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Without the blanket of the land: agrarian change and biopolitics in post–Apartheid South Africa

by The Journal of Peasant Studies, Andries Du Toit in 2018
This paper explores the contribution of critical theory to the understanding of the agrarian roots and the political consequences of inequality and poverty in South Africa and stakes out an agenda for future exploration and research. It argues, firstly, that an appreciation of the significance and consequences of agrarian restructuring can be enriched by considering not only Marxist agrarian ‘political economy’ but also the analysis of welfare capitalism and distributional regimes, and Foucauldian accounts of biopolitics and governmentality. These allow us to link an understanding of the socio-economic dynamics of ‘jobless deagrarianization’ with an account of the incorporation of landless black people within the South African social and political order. The replacement of the ‘blanket of the land’ in Yako’s poem by the order of money and commoditised relationships had implications, not only for the relations of production, but also for contestations about the nature of social citizenship in South Africa – and the arts of government that could give effect and content to such citizenship.
Secondly, it argues that this research agenda, focused on an understanding of the connections between agrarian change and biopolitical incorporation, can help situate contemporary South African arguments about land politics in a more fertile terrain. Public debates about the stakes and direction of land reform in South African are generally framed in terms that render them unproductive and sterile, partly because they are divorced from the realities of agrarian change over the last three decades, and partly because the land issue is bound up with larger unresolved questions about the meaning and nature of South African citizenship. This paper is written in the hope that a theoretically enriched approach can help liberate land and agrarian policy debates from the ‘agrarian’ ghetto within which they are so often caught, and can illuminate the connections between the dynamics of rural livelihoods and agro-food restructuring and broader debates around democracy, government, and political modernity. I begin by briefly raising some questions about land reform politics in present-day South Africa, and the disconnections between these and other domains of political debate. I then summarise some insights from scholarship on the political economy of agro-food restructuring, and consider how these can be complemented by theories of welfare capitalism, distributional politics and governmentality. The next section indicates how these approaches can illuminate key features of change in twentieth century South Africa. This is followed by a summary of salient aspects of post-Apartheid biopolitics as seen from this viewpoint, and the identification of key areas for more research. Finally, I consider some of the broader political implications of the ‘thwarted biopolitics’ of post-Apartheid South Africa.