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The South African development model: hitting against the limits?


The South African development model is based upon fragile foundations and is confronting a looming crisis. At the political level, long term structural factors are eroding the legal and institutional foundations of the constitution, this reflecting, inter alia, declining morality within the ruling African National Congress; its growing resistance to political accountability; the limited prospects for a developmental state given state incapacities; and erosion of support among the party's constituencies. Economically, although growth is likely to remain positive, its benefits will continue to be in part negated by population growth, the persistently high level of unemployment, and the growing financial burden of social security payments. Thirdly, worsening inequality between rich and poor means that South Africa has been able to overcome overall colonial patterns, and the continuing overlap between race, class and power remains explosive. Finally, the South African developmental model is facing ecological crisis as it is reaching the limits of resource intense growth. The way forward to confront a dangerous future is to demand innovative and radical solutions facilitated by genuine political commitment to a more equal society.


The arrival of democracy in 1994 was a 'liberation' for the majority of people in South Africa who had previously been denied the most basic of rights by the former apartheid regime. Democracy brought a new constitution resplendent with a battery of political and socioeconomic rights and the right to vote brought with it an African National Congress (ANC)-Ied government committed to ensuring a 'better life for all'. As a result, the landscape has been transformed in so many ways that South Africa is 'another country', and a much better one at that. No one, bar a few die-hards, would want to go back to apartheid, and indeed, it is often said that today it is difficult to find anyone amongst the white population who ever voted for the formerly ruling National Party (NP)! Nonetheless, nearly two decades on, the limits to South African liberation are becoming more evident. It is not just that South Africa is confronting a fairly familiar post-colonial malaise, rooted notably in increasing disillusion with the performance and character of post-apartheid government, but there is a growing sense that the entire edifice of the South African 'development' enterprise is based upon fragile foundations and that the future points to a looming crisis. Now, 'crisis' is of course an overworked word, and we need to specify what we mean by it. My dictionary offers me two meanings which express the sense in which I use the word: 'a crucial stage or turning point'; and 'an unstable period', especially one of 'extreme trouble or danger'. In other words, 'crisis' implies that South African society faces more than the usual 'problems' or 'challenges' which confront the post-colony, and that indeed we face the prospect of 'extreme danger'. This is because the looming crisis is multi-faceted, with its different dimensions deeply interrelated, and not easily attended to. In fact, without wanting to be alarmist, I would argue that it is deeply alarming!

Drawing particularly upon a recently published volume drawing together the work of diverse scholars (Daniel et al, 2010), I will propose here that the South African crisis can be broken down into at least four dimensions, viz interrelated political, economic, human security and ecological crises. In this I draw upon ideas dealt within an essay in which I pose the question whether contemporary South Africa is embarked upon 'development or decline' (Southall 2010). Obviously in a short article it is impossible to deal with any of these challenges comprehensively, but hopefully some broad brush strokes will serve to illustrate the pressing issues which South Africa is facing while suggesting what needs to be done to address them.


South Africa is correctly lauded for the nature and success of its political transition. Rather than a further descent into the horrors of civil war, both the then ruling NP and the ANC had the courage and common-sense to pull-back from confrontation and to secure an (elite pacted) negotiated transition from apartheid racial dictatorship to democracy. As noted, this process of democratisation was buttressed by institutional changes whereby, notably, constitutionalism was safeguarded by judicial bodies such as the Constitutional Court, and potentially deepened by establishment, under the constitution, of the 'Chapter Nine' institutions, such as the Electoral, Human Rights, Gender Commissions, and so on. Importantly, too, the newly democratic situation was stabilised by the generosity and wisdom of the then leadership of the ANC, which under Nelson Mandela devoted major efforts to racial reconciliation. Nearly two decades into democracy, the ANC is with much justification the butt of widespread popular criticism for its numerous shortcomings as a ruling party. Nonetheless, it remains important to remember key aspects of its background, not least its commitment--which was much more than formal--to 'non-racialism', a concept which for all its ambiguities, offered political inclusion and equality to all South Africans, including those who previously had enjoyed the benefits of white minority rule. Not surprisingly, in the optimist aftermath of the apartheid era, the prospects for democracy in South Africa were widely deemed to be relatively rosy.

It remains important, though, to retain an 'optimism of the will'. South Africa has remained a democracy, albeit one with some very rough edges, and there is no serious analyst who has yet risked his or her reputation by arguing that it is heading back to dictatorship. Nonetheless, it is possible to discern the outlines of a looming political crisis.

An early assessment of 'the probability of democratic success' by two Scandinavians, Jan-Erik Lane and Svante Ersson (1997) engaged in the sort of gloom-mongering that, for understandable reasons, was unfashionable in South Africa at the time. They acknowledged the spectacular success of the democratic transition, but argued that a focus upon the transformed nature of political institutions embodied a short term perspective, (although even then they proposed that the new South Africa's opting for what they termed 'semi-presidentialism' with parliamentarism on the basis of informal one-party dominance constituted a strong negative). Consequently, they argued the need to pose longer term questions about the probability of democratic stability (or 'democratic viability'). Suffice it to say here that while, broadly, they reckoned the transition of South Africa from a protected to a more open, market economy a positive (for 'economic freedom tends generally to support democracy'), they deemed a raft of factors, notably the high level of socio-economic inequality, the fragility of economic prosperity, and the extent to which population increase was likely to depress economic growth, as likely to undermine democratic prospects over the long term (Lane and Ersson 1997).

