AFRICAN STUDIES QUARTERLY

Volume 9, Issue 1 & 2
Fall 2006

Talk Left Walk Right: South Africa’s Frustrated Global Reforms. Patrick Bond. Scottsville, South Africa: University of Kwazulu Natal Press, 2004. 266 pp.

Patrick Bond is one of the most prolific and insightful political economists writing on Africa today. In this book he sets out the ways in which the South African government has attempted to reform the global political-economic system towards greater fairness for the developing world. The chapters cover an extensive range of topics from the World Trade Organization to reparations for slavery; the New Partnership for African Development to water privatisation. The book is written in an accessible style and illustrated with many excellent cartoons by Zapiro, who humorously reflects on the South African condition. The text also includes many useful figures on debt repayments and corporate profits amongst other indicators.

In the era of globalization the power of the nation state to formulate and steer economic and social policy is commonly thought to have deteriorated. Consequently the South African state has sought to reshape the global context through institutional reform. However, Bond concludes this is a “great scam.” Over eleven chapters and in elaborate detail he goes through the ways in which the South African government has at times undermined collective African bargaining positions at the World Trade Organzation and criticized the Iraq war, while selling arms to the U.S. and British governments. In this way he sees the state elite as having their cake and eating it too – talking left and walking right as a way to reconcile the demands of their electoral constituency with demands of the holders of global and national economic and political power. The implication from this is that the South African state elites are “corporate sell-outs” or, as Bond puts it, managers of the equivalent of a “global Bantustan.” However, while some of the South African state’s positions have been reprehensible, an alternative reading is also possible – that is that they have made a judgement on the balance of global class and state power and have concluded that an outright anti-system challenge is destined to fail. Bond talks of Thabo Mbeki’s lack of support from domestic social movements which delegitimate him, but surely it is national elections which determine this, which the ANC continues to win convincingly?

Bond details shocking statistics such as the fact that from 1995-2000 average black incomes fell 19% contributing to mass evictions and water disconnections, whereas incomes for whites rose by 15%. However, the achievements of the post-apartheid era, such as new house construction, are perhaps underplayed. The extension of the social security system is not mentioned in the book. 

This book offers an informed, fast paced and passionate snapshot of South Africa’s current history. However, its analysis could be stronger in places. Bond relies on underconsumptionist theory to inform his analysis. That is that there is a contradiction between the productive capacity of capitalism and the immiseration of workers which it generates, who cannot afford to buy its products thereby leading to systemic crisis. While this approach has merit, it underplays the ability of the capitalist system to regenerate itself through the production of new products – supply creating its own demand. Consequently economic crisis tendencies tend to be regionally, rather than globally, manifested.

In places the argument appears contradictory, as when Bond argues that South Africa “benefited” from the US African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) much more strongly that other African countries through enhanced trade, while decrying the neoliberal approach on which AGOA is founded.

The decommodification of basic human rights such as “lifeline” water and electricity supplies and access to anti-retrovirals that Bond advocates are eminently sensible and just. However economic growth could facilitate such expenditures, whereas ineffective economic delinking a la Zimbabwe would bring the worst of both worlds – a contracting economy and worsening social conditions. Bond argues that controls over capital are just as applicable in Zimbabwe as in Malaysia. However, the empirical evidence would suggest otherwise. Issues of state capacity and state-society linkages are of critical importance in managing a more interventionist economic regime.

Part of the global social justice movement’s problem is that it hops from place to place, meeting to meeting rather than creating alternative infrastructures of politico-economic power. Consequently Bond seems to favor a more localist turn; not overthrowing the capitalist mode of production, but the scale at which it operates. However, South Africa’s economy is now growing strongly and there was substantial employment creation in 2005/6. As Alan Hirsh argues in an important book, Season of Hope, also published by University of Kwa-Zulu Natal press, the South African government has combined a variety of policy approaches, rather than just adopting a straightforward neoliberal one, which may be partially responsible for this turn-around. However, much of this growth is driven by Chinese and American deficit financed demand, and its sustainability is open to question.

This book deals with some of the most important issues facing South Africa. It is engaging, and packed with information and insight. It draws on both journalistic reporting and heavy hitting academic analysis, combined in a way which perhaps only Patrick Bond can, having straddled both of these worlds. As such it represents another valuable contribution to the literature on South Africa, although covering some of the same ground as Bond’s other books on South Africa. His most recent book on Looting Africa deals more explicitly with continental issues and is itself an excellent read. 

Pádraig Carmody
Dublin City University
, Ireland