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  • South Africa Pushed to the Limit: the political economy of change
  • Martin Legassick
Hein Marais (2011) South Africa Pushed to the Limit: the political economy of change. Claremont: UCT Press

This ambitious book covers more or less the same ground as Marais’s South Africa: limits to change – the political economy of transition (1998), but is much longer, updated, and revised in certain crucial ways, particularly on the basis of work published since his previous one. The first chapter traces the economic and political history of the country from the late nineteenth century, covering as well the history of resistance up to the late 1970s. The second covers resistance in the 1980s, and the third the period of negotiations in the early 1990s. The fourth covers the evolution of post-apartheid economic policy and the fifth the present-day economy. There follow five chapters on different sectors: the world of work, poverty and inequality, the social protection system, AIDS and TB, and the crisis in health and education. The final four chapters examine whether or not South Africa is a developmental state, the Mbeki-Zuma battle, the state of the ANC and the state of the left. The book is encyclopedic but ponderous. Though it is well-researched, it is plodding, repetitive and fails to hold one’s concentration.

The first chapter contains nothing much original, save that Marais has shifted from viewing the economy through the eyes of Gelb’s ‘racial Fordism’ to Fine and Rustomjee’s ‘minerals-energy complex’(MEC) (Saul and Gelb 1981, Fine and Rustomjee 1996). Gelb’s analysis ‘neglected the major sectors of the economy, laid undue emphasis on the consumptive sectors and failed to explain why the capital goods and intermediate sectors did not develop. South Africa’s stunted industrialisation [Fine and Rustomjee] argued, was a symptom of the distorting weight of the MEC; demand constraints… were not the main culprit.’ MEC failed to vertically [End Page 169] integrate its core sectors forward into the rest of the economy (30, 31–34, 88). Thus the economy was heavily reliant on commodity exports for foreign exchange and had an industrial sector arrested in the semi-industrialised phase (87). Marais however fails to locate the fundamental crisis of the South African economy (as is the case for the world capitalist economy) as a crisis of over-accumulation, as spelled out for example by Patrick Bond with substantial evidence (Bond 1991).

Marais continues from his previous book his criticism of the ANC’s strategy for the overthrow of the apartheid state, following particularly Michael Morris (41, 53–56; see Limits to change, 56–61). Though he is correct that guerrilla strategy was militarily impotent, and that a revolutionary situation did not exist inside the country in the 1980s, he underestimates the extent to which mass popular resistance had politically (though not militarily) crippled the state. He writes that, at the end of the 1980s ‘One option for the apartheid state was to resort to an indefinite period of unmitigated totalitarian management of society’ (58). In my view, such an option was totally ruled out: it just would not have been tolerated by the masses. Moreover he writes as if the youth were incited into millenarian activity by the ANC, when in fact the situation was far more complex. And he wrongly blames the violence in KwaZulu-Natal on the youth, rather than on the Inkatha warlords, against whom the youth acted in self-defence (55–57. See also 73).

Marais lists a series of factors which led the regime to unban the ANC, PAC and SACP and institute negotiations. The collapse of the Soviet Union is mentioned as a factor influencing the ANC: however he neglects that it equally influenced the NP government (60–61). He also concludes – it was the position of his earlier book as well – that in 1994 ‘[t]he real issue was the terms on which inclusion and assimilation occurred, specifically, which social classes’ interests would be privileged. In the South Africa of 1994, the class content of that project was still undefined – even though telling clues were available’ (78. My emphasis). Here, in my view, he is profoundly mistaken. Marais...


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pp. 169-176
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