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  • South Africa:a new nation-state in a globalising era
  • Bill Freund (bio)

Globalisation as a concept presents a real challenge to economic historians because inherent in their subject matter is the assumption that a world economy has been in the making for at least the last several centuries. By some indices - the extent of foreign investment, human movement or international trade, for instance - the second half of the nineteenth century already represented a massively 'globalised' era fuelled by impressive new technology such as telegraphs and steamships.1 The literature on globalisation which fails to acknowledge process and assumes an ahistorical and unbounded concept stretching seamlessly into an otherwise unknown future clashes with this kind of picture.

However, it is possible to justify globalisation as a term designating rather a current phase in the evolution of a world economy. Technologically it is the advent of computers and information technology which is most characteristic here.2 This enables production, of which a very large element is under the control, direct or indirect, of large corporations, to take place internationally - not merely trade or investment activities. Realising profits is dependent on selling on a global sale - the creation of a 'brand name' economy that can be fitted to serve many kinds of consumers but no longer structured around national markets. There is a strong drive to create globally normative regulatory institutions relating not just to directly economic activities (the WTO and the so-called 'Washington Consensus' institutions) but to peace-keeping and governance issues and to the environment. Once again, there is massive population movement. However, whereas in the nineteenth century, most itinerants were peasants and workers plus their families, embedding limited industrial skills, today those welcome to shift are the highly educated and skilled who work with a pen; [End Page 41] if anything, an international regime to block the movements of the poor is intended, if never very successfully, put into place.

Writers on globalisation see the world of Empire as one in which the nation-state, as conceptualised at the dawn of modernity, constitutes something for the trash heap as well (Negri and Hardt 2000). The state is defined as an impediment to the needs of capital on the one hand (unless it has been successfully transformed into a facilitator) and a barrier to the achievement of human freedom on the other. In particular, the nation state representing in some sense the immanence of a people in maturity is no longer a foundation stone of political activity and international relations. Supra-national structures with imbedded rules multiply while local or regional governments are supposed to take more initiative on the assumption that they can do better at tapping the real heartbeat of the people.

This paper takes the position that while these are all very important tendencies that are promoted on a significant scale in our world, there are also counter-tendencies. There are plenty of realities, for better or worse, that work in other directions and show that earlier paradigms continue to bear life. This, of course, is what George W Bush & co are discovering in Iraq.3 Globalisation is best taken therefore as a specific contemporary historic phase, which continues to be rent with conflict and controversy and contains its own contradictions in which outcomes are by no means certain. It is likely that some of the great political and social paradigms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have come to the end of their shelf life in their own terms, but to leap from that to assumptions about 'the end of history' à la Fukuyama, the view that 'there is no alternative' - or even the sense that the modern is no longer with us - has little justification.

Post-apartheid South Africa came to life as a 'new' country in the midst of this set of circumstances. I wish here to suggest that while the African National Congress government has been won over by the need for participation in globalising economic institutions such as membership in the World Trade Organisation, with macro-economic policies aiming at high interest rates, an autonomous Reserve Bank, low state indebtedness and the reduction of import tariff barriers; it has simultaneously, contradictorily, moved...


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