Neoliberalism and Resistance in South Africa: Economic and Political Coalitions

In the first quarter of 2021, amidst the social and economic devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, the South African Treasury announced, and subsequently defended, its decision to refrain from increasing the country’s extensive social grant payments—which now reach 18 million impoverished citizens—beyond the growth in inflation. Treasury officials have argued that a larger increase in social welfare protection is simply not currently feasible given the country’s rapidly rising public debt—which has now breached 80% of the debt/GDP ratio—and investor demands for fiscal consolidation. This type of fiscal restraint is unfolding in a context of heightened wealth inequality and an official unemployment rate now above 30%.

Those familiar with the financialization scholarship pertaining to developing countries—that strand which portrays the global financial markets as a force that can alter committed policy trajectories on a whim (Koelble, 2004), as well as the more nuanced literature (Mosley, 2000; Hager, 2017; Streeck, 2014; Ansari, 2017)—may recognize the Treasury’s framing of South Africa’s fiscal dilemma. However, as much of the international development literature on industrial upgrading and state policy has noted (Wade, 2018; Alami, 2019; Rodrik, 2006), there is a third option available to policy-makers in developing countries beyond the binary of debt build-up vs. austerity; namely, comprehensive, employment generating state-led development.

This is precisely the case I make in my new book, published by Palgrave (2021), Neoliberalism and Resistance in South Africa: Economic and Political Coalitions. In addition to documenting the onset of a financialized accumulation regime in post-apartheid South Africa since the democratic transition and the ANC’s adoption of economic liberalization, the monograph also highlights the missed opportunities that could have allowed the country to embark on a self-sustaining path of industrial up-grading, inclusive development, and internal revenue generation. Such missed opportunities include the early rejection by party leaders of the heterodox “Macro-Economic Research Group” (MERG) policy cluster, the removal of the trade unions from broader macro-policy-making processes, the rejection of a modest reconstruction and wealth tax, and the abandonment of much of the “Reconstruction and Development Program” (RDP) platform in favor of the orthodox “Growth, Employment, and Redistribution” (GEAR) package in 1996. Had some of these missed opportunities been pursued, South African state officials would likely be in a much better position to currently adopt expansionary fiscal policies, and perhaps could have lifted their citizens out of poverty via inclusive development instead of cash-transfers.

Yet, as my monograph further documents, since the democratic transition Treasury officials have continued, despite recommendations from other government ministries such as the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), to veto or oppose heterodox policy proposals that could potentially offer South Africa a path away from the current neoliberal quagmire. Such proposed polices include capital controls, export taxes on raw materials, the utilization of foreign exchange reserves to capitalize State-Owned-Enterprises (SOEs), and targeting specific industrial sectors for subsidies and state promotion.

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Enduring Relevance: Samir Amin’s radical political economy

By Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven, Maria Dyveke Styve, Ushehwedu Kufakurinani and Ray Bush

In moments of great uncertainty there is refuge to be found in the work of intellectual titans like Samir Amin. After the sad news of his passing in August 2018 in Paris, aged 86, we began thinking about how best to explore the enduring relevance of his analysis and concepts to make sense of contemporary crises.

The pertinence and analytical heft of Amin’s work is particularly important in the contemporary period marked by the interconnected crises related to COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, the climate emergency, and looming debt crises across the periphery. In the years ahead, confronting these multiple and intertwined crises will require the kind of commitment to combining research with political engagement that Amin demonstrated.

Amin’s ability to weave together thorough analysis of the polarising effects of capitalism with concrete political projects for an international radical left makes his work particularly relevant in our quest to understand capitalism, its particularities across the world, and oppositions to it. There is a younger generation of scholars, of which we are a part, that is particularly hungry for Amin’s perspectives, one that came of age in a time where the universities have been thoroughly marketised and moulded by neoliberal processes, and where intellectual production and debates are not necessarily embedded within social struggles.

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The pathology of economics

COVID-19 exposes the deadly dominance of neoclassical economics in Africa.

On February 24, 2021 Ghana received a vaccine shipment (600,000 doses), the first to sub-Saharan Africa under the COVAX facility. It amounted to a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions needed on a continent increasingly ravaged by the pandemic. Contrast this to the tens of millions already vaccinated in the UK and US. The optimism that Africa would be spared by “early lockdown”, “less dense population, “the effect of ultraviolet”, “a climate that meant people spent more time outside” and “Africa’s youthful population” has rapidly faded. Officially there are now more than 100,000 deaths on the continent, but the real numbers are much higher due to the paucity of testing and the lack of capacity to accurately track and evaluate causes of mortality.

The shortage of tests and vaccines are exacerbated by the West’s hyper-nationalism restricting the import of these two vital tools to combat the pandemic. The same forces have also generated a scarcity of personal protective equipment (PPE), the lack of monoclonal antibody and other treatments, and terrible shortages of medical oxygen so vital to keeping people alive. How is it possible, 60 years after independence, for African countries to be so highly dependent on the goodwill of the outside world for basic health goods? A good deal of the answer lies in the pathology of economics and related policies, which have spread like a pandemic globally and have come to dominate both the West and the continent of Africa. How did this come about? How does it relate to the strategies that have undermined African capacities to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the health and welfare of its people? And what should be done?

