South Africa pushed to the limit | by Hein Marais

by Sep 16, 2011Book Reviews, Special Features

south_africa_pushed_to_the_limitThe political economy of change
Praise for Hein Marais’ latest book

“An extraordinary achievement. This is, by a considerable margin, the best book yet on the political economy of South Africa. Marais combines an unrivalled knowledge of the literature with a prose style that is accessible, moving and witty. I know of very few authors who can discuss such complex issues while telling a story and engaging the reader.”
John Sender, Emeritus Professor of Economics, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge.
“SOUTH AFRICA PUSHED TO THE LIMIT will become a classic. I doubt whether anyone can match Marais’ grasp of where South Africa is at today.”
Bill Freund, Professor of Economic History, University of KwaZulu-Natal; author of THE MAKING OF CONTEMPORARY AFRICA.

“Combining powerful analysis with a wealth of documentation, SOUTH AFRICA PUSHED TO THE LIMIT provides by far the best overview of political, economic and social change in post-apartheid South Africa. Essential reading for anyone trying to understand one of the great social experiments of our time.”
Gillian Hart, Professor of Geography and Chair of Development Studies at the University of California at Berkeley; author of DISABLING GLOBALIZATION: Places of power in post-apartheid South Africa.

South Africa’s democratic government has worked hard at improving the lives of the black majority, yet close to half the population lives in poverty, jobs are scarce, and the country is more unequal than ever. For millions, the colour of a person’s skin still decides their destiny. In its wide-ranging, incisive 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 the early 1990s have compounded those handicaps. The big winners of the transition, Marais demonstrates, have been the country’s conglomerates, especially those active in the finance sector. The basic structure of Africa’s biggest economy, however, remains largely intact and continues to serve a gilded minority, which now accommodates sections of the new political elite. The government, meanwhile, has squandered crucial leverage in a series of errors and miscalculations – at huge detriment to efforts to reduce poverty and inequality. The book explains why those choices were made, where they went awry, and why South Africa’s vaunted formations of the left – old and new – have failed to prevent or alter them.

Building on his acclaimed book Limits to Change, Marais examines South Africa’s most pressing issues – from the real reasons behind President Jacob Zuma’s rise and the purging of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, and how the African National Congress replenishes its power, to piercing analyses of the country’s continuing AIDS crisis, its economic path, the changes wrought in the world of work, and the unfolding struggles over belonging and identity. South Africa Pushed to the Limit presents a riveting, benchmark analysis of the incomplete journey beyond apartheid.

Reviewed  by Socialist Review:

Imagine thousands of key activists steeped in the traditions of mass struggle and revolution catapulted into government. Imagine leading officials in the judiciary calling themselves revolutionaries and trade union leaders running government ministries. This has been South Africa under the African National Congress (ANC) government since 1994. Hein Marais’s latest book on what became of the South African revolution provides some detailed lessons for those in the midst of revolution today.

Despite the number of people receiving some form of government welfare rising from 2.6 million in 1994 to 14 million in 2010, the unequal social structure has deepened social inequality. While 49 percent of African households earned less than $210 a month in 2006 only 2 percent of white households earned so little. Class differences have also widened. Government figures show that in 2005 the poorest 20 percent of the population received only 1.4 percent of total income, while the richest 10 percent grabbed 51 percent. Little wonder then that by 2008 the Gini coefficient (a measure of income inequality, ie the wealth gap between rich and poor) was 0.8 – probably the highest in the world. Tragically, it is only violence against women that knows no social boundary.

Despite immense changes, one warning noted by Marais is that “politics and activism have come to be seen as avenues for the ambitious, not mechanisms for effecting change”. While in formal politics this is undoubtedly true, the waves of township rebellions and strikes that have been a regular feature of post-apartheid South Africa constantly regenerate the seeds of a different form of politics. Just a few months after Jacob Zuma was elected president, securing a fourth election victory for the ANC in 2009, the country was faced with a wave of township protests. Called “service delivery” protests (they were around the lack of municipal services) they also represented revolts against neoliberalism.

While keen to promote grassroots activism, Marais also has illusions in developed state power combined with forms of participatory governance, as witnessed in Porto Alegre in Brazil and Kerala in India. He is right to note that the future of the radical left will be conditional upon whether the Congress of South African Trade Unions (and I would add the South African Communist Party) break from the alliance with the ANC and whether they find ways to work together with the new social movements that have emerged since 1999. What South Africa shows us, and as people in North Africa are starting to find out, is that the democratic revolution is only the start of a revolutionary process. This book contains many valuable lessons.

Book Review: Marais’ Pushed to the Limit  by Reg Rumney, director, Centre for Economics Journalism in Africa at Rhodes University

At the lecture on his new book at Rhodes University recently, Hein Marais was loudly applauded by a small group of academics, students and other citizens, many of whom I guess would regard themselves as “Leftwing”.

Why the quote marks? You may ask. Marais’ book is an act of reaffirming political identity, and that is nothing to scoff at: who, after all, is on the Left in South Africa today?

