This CAI paper is part 2 of a two-part series. It follows on from part 1, titled, ‘Africa and South America part 1: Perspectives on inter-regional cooperation’. In this second part of the series, insights derived from Brazil’s experiences over the past decade under the Worker’s Party (PT) Government are considered as a possible foundation for the successful continuation of South Africa’s transformation. It offers a comparison between South Africa and Brazil in terms of economic and social policies, civil society involvement and government accountability. The paper comes to the conclusion that many elements conducive to the success of the Brazilian model also apply to the South African case.
Growth models for Africa
The steady economic growth that has been observed throughout Africa in recent years has led to a lively debate amongst scholars, practitioners and commentators of African affairs. Many of the arguments have been made by way of comparing Africa with successfully developing countries in Asia, either with the historical examples of South Korea and Japan, or currently emerging economies such as China and India. A comparative perspective of this sort can, without doubt, deliver a range of valuable insights into the current African trajectory and possible pathways for the future. The debate has, however, suffered from a lack of consensus on how to frame those comparisons and from an unfortunate geographical skewing at the expense of South American experiences.
Development economist and former United Nations (UN) consultant Rick Rowden has, for instance, rebuffed the narrative of the rise of Africa by rejecting the comparison with the historical examples of East Asia. In his view, the fundamental difference is that growing African countries today lack a coordinated industrialisation strategy of the type the Asian developmental states were able to implement in a much less open international economic order.(2) The economists Charles Robertson and Michael Moran have answered to this claim by pointing to other examples, such as India, which has grown in the past two decades without a considerable push for industrialisation.(3) In turn, Adam Robert Green commented on Rowden’s article by equally finding fault in the comparison of African with East Asian countries. He argues that the industrialisation of the Asian tigers was conducted in an essentially authoritarian style, something that would be neither acceptable nor imaginable in the present African context.(4) In the particular case of South Africa, a ‘developmental state’ agenda with recurring allusions to the Asian blueprints has been debated for the past decade.(5) This paper suggests that by looking instead to the South American experience, and in particular the Brazilian growth and development model, many valuable insights can be gained for South Africa.
In recent years, the democratic transformation of South Africa has, in the eyes of many observers, stalled and faced serious political and economic challenges. Different political actors within and outside the governing alliance have called for critically needed social change. The trajectory of Brazil over the past decade, on the other hand, is usually assessed in much more positive terms. The South American country has emerged as a potent player in international affairs, while domestically succeeding in combating extreme poverty and extending social benefits without causing harmful polarisations within society.(6) In the following, this paper in turn examines different elements in which both countries bear resemblances with each other, and asks how and to what extent lessons learned from Brazil can be adapted and successfully applied to foster socio-economic progress in South Africa.
Points of departure: Democratisation, inequality and macro-economic stability
Brazil experienced the re-introduction of democratic rule in 1985 after the ruling military dictatorship was forced to hand over power as it came under pressure from different sectors of society.(7) Similar to the end of Apartheid in South Africa, popular movements and the business sector called for a political solution to a severe economic crisis.(8) However, Brazil’s phase of democratic consolidation, led by a centrist government under Henrique Cardoso, was not accompanied by a considerable change in socio-economic relations: the gap between rich and poor in the country remained a pressing problem. In this context, former trade unionist LuízInácio Lula da Silva was elected president on the anti-poverty platform of his PT in 2002.(9) In today’s political discourse in South Africa, a similar emphasis on persistent socio-economic problems can be observed. Hence the African National Congress’s (ANC) strategy of pursuing a ‘second transition’, which shall bring about socio-economic justice after the first transition established democratic majority rule.(10)
A powerful indicator of the need for socio-economic change is the high level of inequality in both countries. Democratic South Africa emerged from the exploitative economic system of Apartheid with an enormous wealth gap between the rich and the poor. The Gini coefficient, developed to measure the equality of income distribution was 59.3 in 1993. At the time, this was one of the highest coefficients worldwide, and rose to its highest level at 67.4 in 2006. In 2009, it fell to 63.1, which still lies above the levels of the Apartheid era. Whilst the composition of the different strata of society has been partly transformed, some argue that overall South African society has become more unequal in the post-Apartheid era.
