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Southern Africa Report Archive

Marlea Clarke reviews Hein Marais' book "South Africa: Limits to change". In his book, Marais provides many of the components of a coherent and rigorous analysis of the complex process of politico-economic change in South Africa, not least the terms for developing a critical perspective on the role of the ANC and of the policy choices it has made during South Africa's on-going transition. (jbv)

vol 14 no 3

Review: Tracking the transition
review by Marlea Clarke

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 3, May 1999
Page 30



Marlea Clarke, a member of the editorial collective of SAR is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Political Science at York University, Toronto.

Hein Marais, South Africa: Limits to change. Cape Town: UCT Press, 1998. 269pp. ISBN 1-919713-13-1

Official government activities, rallies and various public events marked this year's Freedom Day (April 27) in South Africa. With the election fast approaching, it is not surprising that the ANC and COSATU took advantage of this day to campaign, highlighting the gains that have been made over the past five years and the importance of an ANC victory in this second democratic election. Indeed, given the choices available to voters, the ANC clearly has the most to offer to workers. But is offering "the most" good enough? For despite some achievements in labour legislation and social policies, the ANC in government has also accelerated economic restructuring which serves the interests of foreign capital and big business. Was the government "pushed," by business and the limitations that globalization has imposed, or did they uncritically embrace neoliberal economic policies and the narrow path of liberal democracy? These are some of the questions Hein Marais addresses in his recent book, South Africa: Limits to Change.

Given the speed and direction of events that have unfolded in the 1990s in South Africa, it is no surprise that the country has captured the attention of many writers, scholars and political activists. While a wide range of books and articles have focused on the country's transformation, and on assessing the achievements and failures of the early years of the ANC led government, Marais' book remains one of the best. A comprehensive and detailed account of the transition, this book is important reading for anyone interested in understanding post-liberation politics in South Africa. A name familiar to many of our readers, Marais is the former deputy editor of South African periodical Work in Progress, co-author of Popular Movements and the Struggle for Transformation in South Africa and has been published widely, both in South Africa and abroad.

The real transition

While the central questions Marais addresses are not necessarily new, this book's approach and analysis depart in significant ways from much of the literature on South Africa's transition. In stark contrast to approaches which focus narrowly on detailing the negotiation process, or on applauding the "successful" transition to democracy, Marais critically assesses this process within broader historical, political and economic contexts. Those who have read this book or indeed any of recent articles Marais has written in South African and Canadian newspapers will need little persuading as to the strengths of his analysis. A result of his own background, both as a journalist and activist in the country for over a decade, Marais brings a depth of knowledge and insight that few other authors have. Yet, this comprehensiveness doesn't make the book a difficult read. The author's clear and smooth writing style allows him to "tell the story" of the transition in an engaging and persuasive manner, covering all the relevant debates, information and literature.

Perhaps most importantly the book raises two key questions: why were the leftward impulses of the ANC and the broader liberation movement tamed and neoliberalism embraced; and, what are the possibilities of progressive social change in South Africa and elsewhere, given the current neoliberal global context? To answer these questions, Marais traces the history of the liberation struggle, identifying key factors that framed, or influenced, decisions made throughout the struggle - decisions that later influenced policy choices made by the ANC-led government.

Specific chapters on the country's economy, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) and the ANC's economic policy begin to provide answers to such questions. In these, Marais convincingly debunks the argument that the ANC simply "saw the light" or chose this growth strategy based on pragmatic concerns. He also dismisses the popular accusation that the ANC simply "sold out." This latter view, he argues, is based on the assumption that there was ever ideological unanimity within the party. Marais' detailed historical account of the liberation movement reveals that unanimity did not, and does not, exist.