We may choose to take issue with Lane and Ersson on a variety of grounds, but overall, it is probably true to say that contemporary assessment of South Africa's democratic prospects tends to pay considerably more attention to underlying structural factors than was fashionable in the wake of the transition, even if these do not yet add up to anything like a coherent 'theory' or 'approach', while also focusing upon an important institutional factor, viz, the changing nature of the ANC. Let me turn to the latter factor first.

In its discussion document for its September 2010 National General Council, the ANC argues that all progressive and national liberation movements face all sorts of organisational challenges once they assume power. These include, notably, the 'challenge of incumbency', which brings with it the risk that, rather than using state power for the greater good of society, liberation movements may opt for patronage and neo-patrimonialism (that is, allocation of political resources on bases of factional rather than public interests); bureaucratism (that is, a blurring of movement and state, calcification of structures, and political demobilisation); statist approaches to social transformation (that is, targeting of citizens as passive recipients of delivery and development, and taming of civil society); and an erosion of progressive values and organisational culture by the growth of greed and acceptance of inequality. Likewise, the document highlights the dangers of the growth of influence of money within party structures, linked as it is likely to be to the selfish interests of the rich. To its credit, the ANC recognises that it has been subject to all these dangers, hinting--without saying so in so many words--that to the extent that is has fallen short in these regards, this was the fault of the party leadership under former President Thabo Mbeki, who was replaced as party by leader by Jacob Zuma at the party's 52nd National Conference in Polokwane in December 2007. It therefore posits Polokwane as a 'turning point' which launched a 'renewal campaign' to reverse the danger of 'revolutionary decline and decay' (ANC 2010).

It does not serve our purpose here to explore the extent to which the ANC may have fallen into this morass of decay, nor to speculate whether the ANC National General Council (NGC) document is itself a reflection of an attempt by the new leadership to establish its moral and political hegemony against potential challengers. Rather, at one level, it is helpful to take the party at face value, in that it is having to grapple with critiques which have become widespread concerning the 'limits to liberation', viz the tendency of national liberation movements to turn themselves into vehicles of political oppression and material accumulation by the new elites which have managed to access post-colonial state power.

I argue elsewhere that we need to go beyond the two dimensions which form the composite of this approach to the ANC, viz the 'dominant party' and 'Fanonist' perspectives respectively. Rather it is necessary to comprehend the contemporary ANC as a 'political machine' which, while performing key aspects of state (running the economy, more or less well; supervising the civil service and parastatals etc) simultaneously maintains the party's grip on power via electoral mobilisation and control while allocating political power, privileges, positions and resources (Southall 2011 forthcoming). Yet at heart this illustrates the 'limits to liberation', and suggests the likely limited prospects of 'organisational renewal'.

First, for all that there is manifold evidence of discontents within the ANC's constituency of impoverished South Africans, there should be no doubting its enormous capacity as an electoral machine which is based, inter alia, upon its populist appeal to its legacy as the vehicle of liberation from dictatorship and racial oppression; its indirect supervision of electoral administration; increasingly, its access to massive funding to facilitate mass campaigning; and not least, the continuing disarray of the parties of opposition. True, at the last election, the ANC lost and conceded provincial power in the Western Cape; it is true also, that its support is becoming proportionately more African and less representative of South Africans, whilst simultaneously the intensity of support it derives from its own constituency has consistently declined since 1994. Even so, the prospect of the ANC being seriously challenged at the polls, to the extent that it might lose an election and be faced by the dilemma of whether it should give up power or cling to office, remains highly unlikely for the foreseeable future. Apart from the factors adumbrated above, this reflects the continuing disarray of the opposition, and the apparent inability of the Democratic Alliance (DA), its principal and most astute challenger, to rise above an electoral ceiling of support which remains racially bounded. It remains possible, of course, that the present alliance between the ANC and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) which was fundamental to the elevation of Jacob Zuma to office may become so strained that organised labour may come to the conclusion that the rewards it was seeking from Polokwane are not forthcoming. Even so, to posit Cosatu making a fundamental breach with the ANC stretches the imagination, not least because Cosatu's leadership recognises that opting for political independence (and/or outright opposition) would entail marginalisation, exclusion from influence and the allocation of political goods, and possibly, repression. In short, all this points not to any outright challenge to democracy as such (in contrast to Zimbabwe, where the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front [Zanu-PF] has maintained its grip on state power, despite electoral losses, via its association with the military), but to a steady erosion of the quality of democracy.

