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  • Beyond the urban-rural divide:linking land, labour, and livelihoods
  • Gillian Hart (bio) and Ari Sitas (bio)

In the initial post-apartheid period, much social research shared in a general euphoria that South Africa's journey was to follow a 'high road' of industrial development - high skills, high wages, new technology, SMMEs, exports and global competitiveness. Narrowly focused on industry and on the main metropolitan centres, this work assumed that the South African economy would generate a rising tide of remunerative urban jobs ensuring a better life for all. This euphoria trapped a large chunk of scholarship into an iron cage of instrumental knowledge and policy recommendations that were sharply at odds with emerging realities.

More recently there has been an explosion of statistical information that maps the contours of persistent and growing poverty, shrinking employment, and collapsing livelihoods in painful detail. These volumes of data, their classificatory grids, and the narrow positivism they employ, are supposed to inform careful policy interventions. One obvious critique of such data-gathering is that it signals what Timothy Mitchell (2002) terms 'the rule of experts', and illustrates how constructions and deployments of such categories, classifications, and data embody technologies of power. Yet to the extent that this sort of critique focuses simply or primarily on grids of legibility, it is itself quite limited. The danger, in short, is that the production of knowledge will become caught between an instrumental positivism on the one hand, and endless deconstructions of the categories of the new South Africa on the other.

There is, in fact, remarkably little critical, sustained research and reflection on the changing power relations and processes of acquiescence and opposition that are emerging in the post-apartheid era. Our purpose in this note is to outline a new research initiative that seeks to illuminate key [End Page 31] forces and processes taking shape in the post-apartheid period - the ongoing importance, but changing character, of rural-urban connections; histories of racialised dispossession and their continuing salience; land and livelihood struggles and their relationship to organised labour; and the significance of new local government demarcations in reconfiguring acquiescence and opposition.

Until now, most researchers have pursued each of these elements in isolation: 'the land question', the 'labour question', or 'the question of livelihoods' (usually meaning non-formal employment). With a few key exceptions, such research has also been sharply divided across rural and urban lines. We argue that these themes constituted, constitute, and will continue to constitute in their social and spatial interconnections, a central challenge to research, policy, and social action for decades to come. In this context, there is a pressing need for a new cohort of young researchers who can work across disciplines with a deep understanding of these social and spatial interconnections, and ready to confront this challenge in creative new ways.

This research and training agenda grows out of, and seeks to extend, detailed work conducted in Durban, Newcastle, Ladysmith, Mooi River, Mpumalanga-Hammarsdale, Dundee, and Phongola (Bonnin 2001; Hart 2002; Lund 2001; Mosoetsa 2000; Sitas 1999a, 1999b; Skinner 1999). The purpose of this brief comment is to suggest four related domains in which in-depth research is needed if substantive alternatives are to be constructed in South Africa's democratic transition.

The continuing importance - but changing character - of rural-urban connections

Historically, male labour migration associated mainly with the mines and factories was the major form of urban-rural connection. This fact, and the ability of the post-1973 trade union movement to bridge the divide until the early 1990s, was reflected in some of the labour studies scholarship of the 1980s focussed on the form and nature of primarily urban struggles, and the interconnections between ethnicity, nation, and class (eg Sitas 1984, 1987; Bonnin 1999) In organising migrant labour in mines, metalworks, and plantations, and bringing them together with urban (Section 10) workers within the same democratic shop-floor structures, unions and federations, the trade unions united what the apartheid state sought to keep apart. Furthermore, by bringing together ethnically diverse groups of workers, it [End Page 32] created a solid opposition to homeland policies of segregation. Migrant and urban black workers often differed on community issues...


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