“The present economic crisis in the world capitalist system – and prospects for the left”

Paper delivered by Jeremy Cronin, SACP deputy general secretary, to the Chris Hani Institute seminar on “The current financial crisis and possibilities for the left”, January 28 2009


In 1906 a gifted young South African studying in the United States won first prize in a Columbia University debating competition. His speech was entitled “The Regeneration of Africa” and it began with the assertion: “I am an African”. The speech is a remarkable lyrical hymn to progress. It was speaking out of a particular ideological illusion of the early twentieth century. The speech is dizzy with the sense of huge technological advances, rail-lines traversing continents, the telegraph system girdling the planet, steam-ships crossing the oceans. These advances, so the speaker believed, were finally making the world a single and united reality. The speech then called for an “African regeneration” that would ensure Africa was not left behind in this apparently marvellous new era that had opened up.

The prize-winning debater was Pixley ka Isaka Seme, who, less than six years later, was to be one of the founding fathers of the ANC. Re-read more than a century later, the speech remains deeply moving. But, as we can now see with the benefit of hindsight, its hopes were to be shattered and its illusions cruelly exposed by the white minority colonial settlement in SA in 1910, by the outbreak of a vicious intra-imperialist war in 1914, and by the spectacular global capitalist crisis that began in 1929.

The next phase of accelerated imperialist globalisation was to occur in the mid-1970s through to the present. Here in South Africa, in the mid-1990s, towards the tail-tend of this next phase of accelerated globalisation, an incumbent ANC leader was to invoke the Seme legacy. Sharing the same fundamental illusions of limitless progress, of a new global dawn, Mbeki was even given to styling much of his own prose on Seme’s youthful speech. Once again, the inability to appreciate the dialectical character of world capitalism’s trajectory, was to lead Mbeki (like Seme before him) to gravely misread the global situation, to imagine an “African renaissance” based on catching-up and aligning ourselves to the “West”, with the promise of an ineluctable, evolutionary way forward – “today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today.”

The illusions of a young Seme more than a hundred years ago were, perhaps, understandable and forgivable. Can the same be said of the grave strategic misreadings and errors that proliferated within our own country and movement in the past decade? Have we sufficiently appreciated these errors and taken adequate corrective measures?

The world capitalist system is now in the midst of its worst economic crisis since the early 1930s. To be sure, capitalism is seldom free of crisis. There have been many crises in the recent past – among them Mexico 1982, Japan 1990, and East Asia 1997/8. But the current crisis is different in many respects. In the first place, its epicentre is in the core zones of capitalist accumulation – the US, continental Europe, the UK, and now, increasingly, Japan. It has struck at the heart of the financial system. Its knock-on impact across the world is, therefore, much more profound. Given the intensified global interconnectivity (compared to the 1930s), the speed and reach of the knock-on impact is also greatly enhanced. While some economies will continue to grow (notably China) but at a much lower rate (now revised down to a possibly optimistic 7.5% for 2009 – the lowest in nineteen years), large parts of the world have already entered into recession, or are poised on the brink of recession. Tens if not hundreds of millions of jobs are being lost, homes repossessed, businesses liquidated and value destroyed.

Marx was the first to provide a scientific analysis of the boom-bust cycle in capitalism, which he showed to be endemic to this mode of production. Crises in capitalism can occur as a consequence of factors extraneous to the accumulation process -wars, natural disasters, social upheavals. However, under capitalism (and in contrast to earlier forms of production) wars, natural disasters or social upheavals are more likely to be the consequences of intrinsic crises within capitalism rather than the fundamental causes of its crises.

The cyclical pattern of booms and busts are systemically linked to the fact that capitalism – unlike socialism or earlier forms of production – is essentially production for exchange (and therefore private profit) and not for social use. In other forms of production (not least socialism)- over-production of goods would, in principle, usually be a cause for celebration, but under capitalism “over-production” (i.e. more than the market demands – i.e. more than can profitably be sold) triggers a break-down in the system – a crisis of over-accumulation. This, in turn, requires a massive wave of destruction of productive capacity (in the form of retrenchments, factory closures, liquidations, and stock exchange collapses), in order to “clear the ground” for the next round of capital accumulation through growth. It must be stressed that under capitalism “over-production” is not the over-production of products that the mass of the world’s population often desperately needs. It is “over-production” relative to “market demand”, i.e relative to what can profitably be sold.[1] Capitalism, for all its dynamism and robustness, is a profoundly irrational system.

