Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Reconciliation and Economic Reaction: Flaws in South Africa's Elite Transition

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Reconciliation and Economic Reaction: Flaws in South Africa's Elite Transition

Article excerpt

Was South Africa's post-apartheid transition compromised by an intra-elite, so-called economic reconciliation that generally worsened poverty, unemployment and ecological degradation, while exacerbating racial, gender and geographical differences? Did the governments of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki fail to redistribute the country's wealth? Did the transition extend South Africa's reach into the region at the expense of the interests of other African nations and peoples?

If the answers are broadly affirmative, we may as a result now be witnessing a double-movement reaction to the truncated character of liberation. With intensified commoditization has come a vast upsurge of social unrest, in the manner Karl Polanyi might have predicted. (1) A new popular opposition to the excesses of elite reconciliation began to emerge around 2000. (2) By late 2005, Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula recorded 5,085 protests over the prior year, of which he considered 881 to be "illegal." (3)

No peace without justice, no reconciliation without redistribution. These themes reflect the problem of the early 21st century world order that David Harvey calls "accumulation by dispossession," i.e., a new stage of voracious penetration of market forces into areas of society and nature that were not previously commodified. (4) The phenomenon represents an Achilles' heel for writers such as Guillermo Schmitter, Phillippe O'Donnell and their brethren in South African think tanks, universities and centrist non-governmental organizations (NGOs such as the Centre for Development and Enterprise, the South African Institute for International Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies). Indeed, many crucial middle-income sites of elite-pacted compromise in so-called democratic transitions now appear locked in perpetual conflict: Brazil, Argentina and other Latin American countries; South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia in Asia; much of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East; and Africa, most notably in Nigeria and South Africa. All witnessed the passage from the dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s to the democracies of the 1990s. Yet, these are unstable because neo-liberalism was applied and often imposed upon new governments under conditions of what Barry Gills, Joel Rocamora and Richard Wilson term "low-intensity democracy" or Thandeka Mkandawire calls "choiceless democracy," namely the inability to change socio-economic parameters because the basic substance of economic and even social policy is considered off-limits by international agencies and capital. (5)

As a result, in South Africa, ongoing economic inequality is the cause of durable conflicts between the state and capital on the one hand and the lower-income and oppressed sectors of society on the other. It is hard to conceive of inequality actually worsening in the wake of apartheid, but a major study published in October 2002 by Statistics South Africa, a state agency, showed that in real terms, average black African household income declined 19 percent from 1995 to 2000, while white household income increased by 15 percent. Households with less than $100 per month income--mainly those of black African, colored (mixed-race) or Asian descent--increased from 20 percent to 28 percent of the population from 1995 to 2000. The poorest half of all South Africans claimed a mere 9.7 percent of national income in 2000, down from 11.4 percent in 1995, while the richest fifth grabbed 65 percent. (6) Meanwhile, the official measure of unemployment rose from 16 percent in 1995 to 31.5 percent in 2002. Add to that figure frustrated job-seekers and the percentage of unemployed people rises to 43 percent. (7)

Post-apartheid social policy has failed low-income people in many areas, including healthcare, water access and land tenure. Anti-retroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS was denied to millions who needed it, as a result of the ruling party's denialist stance (not conceding the link between HIV and AIDS) and the pressure from pharmaceutical corporations to refrain from licensing generic replacements for high-profit branded drugs. …

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