Does this point to an emergent political crisis? I think it does on three main counts. First, there are signs that the ANC is increasingly resistant to political accountability. Governments anywhere are reluctant to wash their dirty linen in public, and where they can, they resort to confidentiality and secrecy in the name of the 'national interest'. There are certainly strong grounds for arguing that this tendency is growing within the ANC, not least because it is strongly associated with the desire to clamp down on embarrassing disclosures of corruption or incompetence, especially at the top. Hence it is widely canvassed that the current proposals to introduce a highly restrictive 'Freedom of Information Bill', which would impose far-reaching restrictions upon investigative journalism and much ordinary reportage of governmental affairs, alongside a Media Tribunal, which would be established to regulate and monitor the media, is motivated by the desire to place firm limits upon public access to knowledge concerning the malfeasance, indiscretions, and favourable access to state resources enjoyed by politicians, many civil servants, businessmen with 'political connectivity' and the emerging breed of 'tenderpreneurs'. Suffice it to say that with corruption becoming rife, the ANC seems more inclined to shoot the messenger than to address the problem at source. The implications of this--secrecy in government combined with extensive looting of state resources--are obviously alarming.

Secondly, the political malaise points to the stunted prospects for the 'developmental state' which has long been punted by the left forces within the Tripartite Alliance. As far as the left is concerned, the replacement of the mildly collectivist Redistribution and Development Plan (RDP) with the market-orient Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme (GEAR) in 1996 was the new government's original sin, and in the post-Mbeki era, there is now need for the state to address the economic perversions introduced by 'neo-liberal' macro-economics by the state adopting a more assertive and guiding role within the economy. There are strong policy grounds for welcoming such an initiative, even if South Africa's room for manoeuvre given the constraints of the international market are considerably less than during the period, a few decades ago, when the East Asian 'developmental states' took firm shape. However, at a far more basic level, a 'developmental state' demands a level of 'state capacity' which South Africa simply does not have. There are deep historical reasons for this, ranging from the Western imprint upon the South African public service (which limits its potential for economic creativity) through to the baleful legacy of Bantu education, which has left generations of Black South Africans (who now form the majority of civil servants), grossly unequipped to render a state bureaucracy efficient. In short, with public sector unions now the most powerful force within Cosatu, and constituting an influential support base for the ANC, the necessary levels of enthusiasm and energy for turning the ship of state around are missing, notwithstanding many fine aspirations expressed in official documentation. And of course, an inefficient civil service is scarcely one which enjoys being rendered publicly accountable.

If the ANC's party dominance, constrained public accountability and its presiding over a state machinery with markedly limited capacities for delivering public services describes the outlines of a looming political crisis in broad brush terms, then it is scarcely surprising that there is a growing popular reaction. For reasons already described, this has offered limited returns to the parliamentary opposition. Rather, it has taken the form of popular protest at local level in numerous municipalities around the country.

Generalising about 'social delivery' protests is highly perilous, for they take many different forms: some are 'spontaneous', others more organised; some are led by independent groups which arise out of demands for better housing, sanitation, electricity supply or whatever, while others are led by structures from within the ANC; meanwhile, many are directed in protest against alleged corruption within local or provincial government, and at times, it would seem there is co-ordination of protest across different municipalities. Yet what would seem to come through all this is a high level of fragmentation of protest, and evidence of popular attitudes and strategies which bode ill for democracy. To be sure, there is some considerable evidence that this situation is fertile ground for the development of social movements, which in echo of the predominant ethos of the civics movement in the anti-apartheid days of the 1980s, is demanding of political accountability and internal democracy within organisations; yet against this, there is equally pressing evidence that popular protest can be associated with local factionalism (even warlordism), male machismo, and a predisposition towards violence on the grounds that unless protest is matched by violence, the government will not listen. (i)

There are certainly strong grounds for arguing that if a coherent opposition to the ANC is going to emerge, one which is at the very least going to exact a higher level of public accountability, then it is going to come out of some combination of progressive forces within the organised left (Cosatu and the South African Communist Party--SACP) and emergent social movements. We should perhaps say 'all strength to their elbow'. Yet against this, it is arguable that the political response may remain both inchoate and/or become politically regressive, structured around authoritarian figures (within and outside the ANC), with the resources to command a significant local following, and powerful enough to make demands on the state. This underlines the suggestion that the political foundations of South African democracy remain fragile. They are scarcely helped by the prospects for the economy.


Lane and Errson (1997:8) argued that South Africa's level of urbanisation and industrialisation constituted a positive for democracy, but feared that the level of economic growth was being overhauled by rapid population growth. This is broadly correct but needs to be nuanced and updated as follows.

First, although the post-apartheid era has seen consistent growth, the benefits have been substantially qualified by rapid population growth:

As noted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report for South Africa in 2003:

Against the background of a growing population, the significant deterioration in South Africa's growth performance between the 1970s and mid-1990s meant a serious decline in real per capita growth rate until 1994. The average annual real per capita growth was 2.9 per cent during the 1960s and 0.7 per cent during the 1970s. It was negative 0.6 per cent in the 1980s and negative 1.5 per cent between 1990 and 1994. Between 1995 and 2002, the average annual real per capita growth rate was positive again, at 0.67 per cent (UNDP 2003: 13).

