Apartheid Falling Apart?
Many of the most obvious superficial manifestations of apartheid have been absent from South Africa for some time. Now a bill to repeal the laws prohibiting “inter-racial” sex and marriage has been placed before Parliament by the ruling Nationalist Party, and seems likely to be passed. The Conservative Party accuse the Nationalists of betraying their own tradition of separate development for different ethnic groups. So is apartheid beginning to crumble and to be dismantled by its originators?
At the same time, the South African state plainly retains its brutal character. On 21 March, police fired at a black crowd in the Cape Province township of Langa. The official death toll in this massacre is nineteen, but unofficial estimates are twice as high. Black trade unionists attending a May Day rally were dispersed by riot police using dogs and teargas. The security laws, which allow for indefinite detention in solitary confinement without trial, have recently been used against members of the United Democratic Front. Striking miners sacked from the world’s largest gold mine, Vaal Reefs, have been forcibly deported back to their so-called homelands. If apartheid is in retreat, it remains a powerful and oppressive force.
These developments must be seen against the background of South Africa’s history and the economic rationale of apartheid. Essentially, apartheid was the culmination of decades of government policy designed to provide a supply of cheap and easily-controlled labour power to the mining magnates and other industrialists of South Africa. The mining industry had become so large so quickly that state intervention was required to provide it with a pool of workers to exploit. In 1904, for instance, miners were imported from China to replace black workers who resisted wage cuts and new technology. A government commission of 1922 made quite clear the conditions under which a black worker should live and work;
he should only be allowed to enter the urban areas, which are essentially the white man’s creation, when he is willing to enter and to minister to the needs of the white man, and should depart therefrom when he ceases so to minister.
It was not until 1948. with the election of the Nationalist Party to power, that the existing pattern of discrimination was strengthened and extended into a fully-fledged system of separate development. Literally, this meant that different ethnic groups were confined to live in different areas. All urban centres and some rural areas are confined to whites, but include ghettoes for Indian and “Coloured” (“mixed race”) populations. Blacks are denied residence in white areas, and are permitted to live only in designated “homelands” or Bantustans, such as Kwazulu and Transkei. These constitute just one-eighth of the land area, though nearly three-quarters of South Africans are black.
Since many people did not originally live in areas “appropriate” to their skin colour, forced resettlement was required. Up to three million blacks, and over a quarter of a million “coloureds” have been forcibly removed to their allotted areas. Even so. by 1980 only just over a half of the black population lived in the homelands. It should be stressed that the homelands are not continuous stretches of territory, but scattered parcels of land, so that South African talk of their “independence” is quite absurd. With no industry or mineral wealth, they cannot possibly support vast populations. As some of the homelands are next to large cities, such as Pretoria and Durban, they provide convenient (for the employer) commuter areas.
When blacks are allowed into white areas it is only on the government’s terms. Blacks are allowed to live in white areas provided they have a job there, but must “return” to their homeland when unemployed. Black people are thus reduced to migrant workers, living most of the year in hostels, apart from their families. Being on annual contracts, they cannot acquire permanent residence rights in the white areas. The pass laws require every black over sixteen to carry a permit stating where they are entitled to live and work: each year, hundreds of thousands are arrested for violating these laws. With abysmally low wages and little trade union organisation, South Africa’s black workers are in a state of miserable poverty.
Apartheid, then, is intended to make available to the South African capitalist class, and to the multinational companies with vast investments there, a plentiful and regimented supply of cheap labour power. White workers have been duped into supporting the system by being given economic and political “privileges” compared to black workers, and by being bombarded by nonsensical claims that blacks are inherently inferior and backward. White trade unions have played a shameful role in keeping black workers in unskilled and menial jobs.
But it is no longer clear that apartheid can deliver the goods. By 1970, the period of boom in South Africa was over, inflation was soaring, and the balance of payments deficit was becoming severe. Black trade union activity grew, and resistance by black nationalist organisations increased. Black workers were no longer as docile as they had been. After the Soweto massacre of 1976, many overseas investors began to see South Africa as no longer a safe haven for their hard-earned resources. The removal of friendly regimes in Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe meant that South Africa was now more isolated than ever. Defence expenditure increased massively, as did the resources devoted to converting coal into oil, as the government became worried about the availability of longterm oil supplies. All this threw into doubt the continuance of the prosperity of the ruling minority.
The South African rulers’ response to these problems has been the promulgation of what is known as the “Total Strategy”. Internally, this has meant some changes in the precise way in which black workers are controlled. Employers have complained about restrictions on the mobility of labour, while another problem they face is a lack of skilled workers, brought about by the inadequate education of blacks and their exclusion from on-the-job training. Blacks can no longer be confined to the role of unskilled labourers: a stable, skilled black work force is now needed. Two recent government commissions of inquiry, those of Wiehahn and Riekert. have suggested changes to the pass law system. More black workers will be granted the right to live in urban areas and to buy houses there (though only a tiny fraction can afford this). Employers can be heavily fined for employing blacks who are residing illegally in cities — which has led to thousands of such workers being peremptorily sacked. But controls on blacks remain, and with them the brutal police means of enforcing them.
The Nationalist Party’s professed aim of removing all blacks into homelands, so that there should come a day when there were no black South Africans at all, shows the “conservative” side of the coin. The “reformist” side is seen in the 1983 Constitution, which allows for a tri-cameral Parliament, involving whites. Asians and “Coloureds”. The black population are of course excluded, and the powerful President is to be elected by whites only. The Conservative Party sees all this as a betrayal of the Nationalist Party’s heritage: in fact, the Nationalists have realised that some kind of concessions to non-white groups are necessary to defuse discontent and allow the system to continue with its essentials unchanged. Chipping away at such matters as segregated buses and the inter-racial marriage prohibition leaves the edifice unscathed. Most importantly, though, the changes in apartheid are to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of the class who run it.
Apartheid clearly produces massive inequalities. On 1976 figures, blacks, who are 71 per cent of the population, had just 23 per cent of the national income; whites, who are 16 per cent of the population, had 67 per cent. But figures of a similar order are to be found in other capitalist countries with no institutionalised racism. Not all white South Africans are capitalists who live off the unpaid labour of workers: most are themselves workers who, though better off than black workers, are still oppressed and exploited. Some blacks have even become wealthy businessmen and landlords.
Black consciousness leaders such as Steve Biko argued that only blacks in South Africa were really workers, since any white, however downtrodden, had something to lose if the system were changed. But if it is not apartheid that is removed but capitalism, all will benefit. And that will require the joint efforts of workers of whatever “race”, everywhere.