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Struggles Over Value: Suppression of locally-led capital accumulation in the Congo

By Ben Radley and Sara Geenen

Over the last few decades, African governments have liberalised and privatised their mining industries, attracting significant foreign direct investment. Transnational corporations (TNCs) have become the dominant forces. Their en masse arrival across the continent has been accompanied by the displacement and marginalisation of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). This has been a political process not just to create value, but to transfer value to foreign firms. In this same process, particular production modes are devalued. According to Jennifer Bair and Marion Werner (2011), this is a deliberate process linked to ‘everyday practices and struggles over value’, whereby certain forms and logics of value creation are prioritised and asserted over others.

Yet a consideration or even acknowledgement of these everyday practices and struggles is generally absent from the Global Value Chain (GVC) analysis which dominates the African mining literature (especially the more influential policy papers and flagship development agency reports). This literature is mainly preoccupied with how African firms can integrate into and ‘upgrade’ within TNC-led industrial mining GVCs. It remains largely blind to a consideration of how and from whom value is transferred when recently established TNC-led mines interact with pre-existing and more locally-anchored ASM economies.

Locally driven mechanisation and capital accumulation in the Congo (Sara Geenen).

In our recently published research in ROAPE’s journal looking at the case of South Kivu Province in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), we redress this imbalance by documenting precisely these ‘everyday practices and struggles over value’. We demonstrate how a coalition between foreign corporate capital and the Congolese state has marginalised and held back locally-led processes of technological assimilation, capital formation and mechanisation in ASM. By so doing, we direct attention towards the developmental potential of domestically embedded networks of African mining production, and how these networks are disrupted by incoming TNCs.

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Rethinking the Social Sciences with Sam Moyo

By Praveen Jha, Paris Yeros and Walter Chambati

This book is a tribute to Sam Moyo. Apart from the great mind and big heart that he was, Moyo was also one of a few in our age to distinguish himself in setting new standards for knowledge production in the social sciences. Some might expect such a feat to require the approval of established centers of learning in the North. But his litmus test was relevance to the tectonic shifts underway in Africa and the South since decolonization. Moyo became a leading light in the quest for epistemic sovereignty at a crucial juncture, when Africa and the South as a whole were succumbing to neoliberal adjustment, and when his own country, Zimbabwe, was gaining independence.

Who was Sam Moyo?

Moyo belonged to the generation of Pan-Africanist intellectuals responsible for defending the gains of liberation and devising strategies of epistemic survival in the midst of structural adjustment. Their epicenter was the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), of which Sam eventually became president. He distinguished himself by his relentless drive to build and defend research capacities in Africa, refusing the lure of professional stability and fame abroad. Those who had the good fortune to meet him would affirm that he pursued this mission with flair, generosity, and a ‘charming inflexibility’ on matters of ideology. In 2002, he founded the African Institute for Agrarian Studies (AIAS), in Harare, Zimbabwe, against all odds, in the midst of radical land reform and Western sanctions.

Moyo also forged ahead with the building of new solidarities across the South to recuperate a common front. This he did via CODESRIA, as well the Third World Forum (TWF) and World Forum for Alternatives (WFA) led by Samir Amin, in which he participated over many years. In the 2000s, he also spearheaded the Agrarian South Network (ASN), a new tri-continental initiative with its own research agenda, regular activities, and publishing outlet, Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy. Those of us who were closest to him knew that the whole of this work of art was much larger than the sum of its parts: new epistemic standards were being set for generations to come.

We locate Moyo’s trajectory in the Pan-Africanist tradition of political economy, where we made significant contributions to the evolving land, agrarian and national questions at continental level and in his home country. In the introductory chapter of the book, we trace his overall contribution to tri-continental solidarity in the social sciences and the development of a global research agenda. We bring to light Moyo’s leading role in the frontlines of the struggle for epistemic sovereignty in Africa and the South at a time when neoliberal restructuring set its sights on autonomous knowledge production and when epistemological questions succumbed to a potent ‘cultural turn’. Moyo fought with great perseverance for autonomous institutions in Africa and the South and for the integrity of the intellectual traditions produced in the struggles for liberation. He defended an approach to political economy which was homegrown in Africa and fundamentally anti-imperialist, against Western intellectual trends, whether materialist or culturalist. This was the vision and mission that defined his Pan-Africanism, tri-continental solidarity, and cosmopolitanism.