In recent times, liberal economists have boasted that with effective macro-economic modelling and management, together with some supposedly inherent self-correcting capacity within capitalist accumulation, we have been able to “transcend” the boom-bust cycles of capitalism. Ricardo Hausman, leader of Trevor Manuel’s “Harvard Group”, for instance, presented a celebrated paper in 2005 along with a fellow Harvard luminary. In it, they claimed that financial “dark matter” would prevent a big bang in the world economy. The failure to believe in this “dark matter”, the authors boasted, made “analysts predict crises that, for good reason, remain elusive.” All of these boasts now ring hollow.

Booms and busts

Over the past 500 years of modern capitalism, it is possible to detect three broad (but inter-linked) variants of boom and bust, of cycles of rise and fall:

* relatively short-term cycles of around a decade or so. In the recent period the global economy has gone into a slump in 1974/5, 1980/2; 1991/3 and 2001/2. In SA the last decade of apartheid corresponded to a domestic downturn/recession and post-1994 we have seen a general economic upturn. This upturn is variously attributed to “sound economic policies”, and the “political miracle”, etc. While subjective factors like policies are not unimportant, and while the political settlement has been a key ingredient in this upturn, it is important to notice that this cyclical upturn has also had an underpinning of objectivity related to our particular capitalist accumulation path. This local upturn is now likely entering into a period of several years of downturn if not actual recession. We obviously make this point, in order to prepare our defences against what is likely to be a political discourse in the coming years – blame a largely “objectively” (and externally) determined downturn on “Polokwane populism”. These shorter term cycles, and their national/regional characteristics are related to the particular features of a national/regional economy, including its positioning and insertion within the global capitalist economy, and, therefore, they are not unrelated to longer-term cycles in the world system
* These long-term cycles at a global level are sometimes called “Kondratieff” cycles – after the economist who first noted and analysed them. Over the past 500 years there has been a remarkably consistent cyclical pattern, occurring roughly over 50 year periods – with booms and growing profit occurring over a 25 year period, followed by another 25 year period or so of generally diminishing rates of profit, of deepening crisis and decline. The present long-term cycle in the world capitalist system began in 1945, with the upswing reaching a turning point around 1970/3. Since then, globally, we have been in a long downturn – somewhat longer than normal, partly because capitalist-aligned economists and central banks and multi-lateral institutions (like the IMF), believing that they had finally “beaten” recession forever, introduced a range of interventions which we can now see have simply temporarily displaced the epicentre of crisis into semi-peripheral regions, thus delaying and deepening the full-blown crisis in whose midst we now are.

Finally, there is another, often even longer term cyclical (or rather rise and fall) tendency within capitalism:

The geographical shift in hegemony. Marx, Lenin and others following them have demonstrated how capitalist development is characterised by high degrees of combined and uneven development. It is a global system characterised by geographical zones of various importance within the accumulation process – core zones, semi-peripheral zones, and marginal or peripheral zones.

Within this hierarchical system there is a tendency for a single zone/region or country to emerge as the dominant hegemon. Over the past 500 years, if we are to begin in what was still largely mercantilistic capitalism, the hegemonic centre of capitalist accumulation has shifted from the Italian city-states (notably Genoa), to the Netherlands (mid-17th century) and to Britain.

Since 1870, the US has positioned itself as a challenger to British hegemonic domination, and since 1945 the US has been the uncontested dominant capitalist power. The emergence of a hegemonic power is usually characterised by a greater productive and technological dynamism than its rivals. In its declining years (and the decline might last for a long period), core centres of production shift to other localities, and the economy of the waning hegemonic power is increasingly characterised by “financialisation” – the increased investment of surplus out of production (and therefore out of job creation and wages) into speculative activity.

This pattern is evident in all hegemonic societies, and since the early 1970s, as US hegemonic dominance has begun to wane, a ballooning financialistion process has been evident there, manifest in many things including a dramatic widening in the gap between the share of surplus going to profits and that going to wages.

In addition to these three “rise and fall” patterns typical of capitalism, there is a fourth factor that needs to be borne in mind when considering the current crisis in the global capitalist system.

Approaching the bio-physical and geographical limits to capitalism?

The capitalist accumulation process is premised on ever-expanding growth and the illusion of limitless resources. However, there are absolute limits to capitalist production and reproduction (and, indeed, to any form of human civilisation). There is now a well-established scientific consensus that our present global economic trajectory is leading human civilisation towards catastrophe – with the depletion of non-renewable natural resources, the destruction of the environment, global warming and, therefore, the bio-physical preconditions for human survival.