A communist party whose secretary general is notable in his taste for the finer things in life? Whose embarrassment at Press reports on his government-provided luxury cars and stay at government hotels has prompted him to support calls for a kind of censorship? The millionaire businesspeople of the ruling party who have benefited from Black Economic Empowerment deals? A trade union movement which is corralled inside the Alliance with the ruling party?

The answer is that opposition to the status quo comes from a broad range of people and organisations outside and even inside the ANC and the traditional Left. A still vibrant civil society, including the unions, which saw expression in the United Democratic Front, can be seen in the relative ease that opposition can be mobilised against truly undemocratic developments such as the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill.

It is precisely because of this that I think that the message implicit in the title of Marais’ book, Pushed to the Limit, is too pessimistic. The book itself is an example of South Africans’ persistent willingness to question and challenge.

Though I strongly differ with Marais on several areas, there are many observations with which any concerned, progressive South African would concur, and I appreciate the sheer effort that has gone into his research, understanding and writing.

“The quest for more jobs is crucial, but it has to occur as part of the wider realisation of social rights,” Marais argues and goes on to examine the idea that social grants are “hand-outs” that lead to “dependency”.

“Ironically, the strongest inroads against poverty have been made with interventions that were not designed for that purpose. Chapter eight reviews the origins, merits and achievements of South Africa’s social grant system, which ranks among the most impressive in the so-called ‘developing’ world. Social grants have turned out to be the single most effective anti-poverty tool deployed after 1994 (Meth, 2007). Yet they are allocated begrudgingly. A flinty aversion to alleged ‘handouts’ and ‘dependency’ prevails and the social protection system ‘remains constrained by narrow conceptions of the state and by distrust of rights-based demands on state resources’ (Hassim, 2005b:3-4). This chapter deciphers this paradox, questions the binary logic that pits ‘welfare’ against ‘development’, job creation’ against ‘dependency’ and lays out the emancipating potential of an overhauled and expanded grant system.”

In that chapter, Marais comes out in support of the Basic Income Grant (he calls it a Universal Income), contending that the real reason for government and other opposition to that grant is political rather than technical. It is true that a sour, spiteful tone arises in the complaints about South Africa’s grants system from the middle class, with myths about deliberate teenage pregnancies to benefit from the child grant, for instance. Old age pensions, disability grants and child welfare grants serve to alleviate poverty, but that is not their main rationale, as Marais notes. He dismisses conditional grants in the form of Brazil’s Bolsa Familia grant to households, on the grounds that conditionality is a paternalistic approach.

It’s also true that there problems can arise in making grants conditional. The political reality is that it would be much easier to sell conditional grants to the middle class, however, and perhaps it would be a good starting point.

The ideology of grants is not the whole story. The chapter has no serious discussion of the sums involved in disbursing the basic income grant, and the very real fiscal constraint of the addition of a basic income grant to the other grants. It is true, I think, that social welfare of grant system in an unequal society like South Africa serves the middle class, but a social grant system that grew too expensive would not.

There are limits, but perhaps not those envisaged in the book’s title. There is a limit to the amount of tax that can be asked of the perhaps nine-million taxpayers in South Africa. It is not a moral but a practical hurdle. High progressive taxes have economic and political consequences. And it is easy to announce benefits, another thing to rescind them. The Finance Minister who announces that a grant is to be cancelled, scaled back or simply not increased because it can no longer be afforded is a Finance Minister who is either on his way out or part of an authoritarian regime.

All of which does not detract from the appeal of Pushed to the Limit, whose nuance and depth of research academics will like. It is readable and energetic. A passion for ideas is evident, and the rhetorical style is forceful, even rollicking at times.

Yet while the polemic style adds zest to the writing, it can distort and misrepresent arguments. For instance, Marais criticises those who in the 1990s “demonised” the idea of macro-economic populism, which describes, for instance, leaders like Eva Peron. Why “demonised,” which implies some bad faith on the part of the critics, rather than “criticised”? Well, I am one of those who wrote about this threat, and I am concerned then as I am now about leaders who promise cornucopias of easy wealth to a gullible populace. Certain ANC Youth League members who believe, or pretend to believe, that State ownership of mines will automatically solve all economic problems come to mind. Believing that simply running negative real interest rates, as some critics of the Reserve Bank advocate, will get us out of our particular economic malaise is precisely what I think economists were and are warning about.

From my point of view, while I agree with Marais’ contention that there has been some continuity in economic thinking from before 1994 to the present, I don’t think that it is correct to see in this some sinister attempt to defeat democracy, simply evidence of the persistence of certain ideas. The push for privatisation and liberalisation, embraced initially by the PW Botha was intensified after the collapse of communism temporarily enthroned classical economic ideas.

Quite simply I think that Marais is so keen to present government policy as wrong-headed that he ignores too much of what is good, and the book evinces an anti-business and pro-union bias that undermines its credibility. Neither government, business nor labour are faultless and it has even been argued that implicit and explicit agreements between these triumvirate powers result in anti-poor policies.

