lives in poverty and more than one third cannot find waged work. An average assistant manager punching the clock in the service sector would need to work more than 102 years to earn the average annual salary of a corporate CEO and 520 years to match the take-home salary and bonuses that the top-paid banking-industry executive earned in 2009. In 2005, the country 'produced' 5 580 new US dollar millionaires; at the time, one in nine families admitted that their children went hungry at least 'some of the time'. The country boasts shopping malls selling beds that cost up to USD 67 000, while the domestic workers who change the linen on those beds command a minimum wage of USD 44 a week. Health tourists flock to South Africa for sophisticated cosmetic and dental surgery and other high-end medical procedures, but its public health system is shambolic and overburdened.

One does not expect such descriptions to apply 15 years after the official end of the apartheid system. In the political realm, that system was vaporised. But efforts to improve the wellbeing of black South Africans have fared less well. Millions of houses have been built, but at a pace that lags behind population trends. Water pipes and electricity grids are now within the reach of millions more residents, but very many of them cannot afford the user fees. The doors of learning have been opened to all, but the quality of teaching is shockingly poor. That apartheid entrenched these features with grotesque fastidiousness and inhuman severity is a matter of historical record. However, attributing these outrages solely to the apartheid system hides the political-economic contours of inequity that still define South African society. It also confounds efforts to forge a society that not only extols but also realises the dignity, desires and rights of its citizens.

In many respects South Africans' visions of the future rest on foreshortened perspectives of the past. This applies centrally to the millions who engineered, administrated and savoured the complex of exploitative practices that penetrated every aspect of lived reality — few of whom will admit today to their authorship of, or moral culpability for, the devastation they achieved. Nor are they under much pressure to do so; their indifference is indulged, even encouraged, in the quest for reconciliation.

At the same time, an abbreviated and elliptical sense of the past is also evident, though in very different respects, within the former liberation movement. The history of successful liberation projects tends to be rendered in terms that portray an unequivocal and linear advance towards triumph. History is cleansed of failure, ambivalence and blemish. And yet, when history is reflexively celebrated and left uninterrogated, the past ferments in the present.

The mould is cast

The origins of South Africa's systematic polarisation lie in the late nineteenth century, when the development of capitalism accelerated rapidly with the onset of diamond mining in 1867 and gold mining in 1886. Pockets of commercial and agricultural capitalism had been established in the coastal regions colonised by Britain. But the hinterland remained pre-capitalist, with Boer trekkers engaged in rentier exploitation, living off rents in labour and in kind, which they extracted from indigenous peoples whose land they had seized or whom they had enslaved. Racial prejudice was already rampant, though it was flanked with class division and religious bigotry as a basis for systematic social polarisation. In large parts of the country, an economically independent African peasantry survived. In many cases these societies remained organised within their own social and political systems; in some cases they were militarily powerful enough to inflict bloody defeats on British colonial armies.

The discovery of gold and diamonds, however, upped the ante, transforming the territory, at least in the eyes of British colonialists, from a geopolitical asset (hence the focus on controlling coastal strips] into a potentially huge capital asset. Mining set in motion processes that would definitively shape South African history. A huge influx of foreign, mainly British, capital put the mining industry on the world map and spearheaded the highly centralised character of an industry that would remain at the core of the South African economy for the following century. There was a rush of European immigrant labour, which supplied the semi-skilled and skilled labour required by the industry and boosted the numbers of white settlers beyond the levels typical in other African colonies. Also generated was the need for a steady supply of cheap, unskilled labour. The dismantled African peasantry would become the chief source of this labour, while a range of coercive measures would be applied to guarantee and regulate the supply of labour. Administrative systems were used to establish and police a racial division of labour separating skilled white (mainly European] labour from gangs of unskilled African labour. Organised white labour would lobby strongly (and act militantly] to entrench those measures. This established the basis for a political alliance between the capitalist class and white labour, which was to survive until the 1970s.

For the next 50 years, the accumulation strategy centred on mining and, to a lesser extent, agriculture, with manufacturing an incipient feature of the economy. As the huge gold fields yielded low-grade ore, the mining industry was faced with three central needs: a hefty flow of capital to establish and run mines; a reliable, cheap labour supply to keep the profit margin attractive; and reliable supplies of cheap energy. The first requirement saw the integration of the 'South African' economy into the world economy as a source of primary commodities (the value of which was set in the European metropoles] and a destination for investment capital. The second requirement sketched the pattern of labour and social relations that would become a defining feature of the society, while the third helped thread powerful links between the mining industry and the state. The most penetrating analysis of this remains that of Fine and Rustomjee (1996], along with Fine's recent updates (2007, 2008]. They show that the economy became dominated by a minerals-energy complex (MEC], which incorporated a core set of industries associated with large-scale mineral extraction, energy provision and associated downstream sectors. This MEC sat 'at the core of the South African economy, not only by virtue of its weight in economic activity but also through its determining role throughout the rest of the economy' (Fine & Rustomjee, 1996:91).

