Precarious Liberation
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Winner of the 2012 CLR James Award presented by the Working Class Studies Association

Millions of black South African workers struggled against apartheid to redeem employment and production from a history of abuse, insecurity, and racial despotism. Almost two decades later, however, the prospects of a dignified life of wage-earning work remain unattainable for most South Africans. Through extensive archival and ethnographic research, Franco Barchiesi documents and interrogates this important dilemma in the country's democratic transition: economic participation has gained centrality in the government's definition of virtuous citizenship, and yet for most workers, employment remains an elusive and insecure experience. In a context of market liberalization and persistent social and racial inequalities, as jobs in South Africa become increasingly flexible, fragmented, and unprotected, they depart from the promise of work with dignity and citizenship rights that once inspired opposition to apartheid. Barchiesi traces how the employment crisis and the responses of workers to it challenge the state's normative imagination of work, and raise decisive questions for the social foundations and prospects of South Africa's democratic experiment.
List of Illustrations
Preface and Acknowledgments
Note on South Africa’s Racial Terminology


The Promise of Wage Labor in South Africa’s Democratization

The Nexus of Work and Social Citizenship as a Contested Field of Signification

Work and Citizenship in Postcolonial and Postapartheid


Conclusion and Summary of Chapters

1. Redeeming Labor: From the Racial State to National Liberation


“Schooling Bodies to Hard Work”: Labor, Modernity, and the Policy Discourse of the Racial State

The Hopes and Disappointments of an Inclusive South Africanism

Apartheid Social Engineering and the Coercive Enforcement of Wage Labor Discipline

Black Workers’ Struggles and the Redemption of Wage Labor, 1973–1994


2. The Work-Citizenship Nexus of Postapartheid South Africa

Resistance Is Futile: The Governance Project of the ANC in the “New South Africa”

The Changing Face of Precariousness

Building the Patriotic Worker: The Democratic

Constitutionalization of Wage Labor

Conclusion. Disciplining Citizenship

3. Contesting Commodification: Social Policy Debates in the Crisis of Waged Employment

Introduction: Governing in the Shadow of Precariousness

Social Policy as a Technology of Self-Responsibility

“Laudable Citizens” and “Silly Fools”: Work, Families, and the Developmental Social Welfare Idea

“The Wage-Income Relationship Is Breaking Down”:Basic Income and Contested Decommodification

Conclusion: Precarious Employment as the New “People’s Contract”?

4. The Changing World of Work in Gauteng

Introduction: Dreaming of Modernity in the “Place of Gold”

Ity of Industry: The East Rand/Ekurhuleni and the Promise of Work

Economic Restructuring and Employment Decline: The East Rand in Transition

Johannesburg Municipal Workers and the Corporatization of Local Service Delivery

Conclusion: Invisible Workers and the Discursive Production of Postapartheid Spaces

5. Translation Troubles: Signifying Precarious Work on the Shop Floor


Coping with “Something Strange”: The Disappointments of Workplace Transformation in East Rand Factories

New Canaan, New Egypt: Workplace, Community, and Identity among Johannesburg Municipal Workers

“We Feel Sort of Redundant”: Surviving the Flexible Workplace

Entrepreneurs of the Self: Individual Strategies and Life after Waged Employment


6. “Like a Branch on a Rotten Tree”: Recovering Agency after Wage Labor


Commodification and the Reconfiguration of Workers’ Lives

A Future Unlike It Used to Be: Visions of the Apocalypse and Labor’s Politics of Melancholia

The Fog of Activism: Working-Class Agency and the Uncertain Quest for Citizenship Alternatives

Appendix on Methodology



Publié par
Date de parution 01 juin 2011
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781438436128
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 15 Mo

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,1698€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.


SUNY series in Global Modernity
Arif Dirlik, editor

Precarious Liberation
Workers, the State, and Contested Social Citizenship in Postapartheid South Africa

Cover image: still from William Kentridge, Monument (1990); 16mm animated film transferred to video; collection of the artist, courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg; © William Kentridge. reproduced from William Kentridge: Five Themes (2010) by permission of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Co-published for the South African market © 2011 University of KwaZulu-Natal Press Private Bag X01, Scottsville 3209 South Africa E-mail: Website:
Published by State University of New York Press, Albany
© 2011 State University of New York
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission. No part of this book may be stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means including electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
For information, contact State University of New York Press, Albany, NY
Production by Ryan Morris Marketing byAnne M. Valentine
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Barchiesi, Franco.
Precarious liberation : workers, the state, and contested social citizenship in postapartheid South Africa / Franco Barchiesi.
p. cm. — (SUNY series in global modernity)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-4384-3611-1 (hardcover : alk. paper)
ISBN 978-1-4384-3610-4 (pbk. : alk. paper)
ISBN 978-1-86914-215-5 (Univ. of KwaZulu-Natal Press : pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Working class—South Africa. 2. Wages—South Africa. 3. Democratization— South Africa. 4. South Africa—Politics and government—1994– I. Title.
HD8801.B37 2011
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

To my mother, Cesira, the memory of my father, Ugo, and to Miranda, with gratitude

Si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l'autre, vous êtes foutu.
(If you are caught up in someone else's dream, you are lost.)
—Gilles Deleuze, Qu'est–ce que l'acte de création ?

