Wednesday, July 15, 2009

New Left Review exchange on South Africa

R.W. Johnson has a new article in the newest edition of New Left Review. The title is "False Start in South Africa". I've caught his articles on South Africa on the demise of the ANC last fall in the LRB, which set off a series of debates. In general there is a lot to be gleamed from the article, as is usually the case with his coverage of South Africa in LRB. Nonetheless, I have one general problem with the orientation of his approach. This complaint is shared by the author of the reply to Johnson in NLR, Patrick Bond, whose article you can read here. The objection is this. Johnson often talks of policy or government in terms of creating a 'favorable environment for foreign investors' and 'not frightening away Capital with radical rhetoric or action'. Now my objection isn't that capital flight should be disregarded as a serious threat, but rather that it is illegitimate to talk about the imperatives of international Capital as though they were facts of nature. If someone holds a gun to your head and give you a demand, you'd be crazy not to take this threat seriously when deciding what to do. But being prudent here should not obscure the fact that you are being coreced by a more powerful entity.

In general, Johnson uncritically redeploys the neoliberal rhetoric of 'creating a good business climate', which turns out in concrete terms to entail: privatization of public institutions, the introduction of de facto regressive taxes in the form of new user fees, curtailing redistributive spending, and the reduction of corporate taxes.

But Bond's piece makes this point better and in more depth.

One suggestion that Bond makes about the ANC and some of the SACP (and Cosatu) activists stood out to me and seemed poignant given the perils of electoralism in the US. Bond points out that when mass movements are mobilized in South Africa, they have the effect of exerting "powerful checks on plutocratic leaders". The larger issue, however, is to understand "how popular protests around water, jobs, housing and living standards were diverted into a fight against Mbeki, rather than Mbekism -the system as a whole".

The question here that I find interesting is this: "why does the Left remain shackled to the ANC leadership, when South Africa's pure PR electoral system offers it a good chance of independent representation on a platform that would undoubtedly resonate with important sectors of the population?"

Of course in the US our electoral mechanisms thwart the possibility of having left-wing representation independent of the two-party system. It seems to me that many of the problems that plague the South African Left are analogous to the discontents of trying to use the Democratic Party as a vehicle for progressive change.

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