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  • Post-apartheid South Africa under ANC rule:a response to John S Saul on South Africa
  • Bill Freund (bio)

Some twenty years ago, John S Saul expressed prescient concern about the future of South Africa given the fragility of the social order in the transition years. Despite the apparent danger of widespread violence in the 1990-94 period, the political solution proposed at the time seemed limited to ‘elite pacting’.1 Saul was fairly sceptical of the potential in this context for South Africa to be able to ‘sustain a process of long-term structural transformation’ although quite understandable in his sense of urgency for such a transformation to take place.2

This contribution was intended as festschrift for John Saul. This article first reiterates his importance as a powerful critic of the political evolution of Africa in the second half of the twentieth century. Concerns about structural transformation run deep in Saul’s writings on Africa. Some of the most important themes that emerge from a consideration of his work are a) the emphasis on a ‘socialist transition’ as an ideal marked out by the nationalist left, notably by Samora Machel in Mozambique and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania; b) the necessity of such a transition both to concern itself with significant improvement in the material lives of the African masses and to engage their energies and self-organisational capacities; and c) the concomitant necessity for the stratum of people investing the African state after independence to avoid degeneration into a self-contained class of privileged bureaucrats, an African version of the Soviet nomenklatura. Amongst those that Saul could and can claim as forebears in this regard are Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko.

Tanzania’s politics involved a struggle to expand the number and efficacy of the petty bourgeoisie, and to release the energies of a more [End Page 50] conscious and vocal mass of workers and peasants. A likely danger is a vicious circle in which the petty bourgeoisie, on balance still relatively untransformed, demobilizes and instrumentalizes the mass of the population and guarantees, at best, a stagnant quasi-state capitalism.

(Saul 1979:268)3

The other essential ingredient for Saul has lain in a broader commitment to the struggle against international neo-colonial forms of economic interaction on the part of the former colonies, in effect, imperialism itself acting as a key instrument of a globalised form of capitalism. For this reason, he has been suspicious of a nationalist project that failed to situate nationalism critically within this larger global context. The danger here is that this petty bourgeoisie will promote ‘mere state capitalism, a situation in which the state can continue to push itself into the economy, but primarily under the aegis of capital’ (Saul 1985:17-18). This last quotation refers to Mozambique. In both Tanzania and Mozambique the socialist road was abandoned from the 1990s entirely although, in popular consciousness, it still has a purchase that represents a positive aspect of national heritage (see Pitcher 2006). While Saul’s writing on eastern Africa goes back more than 40 years, his concerns remain fundamentally the same today. While hopefully respecting these concerns, the brunt of this article is critical: the moral and political vision is still there but there is a need to ground this effectively, as was the case in earlier writings, in a deeper engagement with material realities and possibilities.

In this article, I propose to consider the experience of an African country characterised by a fairly well-developed industrial infrastructure, post-apartheid South Africa, which has broken with the colonially inspired divisions that blocked democratic development. Saul has in fact dedicated most of his writing in more recent years to South Africa. Here again he concerns himself with wrong choices, with the view that South Africa has been placed in a downward spiral which blocks progressive change. Is South Africa too ‘mere state capitalism’? Is there a new ruling class typifying that state? What are its relations to imperialism, as Saul uses the term and to other class forces within South Africa? Is there an agenda or, at least a potential, for ‘long-term social transformation?’

Saul’s critical views, most recently expressed...


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