Capitalism and formerly existing socialism both shared the illusion of limitless natural resources available for ever-expanding exploitation. Today, socialist Cuba is setting an important example of an entirely different approach to sustainable development. On the other hand, while many leading politicians in capitalist countries are beginning to express grave concern about the future of our planet -denialism; or market mysticism (somehow the hidden hand of the market will find a solution); or a cynical, even genocidal, social Darwinism (“don’t worry there will be losers but there will also be winners”); or hopelessly inadequate piecemeal reforms remain the order of the day.

In addition to the bio-physical limits to capitalism, there are also struggle-determined potential limits to the expanded reproduction of capital. Capital needs constantly to intensify and expand its exploitation of labour power – it does this in several ways, forcing workers to work longer hours; increasing the productivity of labour through technological advances; or attempting to roll back the social wage (for example, the welfare state).

The relative success of any of these profit-maximising interventions depends on the ability or otherwise of labour and popular forces in general to resist the intensification of exploitation. Critically in the current era of “globalisation”, various forms of geographical displacement have also been key factors in this pursuit of the expanded reproduction of capital. In particular, in the current era, capital has relied to a considerable extent on lowering the cost (to capital) of the reproduction of labour power by relying on Third World survivalist and peasant economies to carry much of the burden of this reproduction.

Thus we have seen the vast expansion in the last decades of variously coerced and regulated forms of mass migrancy (whether “cheap labour”, or the “brain drain” from the Third World). Or, the flip-side of the latter, through the geographical displacement of production to new localities where labour is “rightless” and “disciplined” in various ways (this happened with the flow of FDI into apartheid SA after 1963, Brazil under the military junta from the mid-1960s, and Chile from 1973 under Pinochet, and, under a somewhat different reality, it has been a key feature of Chinese growth in the last decades).

However, as in South Africa, or Brazil, or South Korea in earlier periods, and as is now happening in China,[2] it tends to take a generation or so for workers to organise (or regroup and re-organise) for better wages, working conditions and social wage measures. In the coming period, the intensifying class struggles unfolding within China, and within the Chinese state and ruling party itself, will have a decisive impact upon the chances of a re-configuration (or otherwise) of the global economy.

The present crisis – “a perfect storm”

The present global crisis is particularly severe because it involves the confluence in differing degrees of all four of the systemic factors considered above:

* short-term cyclical downturns, converging with
* a longer-term downward trend, coinciding with
* a global hegemon now in full decline; all shadowed by
* the already detectable impact of approaching bio-physical and perhaps social limits to the expanded reproduction of capitalism.

For around 100 years (1870 to 1970) the US witnessed an unprecedented trend of rising productivity and rising real wages for the working class. This economic reality lies at the basis of the “American dream”, and of the “consumerism” and relative passivity of the US working class – a car and a suburban home being the epitome of the American “way of life”.

Since the early 1970s, the US’s hegemonic domination has been challenged by Japan and the Asian Tigers and some key European economies – leap-frogging in terms of technological and industrial plant investments, rendering US industrial plant (fixed investments) increasingly unprofitable. This has led to US capital moving to other locations OR moving into increasingly speculative financial activities. At the same time, US mass consumerism has been kept afloat through increasing credit, despite declining real wages since the early 1970s.

Export-oriented Asian (especially Chinese) manufacturers and Third World oil producers became the production sites while US consumption propped up global market demand. The US has been running huge current account deficits – by 2006 the US current account deficit was at $800bn (or 6% of GDP). China, conversely, has played a crucial role in financing this US deficit, and therefore US consumption. China has now accumulated the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves ($1.9 trillion, at least $650bn of which is in US treasury bonds). In theory, China could pull the plug on the US economy, but a move to sell these assets would further damage China’s export industries, giving us a situation which some economists have described as a “mutually assured economic destruction” capacity on both sides.

This symbiotic but unsustainable reality premised on growing US consumption was further propped up by a variety of “creative” financial instruments developed largely by the US financial sector. Among these were “sub-prime loans” – housing loans to those who basically could not afford them, in which the initial interest rate was sub-prime, but with the interest rate escalating over the duration of the mortgage on the assumption that as the borrower progressed career-wise so there would be an increased capacity to pay instalments. (Note that this is not very different from many BEE deals – in which black “investors” acquire shares on loan, on the assumption that the shares will always go up and they will be able to repay the loan). These sub-prime loans were then “diced and sliced” (i.e. mixed up with other more viable loans) and sold on by the direct mortgage institutions to banks and other financial institutions.