Critiquing these views, Marais argues that the move away from the more Keynesian economic policies of "growth through redistribution" to the embrace of more narrow market-based reforms was a much more contested and complicated process. Several factors contributed to this shift. First, while general positions were held and articulated by the party, the ANC simply failed to develop for itself a coherent economic strategy. Indeed, economic policy received little attention within the ANC during negotiations and in the years prior to the period of transition itself. This failure was linked in turn to a number of general weaknesses in the liberation movement: the historical privileging of the political over the economic; political strategies that continued to accept the two stage theory of revolution; the petit bourgeois character of the ANC; inadequate conceptions of societal change; and the nature of the relationship between the internal movement and the ANC in exile.

A second but related issue he points to is the negotiations process itself. Organizational and ideological weakness within the ANC, when coupled with the party's above-mentioned failure to develop an economic strategy, meant that more progressive approaches to economic development were lost (or defeated) when the debate moved from the ideological to the technical terrain. He argues that the ANC (including those within the party's Department of Economic Policy) and its left allies were ill equipped to engage in debates on technical grounds and therefore business and more conservative figures within the ANC successfully "steered" economic policy along a more orthodox path. An equally important effect of this more technical nature of the debate was that concrete decisions about economic strategy were allowed to be defined outside the party's broader social and political objectives, thus marginalizing activists and progressive thinkers from negotiations around economic policy. As a result, by the time the more left-oriented MERG report was produced in 1993, the direction of economic policy had already been pretty much determined.

Analyzing the shift

For anyone unconvinced that a shift has taken place - from a more popular-driven socio-economic development strategy to a more exclusively market-driven approach - Marais provides a detailed analysis of the government's current macro-economic strategy, GEAR. Outlining key features of the strategy (growth; job creation; trade, taxes and financial controls), his key chapter on the subject reveals the strategy's contradictions, problems, and neoliberal orientation. Such a detailed assessment is a welcome addition to existing left critiques of GEAR. Indeed, most left critiques of GEAR rely on rhetoric, or on merely listing central features of the economic strategy that can be shown to correspond to IMF imposed adjustments or similar market driven reforms, as proof of the government's uncritical acceptance of neoliberalism. Marais' chapter, in contrast, provides one of the clearest, more comprehensive analyses of GEAR available. In discussing the ANC's shift, Marais is also careful not to glorify the RDP and merely call for its revival. Instead, he outlines some of the weaknesses of that document too, and begins to sketch a way to go beyond the RDP in order for a more transformative project to be consolidated.

This harsh and rigorous critique of the ANC (and the SACP) seems to suggest that we (South Africans and those outside the country who were part of the anti-apartheid movement) shouldn't be surprised that this move away from socio-economic transformation has taken place. Indeed, we shouldn't have expected anything more from the ANC. So, this seems to suggest, if "blame" for the adoption of a neoliberal development strategy to guide the country's transition must be placed anywhere, it should be placed firmly with the ANC.

And yet, as Marais' later chapters indicate, it's not quite so simple as that. His detailed chapter on globalization indicates that it was not merely internal events that shaped the transition. Changes in the world economy, South Africa's marginal position in world trade, and the consolidation of neoliberal policies and governing practices elsewhere in the world are not insignificant factors. For Marais does take seriously the process of globalization and questions whether any country, especially any in the third world, has sufficient power at a national level to withstand global capitalism's homogenizing influences.

In sum, while he identifies the weaknesses within the ANC and rigorously critiques the government's economic strategy, Marais argues that the failure to advance an alternative development model cannot be completely separated from an analysis of the processes and pressures of globalization. Indeed, his discussion of regional influences and global processes which contribute to shaping South Africa's transition is one of the book's great strengths. Unlike most other accounts of the country, Marais takes seriously the changing regional and global context, presenting a wealth of data on global trends.

Weighing the factors

What he seems to conclude is that globalization severely complicates but does not preclude efforts by countries like South Africa to implement economic strategies that run counter to the dominant world order. Fair enough. And yet it is here that we find the one major weakness in his presentation. For he just doesn't take this analysis quite far enough, his argument getting a little muddled precisely when it moves from a more general focus on the new world order and the overbearing weight of globalization processes throughout the world to a focus on the quite specific case of South Africa itself.

