Affirmative Action in South Africa: Synthesis Essay

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In this essay, I will argue that, though I agree with Harris and Scully (2015), and Ferguson (2015) that the project toward new forms of social welfare systems should emerge, I still insist that this project can only be attained when the South African state introduces new and upcoming graduates to the historically established affirmative action policy. In the first section, I will present this by providing a summary of Silver's (2003) and Arrighi, Aschoff, and Scully’s (2010) understanding of cheap labor as a necessary course of action to drive the capitalist machine and capital mobility is destructive for workers’ growth; although they focus on different acts of labor. This provides the basis for my argument. I will do so by describing Silver’s (2003) engagement with the race-to-the-bottom and labor internationalism debates. Furthermore, I will present Silver’s argument that working-class resistance emerges wherever capital is located. Moreover, I will outline Arrighi et al. (2010)’s argument of accumulation by dispossession. In the second section, I will present Harris and Scully's (2015), and Ferguson (2015)’s criticisms of social assistance programs; and in turn emphasize the significance of social welfare systems that prioritize all members of society. Accordingly, I consider that social grants benefit some groups over others.

Silver (2003) engages with respectively the race-to-the-bottom debate and the quest for a global labor revolt debate, to understand the dilemma faced by the working class across the globe.

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In the race to the bottom debate, Silver (2003) cites a number of authors who argue that the relocation of assets has impaired the working class's bargaining power, causing a positive impact on capitalists and globalization. In this manner, the workforce across nations is compelled to compete amongst each other to survive the conditions set forth by the capitalist systems. Hence, compromising the power that the workforce could potentially possess to negotiate their conditions for employment with employers. Another debate suggests that capital flows have disregarded the government’s ability to make informed decisions on behalf of the working class and on behalf of the companies (Silver 2003). This implies that the government will lose international financial aid if the government requests corporations to minimize the rate at which they enter domestic markets. At the same time, this also suggests that the working class will continue to cause an uprising if the government requires the working class to continue working under the conditions set by the corporations. Lastly, within this domain, it is argued that there has been a shift in the way work takes place from the conveyer belt system to a “standardized mass production” system (Silver, 2003). This is a result of globalization.

In contrast, the new labor internationalism debate suggests that the working class across the globe has similar interests. In this debate, Silver (2003) cites scholars who argue that, on the one hand, the state’s autonomy is limited because the employers’ desire to universalize labor only strengthens the alliances amongst the working class beyond the peripheries of their countries. This disregards the state’s role as conflict exists between employers and employees. On the other hand, it is argued that the state’s loyalties should lie with the workers. This will give the workers an upper hand in persuading the state to create programs that will benefit their cause because workers will be pushed into a corner to turn to the government for protection (Silver, 2003).

In comparison, Silver (2003) attempts to understand the relationship between capital mobility and labor resistance. She argues that capital mobility is a bi-directional relation that has effects on both the conglomerates and the workers (Silver, 2003). In turn, she argues that capital mobility has only created a cycle of new resistance occurring amongst the working class, strengthening their bargaining power; and ensuring businesses lose profit (Silver, 2003).

By comparison, Arrighi, Aschoff, and Scully (2010) claim that the historical and forceful removal of farm owners has had negative economic implications for the development of workers in South Africa. According to Arrighi et al. (2010), historically, capitalist accumulation depended on the dispossession of land. Accumulation by dispossession meant that land in the reserves was restricted to Africans (Harvey, 2003 as cited in Arrighi et al., 2010). This brought about overcrowding of the population and the overharvesting of crops in the reserves. This resulted in land degradation, and land taxation was imposed on the marginalized population. Therefore, one was forced to work in the city to pay for the tax.

Using the L-A-W model, Arrighi et al., (2010) explain that there have been contradictions in making South Africa a better place; instead, the dispossession of land has aggravated South Africa’s potential for economic, political, and social growth. The scholars argue that during apartheid, accumulation by dispossession led to the growth of international investments in South Africa. This resulted in “political stability” and a more established white-collar working class amongst white people; thus, accumulation by dispossession created income inequalities in favor of the white working class (Arrighi et al., 2010: 426).

