Steven Friedman talks path dependence at Rhodes University

By Nadim Nyker

On Friday 14 August, Professor Steven Friedman came to Rhodes University’s politics department to talk about path dependence. More specifically, about the contents his recent paper, The Janus Face of the Past: Preserving and Resisting South African Path Dependence.

Friedman spoke about the advantages and disadvantages of path dependence and ways in which we can move forward as a country. He referred to the sharing of wealth in South Africa, as well as the economic monopolization in both the private and public sector.

“When anyone talks about path dependence in a South African context, one is usually lamenting the fact that things have not changed. But I also argue here, the fact that we have path dependence in this country, has ambiguous consequences.”

Friedman went on to discuss the “potential assets as well as potential drawbacks” of path dependence. In his paper he states:

It is becoming clearer that what has happened over the past two decades is not a negotiated revolution but, in the main, the absorption of a section of the black majority into the structures and institutions which once served a minority.

But, if this accounts for the survival of much which constrains the society and subordinates many of its citizens, path dependence has another face, for it also explains the strength of some important democratic features of post-1994 South Africa: the endurance of electoral democracy and continued commitment to the rule of law.

The economic powerhouses in South Africa have lived on in the new democracy and, as a result, the country’s economic landscape has still not been able to cater for the majority of blacks. Friedman emphasised this, “If you look at the Labour Relations Act of 1995, it is in fact the Industrial Conciliation Act of 1924 with black people included.”

Friedman at Rhodes University's Politics department. (Photo credit: Rhodes University)

Friedman at Rhodes University’s Politics department. (Photo credit: Rhodes University)

The South African economy lacks significant economic participation by the majority of people. Where government tries to increase stimulation, strategies like social grants are frequently criticised by the media, who have claimed that they contribute to a culture of laziness, alcoholism and other negative traits.

Friedman discussed how grants are, in fact, rather helping the economy, allowing for economic stimulation and growth and continuing to reduce poverty. There cannot be economic development if there is no money in the hands of the majority to stimulate the economy in the first place.

Friedman addressed the lack of jobs in various industries, including the mining industry, where he highlighted that within the current economic structure in S.A it is impossible for everyone to be employed.

“Those problems of structures that remain are expressions of particular forms of power,” said Friedman. “And therefore, if you are going to change those problems, you need to change those structures of power. The challenge is how we understand the change in power relationships in a way that would enable us to change the ways of the past to cater to all of South Africa.”

Professor Steven Friedman is Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg. He is a political scientist specialising in the study of democracy and is also a weekly columnist for Business Day.

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