Raymond Suttner: Understanding contemporary South Africa requires careful study

No matter how shocking the evidence of corruption in contemporary South Africa may be, no matter how shocking the killings at Marikana, the dragging of people behind police vans, sometimes leading to death sometimes not, no matter the revulsion we feel at child rapes and other abuse of women and children, no matter how great the wealth disparity in SA may have become, explaining these phenomena and providing solutions is complicated. There is nothing obvious about analysis. It is hard work and rigour does not lend itself to glib explanations and suave phraseology.

Analysis, if it is to be analysis and not a careless and carefree set of categories and labels posing as conclusions, requires humility.  If analysis is an attempt at understanding what may have layers of meaning and complexity attached to these meanings, then one cannot rush.  One has to patiently work through the evidence and the possible explanations. 

For that reason I am unimpressed by the generalised pronouncements (and in some cases inaccuracies) of John Pilger and Arundathi Roy on the legacy of Mandela and also the character of post-apartheid South Africa.   Their judgments focus almost exclusively on the persistence of monopoly capital and privatisation.  A careful analysis of the history of the period immediately prior to and after the transition will throw into question their version of the history of that period as one simply of compromise with capital.  Debates about the desirability or otherwise of nationalisation were under way for some time and lessons were drawn from other experiences. 

But careful study of what has eventuated after 1994 is not so easily encapsulated under the neoliberalism category.  Even now there is a large percentage of budgetary allocations to social grants and other ways intended to make a ‘better life for all’.

That this has happened in fewer cases than would have been possible is simply not covered by their class reductionist analysis.   It has little to do with whatever deals may have been implicit or actually struck with capital.  The way in which patronage sometimes but not always merges with corruption and how these relationships are formed require careful study.

But anyone concerned with the multiple crises of SA today will also have to address the current depoliticisation, that the focus of almost all professional analysts is not on broad transformation issues but on peripheral questions like cabinet reshuffles.  Debate has been sidelined in South Africa.

Beyond this, some of the problems in South Africa today that are not covered by concepts like class and neoliberalism and relate to social problems of great severity are issues for which we do not yet have a name.  Illustrative examples are the rape of a mentally disabled boy by two girls, the practise of thieves to gratuitously rape women, including those over 80 years and sometimes also men.   We do not have the analytical categories to address such issues. Patriarchy is insufficient.  Certainly we are not assisted by pronouncements of the type to which I have referred.

2 thoughts on “Raymond Suttner: Understanding contemporary South Africa requires careful study

  1. I respect Raymond Suttner and his intellectual contribution to the struggle in South Africa. However I cannot agree entirely with the tone, if not the substance of his thoughts in this article. He speaks in a dispassionate, cold way about the myriad problems facing South Africa and the need to carefully analyse and sift through the data. He also warns against any easy categorisations of the complex South African situation. Agreed. The question To Raymond is simply do we have the luxury to do as he says. Surely we have to analyse, but almost as soon must we take action, based on our analyses, accepting that no analysis will be perfect. Thus our analyses are continuously informed by our actions in the real world and thus improved and strengthened. The feel I get from Prof Suttner, with all due respect is, that he given enough data, time and space, one will be able to come up with the definitive analysis of the South African or any other situation. This seems to me to be a rather Newtonian, posistivistic, static approach to scientific social analysis.

    I remind him of the words of Karl Marx: “Philosophers have interpreted the world. The point is to change it

    • Thank you Kevin Davy. I agree that we have to come up with analyses and act on them, once we also identify forces that can be the base for such action for change.. I hope I will come up with the type of analysis that will form a basis on which we can change the conditions under which we are now living. I wrote this as a preliminary response to what I saw as writings which do not take the concrete conditions of SA adequately into account. I reacted to what I saw as ill-informed commentary. From that, there is no guide to action let alone to understanding. I will do more. Thank you for your legitimate comment

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