Given the historical background of white fears of being 'swamped' by blacks (Moultre 2001), it is extremely dangerous to even enter the arena regarding population trends, so suffice it to say here merely that although the rate of increase in the population is slowing, the impact of population growth upon per capita incomes is bound to continue to act as a significant constraint, especially given limited growth prospects. Thus very recently, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has pronounced that if South Africa wants to make a serious dent in levels of unemployment and poverty, then it needs an average growth rate of seven per cent over 20 years--yet this is against an immediate background of global recession, a negative growth rate of 1,8 per cent in 2009 and an expected growth rate of just three per cent in 2010 (Business Report, 20 August 2010). The past record and present macro-economic trends suggest that attainment of a seven per cent growth rate is unrealistic. In other words, many--probably most--South Africans are likely to remain poor, and as is well established, poverty impacts disproportionately upon the African population.

Two other factors outline the nature of the economic crisis: the persistently high unemployment rate and the growth of transfer payments to combat poverty against a limited tax base. As is well known, South Africa has a dismally high level of unemployment. Indeed, this has increased since the end of apartheid. The official (narrow) unemployment rate of 16,4 per cent and (expanded) rate of 29 per cent in 1995 had increased to 30,5 per cent and 41,8 per cent by 2002 and, while falling somewhat during the relative 'boom' years thereafter, has fallen back to 24,5 per cent and 40 per cent in 2009 as a result of the recent global economic recession (UNDP 2003: 20; Makgetla 2010). As Makgetla notes, the International Labour Office records South Africa as being amongst the ten countries with the worst employment ratios in the world. (ii)) Meanwhile, many of those who count as employed are situated in low quality and low paying jobs which carry the usual demographic characteristics which is the legacy of the apartheid period.

Overall, for all the aspirations of government and the trade union movement to create not just jobs, but 'decent work', the odds are against a level of success which is likely to make for a significant improvement of such statistics over the next two decades. A fundamental reason, quite simply, is that South Africa does not have an agricultural sector capable of absorbing the unemployed and capable of providing for an agriculturally based assault upon poverty. For well known reasons of history, the South African peasant sector was destroyed by white industrial and agricultural interests, leaving a decimated and shrunken 'African reserve' (later 'homeland') sector behind. Today, South African agriculture is dominated by highly capital intensive farming which offers very limited employment. Meanwhile, not only has post-apartheid 'land reform' been pretty much a dismal failure in terms of amounts of land returned to historically dispossessed communities, but equally alarmingly, land reform has been largely disconnected from any serious attempts at 're-peasantisation' (that is, making it an agricultural success) (Kariuki 2010; Atkinson 2010). In short, there is no serious prospect of any major 'back to the land' movement, with the consequence that impoverished communities are becoming increasingly dependent upon government transfer payments (pensions, disability grants etc) for survival.

The alleviation of poverty by provision of transfer payments constitutes one of the post-apartheid government's greatest achievements. Nonetheless, questions are increasingly being raised by government as to whether a growing financial burden of social security is ultimately sustainable. Thus by 2006, some 24 per cent of households claimed pensions and grants as their principal source of income (compared with just 1,3 per cent recording farm products), social protection accounting for 15,4 per cent of the budget in 2009/10 (SAIRR 2008/09: 280). Meanwhile, as is regularly pointed out, government revenue--which having increased significantly--rests upon a narrow tax base, with just 5,3 per cent individual taxpayers providing some 40 per cent of government income, the balance otherwise largely provided by corporations (10,5 per cent) and value added tax (25,7 per cent) (SAIRR 2008/9: 149).

Do such broad brush strokes add up to an economic 'crisis'? Let us rest the case by saying that South Africa's modest growth rates continue to be undermined by a high, albeit declining rate of population growth; and very high rates of unemployment and underemployment which have remained stubbornly high. Furthermore, because the pattern of economic growth is capital intensive, it is unlikely that the level of unemployment will decrease significantly, not least because South Africa has a low level of savings and investment (Mohamed 2010). This adds up to not only a high level of dependence of households upon government income, but a serious crisis of survival amongst the poor.


The extent of inequality and poverty in South Africa are so well documented, that there is minimal need for reiteration here. However, it is worth briefly exploring the possibilities for improvement towards a more equal, wealthier and fairer society.

It is a well established fact that gross racial income inequalities have been declining in South Africa for some decades, a reflection, doubtless, of movement of blacks into industrial and professional employment:

It is notable, too, that there has been a faster move towards greater racial inequality since 1994 than before: for instance, Africans average incomes increased by an average of R104 per head per year between 1960 and 1994 compared to R240 per head per year thereafter.

Likewise, the number of people living in poverty has decreased since the democratic transition. Whereas 1.75 million people, or 4,2 per cent of the population, were living on less than US$1 per day in 1996, only 678 300 people (or 1,4 per cent of the population) were living at this level in 2008 (SAIRR 2008/09: 302). The number of people living in relative poverty (iii) has similarly declined:

Despite the improvements in living standards, which are attributable to the mix of constantly positive growth since 1994 and the increase in transfer payments to the poor, poverty in South Africa remains pervasive throughout the bottom of the society, notably amongst Africans. This means, bluntly, that up to 40 per cent of South Africans have minimal prospect of increasing their human security (access to enough food, housing, employment etc) given the present manner in which income, wealth and opportunity are distributed across society.

