Compléments de Multitudes 10

Exploding the Nation: South Africa between Collapse of the Wage Paradigm, Sovereignty Crisis and Biopolitical Insurgency

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1. National Liberation and the Decline of the Citizenship-Sovereignty Nexus

The April 1994 elections in South Africa marked the transition from apartheid to a formal democratic-representative regime with the rise of the African National Congress (ANC) to power and of Nelson Mandela to the presidency. The event carried an enormous significance for debates on the fate of the nation-state in an age of globalisation. In a sense the South African transition constituted a paradigmatic case that in many expectations could disclose a possible alternative route for the state form, whose ‘decline’ in the face of global economic forces has long been anticipated by influential views and intellectual currents. In fact, the rise of the ANC can be seen as the final step in the continent’s trajectory of emancipation from colonialism and white minority rule. At the same time it was the first case of ‘national liberation’ to take place under the global dominance of market forces and neoliberal ideology. This is quite different, as such, from scenarios that in the past had enabled a linkage between anti-colonial experiments and the aspiration to non-capitalist roads to development. The ANC’s landslide electoral victory with 62% of the popular vote (risen to 67% in the 1999 elections) seemed to reflect a massive mandate for a political programme that combined nationalist discourse with the promise of a ‘developmental’ role of the state in addressing inherited huge social inequalities. The self-styled role of the ANC as the only truly non-racial, cross-class mass party able to build a unified citizenship out of the oppression and the antagonisms of the past, and to nurture this into a decisive social transformation, was the hallmark of the sovereignty paradigm of the new state. The South Africa transition represented probably the most important myth-making event for a whole line of analysis, which many in the North’s left had embraced, for which the nation-state could still provide the most effective barrier and resistance against globalised capital.

Eight years after that momentous shift, the political mythology of the post-apartheid state lies in a state of profound crisis, and many of its assumptions and preconditions seem to be abandoned or reconfigured in deeply different, often contradictory ways (Marais, 2001). Locally and internationally, the left finds itself at great pain to reconcile the material development of events that followed 1994 with the mythical dimension that accompanied the first democratic elections. In fact, the original discourse of state-driven developmentalism remains as an emptying rhetorical package to marketize a wholesale adoption of liberal macroeconomic paradigms. At the same time, the discourse of social ‘transformation’ has changed its referents to designate a dynamic of economic competitiveness and insertion in global markets and investment driven by an unreconstructed, heavily financiarised capital where traditional players have been partially integrated by new, tiny layers of African corporate elite. Similarly, the nationalist slogans of independence and democratic sovereignty have been ‘sublimated’ in a new, equally mythical, vision of Africa as transcendence of national boundaries, a unified political-economic actor and as a playground for an increasingly aggressive and internationalised South African capital. The new mythology, however, conceals dramatic shifts in policy-making dynamics, recodified as largely technocratic processes of choice between increasingly narrowing policy alternatives. Finally, social inequality and exclusion have widened for large strata of the formerly oppressed majority, while the narrowing of racial gaps in blacks’ and whites’ average income reveal a deepening inequality among the African population. The powerful working-class support for the ANC has faced the uncomfortable reality of a decline in permanent waged employment, the swelling ranks of jobless, the proliferation of ‘atypical’ highly vulnerable occupations (Hayter, Reinecke and Torres, 1999; Torres, 2002).

These processes are accompanied by domestic market liberalisation, the downsizing of the public sector, restructuring and privatization of massive state-owned companies and of public and municipal services. At the same time, the containment of public expenditure marks a stagnation, if not a complete reversal, of the developmental role of the state towards largely residual forms of social welfare, while the enforcement of market discipline in the access to social services deprives increasing numbers of people of healthcare, education, water, electricity, sanitation. In the current context, one third of the rural population and one fourth of the urban one has no access to any of these facilities (Bond, 2001). As a result, a state of endemic rebellion and often violent revolt has become endemic in many urban and rural communities that for the ANC government have become areas of total loss of consent, in the same way as they once were for the apartheid state. Here the police and private security companies hired by the local government constitute the only expanding public service, especially in their daily job of evicting or disconnecting services for residents who cannot afford to pay rents. The state is once again experienced by broadening masses of the excluded in the townships as an alien occupation force.

While electoral abstensionism and declining political participation increasingly signal popular disaffection with the ANC, occupations of houses and illegal reconnections of water and electricity by residents who were disconnected for ‘non-payment’ are weaving a new texture and narrative of resistance. Localised movements and organisations are emerging in ways that reveal their growing distance from the old organisations of the factory proletariat, historically strong but now increasingly under pressure. In August 2001 many of these movements staged a historic 20,000-strong march on the World Congress against Racism, in Durban. There, diversified and colourful anti-government slogans (the most famous of them read “away with all this cANCer”) and a radically innovative imagery irrupted on the public scene in a stark break with the turgid nationalist speak of the official ‘liberation’ rhetoric. This not only mirrored, as never before, a broad-based social opposition to the ANC regime, and its creeping crisis of legitimation. It also expressed a deep-seated rejection of the totality of the South African political class, including the vanguardist forms of ‘left’ organizing proper of trade union organisations that are becoming increasingly less representative. These movements are matched with more and more determined and violent levels of state repression, sustained by the government’s and, often, the unions’ depiction of their participants as ‘reactionary’, ‘opportunist, ‘adventurist’ and ‘counter-revolutionary’. Apart from visible and structured events of confrontation, however, the widespread nature of rejection of the ANC regime has meanwhile become apparent also in everyday practices of subversion. For example, in the face of a dramatic HIV-AIDS epidemic that is having an enormous social and demographic impact, the ANC government has so far refused access to anti-retroviral treatments to prevent mother-to-child transmission also in the case of the most dramatic emergencies. His denialist approach has led current president, Thabo Mbeki, to question the existence of linkages between HIV and AIDS, while some of his influential advisers have come to deny the very existence of HIV. All this takes place in a context where the government has made clear that its current fiscal constraints and macroeconomic discipline prevent it from expanding health expenditure. Far from confining their opposition to pharmaceutical multinationals, movements like the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) have directly (and legally) challenged the government for its role in enforcing neoiliberal discipline. As a result, cases have been reported of doctors being victimised for providing life-saving anti-retrovirals to their patients, while others have resorted to means such as clandestine smuggling of medicines inside hospitals inside children’s toys (Sunday Independent, 24 January 2002).