In the same way, due to the debt incurred by the Apartheid state, Arrighi et al. (2010) assert that neoliberal policies were implemented (in the post-apartheid era) with the hope of achieving South Africa’s developmental goals under the newly elected party -the African National Congress. These neoliberal policies, namely GEAR, were intended to improve the lives of South Africans by addressing unemployment and providing basic social services (Arrighi, 2010: 428). Nevertheless, by virtue of poor planning and execution, the policy deteriorated South Africa’s economic condition. This led to unrest amongst citizens and the working classes. Although Arrighi et al. (2010) do not say directly, they imply that the state’s autonomy is greater in creating industrial action and more socioeconomic inequalities.

On the other hand, yet, Harris and Scully (2015), and Ferguson (2015) argue that southern states need to develop outside of northern region ideologies. This is their alternative strategy in the unfolding of social grants. It is through these strategies that labor can take place outside of the capitalist mode of production.

Harris and Scully (2015) note that in the post-war era, states in Third World countries hoped to grow alongside or rather in the same way First world countries achieved prosperity, leading to their powers to alter compete in, adjust, and enter markets of the world and of the underdeveloped countries This was known as the growth first ideology (Harris & Scully, 2015: 419). It was, therefore, encouraged that growth policies of the advanced countries should be implemented by states of underdeveloped countries. However, much to their disappointment, these growth policies only led to negative consequences for the citizens.

Similar to Arrighi et al. (2010), as mentioned above, Harris and Scully (2015) reject Rostow’s system which emphasized that the coercion of farm workers into proletariats was an essential move toward economic growth (Harris & Scully, 2015: 420). This system turned subsistence peasants into wage workers through the commodification of agricultural land. As such, the work done in the home had to be refocused towards producing for the market through agriculture (Harris & Scully, 2015). This process would only take place through state intervention (Harris & Scully, 2015). In this manner, farms were commodified to drive the capitalist machine.

They further critique the southern region states adopting the same welfare system (used by the northern countries) to improve the lives of those working in the rural areas, hoping that they could achieve the same results. Amongst other problems, labor-intensive firms paid higher wages to those already in the labor market and therefore could not accept new working classes because of the limited wage labor class size (Harris & Scully, 2015). This forced people to seek informal forms of labor (outside of the rural areas) to sustain their lives- which southern region states fostered as they failed to provide secure work for all.

To undo these errors of neoliberalism, states turned towards social welfare programs and grants as a form of decommodification of economic and social life. Nonetheless, this form of social protection was not as beneficial as the states would have liked to believe.

Thus, borrowing from Peter Evans’s developmental state model, the scholars maintain that it is in the working classes that progress will take place (Evans, 2010 as cited in Harris & Ben, 2015). Rather, they argue that we should move towards a developmental welfare state that caters to the needs of all citizens. For example, these grants and social programs are aimed at solving the poverty and unemployment crises, but they do not address how individuals, such as graduates (who have become new members of the working force), can benefit from them. In the context of South Africa, for instance, yes, there have been programs under the South African government to reduce unemployment such as the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA). The NYDA aims to give the unemployed youth the necessary skills that will assist them to enter the labor market, but what guarantees do those skills have as competencies and job descriptions evolve and/or become obsolete because of the demand and supply dynamics in the labor market?

In the same manner, Ferguson (2015) rejects the contestation that social programs foster patriarchy within the mode of production. With reference to South Africa and Latin America’s social grant system -primarily- providing aid to women, the disabled, and children; the arguments presented state that these programs feed into the notion that men are the providers of the families. Hence, the common view is that men should contribute to capitalism and society by selling their labor for wages, and by extension, they are not ‘privileged enough’ to receive free social income; whereas, women are seen as the crux in contributing to the economy through their traditional roles in the household (Ferguson, 2015). By virtue of that, women receive social income. Ferguson (2015) further critiques these arguments which suggest that the welfare programs are symbols of patriarchy, they emphasize and enforce society’s expectations of these groups. Firstly, in coercing men to work, they label them as strong and “able-bodied” enough to carry through the mode of production; and the acceptable explanation for the men to receive grants is if they are medically deemed unfit by the state, i.e. disabled (Ferguson, 2015: 42). Secondly, by categorizing women as the targets for the social grants, leans towards conceptualizing women as ‘weak’ (especially physically), ‘emotional’ to carry out the processes of capitalism.

In this manner, Ferguson (2015) argues that it is erroneous to limit men to these grants as they have earned the right, as the social grants are fruits of their labor (although this idea isn’t recognized by capitalists). Consequently, Ferguson engages in debates on the political implications of social welfare. To some extent, he argues that social grant programs are a temporary solution to unemployment and precarious work. Consequently, he argues that cash payments should be taken as shares, which are dividends paid to the social collective. This is based on the value of common resources such as minerals in mining (Ferguson, 2015). He claims that it is a progressive response to distributive politics. Ferguson states that the welfare society is produced when capitalists buy labor power and produce and sell commodities at higher prices.