It is easy for critics to blame government for deficient policies, whereas if we take a long term historical view, we might well choose to say that the steady improvement in living standards is praiseworthy, and if repeated for two to three decades to come, might see the present levels of poverty eradicated. However, as we have already seen, the government's own estimate of the seven per cent growth rate needed to achieve this suggests that South Africa may already have done the easy part, and that unless there is a significant change in patterns of distribution, up to half the population may remain 'poor'. When we consider, in addition, that South Africa's human development rating (which is drawn from a composite index relating to life expectancy, educational attainments and GDP) fell from 0.7201 in 1994 to 0.683 in 2007), largely because of the impact of HIV/AIDS (whose economic and care burden falls disproportionately upon the poor), then we can appreciate that something is desperately wrong.

It is well established that the shift to neo-liberal policies, involving liberalisation of economies and in many cases, reduction of the extent of social protection, has led to a widening gap between the rich and the poor globally, and within individual societies. Nonetheless, even within that context, South Africa's overall performance has been dismal and shameful, as an already highly unequal society in 1994 has become the most unequal society in the world as measured by the gini coefficient. (A gini coefficient of one indicates perfect income inequality). In 1995, the gini coefficient in South Africa was 0.596; in 2001 it was 0.635; today (2009) it is 0.697 (UNDP 2003: 43-44; Business Report, 28 September 2009). Thus in 2000, South Africa's rising income inequality reflected the fact that only six per cent of people who reached the formal retirement age of 65 could be regarded as financially independent; 47 per cent were retiring dependent on their families; 31 per cent had to continue working; and 15 per cent relied entirely upon a pension from government (UNDP 2003: 43). One may presume today that, given the impact of the global recession upon employment levels, these figures are, if anything, getting worse.

It is true that the worsening income inequality is largely a function of growing inequalities amongst blacks (Africans, Coloureds and Indians) rather than amongst whites (amongst whom the income distribution is more even, reflecting advantageous employment patterns). This in turn indicates the changing racial composition of the South African class structure. As the UNDP noted in 2003, inequality is a function as much of wealth as it is of income, and in wealth terms, whites have remained overwhelmingly advantaged through access to inherited property, and income from diverse sources as well as salaries: stocks, bonds and real estate. Thus:

(T)he upper class in South Africa consists of a small, wealthy and mainly white segment of the population. Its members dominate the top echelons of business and institutions and own a large proportion of all privately held corporate stock in the country.... the wealth of the upper class gives it enormous corporate power and a direct influence over the economic lives of the majority of South Africans (UNDP 2003: 73).

The strategy of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) has been pursued by government to achieve upward black mobility into the ranks of this upper class and to 'transform' the profile of corporate power, although as is now well known, with rather limited success, the key critique being that BEE has worked principally to enrich a small group of politically connected (or favoured) individuals. Even if it has, it is equally well known that many such individuals have been funded by corporate debt, and that the global recession may have had a highly deleterious impact upon their overall wealth.

In short, South Africa has yet been unable to escape the overall colonial patterns of the distribution of wealth and corporate power. This continuing overlap between race, class and power remains potentially explosive within a society which is still wracked by high levels of black poverty and is likely to do so in the future, not least because such racial differentiation readily make themselves available for populist mobilisation in post-colonial conditions. This appears bad for democracy; long term stability; and ultimately, one would imagine, continuing growth.


There is a growing realisation that the South African development model is facing major ecological challenges (Pillay 2010). In a comprehensive overview, to which I can only briefly refer, Mark Swilling argues that South Africa is reaching the limits of resource intense growth. This, he argues, provides the context for the country's pursuit of economic growth and poverty reduction.

Swillings sees South Africa's growth since 1994 as having been driven by a combination of expanded domestic consumption financed by rising levels of household debt and exports of primary resources which have entrenched the hegemony of the 'mineral-energy complex' (MEG), while accompanied by a decline in manufacturing as a result of the lowering of import tariffs and the liberalisation of the capital markets. Thus growth has shifted to an increasing reliance on the extraction and export of natural capital. This dependence on the MEC and debt-financed consumption-driven growth is presented as "the core structural problem at the heart of the South African economic crisis" (see also Mohamed 2010). This in turn demands 'decoupling', that is, a re-thinking of the relationship between the rate of economic growth and the rate of resource consumption and its associated impacts. This implies two types of decoupling: 'resource decoupling' (decoupling growth rates from resource extraction) and 'impact decoupling' (decoupling growth rates from environmental impacts). Yet while the recognition of this need is gradually penetrating government thinking and resulting in well-intentioned policy proposals, continued reliance upon the present growth pattern remains the predominant paradigm.

