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The death of Nelson Mandela on 5 December 2013 was in a sense a wake-up call for South Africans, and a time to reflect on what has been achieved since ‘those magnificent days in late April 1994’ (as the editors of this volume put it) ‘when South Africans of all colours voted for the first time in a democratic election’. In a time of recall and reflection it is important to take account, not only of the dramatic events that grip the headlines, but also of other signposts that indicate the shape and characteristics of a society. The New South African Review looks, every year, at some of these signposts, and the essays in this fourth volume of the series again examine and analyse a broad spectrum of issues affecting the country. They tackle topics as diverse as the state of organised labour; food retailing; electricity generation; access to information; civil courage; the school system; and – looking outside the country to its place in the world – South Africa’s relationships with north-east Asia, with Israel and with its neighbours in the southern African region. Taken together, these essays give a multidimensional perspective on South Africa’s democracy as it turns twenty, and will be of interest to general readers while being particularly useful to students and researchers.
Nicolas Pons-Vignon, Senior Researcher, Corporate Strategy and Industrial Development Programme, University of the Witwatersrand,
Miriam Di Paola, Researcher, Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, University of Johannesburg.
The liberation from apartheid generated great expectations of change in the workplace and the labour market (Pons-Vignon and Anseeuw 2009). This was due to the key role of trade unions – both as a political force and through successful undermining of the racist order which had been established in workplaces – in overthrowing the system of minority rule, (Von Holdt 2003). Apartheid geography had ensured the racial separation of dwellings. Encounters (often brutal) between people considered to belong to different racial groups took place, mostly in what Marx calls ‘the hidden abode of production’. The history of ‘forcible commodification’ (Bernstein 1994) of southern African peasants into wage labourers, one of extreme violence, was followed by the imposition of a migrant labour system and of colour bars (limiting the promotion of blacks) across workplaces, with the active support of the state and capital. In the absence of alternative sources of income, wage employment came to occupy a central place in the daily life (or reproduction, in Marxist parlance) of most South Africans; but with a record-breaking unemployment rate (standing close to 40 per cent), more and more research points to the restoration of employer power post-1994 through the widespread use of outsourcing and an explosion in casual and informal employment (Buhlungu and Bezuidenhout 2008; Pons-Vignon, forthcoming; Von Holdt and Webster 2005). The economically liberating stable employment to which most South Africans aspire has therefore not materialised but remains the overarching objective of progressive forces in which unions continue to play a leading role (Barchiesi 2011).
And yet, reading the media or the reports produced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), one could believe that the South African government has yielded to the dreaded sirens of populism, at least in the labour market. Rigid rules have allegedly been established, killing flexibility by over-protecting workers who are poorly skilled and over-unionised; a deadly mix which lies at the root of high unemployment and poverty (Klein 2012). Such arguments follow the South African (neo)liberal tradition (Knight 1982; Hofmeyr and Lucas 2001; Kingdon and Knight 2007) according to which the key to unlocking growth and reducing poverty in South Africa would be to reform the labour market (making it ‘flexible’) and equip poor people with useful skills.
A Fragile Democracy – Twenty Years On, the fourth New South African Review, is one of doubtless numerous attempts to characterise the state of South Africa some two decades after those magnificent days in late April 1994 when South Africans of all colours voted for the first time in a democratic election. As we write this, we are approaching the country's fourth such election, a significant indicator of the overall success of our democratic transition – for although there may prove to be wrinkles there is every expectation that the forthcoming contest will again be ‘free and fair’. Nonetheless, there are likely to be changes in the electoral landscape, there being significant prospect at time of writing that the ruling African National Congress's (ANC's) proportion of the vote will fall below 60 per cent, the level of electoral dominance it has consistently achieved hitherto. While the ANC can claim many triumphs, and can convincingly claim to have transformed South Africa for the better (materially and spiritually), there is nonetheless widespread discontent abroad. The ANC itself displays many divisions. The Tripartite Alliance (which links it to the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu)), is creaking; it is threatened by new opposition parties which appeal to disaffection – especially among the poor and those who feel excluded from the benefits of democracy – and even the established opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) today seeks to cloak itself in the mantle of Mandela. Even while the ANC boasts about steady growth, more jobs, improved service delivery and better standards of living for the majority, critics point out that the economy is stagnating, unemployment remains stubbornly high, corruption flourishes, popular protest abounds, and government and many public services (notably the intelligence agencies and the police) have earned an alarming reputation for unaccountability. So we could go on – but we won't, as we would rather encourage our readers to engage with the wide-ranging set of original essays provided by our authors.