South Africa’s democratic transition is well in the rear-view mirror, and managing a dichotomous economy are is no longer foreign. The veracities have settled in. The land is not redistributed at the pace in which it should. It is a far cry from belonging to all who live in it. Most citizens are either poor or unemployed, or both. Gender based violence seems a conventional practice. State corruption has become some sort of circus, those tasked with managing state resources running a kleptocratic empire, at the expense of the poor and the working class. It can well be said of South Africa’s development what development economists saw in the developing world the 1980s and 1990s; -development impasse. Perhaps for South Africa, it is a delayed impasse, but it is now here.
The accusations levelled against development theory in the 1980s and 1990s were based on the failure of creative development ideas. These ideas had become redundant, they offered nothing new to a society exploited by the west. This indictment was followed with meaningful theoretical efforts to rehabilitate development in search for a legitimate reason to continue practicing (and talking about) development. Given the continuum of troublingly high levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality in South Africa, perhaps it is fitting to draw the development enterprise to a tribunal, and ask whether development has not reached cul-de-sac.
In the closing decade of the last century, ideological vanguards defended the poor track record of their development ideas and policies by re-inventing minor discourses which deflected any serious conversation about development. They were of course responsible for development failure, and so there had to be re-legitimization of their future.
There are no neatly synthesized and/or articulated accusations of development in South Africa in the same way they were in the twilight decades of the twentieth century. There are however cases and arguments which advance that while South Africa might not be akin to DRC or Somalia, it has taken a wrong turn, ending up in a wilderness bush, neither burning, nor holy. To explain (and perhaps defend) the wrong turn, politicians have re-invented their relevance by finding political and social relevance whose narrow objective is to maintain political legitimacy. The efforts to recover their relevance does not follow clear ideological pathways. Whatever is popular, goes.
The emergence of the Economic Freedom Fighters few years ago woke the country to ideological chaos. The EFF re-fueled the declining bargaining power of the working class. Not to be outmaneuvered, the African National Congress (ANC) re-invented its own political relevance by introducing Radical Economic Transformation (RET) and white monopoly capital in its public rhetoric. The Democratic Alliance made failed (cringeworthy) efforts to introduce terms such as black privilege and the so-called repurposed colonialism, in search for conservative support. More recently, we’ve seen labor unions calling for cutting of work hours from the current 45 per week to 41, at the same time increasing wages-all this on the altar of the devastating impact of Covid 19. Finally, just last week, Durban was rocked by afrophobic attacks, which employs ideological tools of a unique kind.
These ideological re-lapses, of which residual traces can be seen as early as 2005, then gaining momentum from 2008 well into the 2010s and continuing, have introduced hard conversations about how a fragile society can (or not) rebuild rapidly and sustainably from the ruins of apartheid. While these ideological expressions are constitutionally protected (except for the Afrophobia) just how equipped they are in delivering development is the question that begs to be answered.
The answer should be viewed from the broad theoretical framework which in making a short turn, I would like to look at. From the left, there are at least two main strands which might explain (or dismiss) the legitimacy of the dominant ideological suasions in South Africa. The first is Marxist (and neo-Marxist) analyses of antagonistic social relations of different classes, based on exploitation. The Weberian school, which represents the second strand understands societal problems as rooted in unequal life chances, and the ability (or otherwise) to procure material and social goods. Neo-Marxists draw a distinction between the working class and the middle class, the non-propertied and propertied classes respectively, while Neo-Weberian thought concentrates on admission to a social class on the basis of income, occupation, education and other life chances. Both neo-Marxist and neo-Weberian perspectives view development as a failed enterprise, producing wealth for a handful while at the same time creating a burgeoning but precarious working class.
From the right, the conservatives tend to be market oriented, idolizing free enterprise and minimal government. Theoretically, conservatives are mainly responsible for social intolerance, in defense free enterprise. They generally view governments redistributive duties as a barrier to their socio-economic opportunities.
For Marxists, the enemy is never a fellow working class or poor. The bourgeoisie who own means of production are the real enemies of the poor. The propertied and the professional classes are considered as ruthless in their pursuit (and defense of) profit and the social dividends already paid out to them. In South Africa, it is difficult to pin down where exactly the ideological lines are. The unions are in bed with the state, the increasingly conservative Democratic Alliance is an ally of the nationalist left EFF, and so it goes.
Broadly at least, ideological narratives in South Africa seem to explain politics only, and by effect silencing any real conversation about development. In so doing, the masks cover more than political faces. They also cover the belly of the beast, the material socio-economic edifice of the South African society. This glaring commitment to narrow political relevance is a troubling gamble with the country’s future. This is not just a South African phenomenon. The reductionist tendencies cast major shadows on proper diagnosis and prognosis of any society. The former US president Donald Trump employed socially relevant rhetoric to gain political support. The consequence was that the world entertained serious questioning of the sustainability of what is viewed as one of the world’s strongest democracies. This is the sort of risk which South Africa faces, if there is no return to real and genuine debate about the meaning of development and democracy.
For kleptocrats in general, South Africa is no longer a negotiated settlement, socio-political relevance is. Ideological confusion and distortions seem to be the guiding posts of national conversations about economic development. The American philosopher Ruth Nanda Anshen observed similar trends in the 1940s society. She lamented that “the possibility of clarifying the confusion and of dissipating …distortions seems to be desperately remote”. Although Anshen was more concerned about how scholarly isolations created more social risks for the society, her words ring true for modern South Africa.
So then, if there are no creative conversations about development in South Africa, how can South Africa answer achieve meaningful development? To answer this question, I would first like to turn to Thompson, who in the 1970s engaged in theorizing what he saw as the character of the French Revolution (FR). Thompson argued that the FR was not an exclusive project of the poor and the working class. By implication, Thompson suggested ideological purity hardly explains any society let alone a complex one like South Africa. He then went ahead to suggest that progress was not an abstract practice detached from history. People from all sorts of societal strata, he argued, engage in social action mainly because they re-visit historical canvas, where their past social memory spurs them to respond to present challenges.
South Africa’s development success lies in social memory-a linking of innovative ideas with the country’s history. This should be a deliberate development audit, at the same time realizing that poorly conceptualized ideological narratives often mislead rather than serve useful analysis. What this also means is that the national academy, which is the primary knowledge producer, should lead development conversations. Until they do, we will stay in the wrong bush. There are, too many shadow lines which move back and forth, constantly pulling and pushing the boundaries of the South African society, where we discover that development must mean more than social and political relevance. For South Africa, the nature of poverty and inequality, for example, is transgenerational. So is unemployment. Household dynamics in South Africa is another example. The historical distortion of households through forced migrant labor is not often accounted for in development measurement. These development problems will not be addressed by narrow political agendas. Development policy and practice fails when it does not grasp these dynamics sufficiently.
Dr. Jason Musyoka is an associate researcher at the department of political science, University of Pretoria. He writes in his personal capacity