These episodes, taken both in their specificity and as markers of the impressive turnaround from the rise to the crisis of the ‘national liberation’ myth in South Africa provide the conceptual coordinates and boundaries for the argument presented in this article. In particular, the decline of the nationalist-developmentalist project in post-Apartheid South Africa will be discussed in relation to changes in the constitution of wage labour in the transition and to how such changes have shaped, and been shaped by, the quality of insurgent subjectivities. The ANC’s own ideological pragmatism has allowed the South African government to recodify its inward-looking developmental programme into one that prioritizes insertion in global markets and investment flows. However, this shift – while largely determined by the need to control a changing social subjectivity – opened new contradictions for the ANC government. In fact, the adoption of neoliberalism prevented it from fully accomplishing the transition from apartheid-era system of unfree labour towards a fully-fledged and stabilized capitalist “free” labour market. This expectation, on the other hand, provided a crucial terrain of compromise between the ANC and its powerful organised labour support, which demanded from the transition not only the recognition of its organisational rights and bargaining power, but also a promotion of waged employment as a mechanism for full integration and social citizenship. The failure of this project in South Africa is not only marginalising organised labour as an oppositional social actor, but is a reflection of a deeper crisis of sovereignty for the new South African state. However, this crisis should not be read as mere “decline” of the South African nation-state in the face of global forces, or even as generalised reduction of state intervention, as both supporters and orthodox Marxist critics of globalisation tend to do. Rather than being reducible to a purely quantitative phenomenon, the crisis of the South African nation-state affects deeper determinants of the concept. In particular, what is decisively affected in the current phase is the ability of the state to link sovereignty to an expansionary, inclusive view of citizenship. Not only is the link between sovereignty and expansion of citizenship questioned, similarly to developments in more industrialised societies, but the linkage between global processes and domestic oppositional subjectivities is clearly redefining state sovereignty predominantly towards the reproduction, management and repression of social exclusion (Mezzadra and Ricciardi, 1997). The disruption of the sovereignty-citizenship linkage reveals important commonalities with similar cases studied in the ‘North’. Therefore, together with the doubts it casts on simplified “North vs South” oppositions, the case of the post-apartheid South African state presents important conclusions on general debates around post-coloniality and post-authoritarianism in the context of global neoliberalism.

Many left analyses have maintained a structuralist bias that focus on an understanding of concepts such as ‘globalisation’ and ‘neoliberalism’ essentially in terms of capitalist domination and disarticulation of social subjects by impersonal economic forces (Bourdieu, 1998), to the detriment of the democratic processes and procedures embodied in national politics and institutions allegedly able to more adequately give voice and representation to multiple social constituencies (Teeple, 1995). As a consequence, faced with the decline of traditional forms of political representation and interest intermediation from which they somewhat benefited in the past, oppositional structures — lumped in undifferentiated headings such as “labour”, “social movements” and “the left” — tend to be presented as victims of this process, or as subjects whose strenuous resistance is condemned to failure in the absence of some systemic alternative or blueprint for societal transition. This domination-based view of social subjects in the age of globalisation, which may be defined as ‘residualist-resistentialist’, is open to two possible lines of criticism. First it reifies a notion of state sovereignty as a bulwark against globalisation, which makes the concept of sovereignty coincidental with a specific historical phase (the Fordist compromise between worker productivity and state-sponsored welfare) where sovereignty concluded a long trajectory of social integration of former anti-systemic forces (socialist parties and trade unions in primis). That compromise during the “golden age” of capitalism in Europe and North America made the extension of social citizenship a crucial component in the exercise of state power. However, defenders of state sovereignty against globalisation neglect the depth of social processes in which the linkage between sovereignty and citizenship has been questioned in the “North” first by the factory proletariat and then by the insurgent action of formerly non-guaranteed, non-represented subjects (precarious workers, students, feminist movements, migrants) which questioned the very borders of inclusivity of that compromise (Witheford, 2000). These processes did not start with ‘resistance’ to the economic forces of globalisation: they rather found their origins in subjective strategies, claims, demands and desires vis-à-vis the nation-state support for Fordist production methods and imposition of labour. As Yasemin Soysal (1994) shows in the case of international labour migration to Europe, this dynamics has unfolded throughout the post-war era as a demand for universal rights that eventually “comes to contest the exclusive model of citizenship anchored in national sovereignty” (98). But also in the “South” the rise of the factory proletariat has similarly been a powerful force in the collapse of authoritarian nationalist developmentalism, which was often at the service of a ‘peripheralization’ and global expansion of Fordism (Herold, 1994). This, conversely, helps to explain the rise of ‘structural adjustment’ not as part of a global neoliberal conspiracy, but in the context of state strategies of control of insurgent subjectivities.

The work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000) provides useful conceptual instruments that allow to bridge the gap, evidenced in earlier critiques of globalisation, between the constitution of the global capitalist order and the unfolding processes of formation of social subjectivities that have led to the crisis of the Fordist compromise in the North and of the nationalist developmentalism borne out of ‘national liberation’ struggles in the South. At the same time, their view of the ‘Empire’ allows to avoid the conceptual cul-de-sac encountered by traditional left critiques that have been caught in a binary opposition between ‘disappearance’ and ‘persistence’ of the nation-state in front of globalization, which idealizes the mutual antagonism between the two and neglects the ways in which ‘national’ and ‘global’ are moments of a “regime of the production of identity and difference, or really of homogeneization and heterogeneization” (Hardt and Negri, 2000: 45) defined by a deterritorialized economic and communicative system of command whose hierarchical organization of production on a worldwide scale is legitimized by new authorities that are repository of a new ideology of universal citizenship rights. Therefore, while state sovereignty is deprived of these crucial prerogatives — that come to depend on the orderly functioning of the markets and on the global exercise of military power to sort out ’emergencies’ — the functions of social control and repression of exclusion, and the definition of new limits to the access to citizenship right, acquire new meaning as part of this redefinition of global hierarchies.

