South Africa: Democracy and development in a post-apartheid society

Lodge, Tom
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Until the 1970s, South Africa represented a telling example of a fairly industrialised economy in which growth and development were facilitated by high levels of political repression. Gold mining almost from its start required huge numbers of cheap migrant labourers; gold's fixed price, the low quality of the ore and heavy capital outlays made a coercive labour system a condition of the industry's prosperity until the 1940s. The expansion of secondary industry during the Second World War enabled manufacturing to outstrip mining's contribution to GDP by 1945. This development was accompanied by accelerating urbanisation and the establishment in the main cities of a relatively skilled and increasingly well organised African working class. In certain respects, the "Apartheid" programmes of the Afrikaner Nationalist government elected in 1948 were directed at reversing the economic and social gains achieved by urbanised Africans during the previous decade. Reinforced controls on black labour mobility, intensified territorial segregation of blacks and whites, the curtailment of black collective bargaining rights, the removal of Africans' already very limited access to the franchise, and the suppression of popular political organisations, all these helped to ensure the attraction of massive flows of foreign capital into import substitution industries which the government helped to boost with walls of protective tariffs. Between 1950 and 1970, annual real GDP growth averaged at 5 per cent. In the 1970s, though, the economic costs of white supremacy began to outweigh the benefits. The denial of technical training to blacks underlay an alarming skills shortage. Low wages tightly limited the expansion of the domestic market. Increasing resources were required to staff and equip a huge public sector, much of it concerned with the administration of apartheid controls or with expensive economic projects conceived in anticipation of international embargoes on strategic imports. Moreover, controls notwithstanding, economic growth in the 1960s had nurtured a second rapid expansion of the African industrial working class, much of it in the main cities, despite the government's efforts to relocate labour and industries outside towns. This growth was matched by swelling primary and secondary school enrolments (6). By the early 1970s, black workers still lacked basic rights but with their skills, their growing literacy, and their numerical weight in the industrial economy, their bargaining power had become dramatically enhanced. During the next two decades economic recession, labour militancy, localised communal rebellions in black townships, guerilla insurgency, capital flight, credit restrictions, and the spiralling expense of militarised government all combined in 1989 to persuade the government to lift the legal restrictions on the black opposition and begin a negotiated democratisation. This history seems to add confirmation to the contention that "it is not the structural correspondence between capitalism and democracy which explains the persistence of democracy" but rather "capitalist development is associated with democracy because it transforms the class structure". Some theorists may argue that (political) "participation in the social order" is at certain stages in an economy's development a prerequisite for "sustained economic growth", but if this is the case it does not follow that states and ruling groups concede power and rights voluntarily. In South Africa democratisation is taking place because "pressures from subordinate classes have (become) strong enough to make demands for their inclusion credible". Historically, high levels of political repression facilitated capitalist economic development. In time, though, such repression became increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of social changes generated by industrialisation. Pressure from subordinate classes was undoubtedly the crucial agency in determining political transition in South Africa. Any attempt to predict the outcome of this transition must first investigate the political predispositions of popular classes as well as the institutions with which they will engage before looking at the developmental tasks which will confront a democratised government. After considering the question of whether these tasks can be tackled under democratic conditions, this essay will address the more general question, which arises from this case study, of whether democracy can help to foster development in developing countries.
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented 28 March 1994
Democracy. South Africa , Economic development. Political aspects. South Africa , South Africa. Economic conditions , South Africa. Economic policy