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  • Brazil's 'pro-poor' strategies:what South Africa could learn
  • Gay Seidman (bio)

In the early 1990s, as South Africa entered the lengthy negotiations that finally led to the country's first democratic elections in 1994, it became almost commonplace to compare South Africa with Brazil - another middle-income country and regional power, also moving slowly out of authoritarian rule toward democracy. Like South Africa, Brazilian society was marked by stark inequalities: the country's tiny elite controlled most of the wealth, and most Brazilians - especially those with darker skins - lived in poverty, with little hope of upward mobility.

Through the late twentieth century, Brazil consistently ranked as one of the world's most unequal societies. Using a standard measure of income inequality, the Gini coefficient, Brazil was one of the world's most unequal societies in the world in 1989, with a Gini coefficient of 0.634. Between 2001 and 2006, however, Brazil's Gini coefficient dropped precipitously, falling to 0.526 in 2009 (Margolis 2009). In Brazil, incomes have risen across the board, but the incomes of the poorest Brazilians have risen much faster than those of the country's wealthy. In contrast to most of the world under globalisation - and in sharp contrast to South Africa, where inequality has at best stayed steady, and possibly risen slightly, over the same period, with a Gini coefficient of 0.66 in 2009 (Presidency 2009) - Brazil's poorest households now receive a greater share of the country's income than they have ever had.

What explains Brazil's unusual trajectory? In the 20 years since both Brazil and South Africa, separately but simultaneously, began to move away from their authoritarian pasts, both countries have experienced what Webster and Adler (1999) termed a 'double transition': democratisation coincided with economic restructuring as new elected governments navigated their [End Page 86] countries' integration into a competitive international economy. In both countries, democracy brought unexpected challenges for the organised labour movements once central to both anti-authoritarian opposition movements. Just as industrial workers gained full citizenship - able to participate, now, in normal political processes and ordinary patterns of collective bargaining - major industries in both countries were restructured in ways that ironically undermined organised labour's strength, as industrial workers found themselves retrenched, and their unions struggling to retain jobs.


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Figure 1.

In Grounding Globalisation (2008), Webster, Lambert and Bezuidenhout examined strategies used by organised labour in Australia and South Korea to respond to challenges like these, pointing to strategies ranging from support for innovative managerial strategies on the global playing field, to efforts to support new labour internationalism. Focusing on the appliance industries in all three countries, they looked to industry-specific efforts to support workers whose livelihoods have depended on those industries for the past 30 years, asking how states and corporations might sustain jobs and communities in industries suddenly facing intense global competition.

In South Africa, these questions clearly resonate: restructuring has undoubtedly contributed to the country's persistently high unemployment, [End Page 87] and 15 years after South Africa's first democratic elections South Africa's unions find themselves caught between trying to protect the jobs and wages of current members while still trying to speak on behalf of the working South Africans who have either lost their jobs because of restructuring, or who never had industrial jobs at all. With communities around now-shuttered factories left with few options beyond 'survival strategies' and social grants, COSATU's support for Zuma in the presidential elections has often sounded almost desperate, emphasising personalities and pro-poor rhetoric rather than insisting on explicit policy debates within the ruling coalition.

But should labour limit its strategies to efforts to strengthen industrial production and exports? Does Brazil's experience with globalisation offer an alternative approach, one that focuses on state action to improve the living conditions of the very poor, rather than efforts to sustain specific industries facing the cold winds of globalisation? The lessons to be drawn from Brazil are still up for discussion. In one recent debate about what Brazil's experiences might teach South Africa, while some analysts emphasised Brazil's successful shift in industrial...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1726-1368
Print ISSN
0258-7696
Pages
pp. 86-103
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-19
Open Access
No
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