South Africa presents a relevant laboratory since it displays these dynamics at work in an extremely short timespan, coterminous with its relatively recent incorporation in the ‘Empire’. The demise of apartheid, from this point of view, was not simply the removal of the last remnant of what Hardt and Negri regard as imperialist colonialism on the African continent. It was also a process ridden with apparent paradoxes. South Africa’s racist state was the only nationalist regime in colonial Africa. There, the location of the country in the old imperialist chain of raw materials exploitation was complemented by a discourse of economic and industrial self-sufficiency (also due to international isolation) and state intervention finalised to the promotion of the interests of the white population (and not only its early Afrikaner supporters; see O’Meara, 1983). This nationalist project ran into crisis due to the inability of its racial state form to enforce a discipline of unfree labour in the face of a militant factory proletariat. The dynamics of working class insurgency in the 1970s ultimately emphasized the illegimacy of this project and contributed to bring to power a mass-based nationalist alternative embodied by the ANC. However, the rise to power of national liberation, well after similar processes had completed their course elsewhere in Africa, coincided with the nearly immediate abandonment by the ANC of any idea of nationalist economic policy, or for that matter of state protagonism in spearheading development, and the embrace of global competition, foreign investment and market openness as engines of growth. Nowhere it is clearer than in South Africa after the end of apartheid that full acceptance of the authority of the Empire and insertion in its economic logic, without any pretense of using state power as an antagonising force, seems to have become the fate of ‘national liberation’. This conclusion, coherent as it is with Hardt and Negri’s general argument, will now be examined in greater detail, focusing in particular on its implications for processes and dynamics of opposition.

2. South Africa in the Empire

The conceptual and historical transition to Empire carries important implications for nation-states that have emerged from anti-colonial struggles of ‘national liberation’. These latter’s image of the ‘nation’ generally served purposes of defensive identification and unity among various subordinated groups, often on a non-class basis. In the post-colonial scenario the ‘nation’ translated this image of unity into policies of development and modernisation carried out by the new states (Chatterjee, 1993: 202-205). This equation between nationalism and political-economic modernisation provided a powerful mobilising tool, but it also delegated the continuation of the ‘struggle’ to new elites that generally owed their authority to their capacity to articulate national sovereignty and modernisation in continuity with the policies once sponsored by colonial powers. In these regards, those exceptions based on state-driven ambitions of changing social relations of production (Mozambique, Angola, Ethiopia) failed to provide a viable counter-hegemony and eventually collapsed with the post-1989 decline of global bi-polarity. Commenting on the tradition of the ‘subaltern studies’, Frederick Cooper (1996) identifies the inadequacy of national liberation discourses as based on their ‘decolonization from above’. This is functional to reproducing the institutional power of educated and urban-based new elites, incorporating and devaluing conflictual dynamics of subjectivity formation under unproblematic, totalising images of ‘the people’ and ‘the nation’. The South African case departs from this trajectory to the extent that the ANC as the leading force of the national liberation movement came to power precisely when state-driven modernisation was eclipsed by the changing global macroeconomic scenario. The ruling party, which had once entertained those views, rapidly abandoned them as a consequence. The absence of a tradition of mass-based, state-led developmentalism in power — which in other African countries had generated the experience of the one-party state — leads in South Africa’s case to a much higher degree of functionality of the nationalist discourse towards the insertion in the Empire. The formal dynamics of the process resembles the one described by Hardt and Negri (2000: 133):

“The revolution is thus offered up, hands and feet bound, to the new bourgeoisie. It is a February revolution, one might say, that should be followed by an October. But the calendar has gone crazy: October never comes, the revolutionaries get bogged down in ‘realism’, and modernisation ends up lost in hierarchies of the world market. Is not the control exerted by the world market, however, the opposite of the nationalist dream of an autonomous, self-centred development? The nationalism of anti-colonial, anti-imperialist struggles effectively functions in reverse, and the liberated countries find themselves subordinated in the international economic order”.

However, South Africa provides important elements of innovation and specificity that better help to understand the empirical dynamics and internal complexity of the process. In fact, the nationalism of the ANC in power has never been based on the implementation of a ‘dream’ of autonomous, self-centred development. Surely, an inward-looking approach to growth propped up by domestic demand, where the state controls strategic economic assets and mechanisms had provided powerful – albeit controversial in their interpretations — motifs to the ANC’s early emancipatory discourse (McKinley, 1997: 20-23). But these motifs, present in the historic 1955 Freedom Charter adopted by the ANC-led Congress Alliance, have remained confined to a purely symbolic level in more recent developments. The 1994 elections were won by an “Alliance” led by the ANC, which included what is by far the major union federation in the country, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the small South African Communist Party (SACP). The programme of the Alliance, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), was in itself the product of protracted compromises between the three partners after an initial impulse from COSATU. It still contained a strong orientation towards “growth through redistribution” which prioritised what was then understood as a Keynesian policy scenario aimed at encouraging domestic demand through the satisfaction of “basic needs” and a redress of the enormous social inequalities inherited from apartheid.

