Capitalism and apartheid

Many political analysts of South Africa have seen in the Afrikaner based National Party the political representative of landed interests with the mainly British United Party and the more radical Progressive Party being concerned largely with the mining and industrial interests. This view has usually been developed along the negative line, of what a capitalist-orientated party would not do. It is suggested that since apartheid, the acclaimed ideal of the Nationalists, would be disastrous for the economic prosperity of South Africa in today’s industrial and viciously competitive world, it could not possibly form the policy of a capitalist party.

True as this statement is, it is only of minor relevance to present political realities in South Africa. Firstly it should be noted that fully fledged apartheid (separate self-governing states for each of South Africa’s ethnic groupings), is treated by the National Party in much the same way as the Russian Communist Party treats communism. It is an ‘ultimate’ aim which stays far from achievements, whether the year is 1948 or 1970: a conscience absolver whose only practical evidence is a scattering of Bantu reserves constituting one seventh of South Africa’s territory in the worst and most backward areas.

The National government proves as well as anyone the impossibility of reconstituting the old tribal institutions amongst Africans in the reserves, for they have long since been smashed through the combined effects of military conquest, Christianity and urbanisation. It makes no attempt beyond social discrimination to constitute the Indian, Coloured, Malay or Chinese derived sectors of the population into self-sustaining territories. The situation is well summed up by this extract from the 1967 Unesco report on apartheid.

“In spite of the ideology of apartheid, in spite of the uprooting of thousands of families, the complete separation of peoples into tribal ethnic groupings in South Africa has proved impossible. The closely integrated economic structure. the location of all the major industries, ail the mineral wealth, all the important harbour facilities, and all the best arable land in that part of South Africa which was outside the reserves in white ownership, meant that Africans — as well as Coloured and Asians —remain dependent on the town and farming complex of White South Africa for a livelihood . . . In fact, whatever the stated policy of the Government, there has been an increasing number of Africans admitted to urban areas.”

While early Afrikaner nationalism could be more easily attached to the interests of a land owning farmer class distinct from mining and industrial capitalists, drawing as it did nearly all its support from the country districts or plateau land, this is not the case with the National Party variety. The Nationalists certainly captured the plateau land vote, but their rise to power really came through the impetus from the urban working class.

In particular the Thirties depression, together with a severe drought which drove thousands into the towns looking for jobs, in competition not only with the skilled British workers but also many industrially trained non-Europeans, provided the political base from which the National Party grew. These Afrikaner workers carried with them many of the out-dated customs and political prejudices of the country and incorporated them into a political ideology which grew from the discipline of urban industrial life.

Once established, the National Party was able to detach quite a large section of the British working class vote that had formerly gone to the racist Labour Party. Electoral pacts were made between the two organisations and the first National Party government relied for its power on the balance held by the Labour Party members. Having used the Labour Party to get into the seat of power it then discarded it. The Nationalists had the racism and anti-capitalist slogans of the Labour Party; the Unionist and later the United Party had its British patriotism, so the Labour Party quietly faded away, having nothing better to offer.

The British industrialists have long supported, vocally and financially, the United Party rather than the Nationalists and the latter have made propaganda of this among both urban and country workers, but this in itself does not brand the Nationalists as anti-capitalists in the general sense. Afrikaner nationalism saw itself being attacked on two fronts. Firstly, by the colonialist interference of British imperialism and secondly, by the opposing nationalisms of the African and Indian. To deal with the first it was seen as essential to build up a strong industrial South Africa, and to deal with the second to develop apartheid. Here was the Nationalists’ dilemma, for the first policy inevitably came into conflict with the second. The result was a compromise of sorts; strict apartheid was thrown out, but there were increasing measures of social discrimination in housing, health and political rights.

Having said that the National Party is not establishing strict apartheid, which would be disastrous for industrial development, it still remains a fact that policies pursued by the regime have not helped the development of South Africa’s industrial potential. In particular they have, through a combination of Pass laws, segregation in residential areas, repression of trade unions etc., bolstered with state power the system of migratory labour. This system was common during early industrialisation, but unusual and highly unsuitable to the commercially complicated and automated structure of modern capitalism. Such a structure requires a trained, disciplined and reliable work force and this can only be approached where workers are permanently resident in urban areas, settled in their family relations and having the inducement to involve themselves in industry. The migratory labour system prevents this by herding workers together in all male compounds, or male ghettos, by denying them political right in urban areas, and by turning their attention back towards their small patch of land on the reserve. The result, as H. R. Barrows has explained, is that:

“Though the traditional structure of the African family and tribal life is disintegrating because of its inadequacy when brought into close contact with the developing exchange economy with its implicit wage system, its breakdown is being protracted by the system of segregation and migrant labour. The social disadvantages of sudden disruption have been avoided at the cost of delaying specialisation. As a result, there is to-day no self supporting peasant economy, no permanent agricultural labour force, and no stable urban population.”

Labour turnover in South African industry is enormous, compared with similarly industrialised areas elsewhere in the world. The Tomlinson Commission recorded turnovers of 117 per cent in a period of ten months in Johannesburg around 1948 and Sheila Van der Horst a figure of 138 per cent in East London generally, with 600 per cent in the building industry around 1957.

The National government is committed to the further industrial expansion of South Africa, but it is hampered by an out-dated political ideology, which it can only enforce by a massive system of state repression. It is a capitalist party since it governs a country completely dominated by capitalism, and a long way from the agricultural economy of the old Boers. Afrikaner farmers have themselves invested in industry, merging more and more into a common capitalist class, and there has been a significant growth in state corporations, and state financed industries under the Nationalists. While the removal of all racial barriers in employment and political rights might well advance industry in South Africa tremendously, such a course should not necessarily be expected in the immediate future. Further repression might lead to a bloody revolt, yet it may well be the fear of the existing native white ruling class in South Africa of such a revolt that causes them to support National Party policies. Capitalism would not fall through such a revolt but the existing capitalists might well be turfed out. Even the United Party is aware of this and has retained from the days of Smuts’ leadership a less rigorous policy of “separation” of the different ethnic groups. Only the now dissolved Liberal Party has openly demanded a multi-racial society, and in this they have only really represented the hopes of foreign capital for a greater field of exploitation in South Africa.


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