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South Africa—The Left Must Launch a Counteroffensive

Helena Sheehan (helena.sheehan [at] is an author, activist, and professor emerita at Dublin City University. Her works include The Continuing Story of Irish Television Drama: Tracking the Tiger (Four Courts Press) and Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History (Humanities Press).

Hein Marais, South Africa Pushed to the Limit: The Political Economy of Change (London / New York: Zed Books, 2011), 566 pages, $45, paperback.

So many people, even otherwise educated ones, talk about South Africa as a fairy tale. Once upon a time there was evil apartheid. Nelson Mandela (and some other people too) stood up to it. He spent many years in prison. Then, due to international pressure and some national leaders changing their minds, he was released. Then there were democratic elections. Then South Africa lived happily ever after. It even hosted the World Cup. Okay, there were problems with Thabo Mbeki trawling the internet at night and getting it wrong on AIDS. There are problems too about persisting poverty and rising crime, but they will be sorted in due course. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an inspiring catharsis. No. This book is the perfect antidote to that version, which is so utterly wrong.

Of course, Monthly Review readers are far more sophisticated than that and are well familiar with the left critique of post-apartheid South Africa, particularly of the turn to neoliberal economic policy. There is a sophisticated left intelligentsia both in South Africa and abroad analyzing the transformation of South Africa and their findings and arguments have found their way into Monthly Review and elsewhere over the years. This book is an excellent synthesis of all that as well as a provocative position explaining why it has happened and what scope there is for the left to chart an alternative path.

Marais begins with a sweeping summary of the legacies of history: colonialism, apartheid, patterns of capital accumulation, movements of resistance, and dynamics of race and class. He takes great care in explaining the complexities of the political settlement. After a long struggle, the two sides had fought to a draw and came to negotiate rather than to push for all out victory on either side. There was conciliation to avert cataclysm. Geopolitical shifts had brought a dissolution of moorings, an undermining of the idea of a socialist alternative, a retreat from radical politics globally, and the ascendancy of neoliberalism. The prevailing balance of forces, nationally and internationally, ensured that the real winners were conglomerate capital, particularly the financial sector and the mineral-energy complex. Marais demonstrates a strong continuity between late-apartheid and post-apartheid economic policy.

The dilemma of the new government was how to reconcile the insertion of the nation into the global churn of capital with the promises of radical redistribution it had made as a liberation movement. The African National Congress (ANC) privileged politics over economics and stressed nation building over class struggle. Marais charts the achievements in terms of democratic elections, constitutional rights, and wider access to health, education, and material infrastructure, but weighs these against the daily experience of injustice and inequality. The settlement was not the win-win situation it was supposed to be, especially for lives lived in poverty, disease, unemployment, alienation, and precariousness as a result of subservience to the mystified force of “the markets.” South Africa, as almost everywhere, lives under the increasing dominance of finance capital: “Finance capital no longer spurs industrial development, but is geared at extracting maximum returns, even by dismantling or destroying industrial capacity. Its metabolism is now fundamentally parasitic” (128). Structural changes in the circuitry of capital accumulation have shifted balance of power between private capital, the state, and other social forces, particularly the labor movement. Marais moves between the generalities of the global system and the particularities of its circuitry in South Africa.

There has been privatization of public property, regressive taxation, and facilitation of capital flight. This expatriated capital represents wealth amassed from South African labor and from resources extracted from South African soil. Redistribution has been conflated with black economic empowerment, which has brought the enrichment of a layer of black “tenderpreneurs,” who provide black cover for white capital and engage in conspicuous consumption, simultaneously representing collusion in the impoverishment of the masses and embodying the secret aspirations of many of them. Some of these were leaders of the liberation movement.

Controversially, Marais does not go in for explanations of the transition centering on betrayal. It is undeniable that certain figures have betrayed the ideals for which they stood. However, the revolution was not hijacked. Rather “A neoliberal development path was adopted, and has been maintained, because the balance of forces within the ANC alliance, and between it and corporate capital, favors such a course” (139). It unfolded as it did, because of the hegemony of capital and the weakness of any alternative hegemonic project. He repudiates the talk of a “struggle for soul of the ANC.” There is no soul or essence to be reclaimed. The ANC always has been a broad coalition of political traditions and cultures and its ideological character has been constantly contested. This has become even more the case since it has come to power. Even the party of apartheid has collapsed into it.

