1960s >> 1960 >> no-669-may-1960
The Tragedy of South Africa
Of the total population of South Africa (estimated in 1958 at a little over 14¼ millions) the Africans numbered about 9¼ millions, the Europeans 3 millions, the Coloureds almost 1½ millions, and the Asiatics (mainly Indians) something like half-a-million. Such ingredients are more than enough to make a rare “devils brew” of race prejudice and discrimination.
The Whites are, of course, only a minority of the population and the whole coercive power of the State, whether expressed in discriminatory laws or in actual armed repression, is directed to preserve the supremacy of this minority. The White man in South Africa is not only afraid of the economic competition of ‘the African: he is even more afraid that one day, perhaps, he will be thrown out of the country altogether.
In South Africa, segregation is the rule. Apart from the segregation which exists in the towns in the form of “Black Belts,” to which the Africans are severely confined under penalty of the law, millions of Africans are kept on the rural Reserves where they derive a miserable living from the land, or are exploited as agricultural labourers by the White farmers. What most of the Whites would really like, in their heart of hearts, would be to, see the Africans kept out of the way altogether on Reserves. But there is one overriding factor which prevents this—the need, of South African industry for more and more African labour-power.
This labour power is in constant demand, particularly in the gold and diamond mines which are the foundation of the country’s industrial economy. In spite of all the White man’s dreams of complete segregation, large numbers of African workers are constantly on the move between the towns and the Reserves and the White farms. Even before the War this demand for cheap labour-power was becoming so acute that considerable numbers of African workers were recruited from neighbouring territories, including Portuguese East Africa. In such ways does economic necessity triumph over racial discrimination and make nonsense of the White man’s talk about segregation.
Almost all these African workers are unskilled for the White workers monopolise the skilled jobs and jealously safeguard their privileges. As in the United States, so bad did economic conditions become in South Africa before the War that the Whites even began to infringe upon many of the so-called African occupations, but during the War things changed. Industry developed rapidly and the demand for skilled workers became acute, to such an extent that the White Trade Unions and the employers agreed that certain of the semi-skilled trades should be handed over to the Africans.
Africans are, nevertheless, precluded from membership of the White Unions and have been compelled to form their own. These Unions are not registered and are technically illegal organisations. Every difficulty is put in their way, their bargaining power is small, and it is not surprising that as a result the average wages of White workers far exceed those earned by Africans. On the Reserves the position is even worse, for although the Africans own their own land and are nominally independent, the White employers rely on their abject poverty, reinforced by specially-aimed taxes, to force them off the Reserves and into industry. With this poverty, whether on the Reserves or in the towns, are to be found all the usual accompaniments— bad housing (bad is an understatement) and all that goes with it, overcrowding, lack of sanitation, disease and malnutrition, and a heavy mortality rate. Over all hang the humiliations, degredations, and cruelties of the Pass Laws.
So far as the Coloured people are concerned their economic conditions are little better than those of the Africans, and in the country their position is perhaps worse. They face particularly strong economic competition from the Africans and have also to compete against the lower-paid White worker. In general, their conditions economically have tended to become worse instead of better, and even the few privileges they once enjoyed in other ways—such as their voting rights in the Cape Province —have recently been taken away. In the other Provinces, of course, they never had any such rights to be taken from them.
The Asiatic part of the population are mainly the descendants of Indians originally brought into South Africa to work on the sugar plantations of Natal. Many have since found their way into other occupations, particularly as traders and independent farmers.
Unlike the Natives, they have shown a marked aptitude for business, have actively competed with the Europeans, and as a result have managed to acquire a considerable amount of land and property. Naturally, this has not pleased the European capitalists, and, to put a stop to this development, the Natal Housing Authority can now step in and purchase property in European areas rather than allow it to fall into the hands of non-Europeans (which means Indians).
We are not interested in such misfortunes, whether they be of European or Indian capitalists, but this does provide an excellent example of the manner in which race arguments are used purely and simply to bolster up economic interests. The Europeans in South Africa justify their treatment of the African on the grounds that he is backward, uncivilised, and intellectually incapable of reaching the same status of the White man. When it comes to dealing with the Indian, however, who can play the Europeans at their own game and make a success of it this argument is conveniently forgotten. They drop all pretence at theoretical justification, they cease to talk about White superiority, and proceed to have recourse to the law, exposing at the same time the fallacy and expediency of their racial arguments.
As far as the White population is concerned, most of their discrimination, however, is directed against the African. The White worker fears for his job and his privileged position, the White capitalist fears for his profits, and both together fear for their place in the country itself. In so far as the Indian encroaches upon their interests, either as capitalist or as wage-worker, to that extent they are also hostile towards him.
Towards the Coloured population the attitude is rather different. Although they do to a considerable extent discriminate against the Coloured group, the attitude of the Whites, at least until recently, is not nearly so hostile towards them as it is towards the two other groups, the Africans and Asiatics. In some industries, Coloured workers are allowed to join the White Trade Unions, and the general economic level of these particular workers is correspondingly higher than most of the others of their group. Segregation is not so marked against them as it is with Africans and Indians. Although, as is natural with all groups against which there is hostility, they tend to keep together, many of them do live in “White areas” without arousing violent antagonism.
The attitude of the Coloured people towards other groups is varied. Some of them arc apathetic about the whole question; others consider themselves superior to the Africans and Indians. There are some who wish to be independent of the Whites as well, from whom they once expected assistance and to whom they used to look for leadership and support. Recent events have no doubt tended to harden this attitude in them.
As for the Indians, discrimination against them has always been severe, and their encroachments upon the preserves of the Whiles are jealously watched. The Indians, in turn, have their own prejudices. Although more readily prepared to do business with the Africans than the Whites are, the Indians differ little in their prejudice towards them.
And what of the Africans themselves, the great oppressed majority? A few years ago, one would still have thought them an inert mass, too crushed by their grinding poverty and their struggle to keep alive to do anything other than accept everything as inevitable. But despite all the obstacles put in their way, they have not been slow to learn. Their tribal life has been broken up, they have been forced by one means or another into industry, they have become an essential part of South African capitalism, and they are ready for change.
What form will this change take? Will the African obtain for himself the elementary rights which other workers have had to struggle for in the past? Or will he be seized by that virulent nationalism which has already seized other parts of the continent and be carried on to other extreme paths? What of the Whites? Are they prepared to continue driving along a road the end of which can only be bloody violence and destruction? Nobody knows.
But two things we do know. One, that no group can permanently hold down another more numerous than itself. And the other, that the interests of all the workers of South Africa—African, White, Asiatic, and Coloured—are one. Until they realise that there will be no end to race-prejudice in South Africa.