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  • Engaging the MECor a few of my views on a few things1
  • Ben Fine (bio)


In looking back upon a decade since the publication of Fine and Rustomjee (1997), I begin below with reflection on how the idea of the minerals-energy complex (MEC) came into being. This is followed by an account of the continuing evolution of the MEC after democratic transition, emphasising the roles of both financialisation and export of conglomerate capital. The next section suggests how the MEC could provide a much broader fulcrum on which to understand South Africa's economic and social history (and prospects). And the concluding remarks reflect upon the challenges facing scholarship in the years ahead.

The history of the 'MEC'2

In the mid-1980s, I was asked to join a small group led by Laurence Harris, Economic Research on South Africa, EROSA, set up as the counterpart to the earlier RESA, Research on Education for South Africa. The latter had been organised by Harold Wolpe, and I involved myself in RESA as an outsider as much as I could. Inevitably, this placed me in contact with Harold's wider and earlier work concerning the reproduction of labour power and articulation of modes of production as well as the political formulations around colonialism of a special type and so on.

Because of longstanding work on the coal industry (Fine 1990), for example, my first task for the ANC, through the EROSA group, was to assess the prospects for mining. As a lefty with no particular previous experience of South Africa, my knowledge was predominantly gleaned from the anti-apartheid movement, with its emphasis in the economic sphere focusing on [End Page 26] trade boycotts and the role of direct foreign investment by multinationals into South Africa. However, my entry into research was dominated by two publications, each of crucial and complementary significance. One was the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Electricity Industry De Villiers (1984), and the other was the account of Innes (1984) of Anglo-American. From the two publications, I gained an understanding, respectively, of the significance of the state and of domestic corporate capital in the economy, and, by means of a short and obvious analytical step, the interaction between the two. After more detailed research on mining and energy and on corporate structure, I early on formulated the notion that South Africa had been dominated by what I ultimately termed the minerals-energy complex, MEC.3 In brief, the MEC is to be understood in terms of the concrete form of accumulation of capital taken in South Africa, centred on a core set of sectors, but reaching beyond them in terms of corporate control and influence. By the same token, the relations between private capital and the state are imperative to the nature and evolution of the MEC. From these origins, and in light of the term itself, it would be natural to perceive the MEC as primarily a descriptive category contingent upon an empirical assessment of the South African economy. This interpretation has probably been all too common, leading to the idea (itself empirically correct or not) that the MEC has never existed or has ceased to exist in light of the economy's changing composition of output. And, there was, indeed, a very strong commitment in proposing the notion of the MEC to grounding analysis in empirical realities. But there is a sense in which this is also extremely misleading. For there were two more important, analytically prior and complex elements underpinning the conceptual construction of the MEC. First of these was to have drawn upon, often by way of departure, a wide range of theoretical debates that were prominent at the time and in which I was an active participant. These included Marxist value theory, the theory and practice of developmental states, the periodisation of capitalism (and the role of internationalisation, monopolisation and the state), and the apparent parallels with the idea of Military-Industrial Complex.4 In some respects, the adoption of the MEC occurred despite the inclination to avoid both the economic reductionism and empiricism that it would appear to imply. And, as a result, it...