Against a background of predictions that climate change will have a drastic impact over the next 50 years, (iv) South Africa's particular ecological challenges are those of:

--reducing carbon emissions (South Africa has one of the highest rates of carbon emission in the world) while simultaneously rapidly expanding electricity provision. Although the need to reduce emissions is officially recognised, the present strategy continues to rely on the rapid expansion of coal-fired and nuclear-powered energy provision, with very limited provision for 'decoupling' and provision of cleaner energy by alternative means;

--a looming water crisis (Muller 2010). South Africa is a dry country, and 98 per cent of available water resources have already been allocated. This means that South Africa simply has no more surplus water and all future economic development (and thus social well-being) will be constrained by this one fundamental fact (Swilling 2010). In short, a combination of low average rainfall, over-exploitation and re-engineered spatial flows have led South Africa to an imminent water crisis in quantity as well as quality. By 2000, it was officially estimated that there was still surplus capacity of around 1,4 per cent, but more recent predictions suggest that very serious water shortages can be expected by as early as 2013. Meanwhile, in the urban and domestic sectors, consumption increases are set to triple. Massive water saving is therefore an urgent and unavoidable requirement;

--a mounting waste problem, yet South Africa remains overwhelmingly dependent upon 'landfill' solutions and has yet to make a concerted attempt to promote recycling, even though this represents one of the most immediate, tangible and low-cost investments in dematerialisation available (and) saves on capital costs, creates jobs, forces the middle classes to take greater responsibility for the resources they throw away, and indeed, has significant export potential;

--overexploitation and the use of inappropriate farming methods on South Africa's limited supply of arable land (13 per cent of the total) as the country attempts to exceed the capacity of its soils to meet growing food requirements, this resulting in nationwide soil degradation. South Africa is moving to becoming a net food importer, with accompanying increases in prices affecting prospects of food security for the poor; and

--a massive threat to bio-diversity, with 34 per cent of its terrestrial ecosystems, 82 per cent of its freshwater ecosystems and 65 per cent of its marine ecosystems endangered or already destroyed.

Swilling sees a critical disjuncture between the government's macroeconomic strategies (which scarcely recognise natural resource limits) and its 2008 National Framework for Sustainable Development (NFSD). The latter maps out five 'pathways' to a more sustainable future, via:

--enhancing systems for integrated planning and implementation;

--sustaining our ecosystems and using resources sustainably;

--investing in sustainable economic development and infrastructure;

--creating sustainable human settlements; and

--responding appropriately to emerging human development, economic and environmental challenges.

Because of the disjuncture between macro-economic policy and the National Framework for Sustainable Development (NFSD), there is a discernable shift to ad hoc government responses, as policy implementation comes to hit up against natural resource limits. However, unless macro-economists, industrial strategists and policy-makers begin to read the clear signals that these ad hoc responses are sending, there is little hope of a structural change in South Africa's development path in recognition of global and local resource constraints.


There is nothing touched upon in this article which has not been said before. Nonetheless, constant reiteration of the developmental challenges that South Africa faces is important. It not only stresses the manner in which diverse crises and constraints are interlinked but also reminds us that it is becoming increasingly urgent to re-think the 'common sense' that has hitherto defined the country's path since 1994. Indeed, there are manifold signs that if we do not change the path along which we are presently moving, then it is not only South African democracy which will be endangered but the very economic and ecological basis of our being. So what, in short, is to be done and what are the prospects for change in the right direction?

The crisis which is most immediately evident to ordinary observers of the South African scene is the profound malaise within the ANC. Increasingly it is becoming evident that the ruling party is becoming victim to the pathologies which have afflicted other African liberation movements once they have assumed power: a tendency towards authoritarianism founded upon the arrogance of assumed right to rule, a desire to extend control over society and economy yet without a corresponding active commitment to ensuring public accountability; and a commitment to a 'developmental state' without the state capacity to ensure adequate provision of even the most basic services to the state's citizens.

Fortunately the ANC's domination of the polity is constrained by its partners in the Alliance, growing disaffection amongst even its own constituency about its performance in power, and the legal foundation which the constitution provides for public demands for accountability. That this uneven mix has resulted in a present scene which is as ill-mannered as it is disorderly, with 'service delivery' protests, xenophobic attacks upon foreigners and 'outsiders' within some local communities, and a bitter public sector workers' strike in August 2010 which has severely strained relations within the Alliance, suggests possibilities that are simultaneously negative and positive for future democracy. On the one hand, it sharply reminds the government of the limits to its power, while giving vent to reactionary political tendencies amongst both rulers and ruled; on the other, it implies a strong need for the ANC to work harder to secure active consent from the majority while simultaneously indicating real possibilities for the development of political alternatives, ranging from the development of a more viable political opposition to the formation of progressive political alliances across the boundaries of existing political parties (including the ANC), civil society and emergent social movements.

Critiques of South Africa's post-1994 economic growth strategies have become commonplace, and to some extent, have even been incorporated into government policy. For instance, the failure of GEAR to attract the expected extent of foreign investment and the de-industrialisation that was attendant upon economic liberalisation led from around the year 2000 to the government's increasing espousal of the notion of the 'developmental state', latterly accompanied by elaboration of an industrial strategy designed to re-invigorate manufacturing. However, until South Africa moves away from a growth strategy which continues to reinforce dependence upon the minerals-energy complex (something which is, admittedly, not easy to do in an era when the region's economic prospects are widely viewed as heavily dependent upon expected high inflows of Chinese capital into minerals, energy and natural resource extraction), it seems unlikely that the economy will provide for the constant increase in jobs that is required if the bottom-half of society is to leverage its way out of poverty. From this perspective, as well as the apparently intractable problems posed by the limits to 'state capacity' presented by a poorly educated public service, it is arguable that we need to think in innovatively 'small' terms (as well as formulating clear ideas as to what 'big' changes are necessary).

