A Ghost from the Past: The South African Developmental State of the 1940s

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Seminar Date
August 17, 2011
In recent years, with eyes alerted to the so-called Asian industrialisation model, there has emerged an important literature on the developmental state with Johnson, Amsden and Chang amongst the most frequently cited studies (Johnson, 1982; Amsden, 1989; Chang, 1994). Meredith Woo-Cumings provides a collection which stretches the subject to consider, for instance, dirigiste France and which also gives convenient definitional strength to the concept.(Woo-Cumings,1999) ‘The common thread linking these arguments is that a developmental state is not an imperious element lording it over society but a partner with the business sector in an historical compact of industrial transformation’. (Ibid.:4) A key defining element in the developmental state seems to be agency: the existence of a state formation that transcends or overrules the usual bureaucratic processes. Such agencies are capable of directing capital and defying the logic of market forces which may constrain structural transformations. While the state may tolerate large-scale corruption, favourites are channelled in such a way as to ensure economic results, not simply indulge in private rent- seeking activities. Capitalists and top government officials, perhaps in the military, come together to form an elite, probably moulded through social associations, common educational background and personal ties. With reference to Brazil, Peter Evans proposes that members of such an elite ‘are embedded in a concrete set of social ties that binds the state to society and provides institutionalised channels for the continued negotiation and renegotiations of goals and policies.’ (Evans, 1995:12) They thus fulfil the requirement suggested by Coase’s much discussed theory: costs are reduced to a minimum where economic interactions are embedded in social forms. (Coase, 1937) Indeed such formations are difficult to achieve in a democratic dispensation which is surely a major reason why developmental states have been authoritarian (South Korea) or at least had an authoritarian element (Japan); in general, they have been strongly motivated by an intense nationalist ideology called into being by real or imagined threats. Adrian Leftwich explores this side but also makes the important qualification that successful developmental states are nonetheless able to achieve broad general, if passive, support from their populations which he calls legitimacy, precisely because they can deliver the material goods, raise living standards and live up to the often intense nationalist fervour which powers them. (Leftwich, 2000) Contemporary China in this sense perhaps fits his point well. It is worth flagging the point here too that the neo-liberal view of East Asian success stories was always dominated by the importance of export and successful, competitive participation in the international economy. While far from being the whole story, it is true that industrial export success has been of great importance even in China today and barriers intended to block this success for Japan in the 1930s led to developmentalism sliding into militarism and fascism. The developmental state formulation has been increasingly attractive to many modern regimes that consider themselves developmental and which look for a road where other models seem to have led to blockage. Indeed the developmental state idea really found its feet in the teeth of the political triumph of neo-liberalism with its reification of market forces and its hostility to the state as a director of economic initiatives. South Africa after 1994 embraced neo-liberalism controversially but the limited success of the neo-liberal agenda led President Thabo Mbeki to embrace what he called the ‘democratic developmental state’. I have criticised this view as unsatisfactory elsewhere. (Freund, 2007) However, the successor Zuma government has opened the door to activists interested in making this concept work in the South African political economy. But in so doing they have so far virtually ignored older historic models. 1 I am posing as a hypothesis that South Africa under white rule was a very good example itself of a developmental state, by no means unsuccessful by the standard of the times. The racial definition of the citizenry and the emergence of the Bantustan system were a part of the conception of this state although certainly they created contradictions at various stages. Far from never having known the structures typical of what developmental state theorists have considered characteristic, key elements of the developmental state structure are still in existence although they have lost their coherence and require substantial reorientation.
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