Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Apartheid: Divide and Rule (1982)

From the May 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

   Apartheid is essentially a pre-capitalist form of oppression; it is an attempt to impose the colour patterns of a frontier community onto a modern industrial economy. It will never work properly because what the government is trying to separate, the economy keeps bringing together. (Socialist Viewpoint, SPNZ, Sept-Oct. 1981.)
A traditional feature of apartheid has been a legally sanctioned colour bar broadly restricting skilled work to whites. The underlying racial prejudice upon which this was erected can be traced back to the days of slavery, when manual labour was held in contempt by Europeans. The prohibition of slavery in 1834 was a significant factor behind the Great Trek, a mass migration of disgruntled Boers beyond the reach of British jurisdiction. According to Freda Troup:
  The assumption that non-whites were the labouring class had spread across the land with the trekkers. Only in the Cape where Malay Slaves had from early days formed an important section of the artisan community had the colour line between skilled and unskilled worker largely been smudged and ignored. [1]
White penetration of the interior dispossessed many of the original occupants of what had been their tribal land, forcing them into various forms of servitude on white farms. The disruption of the tribal subsistence economy through the influence of tax and trade was intensified by the discovery of gold and diamonds in the second half of the nineteenth century. Vast numbers of Africans were sucked into the burgeoning towns to form a pool of unskilled labour while immigrant uitlanders, mainly from Europe, comprised the bulked of skilled labour in the mines. This pattern of employment reflected the prevailing differences between distinctive cultures—one, technologically primitive and agrarian; the other, advanced and urban-based. In time, however, it became fixed by custom and reinforced in legislation.

In the first decades of this century, another stream of rural peasants poured into the towns: the landless Afrikaner. The devastation of the Boer War, periodic depressions and the shortage of land aggravated by the old Roman Dutch law of inheritance which subdivided farms into units too small to be economic, all contributed to the dispossession of thousands of Afrikaners of their traditional means of livelihood.

Lacking the skills of an urban proletariat and resentful of the wage-depressing influence of competition from low paid blacks, this substratum of “poor whites”, numbering 160,000 by 1923 (10 per cent of the white population), became a thorny political issue. In 1910 the two ex-Boer republics and the Cape and Natal provinces became one state under a single parliament, with the franchise largely (later completely) in the hands of the whites—a prerogative they readily exercised to entrench their privileged position. One of the first pieces of legislation introduced by the new union parliament was the 1911 Mines and Works Act which enforced a colour bar on the mines. The ideology of the Afrikaner farmer was thus transplanted into industry, as indeed were many small farmers themselves:
   A new social and economic frontier had taken the place of the old frontier of land and settlement. Where once the natives were excluded from good land and ample water, now they were kept from skilled labour and high wages. [2]
The mining companies did not in general welcome this intrusion of a backward ideology into the market place. But in their efforts to overcome the restrictions of the colour bar they met with the well organised resistance of the white trade union movement and a South African Labour Party which bitterly opposed the replacement of white by cheaper black labour.

In 1922 this issue came to a head when, following a big fall in the price of gold, employers were compelled to contravene the colour bar and employ blacks in semi-skilled work to cut costs. The strike that followed escalated into open revolt. Trade unionists, communists and nationalist Afrikaners combined under the odd-sounding banner “Workers of the world fight and unite for a white South Africa”. The “Rand Revolution”, as this was called, was mercilessly crushed with the loss of 230 lives. The miners were forced to accept a pay cut and the companies were left free to increase the proportion of cheap black labour, though technical advances enabled many of the jobs open to blacks to be fragmented and reclassified as unskilled work.

