Review: ‘Prisoners of the Past’ by Steven Friedman

In his new book, Steven Friedman argues that the political settlement that ended apartheid and ushered in majority rule left intact a deeply unequal economic system that continues to exclude millions of black South Africans.


Image : Charles HB Mercer/

Author Steven Friedman begins Prisoners of the Past with a paragraph that reads: “In one of those polarised arguments which are typical of South Africa political debate, a quarter-century of democracy has either changed everything – or nothing. Both views are right and both wrong.”

In many ways, this is the crux of this intriguing book. Friedman, a research professor attached to the Department of Politics in the Humanities Faculty, University of Johannesburg, is a political scientist and former trade unionist who specialises in the study of democracy.

But if you were expecting a dry, academic tome, you would be mistaken. His narrative is clear, concise, and free from the complicated terminology that mars many academic books.

An exclusive club

The common, conventional view is that post-apartheid South Africa enjoyed an all-too brief period under the enlightened presidency of the saintly Nelson Mandela. This era was followed by the dour and learned Thabo Mbeki, before Jacob Zuma’s tenure characterised by “state capture” and accusations of high level corruption.

Friedman is clear. “The Zuma administration did great damage,” he writes. “But corruption did not disrupt an economy and society that worked for all. Rather, corruption was a symptom of the fact that they worked for far too few.” 

He asks us to view South Africa in 1994 as a country whose economy and society were controlled by an exclusive club comprised of only white people.

Since 1994, the club has taken on new black members – but it remains an exclusive club because many cannot gain admission and most of the new members lack the same power and privileges enjoyed by the old ones.

Friedman offers the view that the black majority were not duped into accepting this reality, but that it boiled down to one simple fact: that the goal of the new order agreed upon was that the new democracy would offer to all what was previously only enjoyed by whites under apartheid. 

Path dependence

It is here that Friedman introduces the work of the economist Douglass North (and his followers) and the concept of “path dependence”, in which decisions presented to people are dependent on previous decisions or experiences made in the past. 

North, an American economic historian whose work on institutions won him the Nobel Prize in 1993, uses this term to explain why societies can experience political change but remain fixed upon an economic path.

Friedman argues that the economic and social developments post-apartheid had their roots in the pre-1994 realities of minority rule, a system that 30 years of ANC rule has been unable to tear down. 

In recent years, Nelson Mandela’s decision to prioritise a peaceful political transition from apartheid over a potentially disruptive economic one has come under increasing scrutiny, not least from those on the left of the ANC and the socialist Economic Freedom Fighters. 

Friedman says that the settlement that ushered in majority rule left intact core features of the apartheid economy and its bifurcated society. The economy continues to exclude millions from its benefits, while discrimination on the basis of race has proved difficult to shift.

Retained colonial values

Friedman contends that while the obscenity of apartheid is discredited, “the values of the pre-1948 colonial era, the period of British colonisation, still dominate. Thus, South Africa’s democracy supports free elections, civil liberties and the rule of law, but also continues past patterns of exclusion and domination.”

Friedman writes perceptively: “At no point since majority rule was achieved has the governing party developed a strategy clearly designed to end path dependence. While mythology assumes the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) was the planned antidote, it was not a coherent plan for a new order.” 

The author argues that the most workable means of ending path dependency’s negative consequences is negotiated compromise between the holders of power and those that seek it, those with a stake in the patterns of the past and those with an interest in ending them.

Friedman insists that the RDP, pioneered in 1994 by Mandela’s government, was not the radical charter that myth held it to be, nor the radical charter that South Africa so desperately required.

Fudged compromises

He makes the claim that since the ANC’s return from exile, its economic policy had undergone significant revision as its strategists (primarily Trevor Manuel, South Africa’s first black finance minister, and Tito Mboweni, who would become governor of the Reserve Bank and also a finance minister) sought to soften radicalism to ensure that it did not drive away investment.

Indeed, Friedman says that “By the time the final version [of the Reconstruction and Development Programme] became ANC policy the RDP was more a fudged reflection of internal ANC compromises than a call to a new order.

“Before it became government policy, the RDP was again subject to negotiation, which ensured that the White Paper was even less a blueprint for radical change than the already watered-down ANC version.”

Friedman aligns himself with the work of Harold Wolpe, a lawyer, anti-apartheid activist, and friend to both Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo, who wrote a critique of the RDP and argued (in the last article he published before he died in 1995) for the need for renewed negotiations as a means to escape the trap of path dependency and make a clean break from the old order. 

Until negotiations take place on a fairer and more sustainable economic dispensation, many believe South Africa will remain trapped by the inequalities of its brutal past.

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