1. Gauteng Metropolitan Area
2. Research Sites for the Book
5.1 Seniority and Job changes of interviewed Workers
6.1 Remittances and Family Support Networks of respondents
6.2 Impact of Social Provisions expenditures on respondents' Wages
6.3 Respondents' housing conditions and expenditures

Map 1. Gauteng Metropolitan Area

Map 2. Research Sites for the Book
I would not have written this book without a ruthless reassessment of the reasons and the myths that brought me to South Africa. Over the past twenty years i have studied the contribution of workers' struggles to antiapartheid popular opposition and the transition to representative democracy. Eventually I realized that my early work, mostly focused on labor organizations and workplace identities, did not adequately problematize the relationships between employment and emancipative politics. In conceptualizing this project I chose, therefore, to look at work and production as objects of contrasting images with which the postapartheid state, labor ideologies, and ordinary workers' discourse represent citizenship and articulate social claims.
Soon after the first democratic elections of April 1994 I moved to Johannesburg, where for six years I have taught in the Department of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand. At the time I was mostly attracted to the triumphs of black workers' struggles, which I had already taken as the subject of undergraduate research in my native Italy. I found the decisive impact of radical class-based mobilization on South Africa's liberation enormously inspiring as an alternative both to labor's slow demise in liberalizing Europe and to its subordination to nationalist regimes in postcolonial Africa. The South African events of the 1980s and early 1990s titillated my early activist and theoretical practices within operaista (“autonomist”) Marxism, which posited the capacity of workers' struggles to shape social relations independently from the dialectics of production and the requirements of organization. The South African labor movement shone as an example of militancy that, originating from the wage relation, subverted and transcended it to ignite a broader revolutionary transformation.
Once in South Africa, therefore, I started investigating black working-class politics by situating unionization within complex and multilayered material, symbolic, and discursive practices. By then most trade unions were clearly aligned with the African National congress (ANC), the leading force of national liberation, which rose to power in 1994 and has held it firmly ever since. A new entity, “postapartheid South Africa,” emerged from majority rule, a liberal democratic constitution reputed to be the most advanced in the world, and the prospect to heal past traumas through reconciliation and human development. As its antithesis the government postulated the “legacy” of apartheid and its challenges, which media and scholarly parlance embodied in specific problem populations grappling with poverty and vulnerability: the rural landless, the urban unemployed, the shack dwellers, the maladjusted youths. Liberal democracy considered these subjects as potentially unmanageable for two reasons: their fiscally unsustainable expectations and their alleged disruptive propensities rooted in a “culture” of entitlement. In official discourse, therefore, work, production, and a morality of personal responsibility heralded the political incorporation of democracy's unruly antithesis despite enormous social disparities. Becoming a worker was supposed to be the purest, most virtuous expression of citizenship. Liberal commentators, social scientists, and leftist critics agreed that “jobs” were the unquestionable solution to the country's social ills. They therefore vilified demands not subordinated to labor market participation and reified the poor's agency into abstract statistical categories—“active” and “disillusioned” jobseekers, structurally unemployed, informal microentrepreneurs, non-working populations—predominantly defined by occupational status.
In 1996 the government adopted the Growth, employment and redistribution (GEAR) strategy, which turned the ANC's developmental agenda toward market-driven globalization. Now in power, the liberation movement shifted its focus from resistance to economic profitability, political stability, and the disciplining of social radicalism. Whereas in the past wage labor had laid foundations for solidarity against exploitation, post-1994 policies reemphasized its status as a commodity and a factor of production responsive to the requirements of national competitiveness. Organized labor continued, nonetheless, to glorify employment and advocate job creation as an avenue to socialism, even if the political hegemony of the ANC translated liberation into a non-class nationalist narrative of progress and modernization. Meanwhile, multitudes of destitute, unemployed, and working poor were left outside decent jobs and the social dividends of democracy and began to articulate their grievances into mounting collective dissatisfaction with the ANC government.
I was then part of the editorial staff of a small magazine, Debate: Voices from the South African Left , busily discussing how, under the imperatives of economic liberalization, a democratic transition can simultaneously enable political participation and constrain the range of claims brought before its institutions. As crucial allies of the new ruling party, trade unions had gained significant political and policy influence precisely when labor and production, which historically underpinned their redemptive discourse, constantly deteriorated and failed to materialize their promises. Black workers continued to question the democratic experiment with insubordinate desires for social justice, but The relationships between production-based identities and political liberation appeared increasingly ambivalent and fragile.
In 1998, with such questions in mind, i started researching this book. Most left and labor supporters of the ANC were then confused by the party's embrace of macroeconomic orthodoxy, and recurrent accusations of “neoliberalism” flew. Amid their acrimonious exchanges, the government and organized labor continued to share, nonetheless, the view that joblessness is the main cause of poverty and that waged employment is the cornerstone of progressive policy responses. My initial hypothesis, on the contrary, somehow reflected the minority view in South African social sciences that employment relations indeed decisively contribute to marginalization and vulnerability. I consequently chose to investigate black unionized formal employees in mostly male occupations, a group that mainstream analyses tended to assume as relatively better-off.
A vast sociological literature has strictly identified the truly disadvantaged in the “new South Africa” with subjects outside the economically active population. My research started to show, instead, that even many wage earners suffered from employment situations that did not translate into once-expected social advancement. Factory workers' biographies

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