At the same time, the ANC’s post-1989 economic and constitutional elaborations recognised the need for South African capital to become globally competitive and to provide an attractive location for local and international investment. That amounted de facto to relinquishing a development vision where the state is the main actor, at least through the direct ownership and control of strategic resources. These orientations became even more accentuated with the adoption of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy in 1996, a document that advocated a substantially “trickle down” approach to social equity and employment creation, while emphasizing the primary role of business confidence and international competitiveness as the main vehicles of modernisation. This led to the subordination of public spending expansion to the attainment of stringent deficit containment objectives, a priority on anti-inflationary mechanisms and a support to labour market flexibility as a solution to the problem of rampant unemployment (Michie and Padayachee, 1997; Habib and Padayachee, 2000).

Therefore, the developmental role of the state has been increasingly subordinated to a ‘globalised’ nationalism, where the correspondence between economic performance, competitiveness in an outward-orientated growth and nation-building has been more and more stringent and exclusive. In this sense, the analogy between national liberation and a ‘February revolution’ that does not want to end seems validated. The private sector, with a significant state role in promoting a de-racialised capitalist order and a new ‘black bourgeoisie’ from the ranks of the previously oppressed, is delegated with a substantial authority, intruding the sphere of state sovereignty, in the solution of the post-apartheid ‘social question’. Profitability and entrepreneurship are therefore prioritised as vehicles to generate resources, social empowerment and individual advancement. On the other hand, the global market and international financial institutions are delegated with directly normative and programmatic functions. In particular, they are identified as sources of authority and influence in defining constraints and choices associated in policy discourse with ‘globalisation’. Once internalised in domestic policy debates, these constraints provide boundaries for processes of resource allocation, public intervention, legitimate popular expectations, and the expression of subjective desires.

In its effort of deracialisation of an increasingly financiarised capital, the government of President Thabo Mbeki has surreptitiously introduced the notion of ‘black economic empowerment’ to designate the re-equilibrium of power relations in corporate proprietary assets. In this instance, ‘race’ is re-mobilised as a crucial legitimation argument for the regime. This allows the ANC to portray a continuous commitment to fighting historically entrenched social inequalities inherited from the racist state, while obscuring the continuity in the social forces that determine inequality via a continuous loyalty to global market forces and the equalisation of market opportunities (to which ’empowerment’ is largely reduced). The remarkable change of orientation between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ nationalist discourse of the ANC — which underpins its emphasis on the continuous relevance of race — with regard to the promotion of a ‘black bourgeoisie’ is apparent at the level of official elaborations. In a 1978 speech as an ANC representative at a congress in Ottawa, the current president Thabo Mbeki stated:

“Consider the circumstances in which we might position black capitalism as the antithesis of white capitalism (…). In its beginnings, the national bourgeoisie of the colonial countries identifies itself with the decadence of the bourgeoisie of the west. We need not think that it is jumping ahead; it is in fact beginning at the end. It is already senile before it has come to know the petulance, the fearlessness, or the will to succeed of youth. This black capitalism instead of being the antithesis is rather confirmation of parasitism with no redeeming features whatsoever, without any extenuating circumstances to excuse its existence” (Mbeki, 1978: 15).

The ‘redeeming features’ Mbeki alluded to seemed, indeed, to materialise for him after the ANC’s accession to power in a radically different global and social scenario. Therefore Mbeki himself could argue in 1999, few months after his election to the Presidency:

“As part of the realisation of the aim to eradicate racism in our country, we must strive to create and strengthen a black capitalist class. Because we come from among the black oppressed, many among us feel embarrassed to state this goal as nakedly as we should. (…) I would like to urge, very strongly, that we abandon our embarrassment about the possibility of the emergence of successful and therefore prosperous black owners of productive property and think and act in a manner consistent with a realistic response to the real world. As part of our continuing struggle to wipe out the legacy of racism, we must work to ensure that there emerges a black bourgeoisie, whose presence within our economy and society will be part of the process of the deracialisation of the economy and society. Accordingly, indeed, the government must come to the aid of those among the black people who might require such aid in order to become entrepreneurs” (Mbeki, 1999).

These changes show the extreme and peculiar flexibility of the ANC’s nationalist discourse — in this very different from nationalist rhetorics fallen into disrepute elsewhere in the continent — and its unparalleled capacity to adapt to changing global scenarios. In fact, in both cases quoted above, the ANC’s official definition of what the ‘real world’ deems viable (post-colonial developmentalism first, globalised neoliberalism then) is much more relevant than references to clearly defined class interests in organising the mobile boundary between the excluded and the included in the regime’s construction of ‘the nation’. While the homogenous character of this latter pays undoubtedly a tribute to the ‘old’ nationalist discourse, its elasticity in relation to global market responses seems to be the ANC’s peculiar contribution to a theory of the survival of nationalism in a globalising world.

Many traditional left analyses (McKinley, 1997; Bond, 1999) have identified the ANC’s reassessment of its early discourse merely as instances of “co-optation” of the national liberation elites, or of their “sell-out” to the dictates of international financial institutions and domestic, particularly financial, capital or, at best, they have spoken of “retreat” in the face of an adverse balance of class forces. However these views, and their marginalisation of grassroots social subjectivity, largely fail to recognise that changes in the Alliance’s policies are the product, often unintended and contradictory, of popular struggles both inside and outside organisations formally aligned with the ANC. The social and historical research on grassroots dynamics of national liberation politics in South Africa has substantially neglected a discussion of how changing forms of class composition, the rise of new social subjects, the definition of diversified popular demands and desires directly impact on general policy options and strategies.