It is helpful in this regard to refer to an important aspect of the recent Chinese development experience. The late Giovanni Arrighi has highlighted how post-Mao Chinese reforms introduced a Household Responsibility System which returned decision-making and control over agricultural surpluses from communes to rural households. In addition, agricultural procurement prices were increased substantially, as a result of which farm productivity and returns to farm activity increased dramatically, strengthening an earlier tendency of commune and brigade enterprises to produce non-agricultural goods. Various other reforms saw the government encouraging rural labour to leave the land without leaving the villages, notably by allowing farmers to work in neighbouring towns in the collectively owned Township and Village Enterprises (TVEs). Meanwhile, the emergence of TVEs was encouraged by fiscal decentralisation, which granted autonomy to local governments in the promotion of economic growth and in the use of fiscal residuals for bonuses; and the switch to the evaluation of cadres on the basis of the economic performance of their localities. The result was an explosive growth of the rural labour force engaged in non-agricultural activities from 28 million in 1978 to 176 million in 2003 (Arrighi 2007: 361-367).

Arrighi argues that TVEs may well have played a crucial role in the Chinese economic ascent. First, their labour-intensive orientation enabled them to absorb rural surplus labour and to raise rural incomes without a massive increase in migration to urban areas. Second, their entry into numerous markets increased competitive pressure, forcing state owned and private urban enterprises to improve their performance. Third, by becoming a major source of tax revenue, TVEs reduced the fiscal burden on peasants. Finally, TVEs expanded the size of the domestic market and created the conditions for new rounds of investment, job creation and the division of labour.

As has been noted by Gillian Hart (2002), China has enjoyed massive developmental advantages compared to South Africa, where the peasantry has long been dispossessed of the means of production. In China, land reforms that took place from the 1940s broke the power of the landlords, and were marked by rapid, decentralised industrial accumulation without dispossession from the land, while within the TVEs, the intensive cultivation of small plots of land was combined with industrial and other forms of non-agricultural work, and with investments in the improvement of the quality of labour. In Arrighi's terms, this built upon a tradition of market economy which mobilised human rather than non-human resources and protected rather than destroyed the economic independence and welfare of agricultural producers (Arrighi 2007: 365).

Given the vastly different developmental background, it would be absurd to suggest that this particular Chinese experience could be replicated in South Africa, not least because of the dismal failure of, and dubious assumptions which underpin, current efforts at land reform. Nonetheless, there is no reason why South Africa cannot attempt to learn from China. In particular, the lesson we might want to learn is to think 'bottom up' as much as 'top down'. If our present developmental model cannot provide sufficient jobs and viable livelihoods to absorb 'surplus labour', what is to be done to simultaneously secure reasonable political stability and to attack poverty?

Clearly there is no easy answer, but the Chinese experience points in the direction of unleashing the economic potential of people at the bottom of the pile rather than, as in South Africa at the moment, merely regarding them as the passive recipients of government transfer grants and as a drain on the fiscus and society. What this implies is a major change in mindset: away from thinking in terms of mega-projects, towards growth centred around lower-technology, and locally centred development which is labour-intensive and local market creating. Encouragement of urban farming is one such possibility, not beyond reach if linked to measures to conserve water by such simple devices as preventing run-off from houses and by provision of necessary inputs. Likewise, think of the benefits that might have already accrued to the Eastern Cape if, instead of the state investing massive resources into the Coega industrial zone (originally centred around a hugely energy intensive platinum smelter), these had been redirected to local rural and industrial production in and around Umtata and Bisho! As stated on many occasions previously, 'going green' not only addresses the ecological crisis, but unlocks huge potential for human creativity and employment.

It has to be acknowledged that turning the ship of state and economy around is likely to be far from easy. But a key beginning might be for there to be a genuine commitment to promoting greater social and economic equality. Hitherto, the Constitution apart, the post-1994 emphasis has been weighted heavily in favour of promoting racial equality but doing so via politically driven rather than economically rational policies: pursuit of policies such as BEE and equity employment while greater attention to ensuring that the majority disadvantaged black population is provided with improved access to social and economic opportunity through provision of a properly functioning education system (something which is sadly lacking at the present time) might have proved far more effective. However, the post-apartheid race-based discourse is now demonstrating its limits, for while there had indeed been a substantial narrowing of income differentials between whites and blacks, this has been accompanied by the widening of the overall gap between rich and poor as measured by the gini coefficient. Worse, wealth in South Africa continues to be extravagantly flaunted.

It is precisely the obscene differences between what is earned by the highest ranks of the corporate sector and ordinary workers, and between immodest and wasteful elements of the new black political elite which inflame societal tensions and encourage antagonistic class relationships. Ultimately, extreme polarisation of wealth is likely to be counterproductive even to the very rich, the majority of whom presumably wish to dwell in a relatively safe and socially functional society. Perhaps in the end it comes back to politics, or more particularly, political leadership--whether South Africa's ruling elite can lead the way by personal example as well as by policy and policy implementation towards a much more equal society.


