America’s Governance Challenges Through a South African Lens – summary

This is the executive summary of my new paper published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Piece. For my more personal take on the parallels between South Africa and the USA, and their implications, click HERE.

Over the past decade, toxic interactions between persistent inequality, racial tensions, and political polarization have undercut the promise of South Africa’s so-called rainbow miracle transition from apartheid to democracy. South Africa’s recent history sheds light on the United States’ recent political travails. It illustrates how interactions between inclusion and inequality on the one hand and political ideas and entrepreneurship on the other can fuel positive spirals of hope, economic dynamism, and political legitimacy—but can also trigger vicious, downward spirals of disillusion, anger, and political polarization.

Polarization has both a demand-side and a supply-side.  The demand-side comprises the way citizens engage politically – as shaped by power, by their perceptions of the fairness of economic outcomes, and by whether they frame identity  in inclusive or in us/them ways.  The supply-side comprises political entrepreneurs and the ideas they champion –  ideas about how the world works; ideas about identity. In both South Africa and the USA, the demand- and supply-sides of polarization have been mutually-reinforcing.  

South Africa was able to transition from a society structured around racial oppression into a nonracial democracy whose new government promised “a better life for all.” Especially remarkable was the speed with which one set of national ideas appeared to give way to its polar opposite. From a society marked by racial dominance and oppression, there emerged the aspiration to build an inclusive, cooperative social order, underpinned by the principles of equal dignity and shared citizenship.

In the initial glow of transition, South Africa’s citizens could hope for a better life for themselves and their children. In time, though, the promise wore thin. It became increasingly evident that the economic deck would continue to be stacked, and that the possibility of upward mobility would remain quite limited. Fueled by massive continuing inequities in wealth, income, and opportunity, South Africans increasingly turned from hope to anger.

In the United States, a steady and equitably growing economy and a vibrant civil rights movement had fostered the hope of social and economic inclusion. But that hope turned to anger as the benefits of growth became increasingly skewed from the 1980s onward. In 2019, the U.S. economy was more unequal than it had been since the 1920s. Younger generations could no longer expect that their lives would be better than those of their parents. Such economic adversity and associated status anxiety can trigger a heightened propensity for us-versus-them ways of engaging the world.

In both South Africa and the United States, polarization was fueled by divisive political entrepreneurs, and in both countries, these entrepreneurs leveraged inequality in ways that added fuel to the fire. In the 2010s, South Africa went through a new ideational reckoning, in part to correct the view that the transition to democracy had washed the country’s apartheid history clean. But opportunistic political entrepreneurs also pushed an increasingly polarized and re-racialized political discourse and pressure on public institutions, with predictable economic consequences. South Africa’s economy slid into sustained stagnation.

Paralleling South Africa, America’s political entrepreneurs also cultivated an us-versus-them divisiveness. However, unlike in South Africa, political entrepreneurs and economic elites in the United States also used their divisive rhetoric as a way to persuade voters to embrace inequality-increasing policies that might otherwise not have won support. By the late 2010s, the risks were palpable in both South Africa and the United States of an accelerating breakdown of the norms and institutions that sustain inclusive political settlements.

But lessons can be overlearned. Mass political mobilization was pivotal to South Africa’s shaking loose the shackles of apartheid—and new calls to the barricades might seem to be the obvious response to current political and governmental dysfunction. However, different times and different challenges call for different responses. In both contemporary South Africa and contemporary America, the frontier challenge is not to overthrow an unjust polit[1]ical order but to renew preexisting formal commitments to the idea that citizenship implies some shared purpose. Renewal of this kind might best be realized not by confrontation but rather by a social movement centered around a vision of shared citizenship, a movement that views cooperation in pursuit of win-win possibilities not as weakness but as the key to the sustainability of thriving, open, and inclusive societies.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Between South Africa’s frying pan and America’s fire « WORKING WITH THE GRAIN: Integrating governance and growth

  2. Dear Brian,
    I read this post with interest.
    I have also recently read a book on Afrikaner classes that draws on economic forces in both South Africa (Wiehahn Commission) and the US (under Reagan) to locate South African events in the 1980s more globally. I attach a bookreview I have written which may interest you.

    Best wishes

    Simon Bekker difficult to contact you!

