Precarious Liberation

Workers, the State, and Contested Social Citizenship in Postapartheid South Africa

By Franco Barchiesi

Subjects: African Studies, Anthropology Of Work, Industrial / Labor Relations, Postcolonial Studies
Series: SUNY series in Global Modernity
Paperback : 9781438436104, 353 pages, June 2011
Hardcover : 9781438436111, 353 pages, June 2011

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations
Preface and Acknowledgments
Note on South Africa’s Racial Terminology


The Promise of Wage Labor in South Africa’s Democratization

The Nexus of Work and Social Citizenship as a Contested Field of Signification

Work and Citizenship in Postcolonial and Postapartheid


Conclusion and Summary of Chapters

1. Redeeming Labor: From the Racial State to National Liberation


“Schooling Bodies to Hard Work”: Labor, Modernity, and the Policy Discourse of the Racial State

The Hopes and Disappointments of an Inclusive South Africanism

Apartheid Social Engineering and the Coercive Enforcement of Wage Labor Discipline

Black Workers’ Struggles and the Redemption of Wage Labor, 1973–1994


2. The Work-Citizenship Nexus of Postapartheid South Africa

Resistance Is Futile: The Governance Project of the ANC in the “New South Africa”

The Changing Face of Precariousness

Building the Patriotic Worker: The Democratic

Constitutionalization of Wage Labor

Conclusion. Disciplining Citizenship

3. Contesting Commodification: Social Policy Debates in the Crisis of Waged Employment

Introduction: Governing in the Shadow of Precariousness

Social Policy as a Technology of Self-Responsibility

“Laudable Citizens” and “Silly Fools”: Work, Families, and the Developmental Social Welfare Idea

“The Wage-Income Relationship Is Breaking Down”:Basic Income and Contested Decommodification

Conclusion: Precarious Employment as the New “People’s Contract”?
4. The Changing World of Work in Gauteng

Introduction: Dreaming of Modernity in the “Place of Gold”

Ity of Industry: The East Rand/Ekurhuleni and the Promise of Work

Economic Restructuring and Employment Decline: The East Rand in Transition

Johannesburg Municipal Workers and the Corporatization of Local Service Delivery

Conclusion: Invisible Workers and the Discursive Production of Postapartheid Spaces

5. Translation Troubles: Signifying Precarious Work on the Shop Floor


Coping with “Something Strange”: The Disappointments of Workplace Transformation in East Rand Factories

New Canaan, New Egypt: Workplace, Community, and Identity among Johannesburg Municipal Workers

“We Feel Sort of Redundant”: Surviving the Flexible Workplace

Entrepreneurs of the Self: Individual Strategies and Life after Waged Employment


6. “Like a Branch on a Rotten Tree”: Recovering Agency after Wage Labor


Commodification and the Reconfiguration of Workers’ Lives

A Future Unlike It Used to Be: Visions of the Apocalypse and Labor’s Politics of Melancholia

The Fog of Activism: Working-Class Agency and the Uncertain Quest for Citizenship Alternatives

Appendix on Methodology

Examines the relationship of precarious employment to state policies on citizenship and social inclusion in the context of postapartheid South Africa.


Winner of the 2012 CLR James Award presented by the Working Class Studies Association

Millions of black South African workers struggled against apartheid to redeem employment and production from a history of abuse, insecurity, and racial despotism. Almost two decades later, however, the prospects of a dignified life of wage-earning work remain unattainable for most South Africans. Through extensive archival and ethnographic research, Franco Barchiesi documents and interrogates this important dilemma in the country's democratic transition: economic participation has gained centrality in the government's definition of virtuous citizenship, and yet for most workers, employment remains an elusive and insecure experience. In a context of market liberalization and persistent social and racial inequalities, as jobs in South Africa become increasingly flexible, fragmented, and unprotected, they depart from the promise of work with dignity and citizenship rights that once inspired opposition to apartheid. Barchiesi traces how the employment crisis and the responses of workers to it challenge the state's normative imagination of work, and raise decisive questions for the social foundations and prospects of South Africa's democratic experiment.

Franco Barchiesi is Assistant Professor in the Department of African-American and African Studies at the Ohio State University. He is the coeditor (with Tom Bramble) of Rethinking the Labour Movement in the 'New South Africa.


"While certain aspects of the precarious liberation Barchiesi so carefully dissects certainly foreclose or occlude liberatory projects, others might open up new possibilities for struggle. Given the brilliant dissection of the work-citizenship nexus provided in this book, that is the task we must turn to in contemporary South Africa and beyond." — Transformation

"A very ambitious and impressive theoretical analysis of employment/waged labor as a signifier of citizenship in a precarious postapartheid economy. A big book, with big ideas." — Kitty Krupat, The Murphy Institute, CUNY

"Strongly grounded in ethnographic evidence and in theory, this important account of post-transition South Africa describes with great specificity a local phase of a world problem. Barchiesi shows how precariousness emerged as a category, without separating it from proletarianization entirely." — David Roediger, University of Illinois, Champaign

"Works to establish precariousness as a theoretical paradigm without sacrificing either concrete focus on the local or historical reach." — Rachel Rubin, University of Massachusetts, Boston

"Franco Barchiesi provides a detailed, critical account of how the discourse and ideology of the postapartheid government cast waged work as a primary source of virtue for social subjects and key to the rights of citizenship, even at a time when employment for the majority of workers is becoming ever more precarious. He adds to this a wonderfully rich ethnographic investigation of workers' views, desires, and fears regarding work, which are complex and at times surprising. Although firmly grounded in South Africa, Barchiesi's analysis is essential for anyone trying to understand and contest the intimate relation between work and governmentality." — Michael Hardt, coauthor of Empire; Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire; and Commonwealth

"In his tour de force, Franco Barchiesi shows how the reduction of citizenship to wage labor, inherited from the struggles against apartheid, has left South Africa's working class defenseless against the neoliberal offensive. Desperation takes over and violence spreads. Capturing disillusionment among subject populations, Precarious Liberation is sure to make waves in the field of South African studies and beyond." — Michael Burawoy, author of The Extended Case Method: Four Countries, Four Decades, Four Great Transformations, and One Theoretical Tradition

"This is an important and impressive book. In a South African context where wage labor has long been taken as the foundation of modern social citizenship, and where the demand for employment has been the touchstone of nearly all progressive politics, Franco Barchiesi upends conventional understandings through the radical act of listening. By paying careful attention to the words, thoughts, and experiences of wage laborers, he allows us to appreciate the way that wage labor today typically provides not stability and security, but rather uncertainty, resentment, and dissatisfaction, leavened with aspirations for escape from a system of labor increasingly built not on membership and solidarity, but on flexibility and 'precarity.' A valuable and original work that can help to open up a broader political imaginary of critique than is currently available, in South Africa and beyond." — James Ferguson, author of Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order

"Precarious Liberation provides a powerful and deeply innovative analysis of postapartheid predicaments, and is destined to become a classic. Focusing on the widespread collapse of formal employment since the early 1990s, Barchiesi sheds new light on the tensions between workers' views of employment as frail and precarious, and official notions of the 'dignity of work' as inextricably linked with active citizenship. Yet he also emphasizes that precariousness is not just a condition of domination and disempowerment, but contains the possibility of alternative imaginations." — Gillian Hart, University of California Berkeley and University of KwaZulu-Natal