African National Congress. 2010. 'Leadership renewal, discipline and organizational culture'. Discussion paper for the National General Council.

Arrighi, G 2007. Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century. London and New York: Verso.

Atkinson, D. 2010. 'Breaking down barriers: Policy gaps and new options in South African land reform' in Daniel, J, Naidoo, P, Pillay, D and R Southall (eds). The New South African Review 1: Development or Decline? Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Hart, G. 2002. Disabling Globalization: Places of Power in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Kariuki, S. 2010. 'The Comprehensive Rural Development Programme (CRDP): A beacon of growth for rural South Africa?' in Daniel, J, Naidoo, P, Pillay, D and R Southall (eds). The New South African Review 1: Development or Decline? Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Lane, J E and S Ersson. 1997. 'The Probability of Democratic Success in South Africa'. Democratization. Vol 4, No 4:1-15.

Makgetla, N. 2010. 'The international economic crisis and employment in South Africa' in Daniel, J, Naidoo, P, Pillay, D and R Southall (eds). The New South African Review 1: Development or Decline? Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Mohamed, S. 2010. 'Introduction: South Africa and the eco-logic of the global capitalist crisis', in Daniel, J, Naidoo, P, Pillay, D and R Southall (eds). The New South African Review 1: Development or Decline? Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Moultre, T. 2001. 'Racism and Reproduction: The Institutional Effects of Apartheid on the South African Fertility Decline'. Paper to XXIV IUSSP General Population Conference, Salvador, Brazil.

Muller, M. 2010. 'Planning for sustainable living with limited water' in Daniel, J, Naidoo, P, Pillay, D and R Southall (eds). The New South African Review 1: Development or Decline? Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Pillay, D. 2010. 'Introduction: South Africa and the eco-logic of the global capitalist crisis' in Daniel, J, Naidoo, P, Pillay, D and R Southall (eds). The New South African Review 1: Development or Decline? Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Southall, R. 2010. 'Introduction: South Africa 2010: From short-term success to long-term decline?' in Daniel, J, Naidoo, P, Pillay, D and R Southall (eds). The New South African Review 1: Development or Decline? Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Southall, R. 2011 (forthcoming). 'From Liberation Movement to Political Machine? The African National Congress of South Africa' in Bassett, C and M Clarke (eds). Legacies of Liberation: Post-Colonial struggles for a democratic South Africa.

Swilling, M. 2010. 'Growth, resource use and decoupling: towards a 'green new deal' for South Africa?' in Daniel, J, Naidoo, P, Pillay, D and R Southall (eds). The New South African Review 1: Development or Decline? Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

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Roger Southall,

Professor of Sociology,

University of the Witwatersrand.


(i.) This paragraph has drawn upon research undertaken by an investigation into collective violence by researchers from the Society, Work and Development Institute at Wits together with the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

(ii.) Statistics South Africa publishes two figures for the unemployment rate. The 'narrow' or 'official' unemployment rate counts as unemployed only those workers who say they have actively looked for work over the past week. The 'broad' unemployment rate includes people who want income-generating employment but are too discouraged to look for it.

(iii.) Relative poverty is defined here as affecting people who live in households with incomes less than a poverty income which varies according to household size, as the larger the household, the larger the income required to keep its members out of poverty. Poverty income levels in Table 3 ranged from R871 per month for one individual to R3 314 for a household of eight members or more in 2005 (SAIRR 2008/09: 303).

(iv.) Swilling cites predictions for South Africa of warming between 1[degrees]C and 3[degrees]C; broad reductions of approximately five per cent to 10 per cent of current rainfall; increased summer rainfall in the north east and south west, but reduced duration of summer rains in the north east; nominal increases in rainfall in the north east during the winter season; increased daily maximum temperatures summer and autumn in the western half of the country; extension of the summer season characteristics.

Year     Population   Rate of increase

1960     16 002 797
1970     21 794 000   36.3%
1980 *   28 978 510   24.8%
1991     37 737 620   23.2%
2000     43 685 700   25.1
2009     49 320 500   11.4%

* Inclusive of 1981 figures for the then three 'independent'

BY RACE, 1960-2007

Year   African   Coloured   Indian      White      Total

1960    R2832     R5 160    R5 969     R33 228    R8 581
1994    R6381    R11 114    R21 040    R47 674    R12 361
2007    R9495    R15 370    R31 330    R58 926    R15 939

Personal disposable income per head is total GDP divided by the
total popoulation, at constant 2000 prices.

Source: SAIRR 2008/9: 284.


Year             African     Coloured   Indian    White      Total

1996            16 275 067   618 966    66 060   98 597    17 058 690

Proportion      52.3%        17.2%      6.3%     2.2%      42.03
of Population

2008            18 673 551   711 631    75 907   172 227   19 633 316

Proportion      48.42%       16.3%      6.1%     3.8%      40.3
of Population

Source: SAIRR 2008/09: 8 and 303.
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Author:Southall, Roger
Publication:Strategic Review for Southern Africa
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Nov 1, 2010
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