    Proposed Book review by Simon Bekker:
    Privileged Precariat: White Workers and South Africa’s Long Transition to Majority Rule. Danelle van Zyl-Hermann. Cambridge University Press 2021
    If we examine South African society today through the institutional lens of NGOs, one group that emerges as highly visible and influential is that of liberal and libertarian organizations:
    – a number of Christian organizations,
    – the Islamic Gift of the Givers,
    – the Free Market Foundation,
    – the Institute of Race Relations,
    – the Helen Suzman Foundation,
    – the Centre for Development and Enterprise, and, of course,
    – a number of mass media platforms and journalists (certainly not all).
    Liberal and libertarian in the sense that justification for support for, as well as support itself, within the household, in education and health, in the community and in the economy is offered to individuals in need, not to specific racial, ethnic or religious groups of individuals. In addition, though not always totally non-state, these organizations are located in civil society and do not belong to political parties.
    And then we have, also as increasingly visible and influential, the Solidariteit Trade Union, its affiliated Afriforum, Helpende Hand, Helpmekaar and Boufonds. Court cases presented by Gerrie Nel, appeals against the South African State’s huge cash bestowment to Cuba, a privately funded tertiary Training College, presentations on farm murders on the rightwing Fox News that led to exaggerated claims of White farm murders by former president Trump, and now a Kaapse Forum in die WesKaap.
    These organization are also located in civil society and also support those in need. They see themselves as supporting disadvantaged minorities in South Africa, Afrikaners and Afrikaans-speakers in particular. Should we place them with the other above in the liberal fold?
    Danelle van Zyl-Hermann’s Privileged Precariat: White Workers and South Africa’s Long Transition to Majority Rule traces the history of these organizations, beginning in the 1920s and ending in 2019.
    In his 2006 publication on the Afrikaans language debate (taaldebat) in South Africa, Chris Brink (Brink 2006) identified as one of this narrative’s curious features the fact that ‘the debate about Afrikaans has been conducted almost exclusively within Afrikaans.’ The same may be said about important strands in the narratives uncovered by van Zyl-Hermann, particularly after the establishment of Solidarity (‘a service-providing social movement expressing state-like ambitions’) in 2002. The official publications of Solidarity and its associated institutions as well as during ‘Solidariteitkunde, a compulsory seminar which introduced newly-appointed staff members to the Movement’ – all were conducted largely in Afrikaans. The book accordingly reveals much of what has remained largely unknown to most South Africans regarding the emergence and resilience of a post-apartheid social movement associated neither with a political party nor with a majority of the national population.
    The title of the book however does not include the term ‘Afrikaner’. Rather than using the common-wisdom historical lens of
    • a racially segregated mineral-rich colony during the first half,
    • followed by an Afrikaner nationalist government promoting independence, apartheid and separate development during the second half of the twentieth century, and
    • culminating in the democratic transfer of power to the African majority under Nelson Mandela toward the end of the century,
    the author introduces as her alternative historical lens the country’s “long transition to majority rule”. By this she maintains that
    • the demands of White capital in South Africa in the 1970s – as reflected in the state commission (the Wiehahn Commission) investigating state control over labour – led to the national White government
    • prioritising economic growth over racial protection of White labour.
    “On Labour Day 1979, the first part of the Wiehahn Commission’s report was tabled in Parliament. In what has been labelled a historical concession, the Commission recommended the principle of ‘freedom of association’ thereby extending trade union rights to Africans, and the recognition of African and multiracial unions. This proposal envisioned, for the first time in the country’s history, an integrated system of labour relations which included Africans as ‘employees’….
    The report did acknowledge that, due to the ‘multidimensional characteristics’ of South Africa’s labour force, the interests of some workers in some contexts might need safeguarding. It recommended a number of protective measures through which this could be achieved, including the principle of consultation between employers and employees before implementing changes in established practices; recourse to an Industrial Court for any aggrieved party; the requirement that industrial councils must reach consensus concerning proposed changes; and the strict enforcement of the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’.”
    (van Zyl-Hermann:142)

