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  • South Africa Turns the Corner
  • Pauline H. Baker (bio)
South Africa: The Political Economy of Transformation. Edited by Stephen John Stedman. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1994. 213 pp.

This book, like others in the same series, results from an annual Country Day Conference sponsored by the African Studies Program of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. In this case, the conference was held two years before the South African elections of April 1994, which ended white minority rule. As the conferees met, the negotiations that would lead to this vote were well under way, but their success was by no means assured.

The editor states in the preface that the book covers what "needs to be explained if South Africa is to become a long-lived multiparty democracy." It emphasizes "transformation" rather than "transition." The latter, Stedman argues, "deals only with the formal institutions of a polity," whereas the former "involves the informal rules, interactions, and power relationships upon which formal institutions rest" (p. vii). This is a meaningful theoretical distinction, but one that is difficult to maintain in practice. Nonetheless, Stedman has used it as a tool for elevating the sights of the book's contributors so that they avoid speculation on the outcome of the negotiations and concentrate instead on the central issue of whether a lasting democratic outcome is likely.

This is an ambitious undertaking, launched at a time when the contents of the current power-sharing arrangement and the constitution were not fully worked out. Violence was still the biggest threat hanging over the talks. One of the contributors, Amy Biehl, was killed just two [End Page 176] days before she was to return to the United States. Despite these uncertainties and tensions, Stedman's decision to direct attention to deeper factors was the right one.

As all book editors know, however, imposing a common framework on a collection of essays by different authors is nearly impossible. This book is no exception to that general principle. It omits or skims over critical factors relevant to both the transition and the transformation, and several contributors ignore the distinction altogether.

The most obvious issue neglected here is the question of violence. While conflict has diminished substantially since the April 1994 elections, some sense of the root causes of the violence might have enabled us to assess the likelihood of renewed bloodshed in the future. Other issues receiving inadequate coverage include questions of political leadership, internal party politics, and the respective futures of the media, the judiciary, and the civil service. Whether democracy survives in South Africa hangs, in large part, on the fate of these issues and institutions in the long term.

Another important but underdiscussed topic is economics. Although various contributors touch on this issue, only Jeffrey Herbst deals with it directly, if selectively. Herbst warns of exaggerated expectations, focusing on the dangers of limited tax revenue and high wage demands. His assessment is quite pessimistic. Yet he fails to consider the role of private foreign investment and trade at any length, and perhaps too readily dismisses the capacity for economic pragmatism of the African National Congress (ANC).

Neither does the book address fully the question of how the nongovernmental sector or civic society may fare after apartheid. This vital sector will serve as a watchdog of democracy. It deserves more than passing references, as some of the contributors have given it; it merits a separate discussion as an important topic in its own right.

Notwithstanding these shortcomings, the book offers some solid insights. Herbst's analysis of the labor unions helps the reader understand what is behind the rash of industrial protest that is plaguing the newly elected national-unity government. He predicts that organized labor, the force which "became the most powerful domestic opposition to the white government in the 1980s" (p. 39), will become one of the most demanding pressure groups in the 1990s. Despite—or possibly because of—the inclusion of top trade-union leaders in the government, unions are making seemingly extravagant demands that not only could price South Africa out of the market for foreign investment but could sideline the new...


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pp. 176-179
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