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Letter: Capitalism and Apartheid

Dear Editors

I would question the claim made in the article ‘Where Mandela Failed’ (Socialist Standard, January 2014), thus:

‘Mandela had to let the big mining corporations operate as usual. They too had in fact been opposed to apartheid as it was impeding the normal operation of capitalism in South Africa. They wanted, and got, a non-racial capitalism.’

I think this is far too sweeping if it is intended as some kind of timeless statement of fact and buys too readily into the liberal myth that capitalism and apartheid were fundamentally at odds with each other (as Merle Lipton argued in her seminal 1985 work, Capitalism and Apartheid) and, in so doing, lends itself to an unduly mechanistic explanation for the demise of apartheid which discounts or downplays the role or political action and human agency – in particular, the township uprisings and the huge costs this imposed on the state.

Like all myths, this particular one has an element of truth in it but what is not sufficiently acknowledged is the other side of the argument. In fact, the big mining corporations – above all, the giant Anglo-American corporation – did very nicely out of apartheid and, historically speaking, were instrumental in pushing for many of the early measures that put in place the migrant labour system, which measures formed much of the legislative groundwork upon which the system of apartheid was later formally erected – like the Native Reserves policy, the Pass Laws and the imposition of poll and hut taxes to force black peasants into the money economy and so make them dependent on employment in the mines. The labour intensive nature of mining required a huge labour force and the corporations worked hand in glove with the state to ensure a steady flow of cheap black labour. Behind the shrewdly crafted image – mainly for foreign consumption, I suspect, and also to safeguard substantial foreign holdings, in the case of Anglo-American, in places like Canada and the US – which portrayed corporations, like Anglo-American, as the valiant and fearless foes of apartheid, these same corporations where involved up to their greasy necks in a cosy incestuous relationship with the racist state in which each saw good reason to cooperate with the other. The state relied heavily on the tax revenues it obtained from the mining companies while, reciprocally, the mining companies benefitted enormously from the racist repression that the state enacted.

As John Summa put it in an article appropriately entitled ‘Anglo-American Corporation – a Pillar of Apartheid’:

‘Anglo-American has an anti-labor history that involves the use of the repressive services of the apartheid security apparatus, as well as its own security personnel, to control and exploit workers. Being the world's largest private employer of black labor and the world's largest producer of gold and diamonds means Anglo is also one of the world's biggest exploiters of cheap black mine labor.’ (The Multinational Monitor, September 1988)

It was pragmatism rather than principle than governed Anglo-American's relationship with the Apartheid state. Its putative opposition to apartheid was more often than not forced upon it by the rise of worker militancy (like the wave of mineworkers strikes in the 80s)– the very thing that you downplay– than by rhetorical commitment to the so called free market. Anglo-American's call for black trade unions to be granted official recognition– like the National Union of Mineworkers– was made, not out of concern for the rights of workers, but out of expediency in the face of unofficial wildcat strikes where a mechanism of negotiation and worker self- discipline was lacking. Ironically this same NUM has become the object of much hatred and contempt among black mineworkers for siding with the authorities in the Marikana miners' strike in 2012 in which police shot dead some 44 miners.

One of the main arguments in favour of the liberal position that capitalism and apartheid were somehow fundamentally irreconcilable was that the latter made for an endemic shortage of skilled labour by restricting skilled and semi-skilled occupations to the minority white population only: the so called ‘colour bar’. The problem with this argument is that, firstly it does not apply so much to industries like mining and agriculture which remained largely labour intensive (although newer mines opened up after the WWII tended to be more capital intensive and this may have lead to some opposition to the colour bar from some of the more progressive mining companies from the 1970s onwards, but certainly not all). The article, however, conveys the impression that it was the mining sector that was in the very vanguard of capitalist opposition to apartheid which, I suggest, is somewhat misleading. Secondly, Oppenheimer himself and others in the white liberal establishment were, as a matter of fact, quite amenable to the idea of retaining the colour bar providing it could be made less restrictive. This was what lay behind the concept of the so called ‘floating’ colour bar which could be raised as and when the need for more skilled labour become more pressing and, indeed, to an extent the government went along with this idea in practice. In theory, this could have gone a long way to address the problem of skills shortages, together with the government policy of encouraging white inward migration from Europe and elsewhere but, of course, other factors intervened which are precisely the ones you have tended to overlook in your analysis.

If there is any merit in the argument you put forward here, and undeniably there is some, it would relate more to the manufacturing sector (and also, to an extent, the high skill end of the larger services sector) rather than the mining sector as such (which along with agriculture, formed the traditional twin bastions of the apartheid economy). Manufacturing became increasingly important in the post war era and it was here that the problem of skill shortages was most acute and obvious. However, even in the case of manufacturing, the relationship with the apartheid state was ambivalent, to say the least. Some branches of manufacturing, such as armaments production, ironically prospered precisely because of the imposition of sanctions against Apartheid. The same, incidentally, could be said of Anglo-American which, because of the pull out of foreign capital– disinvestment was able to massively expand its portfolio of acquisitions bought at knock down prices, including some manufacturing businesses too.

Robin Cox (by email)


Reply: There is no fundamental disagreement here. You make some good points which illustrate well how capitalist interests are often divided and in conflict among themselves, and how capitalist and state aims do not always coincide—Editors.