The collapse of the sub-prime market has been the catalyst of the present all-round crisis. It has seen one of the top four investment banks in the US, the 100-year old Lehman Brothers collapsing, and other banks and the mortgage lenders (Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac) having to be rescued, often through nationalisations.

The dicing and slicing of sub-prime and other toxic loans has meant that major financial institutions in the US and Europe, in particular, have no idea of what they are sitting on. This has led to a reluctance of banks to lend to each other, and liquidity in the real economy has dried up. Major global manufacturers (like Nokia, for instance) can still access cash from banks, but their hundreds of small suppliers cannot get loans and production across the globe is being impacted. On top of this, demand in the US and Europe is in recession, and this is impacting heavily on major global manufacturers, like China where there have already been hundreds of thousands of retrenchments. The Indian government is predicting 10 million job losses in its export industries over the current year.

In many respects we are in uncharted waters, and no-one can say for sure exactly where it is all headed. There are, however, a few basic predictions we can make:

* There will not be any significant short-term recovery;
* Although the world capitalist system is in a grave crisis – it would be naïve to assume that capitalism will simply collapse, or that the crisis will spontaneously give birth to a better world;
* The relative decline of US economic supremacy (which has been slipping since the mid-1970s) has now been greatly accelerated. The US will probably still emerge as the most powerful economy, but the world will have become significantly more multi-polar.
* While multi-polarity offers possibilities, potentially more breathing space and alternatives, for the global South, it is the people of the South who will bear the burden of the crisis. For instance, as the core capitalist economies focus on their own crises and their own stimulus packages, already paltry development aid is diminishing; trade protective barriers are going up; FDI is pulling out of much of the South; premiums on international loans have increased; and portfolio investments are even more disinclined to bet on the South. It is not just the core capitalist economies that are retreating out of the South. For instance, more than 60 Chinese mining companies have left the DRC’s Katanga province in the past two months as mineral prices collapse, and 100 small Chinese operators are said to have left Zambian mines (Jeffrey Herbst & Greg Mills, “Africa’s left to face commodity price storm largely on its own”, Business Report, Jan 22, 2009)
* It is possible that dynamic developing economies like Brazil, India and China may be partially de-linked (de-coupled) from the recession, but none will escape its impact. China, with its US oriented, export-led growth strategy will face very serious challenges

South African challenges – From the “unthinkable” to the “unmentionable”

The global economic crisis presents the left with major possibilities but also serious challenges. Here in South Africa, transformation of our productive economy has become all the more necessary. But it will also become more difficult as declining global demand for our exports will impact on jobs and on state fiscal resources.

We will also encounter an intensified ideological battle, from those outside of the ANC, and indeed from within the ANC itself. With their backs to the wall, but with massive resources, our resident neo-liberals of all stripes are fighting an ideological battle to prevent any sensible, democratic debate opening up within our country on economic policy evaluation and change.

We have been here before. In the critical 1994-1996 period, a similar ideological battle was waged to capture the new government’s economic policy agenda. This included demonising, caricaturing and belittling alternative perspectives, especially when they came from the SACP and COSATU. It also included constant threats about what “global markets” would do to us if we dared challenge anything in the neo-liberal gospel. This theme was repeated over and over.

And that is exactly what is now being repeated – except last time, we were being told there were no alternatives to the Washington consensus. Now, we are being told that the crisis of this very same economic agenda is so great, that we had better not risk changing anything.

This was exactly the parting shot from the outgoing deputy finance minister, Jabu Moleketi, speaking in the week before the October 2008, alliance economic summit. He told the London Financial Times that it would be “suicidal” for South Africa to change economic policies: “Any sudden policy shifts by South Africa’s new leaders would be ‘suicidal’ for a country whose economy survives at the mercy of foreign investors, according to one of the architects of the recent years of stability.” (October 7, 2008)

Notice the sleight of hand in this sentence. On the one hand, we are told that our economy has achieved “years of stability”, and on the other, we are told it “survives at the mercy of foreign investors”. What kind of stability is that? But according to one of our architects of stability, cde Moleketi, the seas are so choppy now that we shouldn’t try to turn our ship around. Typical of this line of reasoning is a caricature of what we are actually attempting (supposedly “a total U-turn”). What we are arguing for is exaggerated, the better to be able to demonstrate our “lack of wisdom”.