Two years later, the unpopular Smuts government which had sided with the employers against the white miners was defeated by a Labour-Nationalist coalition led by Hertsog. In a sense, what the pact symbolised was an alliance between the white farmers and the white working class:
   Cresswell (leader of the Labour Party) devoted his whole political life to ousting the blacks from the mines. Hertsog’s party on the other hand wanted cheap and servile Africans on the farms. The exclusion of Africans dovetailed with the farmers' insatiable demand for labour. This compatibility formed the economic basis of the partnership between white landowners and the labour aristocracy. [3] 
The Pact government represented a watershed in South African history in that employers no longer offered serious resistance to the tightening stranglehold of racism on the economy but concentrated instead on making the best possible use of the system to which they had resigned themselves. Job reservation was vigorously reinforced on the mines in 1926, extended into the emerging manufacturing sector and subsequently set concrete hard over the course of several decades. To counter the possibility of unemployed white workers finding common cause with blacks, a “civilised labour” policy was pursued which gave preferential treatment to, and dramatically increased the proportion of, whites in state run services such as the railways. From 1924 onwards, in contrast to the preceding quarter century of almost continuous industrial turmoil, there were virtually no serious disputes in the mines.

In return for their compliance with these policies the government, which relied heavily on the mines for its revenue (vast sums of which went to subsidise white agriculture), assisted the mining companies in their efforts to hold down black wages and obtain labourers. Indeed an adequate supply of skilled labour which had been a vital requirement of the mining industry became even more so under the Pact government. The colour bar tended to perpetuate the labour intensive nature of gold mining and hence the need for plentiful labour; the sheer scale of mining meant that working techniques and the balance between labour and capital intensity were fixed at the beginning of a mine’s life and could not be significantly altered thereafter. But holding down black wages to such low levels threatened the supply of unskilled labour which was attracted by higher wages and better conditions in manufacturing. However, the mining companies could not raise wages without jeopardising the life of marginal mines (which comprised half the industry) and hence the employment of many white miners. Thus influx control was tightened, indirectly compelling blacks to seek work on the mines or white farms. This still did not ensure an adequate supply of labour for the mines, which operated below capacity in the period 1924-30. Consequently, the mines with government backing recruited extensively from abroad so that by 1973 79 per cent of black miners were foreign contract workers. (Political developments since then in countries such as Mozambique have, however, disrupted this source of labour causing black wages to rise.)

By the 1960s a paradoxical development in the South African economy had become glaringly apparent: an acute and growing shortage of skilled labour alongside high black unemployment (even amongst the more educated blacks). An important factor behind this was the shift away from labour intensive farming and mining industries—the traditional pillars of the apartheid economy—towards the more capital intensive manufacturing industry. This, in turn, placed a growing strain on the colour bar. In 1945 the market value of mining companies was R972m while that of non-mining companies was R754m. By 1965 the positions had been reversed, with the former rising to R3664m and the latter R5399m. Ironically, the government played a vital part in this trend by encouraging the growth of a local manufacturing industry during the war by means of protectionist measures and by setting up various state corporations such as ISCOR (iron and steel) VECOR (heavy engineering goods) and SASOL (oil gas and chemicals from coal). Indeed the development of the mining industry itself was a powerful stimulus for manufacturing.

Growing concern over the economic bottleneck which the shortage of skilled labour had created has led the government’s own Manpower Commission to state recently that “South Africa will not be able to realise its full developmental potential if it persists in attempting to secure its high-level manpower requirements mainly from the white population group”. [4] Political reform had become economically imperative.

The government’s response at first was one of greater, if cautious, flexibility: 
   Inevitably non-whites unofficially—job reservation and colour bar regardless—infiltrated traditional white spheres of employment: coloured postmen, Indian railwaymen, African drivers on non-white buses, non-white clerks and typists. Especially were non-whites more and more to be found doing skilled and semi-skilled industrial work, generally at wages well below the white minimum. “There is no doubt”, commented the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce, “that employers in general are keen to develop the skills of Bantu workers”. [1] 
By 1965 the Deputy Minster of Labour reported that 39 per cent of the economically active Africans were operatives or semi-skilled workers.

