Regulating credit: tackling the redistributiveness of neoliberalism

Monday, 18 February, 2013 - 15:00

Presented by : 
Deborah
James

South Africa found itself on the front pages of the world’s press in 2012 when police shot and killed 34 miners during a strike by rock-drillers at the Marikana platinum mine. Horror was expressed at the authorities’ use of lethal force and at how this echoed earlier killings in the apartheid era – most notably those at Sharpeville. But underpinning the episode was an opposition rather different from the earlier one, in which the politically disenfranchised were faced down by officers of an authoritarian state. Attempting to identify the character of this opposition, the initial condemnation was followed by a spate of analyses. Among these was the revelation by several newspaper reports that the miners, not necessarily in the lowest pay bracket, had unsustainable levels of debt. An additional feature making this doubly burdensome, indeed intolerable, was the manner in which their numerous creditors were ensuring repayments. In what has become a characteristically South African phenomenon, miner’s pay, automatically transferred into their bank accounts at month end, was being transferred out of these again with equal ease by those to whom they owed money. Shortly after payday, many of them simply had nothing left to live on. The Marikana killings, then, were at least partly about economic rather than political disenfranchisement.

Affecting many others in South African society, and over a much longer timespan than this particular episode suggests, the problem of indebtedness has tended to be framed in terms that individualize, isolate and call people to account as ‘consumers’, rather than uniting and leading them to group action, labour organisation or solidarity as ‘citizens’. This suggests that there is something characteristically neoliberal about the phenomenon of indebtedness as manifest here and now. But, as the eventual worker activism demonstrates, it ended up translating into terms that were solidaristic, confrontational, and ultimately political. There were in fact strongly political aspects about the way the ‘debt problem’ was framed from the start: albeit one embedded in a sphere in which the market had begun to hold sway.

Paper: 

PDF icon James2013.pdf

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