We might be inclined to ignore all of this, if it were not likely to impact on parts of the ANC and government. But, unfortunately, this is not something we can take for granted.

Consider an interview with Minister of Finance, cde Trevor Manuel, conducted by the London Financial Times in the immediate aftermath of the same mid-October Alliance economic summit. Clearly referring to the main resolutions from the summit, cde Manuel speaks dismissively: “We need to disabuse people of the notion that we will have a mighty powerful developmental state capable of planning and creating all manner of employment. It may have been on the horizon in 1994 but it could not be delivered now. The next period is likely to see a lot more competitiveness in the global economy. As consumer demand falls off there will be a huge battle between firms and countries to secure access to markets.” (28 October 2008)

Manuel exaggerates and implicitly ridicules the resolutions of Polokwane and the Alliance summit on the developmental state. (Interestingly, when talking to the local media, he has been more restrained). He then says that a major job creation programme led by a developmental state “may have been on the horizon in 1994 but it could not be delivered now.” In other words, it is no longer possible to contemplate serious state-led job creation programmes because of the crisis in the global economy.

But what was cde Manuel saying a few years back when there wasn’t the global crisis? In 2000 he told the Sunday Independent: “I want someone to tell me how the government is going to create jobs. It’s a terrible admission, but governments around the world are impotent when it comes to creating jobs.” (9 January 2000).

Then it was NEVER possible, now it is NO LONGER possible! A few years ago change of economic policy was supposedly “unthinkable” – now it’s “unmentionable”.

“But is it affordable?”

A variant of the “unthinkable/unmentionable” argument which was deployed hostilely against the RDP in the mid-1990s and which we are encountering once more in regard to the ANC’s 2009 election manifesto is the tired refrain: “it is all very noble, but is it affordable?” Indeed, the affordability of a strategic programme is not irrelevant. And yes, indeed, the global economic crisis will impact on South Africa. There may very well be fewer fiscal resources available to government in the coming years as declining profits hit tax revenue. Our existing social security net, which we are committed to expanding, will likely come under increasing pressure as global recession hits South African jobs.[3]

We have to be realistic about these and other related challenges. But what we absolutely must not allow this time around is that the “but is it affordable?” refrain should be used to deflect us off our strategic and programmatic DIRECTION.

This is what happened in the mid-1990s to the RDP. The affordability argument was used to intimidate comrades in government (and was used, in turn, by some in government). In the name of “finding the resources” to “deliver” on “RDP promises”, the RDP programme was dumbed down into a list of “delivery targets”. GEAR effectively replaced developmental transformation as the key priority, making stabilisation and re-stimulation of essentially the same century-long growth path the priority. “Development” was turned into earnest endeavours at re-distribution out of growth, while the stabilised and moderately stimulated growth proceeded to reproduce all the systemic features of racialised underdevelopment that had characterised this growth path for the better part of a century.

This time around we are making it very clear that it is decent work and sustainable livelihoods (and not 6% growth, or some other arbitrary figure) that will be the key indicator of progress or otherwise. This, in turn, will require the marshalling of our resources around a state-led industrial policy that prioritises the transformation of our productive economy. Key features of this industrial policy must include:

* Breaking the suffocating grip of private monopoly cartels in the mineral, energy, finance, chemical, and agro-processing sectors – in order to ensure a more balanced development of small and medium-enterprises with a capacity to create jobs;
* Achieving a better balance between production for export and production for our national and regional markets; this will include ensuring that trade policy is governed by industrial policy (and not the other way around);
* More effective strategic coordination of energy policy – to ensure greater national energy sovereignty and long-term sustainability, with as rapid as possible greening of our economy
* Paying much greater attention to national (and regional) food security
* The consolidation of our SOEs and Development Finance Institutions, ensuring that their strategic development mandates are aligned and clear.
* Reconfiguring the state apparatus to ensure that there is effective (and participatory) planning in all spheres, that budget allocations are determined by strategic and planned priorities, that macro-economic policy is shaped according to our developmental priorities, and that the professionalism and technical capacity of the state is significantly improved.
* Our industrial policy and broader developmental strategy should not just be “national” in character, but it should also deliberately embrace a Southern African regional and even South-South dimension. Many capitalist forces around the world can be expected to respond to the global crisis with a dog-eats-dog mentality, with an each one for themselves approach of the kind that cde Manuel is predicting in his Financial Times interview quoted above (“The next period is likely to see a lot more competitiveness in the global economy. As consumer demand falls off there will be a huge battle between firms and countries to secure access to markets.”). While this trend is already evident, there are also inspiring alternative examples from which we should learn and emulate where possible – foremost among them the ALBA process in Latin America and the Caribbean.[4]

Integral to our developmental agenda, and in order to buttress the priority of job creation and sustainable livelihoods, we are further identifying four other areas requiring prioritised systemic transformation if we are to ensure sustainable transformation – health-care, education, rural development and community safety. These are not add-ons, but integral components of a developmental path to systemic transformation.

