Unsettled futures: The precarity and paradoxes of the post-apartheid project – Fellows’ seminar by Bernard Dubbeld

12 December 2020

“In recent years, South African democracy and the ruling ANC with its slogan of ‘a better life for all’, have come under severe pressure. Within the state, the State Capture Inquiry has revealed extensive corruption in numerous governmental institutions, while a major faction in the party calls for ‘radical economic transformation’. Outside the party, #Rhodesmustfall and the Economic Freedom Fighters question the extent of emancipation, challenging the epistemological and economic character of the transition,” said Iso Lomso Visiting Scholar Bernard Dubbeld of the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University. “My book responds to these developments by analysing the first 18 years of democracy. I approach 1994 – 2012 as a ‘project’ of post-apartheid: a government-led, political party-guided attempt to reconstruct, develop and transform South Africa after apartheid. I believe this project came to an end in 2012 with a number of events including the turning point of Marikana.”

STIAS Iso Lomso Visiting Scholar Bernard Dubbeld presented his seminar on 8 December 2020

He explained how his research and the resulting book focuses in particular on the state ambition – which he calls the post-apartheid project— to provide a better life for all its citizens by the provision of infrastructure and welfare as well as a legal framework to secure rights. He aims to unpack the impact of this on the lived experience of South Africans through an ethnographic account of a countryside settlement in KwaZulu-Natal province which has been transformed by the post-apartheid government, albeit with ambivalent effects.

“The countryside offers a particular lens,” he said. “To some extent it was a blank slate on which to enact the post-apartheid project. I thought I would be studying the débris of apartheid. But it’s not abandoned. They have built houses, put in electricity, water and clinics – all of which sustain about 70% of the people living there.”

“The country is not the opposite of the city,” he added, “but a place from which to imagine elsewhere. It is not neglected, and it has changed after apartheid. While it has long been a place of precarity, the government attention to it has meant that precarity in the countryside is different in degree to the urban setting but the same in kind.”

Dubbeld uses the concept of precarity to talk about contemporary experience, but in situating it in South Africa, he noted a tension in the literature between those who insist that global capitalism has created a new class, and those who argue that precarity has always been a feature of life in the global South, where employment is seldom secure.  “Precarity is not a standard universal experience,” he said. “South Africa has a long history of different types of employment. In South Africa security and stability are not entitlements of citizenship but rather future goals to be achieved.”

He indicated that between 2000 and 2010 the official unemployment rate in South Africa was about 25% but if those not actively seeking employment were included it was probably 34%. By 2019 it was up to 43%. “Each president has committed to job creation but there is little evidence of a sustained programme of mass employment,” he said. “We have to ask therefore how the extent of unemployment shapes the future of democracy in South Africa, what future does democracy offer and what does it foreclose?”

“Through an account of a state-housing settlement built after 1994, I show how the democratic regime has put in place conditions to materially improve life but that the precarity of work and the absence of economic opportunities have constrained how people are able to imagine and realise a better future. Revealing the lived paradoxes around government aid and the democratic project— in which people reject democracy and desire more state intervention – this research speaks to recent experiments with progressive democracy, especially outside the global North and asks about the possibilities of future democracy.”

Building buildings not relationships      

One important material output of transformation post-1994 became the provision of so-called Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) housing.  Dubbeld believes that, taking their lead from the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries, the ANC believed that mass housing could be the foundation of social transformation but it was a concept “borrowed from another time and place”.

“RDP houses became emblematic of the post-apartheid project of social transformation – three million were built in two decades but with little attention to local geographic and social conditions and structures. Transformation hinged on indices not the desires of those needing development. Infrastructure development was seen as the mechanism of a new life with correcting the past as the main objective.”

His fieldwork has shown that people only saw the infrastructure as the beginning of an extended programme of improvement, that they welcomed the infrastructure but not that the state provided it and then withdrew. “People imagined an ongoing relationship with state officials. They had an ideal of a closer relationship with the state than actually happened but no one asked their opinions.”

“The full transformative element of the RDP programme has never been achieved,” he added. “There has been an inability to transform the lives of the majority of the poor.”

To Dubbeld this leads to some of the paradoxes – where people may claim that democracy is less receptive to their needs and desires than apartheid; that government housing offers no foundation for the future; and, that social grants have actually placed new tensions on households and families.

By the 2010s, while houses where still being built, the limits of the promise of state transformation were becoming clear to many. “People now often muster all their resources to escape the state and its projects. They are unhappy but not actively protesting, unlike in the cities.”

Where to from here?

Turning to the future Dubbeld pointed to the tension between the idea of the future as a break from the past versus a sense of a limited, linear future, “which in some iterations appears as a ‘nostalgia for the future’ or ‘futurelessness’”.

He believes we have to fully understand South Africa’s project of ‘left democracy’ and attempt to build a progressive society by asking questions like: Was the attempt at social transformation, through a new constitution, universal franchise and investment in material infrastructure, from houses and roads to electricity and sanitation, untimely? Was the aspiration to a progressive project after the Cold War, in a world where the prospects of full employment are rapidly receding, anachronistic? And what futures did the post-apartheid project produce for those whose lives it aimed to transform?

He also pointed to the transformative potential of current events. “The COVID-19 income relief for the first time offers a grant not related to children, the aged or disabled. It reaches people in between who have felt excluded by the grants system. Will the new framework change things? How long will it last? Will it have an impact on who stays in rural areas?”

“1994 offered a different future. However, the path and future promise was inadequate,” he concluded. “We need to acknowledge the modest success but also massive challenges which the post-apartheid state has left us. Substantial change has happened but now we face the possibility of further transformation. The precarity of the present has undermined the promise of democracy.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan


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