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Rethinking the South African Crisis

Date Released: Fri, 14 November 2014 15:45 +0200

Gillian Hart, a leading geographer on the global stage, a key protagonist in the revival of scholarship on Antonio Gramsci and a leading political theorist of the South African crisis offered a public lecture and postgraduate master class at Rhodes University recently entitled “’Political Society’ and Its Discontents: South African Reflections on Indian Debates”. During the presentation Prof Hart, who is Professor of Geography and Co-chair of Development Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, drew parallels between post-apartheid South Africa and 1990s India, suggesting an acknowledgement of the similarities between the two states would be helpful for a nuanced analysis of the current socio-politico environment in South Africa.

Prof Hart explained that she became very interested in Indian debates, finding them compelling while writing her last book, Rethinking the South African Crisis: Nationalism, Populism, Hegemony (2014). “I was going to bring India and South Africa into conversation with one another and I wrote a monstrous chapter but realized it was too much new material and took it out. I promised myself I would come back to it later,” she said, noting that the recent election results from both states, essentially creating the largest fascist state the world has ever seen in India, “cinched my interest and I realized I had to pursue the project.”

Prof Hart suggested that the 1990s saw a major turning point for both countries and that three broad sets of forces can be seen to be operating in both countries, including the “ushering in” of neoliberal capitalism by parties of liberation; expansion of democracy with the democratic transition(s); and intensifying expressions of nationalism. These three forces are playing out in parallel but also in distinctively different kinds of ways, she says.

Drawing on the nearly twenty years of ethnographic research published in Rethinking South Africa, Prof Hart argued that local government has become the key site of contradictions in South Africa, with local practices, conflicts, and struggles in the arenas of everyday life feeding into and being shaped by simultaneous processes of de-nationalization and re-nationalization. Together they are key to understanding the erosion of African National Congress (ANC) hegemony and the proliferation of populist politics she said.

The 1990s in South Africa marked a shift in ANC policy from a “fierce fiscal” approach to increasing investment in municipal indigents policy, yet, Prof Hart challenged, this has resulted in increasing popular discontent. “We need to understand how it is that between 2001 and Marikana we have the phenomenon of on the one hand more and more investment into efforts to contain popular discontent, and at the same time popular antagonism is burgeoning.”

Prof Hart described the “deep profound circuits through which efforts to contain popular discontent are playing into and igniting populist anger, generating the very conditions they were designed to contain.” The contrast playing out at the level of local government have to be situated in relation to the similar process of denationalisation and renationalization, she said. The former comprises not just neoliberalism but also the particular set of alliances that were forged between the ANC and corporate capital that enabled corporate capital to expand. The latter involves the reconstituting of the nation anew following the unbanning of the ANC, in such ideological notions as the Rainbow Nation. “Capital needs government to keep a lid on things but forces of popular resistance are making it increasingly harder, if not impossible, for this to happen. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are an extension of this.”

Prof Hart has worked in Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Malaysia on questions of agrarian change, labor, and gender. Since the early 1990s she has been deeply engaged in research and writing for academic and popular audiences in her native South Africa addressing debates over globalization, neoliberalism, and the rise of new social movements. As an Honorary Research Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Prof Hart participates in a research cluster program with South African graduate students. She has also been working collaboratively with a group of South African and Indonesian scholars and activists to explore the rise of agrarian movements in post-apartheid South Africa and post-Suharto Indonesia, and the connections they are forging with one another. She was hosted by the Rhodes University Unit for the Humanities (UHURU).


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