Equally neglected in these analyses is the ability of the ANC’s “globalised nationalism” to recodify and reconfigure people’s desires away from earlier dreams of equality and state-supported universal social citizenship towards a view where progressive social transformation is made coincidental with entrepreneurialism and individual empowerment on the market (Jacobs, 2001). This shift is generally operated by continuing to pay formal homage (even in a document like GEAR) to notions of ‘redistribution’ and ‘opportunities’ where the centrality of waged employment is combined with a renewed emphasis on the market as a vehicle of individual discipline. The impact of this process consists, in a Foucauldian sense, in the ANC’s ability to redefine state’s sovereignty in terms of biopower, or as management and deferral of desires (Marais, 2001: 261-262; Saul, 2001) into new configurations of social control for the sake of what in the party’s sloganeering becomes a “better life for all”. This endless reconfiguration of demands and struggles that are conflictually carried forward by social subjectivities mirrors on the other hand the decline of state institutions as vehicles to represent and organise these subjectivities. Therefore the reconfiguration of desires for a ‘better life’ is shifted onto an increasingly symbolic plane, which emphasizes the limits of state sovereignty to contain a rising diversification and unpredictability of multitudes of subjects. These processes confirm the ambivalent nature of social subjectivity as both producing and being produced by the state form, its policies, its emancipatory discourse, its legitimising institutions. To better understand this point a look is needed at the diversification of expectations and subjectivity in the current conjuncture. Before that, however, few observations on the decline of wage labour as a historically powerful vehicle of those expectations is required.

3.Subjectivity at Work: The End of Wage Labour and New Social Stratifications

The most important dynamics in subjectivity formation during the 25 years that have preceded the collapse of the apartheid state form is constituted by the rise of wage labour not only as a generalised material condition but, most importantly, as a source of claims, expectations and emancipatory “world views” that profoundly reconfigured the political demands and programmes of the domestic opposition to apartheid. Consequently, the recent heterogeineization of the social subjects that once had wage labour as the material core of views of liberation and citizenship represents the most important challenge facing both state efforts at consolidation and the reconstruction of oppositional and resistance movements. The decline of wage labour as both a material condition and as a political emancipatory actor in South reopens, at the same time, the contestation over the ANC’s ability to control and reproduce the desires and demands of South Africa’s multitudes.

The resurgence of black working class organisation during the 1970s presented features that are highly peculiar with regard to both other African countries and previous stages of South African working class history. Previous waves of organisation affected partially proletarianised working classes, mainly in the mining areas. However, the 1970s mark the irruption in opposition politics of a black semi-skilled, urbanised proletariat located in manufacturing industry and with prospects of waged employment as the main source of social integration. Yann Moulier-Boutang’s (1998) path-breaking comparative analysis of apartheid South Africa’s labour policies in relation to the emergence of modern wage labour emphasizes the contest over the control of subjectivity and resistance of the black working class as a decisive terrain of confrontation between the racist state and liberation movements. In particular, apartheid is here regarded as a long-term, unfinished process embodied in a set of institutions and practices to regulate the settlement and mobility of black labour. The purpose of creating a capitalist labour market was there primarily based not so much on the access to a ‘cheap’ workforce as such, but on the minimisation of the possibilities of worker defection from the wage relation, and the limitations of possibilities of ‘escape’. The racist social order could not obviously rely on the option of achieving this result in the form of ‘free’ wage labour — entitled to civic, political, social rights and citizenship – and that ultimately was one of the crucial factors of crisis and downfall of that order. It is also to be underlined (Cooper, 1996: 25-32) that worker resistance to proletarianization itself was a factor that prevented the capitalist management of a transition from coercive to ‘free’ labour in a context marked by the denial of civil, political and social rights. The creation of a disciplined labour force socialised in the wage relation constituted a decisive, albeit often neglected, problem that racial minority rule and colonial states transmitted to regimes emerged out of national liberation politics. At the same time the problematic nature of this project was underpinned by two concomitant trends. On one hand, recent proletarianisation in societies with strong non-capitalist features linked possibilities of ‘escape’ from wage labour to renewed bargaining power for the African proletariat. On the other hand, this enabled nascent African labour movements to trade off the access to the wage relation with claims on non-wage spheres of power, autonomy and control. This ultimately made the modernisation process unaffordable for the colonial state, opening the way for new institutional configurations of ‘the nation’.

This point highlights two conclusions, both applicable to South Africa. First, the struggle of the black proletariat over worker rights and powers expressed deep-seated desires of liberation from wage labour that co-existed with the demand for social and political recognition deriving from being part of the industrialisation process. Second, apartheid’s need for a cheap labour supply contradicted the possibility of a more effective social control over, and co-operation from, a ‘free’ waged proletariat, which would have required the extension of full citizenship rights. The accession to such rights under the ANC government finally accomplished, therefore, the long historical process of establishing a capitalist labour market in South Africa. This was complemented by the regulation of worker rights in a political and constitutional dispensation that recognises the priority of job creation as a crucial vehicle for social insertion, while providing for organisational and bargaining rights allegedly aimed at reinforcing the workers’ autonomous power. From this point of view, the political and ideological legitimation finally gained by ‘free’ waged labour in the democratic state allowed the new government to demand moderation and acceptance of productivity-cum-competitiveness deals on the part of trade unions as a counterpart and a condition for the preservation of the new normative edifice.

The transition to industrialisation in twentieth-century South Africa has taken place in uneven and incomplete forms. In particular, racially stratified consumer markets did not allow for economies of scale that supported the expansion of mass production. Secondarily, the occupational mobility of black semi-skilled operators was constrained by the racialised barriers imposed through legislation and collective bargaining agreements between capital and white labour. The limitations of this model, defined as ‘racial Fordism’ (Gelb, 1991), were responsible for the largely failed development of a locally-owned capital goods sector and for the reliance of manufacturing industry on imported technology and machinery, favoured by foreign reserves earned with the export of minerals. On the other hand, the production of consumer goods for a relatively narrow, largely white domestic market was facilitated by the cheap energy sources at the basis of iron and steel processing in a largely state-owned sector. In Fine and Rustomjee’s (1996) view this pattern of industrial development was premised on the interests of a ‘mineral-energy complex’ that prevented a successful diversification of the South African productive base, while increasing capital intensity and trends to overproduction. At the same time, repression and the denial of political citizenship structured the flux towards the cities of an African proletariat that was relatively recently urbanised and organised the coercive ‘migrant labour’ system. Finally, this array of forms of control served the double, and increasingly contradictory, purpose of minimising labour costs — which implied that for the official state ideology urbanisation and wage labour had to remain for black workers temporary and unstable experiences — and of establishing a labour market discipline that could improve skill levels, motivation and co-operation.

