The South African Compromise

How did leftist political scientist Adam Habib end up as a South African version of Thomas Friedman?

At this week’s Open Book Festival in Cape Town, one of South Africa’s many literary events, one of the most anticipated non-fiction writers was Adam Habib. A veteran political scientist, erstwhile Trotskyist, and as of recently, vice chancellor (equal to an American college president) at the University of the Witwatersrand, Habib just released his new book South Africa’s Suspended Revolution. I picked up a copy last week but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, and I was eager to see what he’d bring to the table. To be honest, I didn’t have particularly high hopes, as Habib’s recent writing has tended toward overuse of needlessly simplistic abstractions like “civil society” and the “corporate sector.” Still, I wasn’t prepared for what I witnessed. At this point, his take is closer to that of a corporate consultant than an academic, let alone a former leftist, and it was clear his audience had shifted altogether.

Let me substantiate my claim. The most compelling evidence in this particular talk was Habib’s penchant for referring to a generalized you, but of course he wasn’t talking to those in attendance. Rather, Habib’s you is the state-capital alliance; we might call it a state’s eye view, or possibly even the view from capital. Or as James Scott aptly puts it, this is “seeing like a state.” Just look at the following quotations that I hastily transcribed during his talk:

If you don’t do it [create a social compact], you’re going to lose the whole castle … If you don’t deal with land redistribution  You don’t give them skill sets, you don’t give them equipment … How do you give poor people power? Paying people 75 bucks [Rand] for farm work is unacceptable in this modern world. Instead you 

Who is this you? If it weren’t already obvious, Habib told the audience outright: “the business community” (his term) aligned with state administrators, though with capital always driving the alliance. “For most of my career,” he told us, “the only people who would listen to me were a bunch of lefties.” Throughout the talk, he made demeaning comments about his leftist past, occasionally referring to “my lefty comrades.” But now, he beamed, he meets regularly with bank CEOs and representatives of the “corporate sector.” In short, he’s become a consultant to the business world, relaying tales of “civil society” to executives.

Why? Ultimately Habib’s motivation is the promotion of a social compact, a compromise, and this is out of sheer necessity in his formulation. “If we don’t cut the deal, this country will burn,” he concluded. Note again his use of a first person pronoun to refer not to the people who will do the burning, but to those who have the most to lose from unrest.

So what is a compromise for Habib? He provided two examples from recent South African history: the state provision of ARVs and the 2010 World Cup. Of course the latter is hardly an example of a compromise between capital and labor of the sort he’s describing, but this can be chalked up to a bit of conflation: political expediency on the one hand, with compromise on the other. In both cases, however, he made the tautological point that ARV provision and the World Cup were possible because they were promoted by political elites. Conversely, service delivery won’t see the light of day, as poor and working class people lack the political leverage to see it through. So in short, if South Africa’s underemployed working class can forge some kind of alliance with elites, they’ll get some service delivery; they just need to convince elites that this is in everyone’s (read: the “corporate sector’s”) interest.

And then the most telling moment came: Habib boasted of his support for the outsourcing of workers at Wits University. Of course the policy predates him, originating with another ex-Marxist, his predecessor Colin Bundy. Even a month ago, Habib was far more ambivalent. As he told one critic, “I wish I could [end the outsourcing], but I can’t. There are no reserves. I’m talking about Wits’s money. Wits doesn’t have money. If I start spending recklessly, then nine months from now Wits will be in trouble.” But in this context, to a packed auditorium in Cape Town, Habib reframed this outsourcing as a compromise: the workers get to keep their jobs, and Wits gets to keep its balance sheets in the clear.

He made a similar move with regard to the debates over the Youth Wage Subsidy (YWS), first proposed by the Democratic Alliance (DA) and subsequently advocated by the African National Congress (ANC). In Habib’s telling, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) opposes the YWS out of a sense of sheer proprietorship; the unions are defending their older members against an influx of cheap (because subsidized) younger labor power. The state and capital, meanwhile, simply want to see the youth unemployment problem solved. What’s preventing compromise then, at least in this formulation, is stubborn unions defending the narrow interests of their membership as against the broader pool of potential employees. That’s certainly one way to frame it. Another is that the introduction of a two-tier labor market would pit workers who have decent jobs against a reserve army of younger labor. To attack COSATU for defending its members’ narrow interest is to effectively blame workers who have secured a union job for the lack of decent work for South Africa’s youth.

I admit to being absolutely shocked to hear this from Habib. I know that he and I have very different analyses of the post-apartheid developmental trajectory, but to hear him spout this sort of naked defense of austerity as in everyone’s best interest was far more than I expected. It wouldn’t have been as offensive if he didn’t pepper the rest of his talk with references to the bank CEOs he apparently meets with on a regular basis. But for him to openly advocate austerity and simultaneously refer to himself as an “activist” – and he did this multiple times during the event – is just disingenuous. How did Habib end up as a South African version of Thomas Friedman (albeit a far more intelligent and articulate version), condensing sociological analysis for “the business community”?

Further Reading

What’s happening in South Africa?

After unrest in July and municipal elections in November, it’s clear South Africa is in the midst of a serious social, economic and political crisis. What are the roots of it? Listen to this episode of AIAC Talk to find out.