Thus, on the one hand, he suggests that South Africa had much more room for manoeuvre than other countries in the developing world, citing, among other things, the lack of major loans from the IMF and World Bank which implies that multilateral lending institutions have had less leverage than in many other countries. On the other hand, this is contrasted with a discussion of globalization which suggests that governments around the world, especially those in the third world, have little choice but to accept the logic of global competitiveness and adapt their economies to the demands of an increasingly global economy.

Or, to take another example: in outlining the kind of political mobilization and strategy necessary to advance an alternative development strategy, Marais seems to set aside his strong critique of the party's internal weaknesses and petit-bourgeois tendencies. Instead he highlights the important role the party must play in reconfiguring a popular movement on the basis of an explicitly transformative perspective. Yet in this formulation Marais seems to "bail out" the ANC, now implying that external factors have been the more decisive in the shift to neoliberalism!

It is true, of course, that globalization remains a force, one important point of reference for framing the question of just how likely it is that the ANC can build and advance an alternative project in the coming years. Nonetheless, in assessing the book as a whole, there is a certain lack of precision in defining the relative weight to be assigned to diverse determinations, which, if they are not contradictory, need to be more carefully assessed. In the absence of such increased clarity as to where (and to what extent) the problem lies, the last chapter in particular - on "the way forward" - is just not as convincing at it might otherwise have been.

Marais' difficulty in bringing together the two pieces - the changing world order on the one hand and the shaping of national-level decision-making on the other - also means that some more specific processes are also left unproblematized. He doesn't adequately develop his argument around the limitations that globalization has imposed on the transition, for example. After a thorough and detailed discussion of the processes and key factors of globalization, Marais simply sets the global context aside. Apart from a few brief references to pressures from "foreign experts" (such as economists from the IMF), the discussion of the shift in the ANC's economic policy makes almost no reference to external pressures, or to how the specific broader world order conditions local structures and politics.

There were, in fact, a number of interesting international exchanges and relationships which may have contributed to policy development. For example, exchange visits in the early 1990s between South African (including ANC officials) and American economists and the visit of American economist to the ANC conference on anti-trust policies aren't addressed. Nor was the 1992 World Bank sponsored two week intensive training program for South African economists on the `management of economics in transition' mentioned. What impact did these interactions have on the development of ANC policy?

And, equally important, what precisely has been the impact of capital itself? Marais never really concretizes its presence and role in the decision-making process. While suggesting that business was able to defeat the ANC during negotiations when the debate moved from an ideological to a technical level, for example, he seems almost to imply that this was due mainly to the ideological vacuum that existed within the party. No reference is made to firms, such as those in the mining sector, which were important domestic political actors once they had disentangled themselves from the National Party. Further, the investments, activities and interests of mining and other sectors (such as finance) can't be separated from broader processes of globalization. In other words, globalization isn't something which is just being "done" to South Africa. It is a process of capitalist restructuring in which South Africa, South African capital in particular, is an active participant.

* * *

In sum, Marais provides many of the components of a coherent and rigorous analysis of the complex process of politico-economic change in South Africa, not least the terms for developing a critical perspective on the role of the ANC and of the policy choices it has made during South Africa's on-going transition. The chief weakness of his book is that in exploring how the local political economy is constituted in relationship to local dynamics, he doesn't go quite far enough in analyzing these processes in relation to the global order. He concludes that globalization "complicates" the transition, but leaves the tough questions of how, and to what extent, globalization does this only half answered. And yet it is precisely the issues of how globalization complicates the transition, how the global context shapes (and is in turn, shaped by) the dynamics of national politics, and what obstacles it might still present to the realization of humane and developmental outcomes that needs more analysis and discussion.

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Printable Version

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