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Social Policy and Development Programme Paper 13: Reworking Apartheid Legacies: Global Competition, Gender and Social Wages in South Africa, 1980-2000

4 Feb 2003

  • Author(s): Gillian Hart


In the early 1980s, the apartheid state offered generous incentives for labour-intensive industries to locate in “industrial decentralization points” either in or adjacent to former bantustans. Light industries—many of them Taiwanese, and employing mainly women—mushroomed in these areas, while the number of heavy capital-intensive industries in the main urban centres decreased sharply. In 1991 the government, in response to fierce criticism from powerful local business interests, slashed the subsidies. The post-apartheid state has embraced foreign direct investment (FDI) and export production as the centre-piece of its neoliberal policy. Yet, under pressure from cheap imports, employment in labour-intensive industry has shrunk dramatically, FDI has been minimal, and neoliberal imperatives have constrained social policies.

The paper draws on research in two former industrial decentralization points in KwaZulu-Natal with a strong connection to sites in East Asia, to advance three related arguments:

First, the conditions of reproduction of labour are central to understanding the peculiarly South African forms of engaging with the global economy. These conditions are not only the result of social policies, but also of a much longer and deeper history of racialized dispossession and expropriation.

Second, a gendered perspective is crucial to understanding the relationships between industrial production, social policy and the conditions of reproduction of labour. Yet an approach that focuses on the “impact of globalization” on women is severely limited. Instead, attention must be given to how gendered relationships and identities articulate with race, ethnicity and other differences; and how these, in turn, shape the forms and dynamics of industrial production. The ways in which Taiwanese industries have taken hold in South Africa provide vivid illustrations of the inextricable connections among class, gender and race; and of the complex histories that enter into the making of the social wage.

Third, the paper underscores the importance of the politics of place, showing how dispossession and industrial production played out quite differently in two seemingly similar towns in South Africa during the apartheid era; how the social policies set in place after apartheid have filtered through configurations of local state power in strikingly different ways; and how strategies to attract foreign investment are provoking intense, but locally differentiated forms of struggle.

These local divergences illustrate the interconnections between workplace and community politics, and how these overlap with struggles in other social arenas to shape the social wage. According to this paper these three arguments underscore the contradictions and unsustainability of the neoliberal project in conditions of profound deprivation and inequality.

Gillian Hart is Professor in the Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley. She is also Chair of the University’s Center for African Studies.

Order PPSPD 13 from UNRISD ($8.00 for readers in industrialized countries and $4.00 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students).