Ferguson (2015) argues that we are focused on this moment of production and this is the way social welfare is accommodated. He states that the Marxists and the Left tend to see the strength of the working class in the point of production as the key face where the social welfare system can be challenged (Ferguson, 2015). The frame which Ferguson is addressing is that, in a country like SA, we should focus on workers as workers deserve more because they produce the goods (Ferguson, 2015). Hence, we should broaden the range of resources that are cast into circulation to produce the wealth of society, and therefore all societies should have some claim on how these resources are distributed. By simply concentrating on distribution, this form of politics could be equally progressive and equally transformative.

One argument is that institutionalizing this form of distribution has many positive effects on investment and efficient production. For instance, by granting the same amount of money (that capitalists reinvest) to the lower classes, these individuals are more likely to invest it in establishing new small businesses.

However, in as much as these social grants are a temporary solution, it cannot be ignored that social grants have aided individuals meet their basic needs, such as paying electric and water bills, taking children to school, etc. In addition, grants increase the labor supply. Supposedly, instead of solely depending on the state to provide income, individuals are actively seeking employment with cash payments.

Thus, Ferguson (2015) makes a more radical and controversial argument. He argues that there is an alternative way of thinking about the need for labor and the way in which the workforce reorganizes, but which divorces from the narrow compounds of capitalist wage labor.

Although I agree with both Harris & Scully (2015) and Ferguson (2015) to a point, I cannot accept their overall conclusion that we have to separate ourselves entirely from capitalism. I think that it is impossible. For centuries, capitalism has been the dominant and the driving force behind the mode of production- that is the relationship of labor power as a commodity for the owners of production, and to an extent, land dispossession. Above, I have highlighted that these social grants exclude the youth. Consequently, in today’s society, the focus should be on adding graduates- the unemployed youth with qualifications- to the affirmative action policy. Historically, affirmative action was implemented in South Africa to redress the discrimination in the workplace against black, Coloured, Indian men and women; white women, and people living with disabilities (Grossett & Hills, 2003). It is to be implemented by all businesses. By extending the list of beneficiaries, the re-evaluated affirmative action policy will compel companies to train graduates and teach them the skills that are in demand through internship, apprenticeship and leadership programs. This will assist the youth to stay up-to-date with the competencies. Increasing their chances to find employment based on the demand of the labor market.

Nonetheless, this approach could have the following weaknesses. Such programs are not measures to secure the candidates (the graduates) secure employment. More so, based on an organization’s high expectations, only top-performing candidates are selected. In addition, companies cannot select every candidate due to their limited resources and/or office spaces. Consequently, as a result of company competency standards, these programs exclude candidates who have the capabilities to participate in the initiatives.

To conclude, this essay has established that in the debates Silver (2003) captures, intellectuals agree that capital mobility has produced a one-sided relationship between workers and conglomerates. Nevertheless, she insists that capital mobility has produced a bi-directional relation, causing an upsurge of unrest across the world, and diminishing the powers of international investors in cities they settle in. Likewise, Arrighi et al., (2010) indicate the same pattern stems within South Africa’s context through the dispossession of land and the failure of the South African state to control these labor movements. Silver (2003) argues that capital moves across and beyond nations to find cheap labor. Whilst Arrighi et al. (2010) argue that the privatization of farms obligated individuals to seek work in the city, to produce for capitalist machines. This adverts to the movement of labor within the nation, from province to province ascribable to the restrictions to reserves placed by land laws against the marginalized race.

These ideas give rise to the commodification processes that Harris and Scully (2015), and Ferguson (2015) address that emerged from neoliberalism. In their discussions, southern region governments should challenge and transform capitalism through politics of distribution and welfare-first developmental states. These approaches will reconstitute how the processes of labor will take place without capitalist interventions; leading to advantageous results for societies. Yet, my own view holds that social welfare systems cannot guarantee employment stability for the youth; rather businesses can fill the gap of scarce skills for South African graduates through an amended affirmative action policy.

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Affirmative Action in South Africa: Synthesis Essay. (2023, October 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from
“Affirmative Action in South Africa: Synthesis Essay.” Edubirdie, 09 Oct. 2023,
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