How the left should relate to the ANC is a major issue dividing the left. This debate played itself out in the pages of Monthly Review in 2001 and 2002 in the contending contributions of John Saul and Jeremy Cronin. There is a strong left inside the ANC, mostly concentrated in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). There is also a growing left outside the ANC, much of it once inside the ANC, gathering under the banner of the Democratic Left Front. Some of us have strong ties to both. The left within the ANC has been outmaneuvered, marginalized, stifled, even expelled, starting in the Mandela presidency, but intensifying during the Mbeki presidency. The disciplining of Jeremy Cronin after his interviews with me was one episode in this story. (See “Interview with Jerry Cronin by Helena Sheehan,” The left within argued against the “1996 class project,” which resulted in the shift from the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) to Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), an authoritarian imposition of a neoliberal economic policy and an accelerating de-ideologization of politics. The ANC, although atrophying at branch level, presiding over high levels of poverty, unemployment, and inequality, and repressing dissent, still is seen as the bearer of a narrative of people’s aspirations. It accommodates contradictory impulses and shifting positions as distillations of a supposedly consistent narrative of national liberation. Many people who criticize and protest against the ANC nevertheless vote for it and even belong to it.

The left within made a concerted push for power in 2007, taking sides in the gladiatorial combat between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. Zuma presented himself as a simple and earthy man of the people in contrast to the elitist and vindictive figure of Mbeki and became a lightning rod for disparate frustrations and ambitions, both conservative and progressive, united in a coalition of the aggrieved. COSATU and SACP stumped the country for Zuma, despite charges of corruption and rape hanging over him and despite no evident ideological inclination to the left. They were used, dumped, marginalized, or co-opted once Zuma came to power. Blade Nzimande, the general secretary of the SACP, may be a member of cabinet, but there has been no shift in economic policy. Marais is quite critical of this strategy, seeing it as an indefensible shortcut to power: “It wilfully chose the route of theatrical campaigning around a half-baked messianic figure over the painstaking slog of building a genuinely democratic left movement that could challenge for hegemony” (443).

Frustratingly for the left, the ANC has mastered the art of “talk left, walk right.” There is quite a lot of Marxist-Leninist vocabulary in speeches and documents that justify accommodation to capital under the banner of national democratic revolution and explicitly attack the left for suggesting otherwise. In contrast, Marais does not employ a lot of traditional Marxist terminology, but expresses himself in way that has internalized the Marxist-Gramscian tradition and brought it to bear in a fresh and grounded analysis of the world in which he finds himself. His key concept is the balance of forces. All scope for will, decision, and policy is in relation to socio-historical forces.

Marais has a good grasp, as very few analysts do, when it comes to the crunch of the relationship between personality and history. There is no great man theory of history here. He barely mentions Mandela. He is wary of the habit of personalizing complex political and economic dynamics, but he is quite sharp about how personae play into the interplay of socio-historical forces. He traces the shifts from the rainbow nation interlude under Mandela to the alliance of panafricanist romanticism with neoliberal exigencies of Mbeki to retro patriarchal dramaturgies that accompanied the rise of Zuma. That recent struggle, which was often phallic, violent, and vengeful, mobilized the masses in ways that various social movements of the left have failed to do. It reflected longing for solid moorings and a confused politics of identity.

It is a complex society caught up in complex cross-currents. To quote Patrick Bond, it is “beset by enough fragmented voices, multiple identities and competing discourses to leave even postmodern analysts confounded.” Contradictions proliferate. The concept of ubuntu, an ethos of communalism and mutual obligation, has been fused with neoliberalism and is employed by advertising copywriters to sell whatever is to be sold, while also doing service to absolve the state from its responsibility for social reproduction.

There is much detail about specific areas of South African life. Marais is particularly strong on the political economy of health, especially on how AIDS and tuberculosis are enmeshed with patterns of dispossession and dislocation along lines of race, class, geography, and gender. He outlines the fiasco that resulted when AIDS became Mbeki’s preferred arena for afrocentrist and anti-imperialist posturing. He admires the tactics employed by the Treatment Action Campaign, functioning both in cooperation with and opposition to the government and the ANC as the situation required. He tackles other areas too, such as education, although not as thoroughly as health. The reformed education system had two goals: economic growth and social equity. It has become a two-tier system divided along class and racial lines, where schools in leafy suburbs send learners on to university, while others are warehoused in township schools. His section on higher education is quite skimpy, although accurate in arguing that public space has been transformed into a commodified sphere in a way that promotes market methods and values, but does not advance knowledge. He shows how protests have resulted in policy reversals in areas such as AIDS treatment and the abandonment of outcomes-based education. He advocates universal income, not only to ease poverty, but to counter the commodification of life.

The left can take pride in what it has contributed to all that has been achieved and it can still achieve more under current conditions, but it cannot rest at that. It must contest the dominant paradigm that privileges the accumulation of capital over the welfare of citizens. Marais addresses the efforts being made by various social movements and left formations and thinks there is a need for all of these approaches, networking, and collaborating, working the system from inside and out, as well as challenging the foundations of the system. To redirect the trajectory of the transition, he contends, the left must mount a counteroffensive on the basis of popular mobilization in order to shift the balance of forces. No more rhetoric at odds with reality. No more shortcuts.

2011, Volume 63, Issue 06 (November)
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