Searching for the Missing Link in Economic Development: Productive Relations Under Stress in South Africa

Tuesday, 12 July 2016: 15:00
Location: Hörsaal 48 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Lotta TAKALA-GREENISH, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
Nicolas PONS-VIGNON, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
South African workers toil under precarious and often dangerous conditions for very low wages. Yet, these workers are at the core of accumulation and value creation, although their role is conceptualised as one of cost within frameworks focused on productivity and competitiveness. A closer investigation reminds us that the engine of capitalist development rests on the conflict between workers and capitalists around the extraction of surplus value. This tension is to be seen in the context of underlying structures and nature of demand, not reduced to questions of supply and cost. Understanding the productive relations and the form of interaction between production and consumption is fundamental to developing alternative economic insights. Drawing on the insights of Amsden (1997), Seguino (2007) and Selwyn (2012), we explore the agency of labour in production in order to deepen the understanding of capitalist development.

The paper draws on empirical research in two labour-intensive sectors in South Africa, forestry and clothing. These highlight the varied, changing and adaptive nature of the labour-capital struggle. Clothing, textiles, leather and footwear contributed 60-80,000 jobs and ~8% of GDP in 2013. During the same period, the forestry sector employed some 165,900 people and contributed ~1% of GDP. Employment structures have been changing with a rise of outsourcing and informal employment, reproducing the marginalisation of labour. While economic theories make assumptions and conclusions about labour and the production process, these are usually at the passive end of transformations in capital accumulation. There is a gap in understanding the actual features and dynamics that take place in what Marx referred to as the ‘hidden abode of production’. A more nuanced understanding of the labour process, the distribution of power, and nature of worker organisation in production is fundamental to developing alternative conceptualisations of the relations between supply and demand.