Capital accumulation would be based on the exploitation of a low-wage, highly controlled, expendable African work-force that was to be reproduced in a system of 'native reserves' at minimal cost to capital. Importantly, this work-force would be recruited from the entire subcontinent: until the 1970s, the mining industry employed more non-South African than South African workers. This accumulation path seemed to correspond to those in other African colonies, with the important distinction here being that a large settler population, itself segmented culturally and socio-economically, soon became ascendant in the political, administrative and, later, economic realms. The resemblance would later lead the South African Communist Party (SACP) to develop its theory of 'Colonialism of a Special Type'.

The economic independence of the African peasantry was gradually dismantled through a barrage of administrative and punitive measures, which transformed this surplus-producing peasantry into a pool of labour for the mines and emergent capitalist agriculture. The effects were crushing. The African peasantry dwindled from 2.5 million in 1936 to 832 000 people in 1946. A trio of factors drove this process: increased mechanisation of agriculture, the crushing effects of the Depression and, centrally, state expropriation of land. A legislative climax was the mammoth expropriation effected by the 1913 Land Act, which barred Africans from acquiring land outside 'native reserves' (7.3% of the South African land area]. That process was augmented by the 1936 Natives Land and Trust Act, which doubled the land area 'set aside' for 'native reserves' in a bid to reverse the 'incapacity of the Native Reserves to provide even the minimum subsistence requirements', as one government report later put it.

Mining became the centrepiece of the South African economy, and determined its incorporation into the world economy on terms that would remain relatively consistent over the next half-century. In addition, definitive and systematic divisions were imposed on society:

* A racial division of labour was imposed in urban centres, separating skilled white labour (both immigrant and domestic] from unskilled African labour (essentially 'economic refugees' fleeing the remnants of wrecked pre-capitalist zones]. White workers imported the trade union tradition, and organised artisans and craftsmen. They vehemently defended their privileged status against 'encroachment' by African workers when, for instance, mining bosses tried to loosen the colour bar in a bid to lower wage costs by allowing black workers some upward mobility.

* African societies were fiercely marginalised. Not only were they transformed into reserve armies of labour, but they were burdened with the principal costs of reproducing that labour supply. Often deprived of their means of production (land], they were barricaded into 'native reserves' outside the mining and industrial zones, where they were denied access to the types of health, education, welfare and recreational networks introduced in the urban centres. Measures such as the pass law system regulated the flow of labour into the cities and deflected the cost of reproducing labour to the periphery. This laid the basis for a highly profitable cycle of capital accumulation. In essence, the 'native reserves' (and later the homelands] would subsidise capitalist growth in South Africa.

* Large numbers of Africans were forcibly proletarianised, a trend 'which distinguished the class structure of South Africa from the peasant economies of African colonies to the north' (Fine & Davis, 1990:14]. By 1946, the number of urbanised African people had increased by 36% over the previous decade. One third of them were women, suggesting long-term urbanisation. But the urban/ rural dichotomy was not rigid: hundreds of thousands of people traversed those zones. With the rise of an urban working class would come new forms of resistance: trade union organising, strikes, boycotts and other mass protests.

* Within white society, divisions materialised. Marked by the consolidation of large farms and their mechanisation (a process accelerated by the 1929–32 recession], the advance of capitalist agriculture drove thousands of Afrikaner settlers off the land and into cities, which they entered at a disadvantage to European immigrant workers. A category of newly proletarianised 'poor whites', mainly Afrikaners, arose. Until the 1930s what passed for 'Afrikaner capital' was restricted mainly to the agricultural sector, which represented a tiny fraction of gross domestic product (GDP). These material realities combined with a history of enmity towards British imperialism (expressed explosively in the two Anglo-Boer wars] and a hermetic cultural framework derived from apocalyptic readings of the Old Testament of the Bible. All this aided the elaboration of a distinct Afrikaner identity, a process that would be developed into the political-ideological project of Afrikaner nationalism.