Yet Marais falls for the idea that ANC government’s economic policy has been captured somehow by the interests of a sinister Minerals-Energy Complex rather than merely being cautious, aware perhaps of the country’s rather small role on the international economic stage.

I have criticised the part of the book dealing with the listing of five of South Africa’s biggest firms on the London Stock Exchange in the 1990s elsewhere. It is simply wrong to say that the London listings were, as Marais claims, capital flight. They were, in my view, probably neutral to good for the economy. It is one thing to be critical of the government’s decision to allow the relocation of the HQs of some of the South Africa’s biggest companies to London, quite another to misunderstand them so thoroughly.

Business and business people are hardly blameless, but it is important to hold them accountable for what they actually do and have done. A blanket disapproval, in the absence of an alternative is not helpful, and despite the recent global financial crisis and recession in the developed world, central planning doesn’t look as though it is about to stage a come-back in serious economic thinking.

Pushed to the Limit is a useful and interesting book, which could have been enhanced by a less doctrinaire understanding of the details of business and the economy.

South Africa Pushed to the Limit – The Political Economy of Change, by Hein Marais. UCT Press. 2011

Book review: South Africa Pushed to the Limit: the Political Economy of Change, by Hein Marais (UCT Press, 2011)

Stephanie Allais

South Africa Pushed to the Limit provides a cogent and compelling account of South Africa’s development from the late nineteenth century to today. This is a masterful political economy beautifully written in lucid prose that is at times witty, and at times extremely moving. There are no soft targets or simplistic explanations of our troubles. Instead, Marais provides an account of the dynamics that have shaped our history, and have constrained the actions of governments and activists, without letting them off the hook for the choices they have made.

Marais starts his account in the early development of capitalism in South Africa, to explain the underlying structure of the economy, and the origins of the stunted and skewed industrialization that continues to be a dominant feature of our economy. He then moves quickly to the developments that led to the transition to democracy, providing a compelling account of the political settlement, and the economic changes that were happening at the same time. The following chapters focus on the economy—adjustments in the 1990s, and performance in the 21st century, both of which, Marais demonstrates, show unnerving continuities with earlier historical patterns.

The middle section covers key issues facing South Africa today: HIV/AIDs and TB, the social grant system, the health and education systems. On each issue he provides a clear overview of the key debates, detailed references for those who want to follow up, and illuminating insights and analysis. Marais is balanced and measured, providing accounts of where there have been clear gains and achievements. In particular, he describes how the social grant system, which he describes as the most impressive in the ‘developing’ world, has turned out to be the single most effective anti-poverty tool. But he pulls no punches in attempting to understand where things have gone wrong, such as in HIV/AIDS. Particularly compelling is his analysis for the ongoing stigmatization of social grants, and rationing of citizens claims on the state. Marais points out the unfairness of a system which gives grants only to people who are removed from the labour market, when such a large component of the population simply cannot access the labour market. His analysis of the paternalism behind this begrudging approach to welfare is illuminating. 

The concluding chapters of the book focus on the state, the ANC, and various movements in opposition to the state. Marais’ analysis of the Mbeki/Zuma struggle, which he describes as “the most sophisticated and sustained piece of political theatre South Africans had ever experienced”, will make uncomfortable reading for both Zuma and Mbeki supporters. Marais explains why Cope was the best thing that could have happened to the ANC—allowing it to distance itself from its own track record, and manage the problems of dissatisfaction, disorientation, and restiveness in its ranks.

Most fascinating for me was the chapter on changes in the world of work. Marais describes the ‘traditional narrative of economic modernisation running in reverse: greater informality and fewer decent jobs’. Far from a labour market which is ‘rigid’, Marais mobilizes the stark facts to tell a tale of job insecurity: working hours that have increased, especially for women, wages as a shrinking share of total output, and real individual incomes falling, with the steepest drop amongst the poorest, especially women. Even formal sector employment is increasingly insecure, with poor wages and benefits. The average real wage, he demonstrates, is propped up by the improved fortunes of small numbers of well-paid workers. As Marais points out, “if labour laws were a major underlying cause of unemployment, job growth should have been most vigorous in those sectors where the laws have the least impact, such as agriculture, domestic and formal work. The opposite seems true.”

Marshalling detailed and rigorous research, Marais demonstrates that the number of working poor have increased markedly. Having a job is not a ‘magic portal’ into a wonderful world of security. He argues that binary perspective that equates unemployment with poverty and employment with relative wellbeing fits reality less and less, but continues to define national conversations. He concludes that the quest for more and better jobs is crucial, but it has to occur as part of a wider realization of social rights.

Marais offers hope for change, arguing, for example, for the emancipating potential of an overhauled and extended welfare system. There is scope, he suggests, for pushing past the limits to change, towards ideals of emancipation, solidarity, and equality. He is clear, though, that it’s not going to be easy, and the various organizations of the left all take a battering under Marais’ incisive pen. But the facts, forceful insights, useful overview of debates and literature, and piercing analysis presented in this book will leave us all in a better position from which to attempt to understand and to change our country.

Dr Stephanie Allais is a Senior Researcher at the Education Policy Unit, University of the Witwatersrand.

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