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Social reproduction of ‘classes of labour’ in the rural areas of South Africa: contradictions and contestations

by Ben Cousins, Farai Mtero, Donna Hornby, Alex Dubb in 2018


Marxist agrarian political economy has tended to focus on accumulation problematics, which were central in classic debates on the Agrarian Question (Byres 1996), which is understandable given the overall dominance of the logic of capital in a capitalist world. Within these debates, discussion of small-scale agriculture was largely orientated to ques-tions surrounding accumulation (from ‘above’, ‘below’, or in some combination) and their historical or prospective contribution to national development. This concern was key in Africa, given the large proportion of small-scale producers, both before and following national independence, notwithstanding ongoing processes (permanent, non-permanent and cyclical) of urbanisation. A notable theoretical advance was re-conceptualising ‘peasant’ farmers as ‘petty commodity producers’, concentrating the contradictory relations of capital and labour in particular households, enterprises and even persons.

More recently, Bernstein (2010, 110) has argued that the ‘classic’ Agrarian Question has been ‘resolved’ on the global stage (even, and importantly, while remaining ‘unresolved’ in particular national contexts) and is increasingly being supplanted by a gathering general crisis of reproduction for ‘fragmented classes of labour’. A key component of this ‘Agrarian Question of Labour’ is the growing number of rural households in the Global South, whose survival depends on the (direct and indirect) sale of their labour power, but who face mounting, complex and contradictory pressures on their social reproduction.

At the same time, a developing wider literature is placing renewed focus on transcending the dualism between ‘accumulation’ and ‘social reproduction’, as well as problematic analyti-cal distinctions between ‘public’/‘private’ and ‘commodified’/‘non-commodified’ domains. This literature interrogates not only the inter-relation of accumulation and social reproduction (of both society at large and of particular classes) but their mutual constitution (Bhattacharya 2017;Fergusonet al.2016). This is a fruitful area of engagement for Marxist approaches to rural class dynamics in the Global South in general, and Africa in particular, where tensions between accumulation and social reproduction, and their role in localised forms of politics, have long been noted (Bernstein 2010; Gibbon and Neocosmos 1985;O’Laughlin 1996).

This contribution discusses material from two cases in rural South Africa, and shows how land plays an enduring, albeit shifting, role in social reproduction, class differentiation and stratification amidst a wider and deepening ‘fragmentation’ of class realities. The cases illustrate how the contradictions of daily and generational reproduction are both reflected in, and act as vectors of change of, local social organisation and cultural norms.