It might be that deepening global recession and its impact upon our own economy will have consequences for the scale and the time-frames for meeting our strategic developmental priorities. As we proceed, we need to monitor and evaluate outcomes and likely forward progress on a continuous basis. And we need to make whatever adjustments might be required. What we absolutely must NOT do this time around is to compromise on our strategic DIRECTION and on our systemic TRANFORMATIONAL objectives

To keep focused on our strategic development agenda, we need also to engage actively in a critique of what remain dominant illusions about our present national reality.


Central to the neo-liberal campaign to block serious economic debate and policy evaluation in our country is a series of inter-related myths about the state of health of our economy.

Myth number one: “over the last decade South Africa has witnessed ‘unprecedented’ growth”

It is true that since 1994 there have been 14 years of successive growth. Between 1994 and 2003 this growth averaged 3%. Between 2004 and 2007 it averaged 5%. It is now likely to dip again to 1%, if not down to negative growth and recession.

While sustained if moderate growth is not a negligible achievement, we should remember that it is growth relative to the deep ditch into which white minority rule had finally driven the economy by the early 1990s. In the last decade of apartheid, there was either zero or negative growth for most years. To produce growth out of this low-point did not necessarily require rocket science.

Moreover, a decade of growth is far from being “unprecedented” as is so often claimed. Between 1963 and 1973, the apartheid economy grew for a full decade at an average of 7-8%. As this apartheid-era growth should remind us, economic growth on its own doesn’t tell us who is benefiting, or even whether a high growth rate is a good or a bad thing for the majority.

Myth number two: “we have managed our economy well since 1994”

The last decade and a half has coincided with a huge surge in global growth. In particular, over the last years there has been a major commodity boom that has benefited most of our key exports. With a prolonged global recession now in sight, and with slackening demand for commodities, we have to ask ourselves whether we have used the boom years to place our economy on a sound, sustainable and more equitable basis? Or have we largely squandered the opportunity?

An honest answer would have to admit that, in many respects, we have lost opportunities that may not return. The changed global reality does not make change impossible, it makes it all the more necessary. But transformation will now be more challenging in many respects.

Myth number three: “all the basic economic fundamentals are in place…(and shouldn’t be tampered with!)”

The smug complacency about what has been achieved over the past decade-and-a-half is, basically, a class complacency. For South African monopoly capital in general the past 15 years have been a period of great profitability, of a widening gap between their executive salaries and the wages they pay their workers. It has been a decade of opportunities to disinvest out of SA.

For workers, however, the past 15 years have seen retrenchments initially soar and then level off into largely jobless growth. Unemployment peaked close to 40% and is now stuck around 33-35%. There has also been wide-scale casualisation, so that those in employment often find themselves below the radar screen of progressive labour market legislation. The past 15 years have also seen widening income inequality, making SA one of the worst performing countries in terms of the GINI coefficient measurement of income inequality. However, important social programmes (including grants, low cost housing and water and electricity provision) have helped to lessen absolute levels of poverty.

The idea that economic “fundamentals” can be reduced to a few macro-economic indicators, while ignoring unsustainable levels of unemployment and inequality, is a class-biased assumption.

Myth number four: “owing to sound economic management, South Africa is a safe haven in the current global turmoil”

In its 78th Annual Report, published in June 2008, the Bank of International Settlements rated South Africa (along with Turkey, the Baltic states, Hungary and Romania) as one of the states most at risk in the current turbulent global reality. Of course, the fact that the BIS made this finding should not necessarily lead us to accept it as gospel – the BIS failed to remotely predict the impending scale of bank failure in the US. But the BIS report should certainly give us pause for thought.

The BIS finding was based in particular on SA’s precarious current account situation (the difference between our export earnings and import expenditures). Since the June report, our current account deficit has worsened. In October 2008 our trade deficit widened to R7,1bn, largely as a result of a R2,2bn increase in imports of machinery and electrical appliances. On a cumulative basis from January to September the deficit stood at R62bn compared with R55bn in the same period last year. The fact that South Africa has become a net food importer for the first time ever is a further aggravating problem.