Yet still the shortage of skilled labour persisted. Accordingly, the government itself has moved from passively condoning breaches of the colour bar to actively lifting restrictions on the employment of black labour. The Muldergate Scandal of 1977 brought to power a new prime minister, and marked a shift in the balance of power from the verkrampte (conservative) to the verligte (liberal) wing of the ruling National Party and prepared the ground for further liberalisation. By late 1980 Fanie Botha, Minister of Labour, proposed new legislation allowing more skilled job training to be opened to blacks. But despite the evidence of job reservation rapidly crumbling round the edges, there remain big obstacles in the path of this trend that arc essentially a heritage of history.

The first of these is the remarkable resilience of the traditional hostility of whites towards black encroachment of what are regarded as white spheres of employment:
    although the statutory colour bar has been formally scrapped, nine out of ten times it is imposed by closed shop and apprenticeship agreements with white unions and these are still in force. The white unions have been staunch defenders of apartheid, using their muscle to preserve white supremacy and to block the advancement of Africans. [5] 
Nowhere can this be seen more vividly than in the mining industry, described by Freda Troup as the “inner sanctuary of the colour bar”. Recently the Mineworkers Union threatened industrial action if the government permitted blasting certificates to be issued to blacks. This, together with the threat of more whites defecting to the ultra-right-wing Herstigte Nationale Party, which made spectacular progress in the 1981 elections, has forced the government to act more cautiously.

Another obstacle to the disintegration of the colour bar is black education. The Bantu Education Act of 1953 which brought all Bantu education under the control of central government, was defended by Verwoerd on the grounds that the mission schools through which many blacks received their education were unsympathetic to the government’s policies and that:
    By blindly producing pupils trained on a European model the vain hope was created among natives that they could occupy posts within the European community. This is what is meant by the creation of unhealthy ‘white collar ideals’ and the causation of frustration among the so called Educated Natives . . . There is no place for the Bantu in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. [1] 
This discriminatory view of black education was reflected in the allocation of funds. In 1969-70 Bantu education received a mere R39m—a tenth of that spent on far fewer white pupils. Illiteracy is still high and the poor quality of education received by blacks in overcrowded schools lacking in facilities leaves many ill-equipped for work. According to a recent estimate, well over 100,000 jobs are unfilled because the necessary trained workers are not available.

In 1979 and 1980 spending on black education and training rose by 30 and 50 per cent respectively. Such large increases were made possible by the rocketing price of gold, which in the period 1970-80 meant a huge inflow of R3.9 billion into the government coffers. Although the price of gold has since slumped, the ending of South Africa’s apparent seclusion from the world recession has not been seen as an entirely unwelcome development:
   Nationalist politicians are looking to a recession to ease the skilled labour shortage, to reduce the differential of black wages (with the politically sensitive erosion of white differentials) and to stem the flow of urbanisation. [4]
Finally, what will be the consequences of a crumbling colour bar? One area where it is having an effect is black trade unionism, which has become a force to be reckoned with since its resurgence in the 1973 Durban strikes. Increasingly, a high proportion of strikes are being won, partly due to more effective organisation but also because of the penetration of black workers into semi-skilled and skilled work:
  In companies whose black workers are more skilled, unions are often in a stronger position. Companies like Ford in Port Elizabeth and Volkswagen in Uitenhague found during strikes that the option of mass dismissal and quick replacement was not open to them because skilled workers are in such short supply and that “we would eventually have had to hire our own people back”, as one company spokesman said. [6]
More fundamentally, the demise of the colour bar will serve to clarify the class structure in South Africa and to undermine the racial bigotry that traditionally divides its workers. Then shall they begin truly to make history and not be imprisoned by it.

[1] South Africa: An Historical Introduction. F. Troup.
[2] A History of South Africa. De Kiewiet.
[3] Class and Colour in South Africa 1850-1950. H.J. & R.F.. Simons.
[4] The Economist. 19 September 1981.
[5] City Limits. 12-18 March.
[6] New Statesman, 15 January 1982.

Robin Cox

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