The 1970s workers’ insurgency, in a context of economic crisis and impending decline of the ‘mineral-energy’ complex, heightened this contradiction and decisively shaped apartheid’s policies of labour reform. At the same time, the ‘technical’ features of a black working class composition based on contract labour and precarious employment, and its associated vulnerability, did not hamper its activism and politicisation, but rather contributed to peculiar trajectories and methodologies of organisation. Starting with the “Durban strikes” in 1973, shopfloor working class organisations were established in the Witwatersrand (South Africa’s mining and manufacturing “core”), the Eastern Cape and the Cape Town region (Friedman, 1987; Baskin, 1991). The relationship between capitalist crisis and worker insurgency reflected, at the same time, the impact on South Africa of the collapse of the Bretton Woods system and the abandonment of the fixed gold-dollar convertibility, which determined a rising instability in the world courses of gold, and therefore in the fortunes of the South Africa’s ‘mineral-energy complex’. The already high levels of capital intensity were deepened in response to worker struggles, but this amounted to further overaccumulation and renewed rigidities for capitalist development. The need to move from reliance on raw material export towards a more knowledge-based and skilled black proletariat – advocated already in 1971 by Harry Oppenheimer, director of the giant Anglo-American Corporation — became a relevant topic in debates inside South African capital and reflected capital’s anxiety to discipline new workers’ demands for increasing control of production.

Working class insurgency decisively shaped the nature of the apartheid state and capital’s attempt at restructuring. After a brief period of direct repression of worker struggles (1974 – 1978), the regime tried policies aimed at re-stratifying the black working class through the promotion of limited organisational and collective bargaining rights (Wiehahn Commission of 1979), and the admission to permanent urban residence for a small layer of black ‘insiders’ (Riekert Commission of 1977). This incorporationist agenda failed in its attempt at co-option and containment of radicalism due to its avoidance of genuine political and social rights. The fact that these latter were becoming prominent in workers’ struggles showed that wage labour became both the indication of intolerable forms of exploitation and marginality, which extended across the border between factory and society, and a crucial element in a socially integrative worker vision of solidarity and emancipation.

Trade unions’ involvement in popular struggles during the 1980s reflected this duality in the subjective experience of wage labour in particularly dramatic ways. Township struggles in this decade were developed around issues of social services, quality of life, political citizenship and democratisation of local government. These were conducted by a plurality of subjects (workers, students, women, churches, professionals, middle classes) with diverse, often contradictory and confused political agendas that coalesced around national liberation themes that were rapidly hegemonised by ANC-aligned organisations. Such struggles demanded an assumption of political choices and responsibilities on the part of a union movement that up to that point had privileged workplace-based issues, maintaining a suspicious attitude towards nationalist politics. The involvement of labour organisations in that phase of the struggle was often the result of grassroots pressures that challenged the conservative orientation to production-related issues of the leadership (Baskin, 1982; Ruiters, 1995). Workers’ self-organisation (as in the case of the ‘shop stewards councils’ in the industrial concentration of the East Rand) circulated a rising awareness on non-workplace based problems and practices of struggles, as in the case of rents and tariffs boycotts. It is to be underlined, however, that in this context, while the workplace remained a crucial (albeit problematic in view of the diversification of workers’ life strategies and lifestyles) site of organisation, wage labour was no longer the exclusive, or even the main, source of demands that were now directed — besides at democracy and the end to repression — at housing, social services, social security, a ‘living wage’, in short to decommodified social citizenship rights. At the same time, researchers agree that wage demands remained the most important factor for workers’ decisions to join unions, but recent analyses show that the associated forms of consciousness and radicalism were largely shaped by community issues, household income perceptions, struggles in the sphere of reproduction and the lack of social services, rather than by ideas of wage-productivity deals. Workers’ radicalism in wage demands was reinforced by perceptions of managerial racist despotism, especially when this amounted to impersonal, bureaucratic workplace hierarchies that denied workers’ control based on the informal acquisition and circulation of cognitive skills and knowledge in the ‘general intellect’ of African workers (Torres, 2000). In this context, COSATU’s acceptance, after it establishment in 1985, of the ANC’s political programme was a reflection of the inability of the unions’ leaders to creatively relate to this massive movement of refusal of the wage labour discipline.

The establishment of a ‘free labour’ regime in post-apartheid South Africa was translated into an attempt to constitutionalise waged labour by legally recognising basic rights and institutional positions for trade unions (Barchiesi, 1999). This responded to the strategic requirements defined by the 1995 Labour Relations Act (LRA), which ostensibly tried to promote an internationally competitive production environment based on conflict-free relations between capital and labour and a framework of voluntarist collective bargaining. Here unions’ participation was invited in exchange for the entrenchment of organisational rights. At the same time, the exchange between unions’ institutionalisation and their acceptance of market discipline and international competitiveness was spurred by corporatist-styled organs of societal bargaining like the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC).

