The economy on your doorstep by Ayabonga Cawe

The economy on your doorstep by Ayabonga Cawe

Reviewed by Gumani Tshimomola | Amandla 76 | June/July 2021

I could not have picked a better spot to immerse myself in a book that tells unique economics stories from experiences, hopes and aspirations of people. These people are often viewed as numbers, variables in modelling and segments of statistical reports. I’m on a wooden bench, on a patio facing scenic mountains of Amathole (individually named Hoho, Geju, Mbozo and Beke’ umtana) in a village called eSinyannduleni, Lower Rabula Village, in Keiskammahoek, an hour from King Phalo airport in kuGompo (East London). This is after travelling on the N2 from East London to King Williams Town, past Fort Jackson Industrial onto Dimbaza, some kilometers outside King Williams Town, on the R63 that goes all the way to Prieska in the Northern Cape. Places Ayabonga brings to life vividly.

When I picked the book at OR Tambo airport, little did I know that much of what I will read in the first chapter is about the Eastern Cape. Some 20 meters in front of where I was seated is a cattle kraal, and further down are rolling hills with scattered villages and cattle roaming open fields. A picture of an entire untapped economy on the doorstep of many families, with the potential to socially reproduce a different future.

The book is divided into three parts: confronting and overcoming the native reserves, scribbles on money, people and power, and socially reproducing a different future. Parts two and three present various exciting subjects. But part one challenges the economic discipline by reminding us that ultimately economics is about people, lives, hopes and aspirations. Four things that appears to have been overtaken by modelling, statistical data and a finance capital biased curriculum at institutions of higher learning. The challenge is a phenomenal contribution in political economy literature that activists, researchers and policymakers will do well to bear in mind. 

Wittingly, the book traverses intersectional areas of economics, politics, public administration, sexuality, gender and race in a manner that demonstrates historical continuities and makes practical proposals to reimagine the relationship between consumption, production and accumulation that is human-centric. Many scholars in contemporary political-economic literature tend to overlook continuities that laid the foundation of South Africa’s economy from colonisation, interwar periods, the great depression, apartheid, and the post-apartheid era. These continuities include the deliberate transformation of South Africa’s society through violence, land dispossession and dehumanisation of Africans to create an endless supply of labour through reservation wages – the lowest wages workers will be willing to accept. Ayabonga demonstrates this vividly. 

Indeed, the process to produce a different future will need us to reimagine our geographic, social and economic as well as gender, race, and ecological relations that prioritise people’s overall well-being. To do this, Ayabonga, through his book, has demonstrated the need to study rural areas, particularly former homelands. This will involve paying attention to all components that make linkages, flows and backflows in the economy. It will involve locating households, communities, firms, infrastructure and overall value chains to leverage comparative advantages for each of the former homelands. 

At the core of the book are nuanced, practical and implementable interventions that will see the discontinuities of migrant-labour systems that tend to drive young people to informal settlements in Johannesburg, Cape Town and eThekwini metropoles. Proposed interventions further demonstrate the need to bring to finality the land question. 

Equally important is the state’s role in building decentralised infrastructure that links homes, communities and sites of production and consumption in a manner that localises economies. This should include leveraging state procurement to reinforce a reimagined economy on millions of people’s doorstep. 

This poses a serious question to South Africa’s fiscal policy and the division of revenue that allocates state resources across priorities and to different spheres of government in the face of austerities. Unless we move in this direction that repositions local government, we will continue to see gains for capital finance in the metropoles while millions of people continue to live in hunger in former homelands.

Ayabonga presents a well-argued, cogent and much-needed intervention that balances the role of the state and private sector in the economy. Reimagining a society that will make economies in Comfivaba, Ga-Mphahlele, Nongoma, Giyani and Dimbaza and those in Mazule’s co-operative in Kwa-Bhaca viable, as Ayabonga puts it. 

Gumani Tshimomola is Chief Researcher for EFF Parliamentary Caucus and a doctoral student at Wits University
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