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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COVID-19: how to transform the industrial policy toolkit in developing nations


COVID-19 presents some leeway for countries to pursue industrial policy on their own terms. However, as crisis conditions dissipate, current economic theory is of little help. Current perspectives range from the almost theological to the overly positivistic. Mainstream economists who have tried to ‘mainstream’ industrial policy in recent times offer simple econometric-centred reasoning that seeks to find cross-country regularities instead of nuanced and real-world application based on a country’s economic history. They apply highly positivistic and proscriptive worldviews claiming industrial policy should reveal latent ‘comparative advantage’. On the other hand, and perhaps equally misguided, heterodox scholars who reclaim the structural roots of industrial policy have anchored it in increasingly irrelevant empirical foundations that would only be useful for countries with already existing manufacturing bases. The latter have opted for the more theological approach that presupposes classical growth as an end of any industrial policy as a positive development. I hope that we seize the chance to encourage a new paradigm for industrial policy beyond narrow prescriptions and dominant worldviews.Read More »

The Promise – and Pitfalls – of State-led Development in Resource-rich Countries: Resource Nationalism in Latin America and Beyond

miningThe eclipse of neoliberalism in 2000s coincided with the so-called commodity ‘super cycle’ that lasted between 2002 and 2012. In search of a new model, resource-rich states began to articulate resource nationalism as a development strategy. While ownership and control of minerals and hydrocarbons are intricately tied to claims of state sovereignty and exercise of political authority in development policy, resource nationalism can also be understood in terms of a power struggle between host states and global hegemons in their quest to secure resources for their own industrial needs. Hence, contemporary natural resource governance is reflective of the wider ideological return of the state despite two decades of reforms promoting market liberalization and privatization. Resource nationalism is a vital expression of the renewal of state agency amidst high external constraints imposed upon resource-rich countries.

Resource Nationalism as a State-led Development Strategy

It is not a coincidence that resource nationalism returned in mainstream political debates at the same time as emerging powers designed new industrial policies aimed at recalibrating state-market relations in favour of the former. With extraordinary high prices and rising demands for natural resources from China, domestic political configurations in resource economies appear to move towards reforms aimed at (1) capturing and maximising windfall profits amidst a boom, (2) extending the role of state in commodity production through a renewed role for state-owned enterprises, and (3) renegotiating the terms of contracts with multinational mining capital.

These policies are emblematic of a wider trend: the growing importance of state stewardship for industrial transformation in an era of cross-border production networks governed by global lead firms. Despite the rhetoric on economic globalization, the role of the state remains prevalent as observed in the number of state-owned enterprises, the significant expenditure on industrial policy, and the array of government-business partnerships in East Asia and beyond. State interventions are reconfigured not simply to reinforce the residual statist tendencies, but to actively construct new comparative advantages and build strong ties with economic elites who can compete in a globalized international economy. Perhaps, more importantly, political elites are forging new social contracts with ordinary citizens to enhance the legitimacy of the state, whether in terms of actively supporting social welfare programmes (as in the case of many conditional cash transfers in Latin America), or by creating new avenues to engage with marginalised groups (for example, through participatory institutions and FPIC process).

Amidst the resource bonanza, development plans were set in motion centred around the exploitation of natural resources. For example, Brazil launched a programme focussed on heavy investments in the capital goods sector, notably in oil, gas and ship-building industries.

Several Latin American countries also introduced new royalty fees and export taxes aimed at capitalising on high prices. Table 1 details the increasing role of natural resource rents in state revenues over the past twenty years.

Table 1: Public Revenues from non-renewable natural resources in percentages of GDP

Screenshot 2020-03-24 at 09.33.07

Alongside attempts at adding value in mining and hydrocarbons, Latin American governments faced redistributive pressures from their political base. ‘Compensatory states’ justified their resource extraction strategy as a necessary step for further income distribution and revitalization of manufacturing. While political citizenship in post-neoliberal Latin America is increasingly defined by redistributive politics, it also emphasised recognition and identity politics as a central feature of a contentious state-society relationship.

The Limits of the Resource Bonanza

It is now a widely held view that the Left-of-Centre governments successfully reduced poverty and extreme poverty (see Table 2), and although slow, inequality has begun to taper off (Figure 1). However, the data also confirm the fragility of the social achievements of Latin American governments – as the bonanza ended, so did the gains from poverty reduction. This points to several important shortcomings of resource-based strategies.

Figure 1 Gini Inequality Index in Latin America, 2002-2018

Screenshot 2020-03-24 at 09.29.28Source: CEPAL 2019

Most conspicuously, poverty gains may have created a trade off in making vital investments in the productive economy. Finite domestic revenues have been subject to immense political competition for rent-seeking, and without a coherent industrial strategy, an export-led growth model based on commodities are likely to be fragile and is vulnerable from price swings.