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Less flow, more pressure: accessing water in N’Djamena in times of Covid-19

“You need pressure to make water flow” Nikhil Anand

Pressure is not always a metaphor for “constraints” or “burden”; it is also a concrete and basic requirement for municipal water supply. Across many cities of the Global South, end-users, city officials, development NGO professionals or agents of the water business (street porters, water fountain managers or public water tap owners) struggle to provide and access water services – a process often characterized by negotiation and contestation. In N’Djamena, Chad, hardships linked to everyday water access fuel two distinct paradoxes. First, maintaining water pressure is a constant source of economic pressure. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, end-users were already compelled to adapt their “hydraulic habits” to their needs and financial resources. Evidence on the ground indicates that the pandemic has introduced a second paradox: the Chadian state has taken official steps to mitigate economic pressure in the daily life of inhabitants in Chad funding a 6 month free water policy, but this has done little in practice beyond decreasing the water pressure (the necessary force that pushes water through pipe, makes it flow and available to end-users) for N’Djamenois who need it most. As such, this blog post argues that economic pressure for the poor has increased while water pressure has dropped as a result of the pandemic and a government intervention that explicitly aimed at addressing the issue Quite predictably, the pandemic has generated additional economic constraints on informal businesses and might have complicated an already knotty landscape in addition to tremendous climate-related problems, foremost among them flooding. However, available evidence suggests that the policy designed to alleviate the burden of bills on those in need failed. Instead of increasing water availability, it reduced and in some cases even cut the water flow. The limited extension of the water supply network also made the policy pointless to many, while wealthier end-users connected to the water supply network enjoyed the policy as a bonanza. This demonstrates that infrastructural expansion, not just emergency funding, is critical to any meaningful water and sanitation improvements.

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(De)pressurizing in urban centers beyond the megacity: notes on pressure from Nakuru, Kenya

On the 21st of November 2020, Mumbi Seraki – a YouTuber – uploads a new ‘prophetic update’ titled ‘They’ve CANCELLED CHRISTMAS!’. Her YouTube shows are followed by more than 60 000 followers across Sub Saharan Africa and deal with, what she refers to as, the ills of society, the struggles of African nations and ideas for a better Africa. She opens her ‘prophetic update’ with the following statement:

“I really do pray that you are well in all your ways and that you are moving into living life truly on your own terms and out of the ‘matrix’, so that you can be free and you won’t have to become one of these mask wearing zombies walking around. Really, get out of the big cities, if you can, don’t wait till the last minute.”

Seraki’s statements should be interpreted against the background of the Covid-19 havoc that raises questions about how safe it is to live in major cities such as Nairobi where most Covid-19 cases are being reported. Nonetheless, the image of cities populated by ‘zombies’ affirms questions about the (in)habitability of Kenyan cities increasingly beleaguered by the pressures and absurdities of late capitalism that were already relevant way before the pandemic. Her advice to liberate oneself from the ‘matrix’ of life in the capital by moving upcountry is particularly intriguing and will be further unpacked hereinafter.  

In this blogpost, I shed light on life ‘under pressure’ from the perspective of Nakuru, a vibrant secondary Kenyan city of approximately 500, 000 inhabitants situated 160 km Northwest of Nairobi, where I conducted more than 18 months of ethnographic research. My fieldwork shed light on how people in Nakuru made sense of their urban lifeworlds, yet did so with ‘heat’, a leitmotiv illuminating different ‘confrontations’ about a variety of opposing or cohesive uses, ideas and/or meanings of technologies, symbols, and substances that flow through the highland city.

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Reflections on aid and regime change in Ethiopia: a response to Cheeseman

By Jimi O. Adesina, Andrew M. Fischer and Nimi Hoffmann

In a piece, published on 22 December 2020, that he describes as the most important thing he wrote in 2020, Nic Cheeseman penned a strong criticism of what he calls the ‘model of authoritarian development’ in Africa. This phrase refers specifically to Ethiopia and Rwanda, the only two countries that fit the model, which is otherwise not generalisable to the rest of the continent. His argument, in a nutshell, is that donors have been increasingly enamoured with these two countries because they are seen as producing results. Yet the recent conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia shows that this argument needs to be questioned and discarded. He calls for supporting democracy in Africa, which he claims performs better in the long run than authoritarian regimes, especially in light of the conflicts and repression that inevitably emerge under authoritarianism. His argument could also be read as an implicit call for regime change, stoking donors to intensify political conditionalities on these countries before things get even worse.

Cheeseman’s argument rests on a number of misleading empirical assertions which have important implications for the conclusions that he draws. In clarifying these, our point is not to defend authoritarianism. Instead, we hope to inject a measure of interpretative caution and to guard against opportunistically using crises to fan the disciplinary zeal of donors, particularly in a context of increasingly militarised aid regimes that have been associated with disastrous ventures into regime change.

We make two points. First, his story of aid dynamics in Ethiopia is not supported by the data he cites, which instead reflect the rise of economic ‘reform’ programmes pushed by the World Bank and IMF. The country’s current economic difficulties also need to be placed in the context of the systemic financial crisis currently slamming the continent, in which both authoritarian and (nominally) democratic regimes are faring poorly.

Second, we reflect on Cheeseman’s vision of aid as a lever of regime change. Within already stringent economic adjustment programmes, his call for intensifying political conditionalities amounts to a Good Governance Agenda 2.0. It ignores the legacy of the structural adjustment programmes in subverting deliberative governance on the continent during the 1980s and 1990s. 

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