* Significant tensions developed between mining capital, and agricultural and industrial capital. Internationalised in terms of markets and capital input, mining capital preferred 'free trade' policies. Agricultural and industrial capital was localised and demanded state intervention in the form of subsidies and protection, financed largely through taxes drawn from mining capital. The rudiments of different approaches to state-capital relations were taking shape.

A skewed regional economy was also fashioned around migrant labour for the mines, but extended also to trade, water supply, transport and capital-investment patterns. As Davies et al (1993:14) noted,

the principal poles of accumulation came to be located in South Africa (and to a lesser extent in Zimbabwe) while the other territories were incorporated in subsidiary roles as labour reserves, markets for South African commodities, suppliers of certain services (such as transport) or providers of cheap and convenient resources (like water, electricity and some raw materials).

The rise of the working classes

The manufacturing industry grew in earnest in the early decades of the twentieth century, thanks to lavish state support in the form of protective measures and tariffs, subsidies and major infrastructure projects that underpinned its development. The shift from artisanal to mechanised production was rapid and the African proletariat swelled to number some 800 000 by 1939. Workers had become increasingly combative, with African and white workers (usually separately] staging strike actions.

In 1913, shortly before the First World War, about 19 000 white miners and 10 000 African miners went on strike. A year later the state mobilised thousands of troops to crush a railway strike. In 1918 African miners won a wage increase after striking. Two years later 70 000 African miners went on strike for better pay, while in 1922 a white miners' strike was put down by 20 000 troops, killing 214 people. Five years later the black Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union claimed a membership of 100 000.

The rise of an urban African working class raised the prospect of multiracial industrial action that could evolve into a more forthright challenge against the system. This precipitated a political realignment that brought to power, in 1924, the Pact government, which strove to give white workers a bigger stake in the system. Wider (racial] wage disparities, job reservation for whites and expanded social benefits all deepened white racism and encouraged white workers to throw in their lot with a system constructed around a racist class alliance. The trappings of a social-welfare state were extended gradually to a tiny, racially defined minority, while the majority was expelled to the physical and socioeconomic margins of the system, subsidising the privilege of the 'insiders'. By the mid-1930s several related developments were afoot that would leave deep imprints on the future of the country.

Strong economic growth after 1933 boosted industrialisation, though the manufacturing sector remained relatively small (until the 1940s, when it grew considerably during mobilisation of production for the war effort]. This in turn increased demand for African labour, some of it skilled. The reserves into which Africans had been driven were becoming increasingly unsustainable, with overcrowding and resultant poor environmental management of marginal land rendering huge parts of the periphery economically unviable. Urbanisation accelerated. In the urban areas, meanwhile, at least one generation of African workers had sunk roots. These trends, the intense poverty and the violent manner in which labour relations were controlled spurred trade union organisation — from which sprang the first sustained cycle of modern, militant resistance in South Africa's history.

These trends should not be exaggerated. Despite the rise of an African proletariat, the vast majority of Africans still lived in rural areas. Although in decline, the peasantry remained a social and economic force in parts of rural South Africa. In addition, African urban workers retained strong links with rural communities due to the migratory character of African labour. The greatest concentration of African labour was to be found on the mines where, separated from wider society, they were subjected to fierce disciplinary regimes. This limited their role in the 'wave of resistance' which, some historians have claimed, would generate a crisis in the ruling bloc in the mid-1940s. In the estimation of Robert Fine and Dennis Davis, the social weight of the African working classes in the 1930s and 1940s (and the threat they posed] was actually less formidable than claimed in some historical accounts:

We have to abandon the simplified image of the organisation and combativity of black workers ever escalating in the 1940s and of the defeats inflicted on labour struggles [...] serving only as a stimulus for yet more militancy from below (1990:99).

The 1946 miners' strike is often portrayed as a landmark event that announced a crisis in South African capitalism. In the conventional reading, worker militancy in support of higher wages and better working conditions challenged the basis of a system that pivoted on an abundant supply of very cheap, controlled labour. 'The violence of the state's response not only indicated the degree to which it felt threatened, but foreshadowed the extreme repression after 1948,' according to Dan O'Meara (in Saul & Gelb, 1981:14]. Typically, the National Party's (NP's) victory at the polls in 1948 was interpreted as a consequence of that trepidation and as a mandate for a hard-line solution to the 'crisis'.


Excerpted from South Africa Pushed to the Limit by Hein Marais. Copyright © 2011 Hein Marais. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Meet the Author

Hein Marais is writer and journalist and former deputy editor of Work in Progress magazine, South Africa, and former chief writer for the Joint UN Programme on AIDS.

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