The constitutionalisation of labour in South Africa is not to be understood as a process that merely reflects the self-organisation and structuring of social forces but it also produces a social order and its associated norms and discipline. In particular, corporatist experiments in a neoliberal environment make use of the organisations of wage labour not only to redefine representation around the need to promote co-operation and consent, but also to manage and reproduce the social exclusion of those (unemployed, precarious workers) that the discipline of market competition has left out of the possibility of any meaningful political influence via institutional means (Mezzadra and Ricciardi, 1997; Habib 1997). These, as I will explain later, have therefore to find other ways to make their voice heard. Attempts at constitutionalisang labour in democratic South Africa reveal a paradoxical nature: on one hand wage labour is recognised a formal institutional relevance in mechanisms of social peace that have to support the effort for global competition. On the other hand policies of liberalisation adopted by the new regime ignite dynamics of competition and restructuring that fragment and undermine the cohesiveness of trade unions’ grassroots constituencies and their material conditions. While more than 500,000 permanent jobs have been lost (largely in manufacturing) in the first five years of democratic government, unemployment is currently calculated in official statistics at around 37% of the economically active population (which rises to more than 50% in the case of Africans). Recent research shows the rise of “atypical” or “non-standard” (temporary, casual, contract, part-time) forms of employment as a trend that mirrors the opening up of the economy to international competition (Crankshaw and Macun, 1997; Kenny and Webster, 1999). In these works, the word ‘atypical’ does not so much mark a discontinuity with some past, which actually has never existed, in which permanent employment was widespread in the public and private sector. The concept rather underlines how the expansion of the permanently waged condition is not part of the social basis of the first years of democratisation in South Africa, regardless to the government’s attempt at constitutionalising wage labour as a source of social consent and control.

As a result, while long-term unemployment or precariousness become the most likely outcomes for growing numbers of new entrants in the labour market, full-time wage employment is today part of the life experiences of only less than half of the economically active population, and only one-third of its African component (NEDLAC, 2000). Finally, it has to be noticed how the declining relevance of the wage in the context of household life strategies and income is reflected by the fact that (NALEDI, 1999) the border between employment and social exclusion is becoming increasingly blurred and indistinguishable, while the coincidence between unemployment and poverty is more and more problematic. The rise of new forms of working class poverty and exclusion is reflected in analyses that show how in families officially defined as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ the wage remains the most important source of income. In response to this, the rise of a parallel economy of informalised activities, where ‘illegal’ migration plays a decisive part, in relation to the decline of wage labour is therefore a significant factor of South Africa’s ‘February revolution’.

These elements point at the implications of the current transition in terms of forms and methods of production. The rigidities imposed by the ‘old’ class composition on capitalist accumulation have led during the 1990s to a crisis of the ‘mineral-energy complex’ and to the need for a historically strong financial capital to identify new regimes of valorisation. The new scenario provided by Empire facilitates capital mobility — characterised by a high propensity to capital flight and internationalisation of portfolio investment — in an economy where finance currently provides 20% of the GDP, forecast to 30% by 2010 (Standard Bank of South Africa, 1999). More importantly, it has to be noticed that this global repositioning of South Africa’s capital has been accompanied, and to a large degree reinforced, by the attempt to restructure the domestic economy in the direction of export promotion and the development of activities with a high communicative, informational and cognitive content. The contiguity between financiarisation of capital and rise of ‘cognitive’ capitalism has been noticed in recent research (Marazzi, 2002). This direction has been explicitly advocated by the South African government (Department of Trade and Industry, 2002) in a move that, not by chance, has met the strong opposition not only of the trade unions but also of the entrepreneurial sectors more linked to the ‘old economy’ driven by the mineral-energy complex (SACOB, 2002). Such policy shifts reflect a changing composition of employment that between 1970 and 1995 has seen a dramatic increase in the demand for information-related professions in the context of declining manufacturing activities and rising service sectors (Bhorat and Hodge, 1999). At the same time, this transition towards cognitive production is particularly striking in territories that have been at the centre of South Africa’s industrialisation and are now in the grips of joblessness and decay, as in the case of the East Rand, the manufacturing ‘core’ of the country (Barchiesi and Kenny, forthcoming). Simultaneously, a new growth pole is developing on the adjacent “N1 axis”, a corridor linking Johannesburg, Midrand and Pretoria. Here the fastest growing activities are, often with the direct support of the local government, concentrated in productions that largely put to work general and ‘immaterial’ faculties and attitudes of the workers’ intellect in a wide range of sectors going from financial intermediation, informatics, logistics down to much more direct forms of exploitation in call centres. These have made an area that was totally unurbanised 20 years ago the fastest growing in the country now (Hodge, 1998). Although rather fragile due to the lack of indigenous research and development, and confined to a minority of the South African labour force, these transformations prefigure a paradigmatic rupture (Corsani, 2001) with the old racial-Fordist capitalism centred on the ‘mineral-energy complex’, whose implications cannot be underestimated in terms of responding to, and disarticulating, the rigidities imposed by the ‘old’ class composition. These dynamics accompany in fact a slow but inexorable decline of wage labour as a central element in the daily experience and identity of the majority of the population, and as a vehicle of generalisable emancipatory projects. The government’s and unions’ concern on ‘unemployment’ and ‘job creation’ reflects the growing sense of loss of a unified working-class subject that had been crucial to projects of both social change and social stabilisation. From the point of view of the ANC regime, this has been part of a price to pay for its (re)insertion in the Empire. At the same time, however, the loss of strongly institutionalised working-class identities, and the underlying socio-economic forces, is disclosing new possibilities of opposition, which will be briefly introduced in the final section of the article.

4. The Rising Multitude and the New Biopolitical and Cognitive Terrain of Contestation

The case reported at the beginning of the article of doctors’ networks of resistance ready to challenge the ANC’s imposed limits on spending to fight the HIV-AIDS epidemic can be assumed as exemplifying an emerging shift in the forms of oppositional discourse that clearly breaks away from the mythologies of ‘national liberation’ and with the socialist-vanguardist ‘two-stage’ rhetoric proper of traditional working class organisation. This shift is located at the convergence of two important trends. First, neoliberal policies are severely constraining the amount of resources destined to social services for the most vulnerable sections of the population. Moreover, access to such services is made conditional on users’ ability to pay, which leads to increased conflicts on the allocation of basic necessities such as water, electricity, sanitation. In short, the imposition of market discipline in these areas makes the reproduction of mere life the centre of political contestation, and as such defines a new quality of the ANC’s rule in terms of ‘biopower’. Second, attempts at restructuring South Africa’s capitalism in a ‘cognitive’ direction – and the exploitation of the immateriality of workers’ intellect — try to overcome from the point of view of valorisation that boundary between working life and everyday life that had already been attacked by past workers’ struggles. At the same time, however, recent practices of struggle have shown a remarkable attempt of reappropriation ‘from below’ of those very cognitive abilities as instruments of opposition. Although these processes are in a relatively ‘nascent’ phase it can be hypothesized, without posing a necessary correlation, that the main recent innovations in dynamics of social contestation in South Africa consists in a) a rising diversification in a multitude of struggles and counter-attacks; b) an increasing cognitive content in this multitude, which parallels the biopolitical terrain defined by the ANC’s strategies of control; c) a refusal of political delegation to the state as the ultimate guarantor of public services.

