Dependence, discipline and the morality of consumption: an intellectual history of the SASOL project

Presented by Stephen Sparks

Date: 
Monday, 4 November, 2013 - 15:00

The privatisations of state corporations in South Africa were the local instantiation of the global rolling back of public spending and state intervention which came to be regarded as one of the defining features of ‘neoliberal’ policies. After the formation of OPEC and the 1973 oil shock, the “Keynesian class compromise of national capitalism” hit serious snags, via a perfect storm of rising unemployment and inflation (‘stagflation’).  In this crisis ‘neoliberal’ ideas about privileging the energies of the ‘free market’ over state intervention and cutting back public spending grew increasingly influential and appealing. The application and precise explanatory value of ‘neoliberalism’ as an analytical category for understanding South Africa’s recent history has been called into question of late. Breckenridge has noted that while the National Party dominated state stepped back from its “demiurge of the economy” under the influence of Thatcherism, “this was a Thatcherism that embraced the market…in theory but in practice spent lavishly on military equipment and policing, and ran up massive amounts of debt.” This apparent gap between theory and practice – and the selfsame spending pattern – was also characteristic of ‘neo-liberalism’ under Thatcher and Regan. Similarly, as many commentators observed, advocates of ‘neoliberal’ ideology like Thatcher emphasised the importance of saving, frugality and discipline at the personal and state levels and railed against ‘permissiveness’, but their legacies included the elevation of cultures of personal enrichment and credit-fuelled consumption to hegemonic status. Any definition of ‘neoliberalism’ must surely grapple with this fundamentally paradoxical characteristic of actually existing ‘neoliberalism’.  In this spirit – drawing inspiration from the suggestive analyses of the shifting sands of identity at the intersection of class and consumption under apartheid by the likes of Hyslop and Grundlingh – this paper analyses correspondence drawn from SASOL’s archive and the South African National Archives, as well as interviews, to construct an intellectual history of the SASOL project from its birth as a state corporation through to its privatisation, paying particular attention to the ways in which the discourses of company managers change over time.  It is a story which other scholars and SASOL’s own managers have told in far too simplistic a fashion. Discussing the removal of certain SASOL specific state protections in 1994, Verhoef is too quick to claim that the company “had established itself as a private enterprise long before that.”  This is the view which SASOL and its managers are keen on propagating, and it is too simplistic.  My paper looks at the initial steps taken by SASOL managers and the state to provide the project with extraordinary support to ensure its economic viability. The project was heavily dependent on the state from the beginning, and I show how after initially being fairly unapologetic about this dependence, SASOL managers became increasingly defensive about it. I argue this relates in some important sense to their subscription to an idea of selfsufficient masculinity, in which dependence is regarded as potentially compromising. I tentatively suggest that some of this specifically gendered defensiveness is related to these managers starting to think about themselves as business men who self-consciously insisted that in spite of state support and the fixing of the fuel market to SASOL’s advantage, they too were subject to the allegedly disciplining effects of the market. During the 1960s the company expanded successfully (though not without some resistance from the national Treasury) into the wider chemical industry. The economy boomed; Anglo and Afrikaner capital became increasingly interpenetrated; Afrikaner nationalism began to lose much of its purchase, and, as Albert Grundlingh has shown, with an expanding Afrikaner middle class, sumptuary codes underwent considerable change.

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