It is hard to predict exactly what the short and medium-term global turbulence holds in store for our current account deficit. The rand is tending to depreciate against the dollar and euro and this will improve our export competitiveness – but the global downturn will lessen demand for our exports. The global downturn has brought the price of oil down to levels last seen two years ago, but this decline is partly off-set, in turn, by the declining value of the rand.

In short, our current account deficit – which basically reflects on our failure to drive an aggressive industrial policy programme particularly in manufacturing and agriculture over the last 15-years – will remain a serious point of vulnerability.

Myth number five: “our financial sector is healthy”

Although our own financial institutions appear to be well regulated and have not been as severely exposed to toxic loans as their international counterparts, they have not been entirely immune either. Standard Bank has some exposure to derivative share-holdings, and Old Mutual lost over $1,4 billion when its shares in Bear Sterns turned out to be almost worthless. Hopefully, these remain limited cases.

But can we boast of a healthy financial sector when we have had one of the world’s worst housing price bubbles? When household debt has quadrupled to more than R1,1 trillion in the past five years? When more than 6 million South Africans can’t pay their debts? When, in the first quarter of 2008, South Africans spent 82,3% of their income servicing household debt, compared to 60,2% in 1998? And when 6000 vehicles and 2000 homes are now being repossessed every month?

In assessing the health of our financial sector there is another reality that is often politely overlooked – the impact of narrow BEE deals. Many of these deals involved complicated financial gearing, in which an emerging elite (without capital savings) was provided with shares that they would, supposedly, repay out of the gains the shares would “inevitably” make. After all, “the stock market would always travel upwards” in the wonderful new SA and world in which we were now living. According to some sources, around 80% of these BEE deals are now “under the water”. BEE beneficiaries are unable to repay the debt on their shares – at least not within the prescribed time as agreed. This will impact upon the liquidity of firms, and it is debt that will, in many cases, also be passed into our banking sector. If this kind of BEE wheeling and dealing had had any serious transformational impact then, as a country, a deepening debt that will impact upon all of us might be excusable. But narrow BEE has been a deliberate side-tracking of serious transformation.

Myth number six: “the choice is between no-change or imprudent macro-populism”

We cannot be imprudent, but nor can we be complacent about where our economy is. We must reject the false choice of either an unsustainable welfarist “macro-populism”, on the one hand, or “no change”, where, supposedly, government continues to implement “prudent macro-economic policies”, while the markets do the rest.

Our problems are structural. We have to transform the systemic features of our persisting growth path that is reproducing the crises of our society – unemployment, poverty, inequality, skills shortages, diminishing food security, excessive and unsustainable energy intensiveness, and current account vulnerabilities. These crises impact, in turn, on other major headaches, including crime levels and unsustainable household indebtedness.

Too often the debate on economic policy is reduced to the wisdom or otherwise of inflation targeting or a small budget deficit. These are important issues that, no doubt, need prudent handling. But they are subsidiary matters.

At the Alliance economic summit we agreed that our key priorities need to be job creation, major improvements in education, health-care and the criminal justice system, and serious rural transformation. These key priorities must not be handled as trickle-down welfarism, but as integral components of a state-led industrial programme that transforms our excessively commodity-based export-dependent and capital-goods import-dependent growth path. This is neither a dramatic abandonment of macro-economic prudence, nor is it a complacent sitting on our hands, hoping the markets will somehow solve everything.

Myth number seven: “thank God”

When South African financial institutions appear to be less vulnerable to the sub-prime crisis than institutions elsewhere, when things are not as bad as they might be, we are asked to believe that something miraculous has occurred. Consider a recent speech delivered at the University of Pretoria by Richemont and Remgro chairperson, Johann Rupert. He told his audience (see here):

“I am a proponent for the abolition of exchange controls but I must agree with finance minister Trevor Manuel that we were saved by foreign exchange controls. Certainly some of my banker friends and fund managers would also have been seduced by the higher yields available in the sub-prime and other markets. So for once, thank God for foreign exchange controls.” (Business Times, October 26, 2008)

It is possible that we have benefited from divine favours in the recent past. It would be remiss not to acknowledge that cde Manuel has resisted the big-bang removal of exchange controls constantly advocated by the media’s “economic specialists”, by big business circles, and by the DA and IFP in parliament. However, in line with GEAR commitments to progressively remove exchange controls, the Minister of Finance has introduced no fewer than 26 relaxations of exchange controls over the past 8 years.