Brazil struggles with similarly high rates of inequality: from a Gini coefficient starting point of 55.6 at the time of democratisation in 1985, it has risen to values around 60 throughout the phase of democratic consolidation in the 1990s. When da Silva was elected president in 2002, the coefficient was 59.4, and since then continuously decreased to reach 54.7 in 2009.(11) While the levels of inequality in Brazil are still extraordinarily high, the development points towards increased equality and contributes to urgently needed poverty reduction. The government claims to have lifted up to 20 million of its citizens out of poverty through its welfare policy. In line with many accounts, sociologist Göran Therborn concludes that “the PT has transformed the social landscape of the country, tackling extreme poverty, expanding popular education, and bringing more workers into the formal labour force where their rights will be protected by law.”(12)
Taking a closer look, it becomes clear that Brazilian economic policies have developed in a way that can be of utmost relevance for South Africa’s post-Apartheid trajectory. This is a legitimate reason to hope that the trends toward greater inequality and perpetuated poverty are reversible in the near future. The Brazilian growth model has continuously focused on macro-economic stability to ensure continued capital inflows and steady growth rates.(13) The government of Cardoso, which preceded the da Silva administration, carried out at times unpopular reforms that were perceived as necessary to not upset the neoliberal global economic environment. The PT Government’s strategy after 2002 remained focused on those ‘fundamentals’ as a pre-condition to attain other goals, such as social inclusivity and equality. This closely resembles the approach taken by the ANC Government once it was in power: the economic policy was aimed at keeping a sound macro-economic environment that would enable growth through an open economy, in line with the prescriptions of the dominating neoliberal economic thought, propagated by international financial institutions (IFIs) and the World Economic Forum (WEF).(14) This policy, often closely associated with the leadership of long-term Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, has succeeded in keeping macro-economic stability in the post-Apartheid era.(15) In this focus on the fundamentals in a first phase of transition, one can therefore identify a parallel between South Africa and Brazil.
Brazil’s anti-poverty measures focusing on social welfare and the revitalisation of areas under poor living conditions are not alien to South Africa either. Indeed, South Africa has a larger and more ambitious social welfare policy than most other countries outside Western Europe. One study notes that “no other developing country redistributes as large a share of its GDP through social assistance programmes”, which means that “in terms of expenditure and coverage, South Africa already has a remarkable, pro-poor ‘welfare state’.”(16)
The fact that “Brazil’s efforts have demonstrated that even the most unequal of societies can make great strides in lifting huge numbers of its citizens out of poverty without sacrificing either economic growth or liberal democracy” should not be lost on observers of South African politics.(17) What is needed, however, is new political momentum that can help to identify the reasons for the stagnation and tackle them in innovative ways. South African society shares many of the features that enabled this to happen in Brazil.
Civil society and the democratic developmental state
The inefficiency of the allocation of social spending is frequently cited as one of the main reasons for the current impasse of South Africa’s economic transformation. Perceived incompetency, nepotism, and lack of transparency at local levels of government have led to the now regular occurrence of community protests demanding better functioning service delivery. This problem is duly noted by the ANC, which has, at its recent National Policy Conference in Mangaung, established an integrity committee that is tasked with combating misconduct amongst its functionaries. The co-existence of bureaucratic institutions and informal patronage networks, however, are a feature of many state building processes, including those which are identified as successful examples.(18) Indeed, this issue was also encountered by Brazil’s governing alliance, whereby its “presidents and regional executives have had to exercise power while relying on shady networks of clientelism and patronage.”(19)
In this context, a political vehicle used by the government to convey the aspiration of many South Africans is the concept of ‘democratic developmental state’.(20) This is a reaction to the fact that South African society is fundamentally different to those of the often-cited models of Asian developmental states. As Hein Marais puts it, “regimented state-capital relations were seen to sit at the heart of the East Asian developmental states, with civil society weak and largely marginalised.”(21) While the rhetoric has not been followed by actions in many instances, many necessary pre-conditions to establish a ‘democratic development state’ are indeed given in South Africa. These are: a vital media sector regularly uncovering corruption scandals; a wide range of political civil society organisations; and exceptionally well-organised trade unions.
Again, it is worthwhile to refer to the Brazilian experience in this respect: before winning a national majority in 2002, the PT was involved in a sub-national developmental project that foreshadowed its approach at the federal level. In the city of Porto Alegre, governed by the PT since 1989, a participatory budget process was introduced which allowed citizens to influence and control the public development projects to be carried out. Interestingly, this was done by forging alliances between different strata of society “in a bid to undercut the power of clientelist networks.”(22) While this is evidently relevant from a South African point of view, the social basis of this project is also of interest: built in the first instance on the strength of organised labour, it had to negotiate with an equally well-represented business sector. Progressive-minded factions of the middle-classes and those businesses that were to profit from development projects were successfully integrated into the coalition. In addition, a range of civil society organisations complemented this coalition, which has then been reproduced on the federal level to lead to the electoral victories of the PT. In a more general view, this is in line with the following observation made by Jeffrey Rubin, Professor of Latin American History at Boston University:
South Africa has a different but equally passionate history of popular struggle for democracy. Many different actors, emanating from different segments of society, carried the resistance against the Apartheid system. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is part of the governing alliance, but continues also to be critical of many government policies.(24) Recent history has seen the emergence of new upstart labour unions, connected to the recent violent labour conflicts in the mining and agriculture sectors. Channelling those tensions into positive driving forces for social change will be one of the main challenges for the trade union movement in the years to come.