    The result, as witnessed in the history of the Mine Workers Union (MWU), was the eroding of White workers’ rights and privileges as an African workers movement gained traction. Rather than dying a ‘dinosaur’s’ death, however, membership of the MWU increased markedly from the 1970s to 2002 due to recruitment beyond the worker category of mining employee. The Solidarity Movement, established in 2002, incorporated both old and new members of the MWU. It insisted moreover on further recruitment within what became known as its ‘nismark’ (niche market) which was widely interpreted to mean ‘Afrikaner’ and ‘White’, notwithstanding post-apartheid legislation prohibiting recruitment on a racial basis. The long transition accordingly began well before the South African political ‘miracle’ of 1994 and continues to this day.
    Accordingly, the focus of the book’s research is on the fate of the White working class, protected by White governments of the twentieth century – from after the 1922 Rand Revolt until the 1970s – and subsequently left to a precarious future as neoliberal policies and interests came to dominate late apartheid. In search of a new patron, this class of White workers opted to unite with a new emergent institution in civil society (rather than with organised labour). This unity however was (and remains) fragile: the main discourse of Solidarity after 2002 – one of both claiming legitimate representation of Afrikaners in post-apartheid South Africa and of acting as a key extra-parliamentary opponent to the ruling ANC – did not temper two disruptive consequences of this amalgamation of middle-class and elite Afrikaners with former MWU Afrikaner workers. In the first place, at leadership as well as managerial levels, these working-class members were widely perceived as inferior in class terms. Simultaneously, these working-class members themselves remained anxious about their precarious work positions and ambivalent about their racial identity in today’s South Africa. They also expressed anger about domination by their Afrikaner superiors. In the words of one of the author’s respondents:
    You know, we whites are like this – sorry, actually saying ‘we whites’ is wrong, we Afrikaans whites, because you won’t see an English man doing this. Give a guy a little bit of status, and he becomes such a big-head that he has to turn sideways to fit through a door. That’s one of our boere problems, I don’t know why. (van Zyl-Hermann 287)
    Accordingly, though these disruptive consequences have not led to a split in the ranks of the Movement, it is apparent that class remains one of the salient identities dividing members of the Solidarity Movement into different camps.
    Another striking argument underpinning the work as a whole is that of uncovering the role of globalisation in the South Africa’s long transition: the 1970s, particularly in developed nations, saw a reconfiguration of the power balance between state, capital and labour. Reagan in the US and Thatcher in the UK are well-known examples, leading to an important loss of power and influence for organized labour. With regard to the White working class, the Wiehahn Commission’s recommendations fit well into this reconfiguration.
    As a result, after the 2008 financial crisis, the reality of precarity, particularly of labour, emerged globally. The international debates today regarding populism, inequality, elite dominance, identity politics and a general shift to the political right resonate with many of the issues mobilised by the Solidarity Movement.
    Simultaneously, as the author underlines, these processes have their ‘own local inflections in South Africa’. The Solidarity Movement reveals that it is not necessary to engage in formal party politics nor claim to represent a national majority (‘the real people’ according to the populists) to qualify as an important civil society actor in a nation-state. In short, the emergence after 1994 of an institution representing a historically powerful minority – the Afrikaners – with the ability to mobilise capital has seen the formation of an important and distinct social movement in the global South.
    At the height of apartheid in the 1960s, a book entitled ‘A Very Strange Society: A journey to the heart of South Africa’ was published and widely read (Drury 1968). South Africa’s modern history and political economy have commonly been labelled as exceptional, as not fitting convincingly into any of the modern nation-state ideal types of analysis. This claimed status of exceptionalism has endured. Danelle van Zyl-Hermann convincingly fits South Africa historically into the recent swings that globalizing forces have brought to bear on the political economies of numerous nation-states. South African exceptionalism is removed by the author’s historical lens.
    The first part of the book focuses on the emergence of a White working class in apartheid South Africa up to 1970. This is the context within which the national government’s decision to abandon its ‘sweetheart’ deal with this White labour ally is discussed. Thereafter, the shift from trade union to social movement is first analysed during the late apartheid phase when many members supported right-wing White Afrikaner political parties and subsequently during the early democratic phase of South Africa when their loyalties shifted from trade union – the Mine Workers Union – to social movement – Solidarity. This is the period that the author names the long transition to majority rule.
    The second part of the book unpacks the policies and strategies of the Solidarity Movement and its allied institutions. This discussion leads to the unearthing of tensions and ambiguities that arise from the mix of class interests present among members of this Afrikaner social movement. These tensions are identified both among Solidarity leaders and, in a separate chapter, among former MWU members. The concluding chapter informs the reader of the most recent developments within the Movement (up to 2019).
    From predominantly White working-class membership of the Mine Workers Union under apartheid to working class membership of the Afrikaners’ Solidarity Movement in post-apartheid civil society, White worker identity reveals complexity, ambiguity and continuing precarity. The author’s narrative of a forty-year transition for this group of South Africans from class and race to identity and culture is convincing. Today, for these White Afrikaner workers, neither race nor class vanishes and culture remains but one of the collective identities that they share with Solidarity membership, membership they cherish for security and for privilege.

    Brink C. (2006) No Lesser Place: The Taaldebat at Stellenbosch. Sun Press
    Drury A. (1968) A Very Strange Society: a journey to the heart of South Africa. Pocket Books, New York

    Simon Bekker, Emeritus professor, Stellenbosch University. (

  3. Pingback: Between South Africa’s frying pan and America’s fire « WORKING WITH THE GRAIN: Integrating governance and growth

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