REVIEW: Hein Marais’ South Africa Pushed to the Limit

Helena Sheehan's review on Hein Marais' South Africa Pushed to the Limit appeared in the Novemeber issue of Monthly Review.

So many people, even otherwise educated ones, talk about South Africa as a fairy tale. Once upon a time there was evil apartheid. Nelson Mandela (and some other people too) stood up to it. He spent many years in prison. Then, due to international pressure and some national leaders changing their minds, he was released. Then there were democratic elections. Then South Africa lived happily ever after. It even hosted the World Cup. Okay, there were problems with Thabo Mbeki trawling the internet at night and getting it wrong on AIDS. There are problems too about persisting poverty and rising crime, but they will be sorted in due course. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an inspiring catharsis. No. This book is the perfect antidote to that version, which is so utterly wrong.

Of course, Monthly Review readers are far more sophisticated than that and are well familiar with the left critique of post-apartheid South Africa, particularly of the turn to neoliberal economic policy. There is a sophisticated left intelligentsia both in South Africa and abroad analyzing the transformation of South Africa and their findings and arguments have found their way into Monthly Review and elsewhere over the years.

Marais' book is an excellent synthesis of all that as well as a provocative position explaining why it has happened and what scope there is for the left to chart an alternative path.

Marais begins with a sweeping summary of the legacies of history: colonialism, apartheid, patterns of capital accumulation, movements of resistance, and dynamics of race and class. He takes great care in explaining the complexities of the political settlement. After a long struggle, the two sides had fought to a draw and came to negotiate rather than to push for all out victory on either side. There was conciliation to avert cataclysm. Geopolitical shifts had brought a dissolution of moorings, an undermining of the idea of a socialist alternative, a retreat from radical politics globally, and the ascendancy of neoliberalism. The prevailing balance of forces, nationally and internationally, ensured that the real winners were conglomerate capital, particularly the financial sector and the mineral-energy complex. Marais demonstrates a strong continuity between late-apartheid and post-apartheid economic policy.

The dilemma of the new government was how to reconcile the insertion of the nation into the global churn of capital with the promises of radical redistribution it had made as a liberation movement. The African National Congress (ANC) privileged politics over economics and stressed nation building over class struggle. Marais charts the achievements in terms of democratic elections, constitutional rights, and wider access to health, education, and material infrastructure, but weighs these against the daily experience of injustice and inequality. The settlement was not the win-win situation it was supposed to be, especially for lives lived in poverty, disease, unemployment, alienation, and precariousness as a result of subservience to the mystified force of “the markets.” South Africa, as almost everywhere, lives under the increasing dominance of finance capital: “Finance capital no longer spurs industrial development, but is geared at extracting maximum returns, even by dismantling or destroying industrial capacity. Its metabolism is now fundamentally parasitic” (128).

Structural changes in the circuitry of capital accumulation have shifted balance of power between private capital, the state, and other social forces, particularly the labor movement. Marais moves between the generalities of the global system and the particularities of its circuitry in South Africa.

To read the full review click here.


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