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Book review – South Africa’s suspended revolution

As South Africa, a few months ago, reached a very symbolic point in its history, celebrating 20 years since the transition to democracy was completed and, almost at the same time, saw its citizens going to the polls in an election full of meaning, many journalists, scholars and political commentators tried to take stock of the developments the country underwent in two decades and to a look at the foreseeable future.

Few managed to do it with the accuracy and the attention to detail shown by Adam Habib, the current vice-chancellor of the Witwatersrand University: his latest book, South Africa’s suspended revolution is in fact an elaborate answer to many of the questions posed by the current situation to both policy makers and the intelligentsia.

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“I see myself as both an academic and an activist – Habib tellingly writes in this respect in the first page of the book – (…) therefore this book reflects both of these facets of my life”: the acute interpreter of South Africa’s contemporary history and the high profile public figure whose comments are often sought and taken into account by both national and international media. These two profiles are put to use in trying to demonstrate a thesis whose formulation is simple, though when coming to its analysis things prove to be radically different: “individuals and institutions can, with
imagination, act against the grain of a given historical moment and transform
the options available to society”. This means, first of all, that in South Africa’s suspended revolution there is little room – if any – for pure theory and speculation. When Habib engages himself in academic debates, it is always because of the consequences they have on concrete political decisions or because these categories are an useful tool to understand the present situation of South Africa. It is not surprising, so, that the book’s starting point is one of the most discussed events that took place in the country’s political arena in these years: the power struggle between former president Thabo Mbeki and his successor, Jacob Zuma, widely examined in the first chapter.

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On the other hand, the feud that highlighted the differences existing in the powerful national ruling movement – the ANC – is not only taken for what it was at a first glance (a dispute between two powerful political figures, with supreme power at stake). Habib is also interested in what it tells about the trajectory of the whole country in the years that led from the historical election of Nelson Mandela to the “current suspended historical moment”, as the author deems it, borrowing the words of his Witwatersrand University colleague Achille Mbembe.
Making a reference to the founding moments of the South African democracy is something essential, according to Habib. This is clearly shown both in chapter 2 (where he analyzes the deficits in political accountability and service delivery of the post-apartheid state, tracing their roots back to the transitional period) and chapter 3, where he deals with the economic policy of democratic South Africa and the challenges it must currently face. On the other hand, chapters 4 and 5 show the other side of the coin: what can – respectively – businesses and civil society do in order to achieve political goals such as the consolidation of democracy and an inclusive economic growth. The scenario becomes even broader in chapter 7, when Habib looks at what is happening beyond South Africa’s border and at the impact it can have on the country’s overall strategy. The last two chapters must be considered as a whole: in them Habib concludes his reasoning by addressing directly to those named in the first pages: politicians and activists on the one hand, thinkers and the intelligentsia on the other.

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Both the policy programme and the intellectual synthesis of different traditions have a single aim, which is, in Habib’s own words: “[to] outline what is to be done to bring the country closer to the social democratic vision encapsulated in South Africa’s Constitution”.
Generally speaking, two goals are peculiar to the book: first, to bridge the gap between the different approaches of the academy and the policy makers, and second to develop in this way a real alternative to the current political thought and action. The question is whether Habib is successful in both these attempts. As for the methodological one, the answer is certainly affirmative: despite being at times too dense for the average public, the book minimizes the use of academic language and neither of the two “facets” of Habib’s public life prevails on the other. While coming to the second point – the one that is most likely to arise controversy – opinions can actually differ. One reader could see Habib’s attempt to keep a middle way between a mere endorsement of the ruling élite and outright criticism of the ANC policies as an effective way of bringing about change. On the opposite, another might consider, for instance, the proposal of a social compromise as a sort of ‘betrayal’ of the professor’s political left-wing background. Yet, whatever opinion one can have of the vice- chancellor’s ideas, his analysis is certainly worth reading for all those interested in understanding the key factors shaping present-day South Africa and in forecasting some possible developments. (D.M.)

Adam Habib, South Africa’sSuspended Revolution, Hopes and Prospects, Wits University Press, Johannesburg, 2013, 320 pp.

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