This, then, leads to a gloomy conclusion. Resource-rich states, without the institutional capacity to design a productivist strategy to diversify their export base and to set out an ambitious multi-year development plan to upgrade their industrial sectors, are likely to suffer from the vicissitudes of international commodity markets. At worst, those without political consensus over governance – Venezuela under Maduro being the emblematic case – are likely to waste the opportunities for development through their strategic mining sectors. The broader lesson, I suspect, is that institutional preconditions and pro-industrial policy coalitions are central to the success of developing countries advancing new strategies in an increasingly globalized international economy. Crucially, whenever crisis and uncertainty appear, the state as a stabilizing force becomes more prescient than ever.

Table 2: Poverty and Extreme Poverty in 18 Latin American Countries, 2002-2019 (in percentages)

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Jewellord (Jojo) Nem Singh is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Science, Leiden University working on the political economy of development and democracy in Latin America and East Asia. He tweets at @jnemsingh.

The Sacrificial Generations of Capitalism

Screenshot 2020-02-11 at 09.28.58In this article I remind readers about the existence of “sacrificial generations” within global capitalist history. By sacrificial generation I mean a group of people at a point in time that experiences suffering with the immanent or intentional effect of changing economic, political or social conditions, which are in turn disproportionately enjoyed by another group of people at a later period in time. I identify four areas in which there systematically exists sacrificial generations:  three stages of capitalist development (state formation, capitalist property rights transition and early industrialization) and a cyclical aspect of capitalism (Polanyian-Marxian cycles). It could also be argued that the future generations which would disproportionately experience the environmental costs of past and present generations’ consumption are “climatic sacrificial generations”, but this will not be explored. Read More »

The local state origins of national economic development

Korea_busan_pusan_harbour_cargo_container_terminal.jpegDuring the high period of global neoliberalism (1980-2008) the international development community essentially banned the heterodox concept of the ‘developmental state’ from polite discussion. One of the reactions to the global financial crisis and the Great Recession that ensued after 2008, however, was a growing call for the partial revival of the developmental state model. Most attention in this revival of interest has predictably followed the line that began with Chalmers Johnson’s pioneering work on Japan’s developmental state; which is to say that the discussion has overwhelmingly centred on the purpose and role of national-level developmental state institutions. This discussion is somewhat incomplete, I would argue, if not a little misleading. This is because a great part of the historic economic development success attributed to the ‘top down’ developmental state model since 1945 is actually success brought about thanks to the innovative and determined activities of sub-national ‘bottom-up’ developmental state institutions, which we can term the ‘local developmental state’ (LDS) model. Read More »

Should the African lion learn from the Asian tigers? A comparison of FDI-oriented industrial policy in Ethiopia, South Korea and Taiwan

The Huajian shoe factory in the Eastern Industrial Zone in Ethiopia. Photo: UNIDO.

Ethiopia is being hailed as one of the most successful growth stories in Africa. Because of the country’s rapid economic growth, the high degree of state intervention in the economy, and the state’s focus on industrialization, people have started to compare Ethiopia to the Asian ‘tigers’ (Aglionby, 2017; Clapham, 2018; De Waal, 2013, Hauge and Chang, 2019; Oqubay, 2015) four countries in East Asia (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan) that underwent rapid industrialization and maintained exceptionally high growth rates in the post-WWII era.

However, this emerging literature on Ethiopia-Asia comparisons has not yet sufficiently addressed one of the most important aspects of Ethiopia’s industrialization strategy — the attraction of foreign direct investments (FDI) into the manufacturing sector.

The rationale of my recently published article was this gap in the literature. In it, I ask the question: Should the African lion learn from the Asian tigers with respect to FDI-oriented industrial policy? 

In short, my answer is yes. While Ethiopia’s policies are bringing about short-term economic success and showing promise for further industrialization, the state could arguably bargain harder with foreign investors, like it did in South Korea and Taiwan.Read More »

Hirschman’s Linkages: Passé in the Age of Global Production Sharing?


How does economic development happen? After World War II, many development economists rose to prominence, such as Paul Rosenstein-Rodan (the big push), Arthur Lewis (the dual-sector model), Walter Rostow (the linear stages of growth) and Albert Hirschman (unbalanced growth and linkages). Given the continued importance of industrial policy, it is particularly worthwhile to revisit the idea of forward and backward linkages — one of the central tenets of development thinking pioneered by Hirschman.Read More »

Rethinking the Failures of Mining Industrialisation in the African Periphery

The remains of one of SOMINKI’s industrial gold mines (author photo).

The World Bank interpreted the failure of mineral extraction to drive structural transformation in the early decades of African Independence as due to badly managed state-owned enterprises (SOEs), excessive state intervention in the economy, and government corruption. To right these wrongs, since the 1980s, the Bank has loaned hundreds of millions of dollars to the governments of mineral-rich (and mostly low-income) African countries to privatise and liberalise their mining sectors. Spurred on by the most recent commodity super-cycle beginning in the late 1990s, foreign direct investment poured in, and for many low-income African countries today, “the mining sector represents one of the most crucial sources of investment and income in their economies” (Farole and Winkler 2014: 177). A major theoretical assumption underpinning this process has been a belief in the superior expertise and efficiency of experienced transnational corporations (TNCs) compared to corrupt and mismanaged SOEs. In this post, I unpack and question the validity of this assumption, by drawing on some of the findings from my doctoral thesis on mining reindustrialisation in South Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).     Read More »