Further, despite the tight grip the ANC has over electoral politics, there have been many civil society initiatives that are worth mentioning as they contribute to the grassroots participation of citizens in political life. The treatment action campaign (TAC), which advocates better and more efficient care for those suffering from HIV & AIDS, is one particularly successful example. The campaign gained the support of COSATU and was finally able to achieve many of its goals. Many other organisations, for instance the shack-dwellers’ organisation Abahlalibase Mjondolo help to draw attention to the plight of many South Africans. Here, too, much will depend on the ability of established political forces to relate to those activities in productive and progressive ways.
A final point that is equally valid for Brazil and South Africa concerns the role of the middle-class. As has been noted, Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policy has led to the growth of the African middle- and entrepreneurial-classes.(25) As has been seen in Brazil, the well-educated and progressive-minded segments of those classes can be integrated into a governing coalition, which fosters inclusive growth and social change. As Therborn notes, apart from Brazil, there have also been other examples in the recent past where the middle-class has been a decisive force for change, for instance in Hong Kong or, more noticed globally, the overthrow of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.(26)
These points indicate a great potential for democratic developmental policies, and it will be the challenge of the future to translate this potential into productive outcomes. The observation that “Brazil’s democracy is marked by ongoing tensions over where to do politics and how to balance economic and social welfare goals”(27) may hopefully soon also hold true for South Africa.
Holding government accountable and concluding thoughts
The relationship between civil society and the state is therefore of great importance for successful inclusive growth policies. This point can be illustrated by a recent episode of South African politics: South Africa’s government pushed a law project in 2012 that many saw as an attempt to silence the independent media, which has, as mentioned, uncovered many corruption scandals that implicated the ANC. The Protection of State Information Bill was widely criticised by civil society and the media sector and had to be amended to accommodate the opposition. In the opposition’s continued campaign against the bill, even after it has been passed by parliament, the threat of bringing the matter before the Constitutional Court remains the most powerful means of pressuring the government.(28)
Here, another similarity with Brazil, in terms of its structural disposition for positive political momentum, becomes visible; namely the relative autonomy and independence of state institutions, in particular the judiciary. Xolela Mangcu has proposed to view South Africa’s political system from an institutionalist angle. He comes to the conclusion that the macro-institutions of the state have constantly remained a source of rationalistic-legal authority in the sense of Max Weber’s sociology of the state. This is a positive element in a political culture that also visibly comprises elements of charismatic and traditional authority, more prone to elude a rule-based system of governance.(29) Mangcu cites the contestation of the Secrecy Bill as “a collective achievement by a number of civil society organisations, some of whom threatened to take the government to court over the unconstitutionality of the Bill” and that “the most important role here was played by the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions.”(30)
While this confirms the vitality of South African civil society and media, it also points to the importance of the rule of law in reigning in a dominant government party. In South Africa, this is made possible because “the judiciary has stood as a bulwark against a government that has at times neglected or sought to trample on people’s constitutionally guaranteed rights.” And indeed, as is noted further, “the current Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Appeals have reversed a number of decisions made by President Zuma.”(31)
Here, an affinity with Brazil can be identified looking to the recent conclusion of the biggest corruption trial in the country’s history, which has seen the conviction of high-ranking members of the ruling PT. The so-called ‘Mensalão’ scandal was triggered by the uncovering of the systematic bribing of members of parliament during da Silva’s first mandate. After seven years of investigation, 25 accused were found guilty of the charges and received prison sentences of up to 40 years. During the trial, one member of the prosecution, Joaquím Barbosa, was particularly hailed for asserting the independence of the judiciary vis-à-vis the government. Apart from the fact that the ruling party was not able to prevent the trial from being successfully concluded, the election of Barbosa to the new president of the Supreme Federal Court is a positive sign in favour of the independence of the Brazilian judiciary.(32)
This shows us that both in South Africa and Brazil, politicians can be held accountable by the political system despite their firm hold of the electoral majority. Both in Africa and Latin America, dominant parties have in many cases shown the propensity to turn to unruly populism, but South Africa and Brazil seem to be on a path in which good governance and popular politics can – albeit with difficulties – be compatible.
Concrete developments on the ground in South Africa further support this argument. The government has adopted a new infrastructure stimulus programme worth US$ 112 billion. The dilemma that goes along with such state interventions is pointedly summed up in the following observation made in a recent editorial piece on the political situation in South Africa:
As this paper has attempted to show by way of allusion to the Brazilian experience, the attempt to maintain a deep integration into the global economy does not necessary inhibit an active government policy seeking inclusive development and poverty alleviation. What is necessary, however, in order to guarantee the fairness and efficiency of those government policies, is a politically engaged civil society, in conjunction with a media sector and a judicial system that checks the power of the government. These crucial pre-conditions are fulfilled in South Africa, which nurtures the hope for positive developments sprouting from the current situation.
Click here to read Part I of this paper.
(1) Contact Mario Gavenda through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Optimistic Africa Unit ([email protected]). This CAI discussion paper was developed with the assistance of Charlotte Sutherland and was edited by Kate Morgan.
This article is republished with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI). For more information, see Consultancy Africa Intelligence.