The residual presence of some exchange controls in SA isn’t particularly due to divine intervention or to the Minister of Finance. Instead it has a great deal to do with protracted struggles from within the ANC, and especially from the SACP and COSATU in opposition to the hasty and excessive liberalisation measures that were introduced from the mid-1990s.

In particular, the SACP-led Financial Sector Campaign eventually compelled hostile Treasury Department officials to deal legislatively and otherwise with our financial institutions and their unwise lending inclinations. The Credit Act and the extension of banking to a wider internal market were the results of the campaign.

It is now conceded by many mainstream commentators that both these measures (along with exchange controls) have played a key role in protecting our banks from the global crisis. Thanking God is a way of obscuring the role of popular mobilisation in impacting positively on economic policy.

Johann Rupert might not want us to remember this fact. But we should never forget. The transformation of our productive economy and broader society cannot depend upon a developmental state alone, it critically requires popular participation, popular mobilisation and popular monitoring and evaluation.


[1] Cf. Marx: “The word over-production in itself leads to error. So long as the most urgent needs of a large part of society are not satisfied, or only the most urgent needs are satisfied, there can of course be absolutely no talk of an over-production of products – in the sense that the amount of products is excessive in relation to the need for them. On the contrary, it must be said that on the basis of capitalist production, there is constant under-production in this sense. The limits to production are set by the profit of the capitalist and in no way by the needs of the producers. But over-production of products and over-production of commodities are two entirely different things.” Marx, Theories of Surplus Value.

[2] “Unemployment and the economic slowdown could cause massive social turmoil in China, a leading scholar in the Communist Party has said. ‘The redistribution of wealth through theft and robbery could dramatically increase and menaces to social stability will grow,’ Zhou Tianyong, a researcher at the Central Party School in Beijing, wrote in the China Economic Times. ‘This is extremely likely to create a reactive situation of mass-scale social turmoil,’ he wrote. His views do not reflect leadership policy but highlight worries in elite circles about the impact of the economic slowdown. Mr Zhou warned that the real rate of urban joblessness reached 12% this year and could reach 14% next year as the economy slows. China’s annual GDP growth has already slowed to 9% in the third quarter, from 10.1% in the second. Some forecasters see growth slowing to 7.5% next year. The government has launched a stimulus package and cut interest rates to boost the economy. Last month, China’s top planner warned that the economic slowdown in China could fuel social unrest. Zhang Ping, head of the National Development and Reform Commission, said the impact of the global crisis on China’s economy was deepening. ‘Excessive bankruptcies and production cuts will lead to massive unemployment and stir social unrest,’ he said.”. (“China ‘faces mass social unrest'”, BBC News, 5 December 2008 – www//news.bbc.co.uk)

[3] “The Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) is paying out about R300 million a month to beneficiaries, up from R250m a month last July, and claim figures are expected to rise by at least 15 percent this year”. (“UIF payouts set to rise”, Business Report, Jan 21, 2009).

[4] See Shawn Hattingh: “At present, there are four full member states of ALBA: Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. There are four observer states in ALBA — Ecuador, Uruguay, the Dominican Republic, and St. Kitts — who will become full members in the near future. ALBA rejects neo-liberalism and aims to forge a path away from “free” trade. ALBA itself has a wide range of guiding principles and has the following objectives:

* To promote trade and investment between member governments, based on cooperation, and with the aim of improving people’s lives, not making profits.
* For member states to cooperate to provide free healthcare and free education to people across the ALBA states.
* To integrate the ALBA member’s energy sectors to meet people’s needs.
* To create alternative media to counterbalance the US and regional neo-liberal media and promote an indigenous Latin American identity.
* To ensure land redistribution and food security within the member states.
* To develop state-owned corporations.
* To develop basic industries so that ALBA member states can become economically independent.
* To promote workers’ movements, student movements, and social movements.
* To ensure that projects under ALBA are environmentally friendly”

(ALBA: Creating a Regional Alternative to Neo-Liberalism?”, Feb.2008,

“proleteriats of the different countries unite”

Hasta la victoria siempre…


2 Responses

  1. an exelent article clearing my doubts the survival of capitalism.

  2. Fianally something worth to read!

    I always knew that Neoliberalism, as a political, economic and cultural system requires a certain level of political and moral docility- uncritical acceptance of market to determine both private and public needs- and social cynicism to maintain its eternal development and profit.

    Good and take care of you!

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