The past few years have witnessed a resumption of social movement politics and activism in South Africa. These movements are characterised by three main characteristics. First, they are un-representable on the basis of both the rhetoric of ‘the people’ developed in the ANC nationalist discourse and of organised labour’s ontology of the working class. Rather, they reflect a declining centrality of wage labour in individual and communities’ experiential field and the lack of access to institutionalised and corporatist forms of interest intermediation. Second, they privilege a terrain of direct action in the form of reappropriation of basic preconditions of life, such as decommodified water and electricity, to the definition of comprehensive societal alternatives. Third, they make a remarkable use of grassroots cognitive skills that replace the traditional functions of cadreship and apparatuses in structuring and furthering the dynamics of opposition. The un-representable nature of this multitude makes it resort to forms of self-identification based on radical otherness and negativity vis-à-vis the status quo. When in 1999 the formerly “Indian” township of Chatsworth (Durban) revolted against the police-enforced evictions and disconnection of water services for residents who cannot afford to pay, the ANC accused this movement of being inspired by Indian ethnic factionalism as a reaction against the project of ‘nation-building’.Thisattemptofenforcing a separation based on pseudo-cultural identities and differential ethnicism was however met by the chant, from Indian and African residents alike, “we are not Indian, we are the poors” (Desai, 2002). This usage of the term “poors” (intentionally misspelled) affirms at the same time a common life form as oppressed, exploited, excluded, but does not impose an alternative meta-identity on the multitude. This confirms Hardt and Negri’s point:

“The poor is destitute, excluded, repressed, exploited – and yet living! It is the common denominator of life, the foundation of the multitude (…). The poor is in a certain respect and eternal postmodern figure: the figure of a transversal, omnipresent, different, mobile subject (…). Finally today, in the biopolitical regime of production and in the processes of postmodernization, the poor is a subjugated, exploited figure, but nonetheless a figure of production” (Hardt and Negri 2000: 156-157).

As Ashwin Desai (2000) argues, the case of the ‘poors of Chatsworth’ is revealing precisely of this linkage between the condition of poor as exploited, un-representable and institutionally voiceless on one hand, and its being at the centre of a changing geography of production on another. Irredeemably expelled by the collapse of the old waged economy (the textile industry in the case of Chatsworth), the poor is called to activate its communicative and cognitive skills to negotiate a life in networks of informality, crime or, occasionally and precariously, at the margins of service activities. But these skills occasionally become important weapons of resistance.

Local struggles have emerged in main metropolitan areas against policies of privatisation of municipal services. These concerns have also been highlighted by loos coordinations of movements on a nationwide basis. This is the case of student struggles against education privatisation and the increasing activism for the access to free medicines for people with HIV-AIDS, a social issue that has risen to prominence due both to the devastating proportions of the epidemics and to the government’s abdication from health policy. Finally, land occupations have continued apace, finding occasional moments of synthesis between reappropriation as a response to the desperate living conditions of the rural areas and a more political critique of the government’s market-based approach to agrarian reform. In many of these dynamics it is becoming clear that skills to survive in the post-wage economy are inextricably link to activities that provide the cognitive texture for the multitude’s insurgency. The case of the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC) is a case in point. SECC activists are largely young, women or elderly people for which wage labour has never been, or has long ceased to be, a vehicle of self-identification, organisation or solidarity. Those who can, arrange a living out of precarious informal activities (trade, repairs, construction work, and so on), where skills are informally reproduced in networks of residence and kin. The discrepancy between the material conditions of these subjects, and a government’s rhetoric based on, as Mbeki put it, “a nation disciplined at work” could not be more apparent. The refusal of the nationalist myth and of delegation to the state is accompanied in this case to direct reappropriation activities that utilise cognitive skills entirely acquired outside the wage relation. The case of “operation Khanyisa” has become famous. “Khanyisa” (meaning “switch-on”) consists of reconnecting power lines disconnected by the municipality for residents who cannot pay their bill. This activity is practised on a mass scale by people trained for the purpose, and is a clear indication of how the exit from the wage society tends to produce skills that are constantly reworked in the production of everyday life. In other words, only this experience shows the strict linkage existing between the biopolitical reconfiguration of the terrain of struggle, and the cognitive nature of its participants.

Cases like Khanyisa, the struggles in Chatsworth, the mobilisation on HIV-AIDS are, ultimately, all examples of the central theme of this article: the incorporation in Empire of social subjectivity in the “South”, through a process that is deeply connected with developments in the “North”, does not respond to some sort of specific weakness in these regions’ class formation in relation to neoliberalism. Rather, Empire was there a response by nation-states that recognised the strength of local class compositions in their subjective resistance to the generalisation of wage labour. The transcendence of the wage relation, therefore opened a new biopolitical terrain of control and contestation. The weakening of the ‘old’ social subjectivity has come at a price for the state: the recognition of the ‘national liberation’s inability to exercise sovereignty in imposing control through an extension of citizenship. The end of that myth of social integration leaves new possibilities open in a struggle where life itself becomes the ultimate stake.


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