The storm following the DA’s new policy of “non-racialism” is a timely reminder of one of the most entrenched of South Africa’s truisms: that poverty and inequality are racialised. The few who question this truism are usually dismissed as either self-protective white racists or, as with the DA, liberals who deny the enduring importance of race. An even smaller number challenge the truism from the Left. The guaranteed response to those who involve economic considerations is the charge of “economic reductionism”; a supposed economic swallowing up in which race remains only as a memory from a horrific past.
There is a way out of this name-calling, of charge and countercharge. While seldom using the term ‘class’, the proponents of racialised poverty and inequality rarely deny the relevance of economic factors explicitly. However, going beyond this acknowledgment of both race and class is extremely rare. The whole complex of the relationship between class and race is consequently not addressed. This leaves the problem of the relative importance of race and class untouched. It’s like saying the human body consists of bones, organs and other muscles, but without saying anything about how they relate to each other or of their relative importance.
These issues will emerge when addressing the fact that, although race is a social construct, it is nevertheless the undoubted, primary, living identity of most South Africans. The obviousness of this reality might explain why it is still to be demonstrated how – and, crucially, to what extent – race is directly responsible for poverty’s black face.
As it happens, South Africa provides a gold-standard measure for testing these questions. In a previous two-part Daily Maverick article – “The Upside-Down World of Racial Capitalism and Black Lives Matter” (Part 1 and Part 2) – I attempted to show who is keeping race alive in non-racial South Africa and why. In this contribution, I offer an outline of the original Racial Capitalism. Although a story of our history, it is often forgotten by those who lived through it and inadequately known by those who didn’t. It is a history that connects the old South Africa to the new by providing a standard against which to measure current claims of the conjoined twins of racialised poverty and privilege.
South Africa before South Africa
The discovery of diamonds and gold quickly led to South Africa becoming the most economically developed country in Africa, by far. But when diamonds were first discovered in 1867 and gold in 1886, South Africa did not exist. In broad terms, neither did capitalism and there was no working class. Diamonds were found in what was then the British colony of the Cape of Good Hope; gold was found first in the South African Republic and then in the Orange Free State, both of which were governed by Boers, the descendants of the Dutch, the first colonisers of the Cape.
The British had the capital to finance the mining of both the diamonds and gold. However, capital is valueless without labour, lots of labour, for the mining was very labour intensive. The mining was also extremely dangerous and the work as hard as it was unpleasant. There was no shortage of young, strong men in these three separate territories. The only problem was that these young men (initially) had no need for money and even less desire to leave their tribal homesteads. Their precapitalist economy provided for their physical needs, together with the enjoyment of the status and authority of their society.
For capital to become a productive force it requires many people who, without either access to or ownership of any means of production, have the freedom of either selling their labour power or starving. Led by Cecil John Rhodes, the then prime minister of the Cape Colony, various laws and measures were taken to force – often bloodedly and always brutally – large numbers of African men to leave their homes and families in order to work the white man’s diamond and gold mines in faraway places. Capitalism arrived with a bang when this enforced creation of a black working class was added to white capital.
We will return to this colour-coding in a moment. First, we must complete this briefest of histories with the birth of South Africa. The arrival of workers produced huge wealth for the mine owners. Ownership of this wealth was contested by the two Boer republics. A war over the spoils was the outcome: the Anglo-Boer War, or the South African War as it is now sometimes called. The war ended on 31 May 1902 after nearly three years of fighting. The British won. They turned their victory into the consolidation of the four territories of South Africa – Natal, also a British colony, being the fourth – into the Union of South Africa in 1910 (also on 31 May). The four previous territories became the four Provinces of the Union. This union gave the defeated Boers, together with the settlers in the former two British colonies, an assured supply of cheap labour for their farms and the various industries that grew out of mining. Various land legislation and practices confined the African population to legal occupancy of only 13% of South Africa. These measures contributed to the plentiful supply of cheap labour for both farms and mines.
Another race through history, this time to cover the period that ends with the formal demise of apartheid in 1994.
The Miners’ Strike of 1922
South Africa provides paradoxes in plenitude. Consider, for instance, the only time in South Africa’s history that tanks were on the streets to put down a workers’ uprising; the only time in our history, moreover, that the state suspended the Constitution to deal with a workers’ uprising; and, still further, the only time in our history that worker leaders were tried and executed for their role in a workers’ revolt. The workers’ battle cry during this episode showed their familiarity with Marxian thinking. Their stirring call to workers of the world to unite showed their consciousness of themselves as members of the international proletariat. They were miners and, as is well known, miners are the very measure of classical and militant workers.
But this unparalleled miners’ strike was singularly different. The impassioned call for unity among the workers of the world was, and I quote, “to fight for a white South Africa”. The full battle cry being: “Workers of the world unite and fight for a white South Africa.”
The cause of this bloody strike was, to recall Fanon’s words: “The first thing the native learns is to stay in his place and not to go beyond certain limits.” But it wasn’t the natives who were forgetting themselves. The strike was caused by capital wanting to use cheap and docile black labour to replace considerably more expensive semiskilled white labour.
The strike was lost. Yet, white supremacy won. The victory was, indeed, to cement colour above class for the next several decades. Still more, it was a victory woven with steel into the entire fabric of South African society until 1994. The strike had dared to threaten white supremacy, which had officially been in existence since the very birth of South Africa. By law only whites could vote. (The anomaly of a tiny number of coloureds and an even smaller number of Africans who did vote in the Cape Province was finally removed in 1952). What became known as apartheid in 1948 did little more than extend and deepen the white supremacy that was embedded in the blood of colonial and then capitalist South Africa.
Notwithstanding their brutal defeat, the white miners won two signal victories, for all white wage earners. First, protection against competition from cheap black workers for any skilled jobs was enshrined in law. It became known as “job reservation”. Second, in acknowledgment of the supremacy of colour, and as a cost of the protection of the privileges accorded to all white people, the capitalist imperative of profit maximisation gave way to the premium paid to what was called “civilised labour”. The very mystique of whiteness was recognised to be threatened by the mere sight of white poverty. The perfectly valid fear was that white poverty threatened white supremacy: the privileges of being white had, consequently, to extend to all whites. Without this, no white person would automatically be “boss”, regardless of their age, in the same way that all black people were unavoidably and perpetually “boys” and “girls”.
Protecting whiteness thus became an obsession. The first of these protections came with the prohibition of miscegenation, which reached its most refined form in the Prevention of Mix-Marriages Act of 1950.
The 1922 defeat of the white miners further entrenched the dominance of mining – now including coal and other minerals – in shaping not only the South African economy but the entire racialised society built on and around that economic base. Cheap black labour was essential for what fast became an industrialised South Africa. But black people were incompatible with white civilisation.
The short-term solution to this fundamental conundrum was to turn as much black labour as possible into migrant labour. An elaborate system was created specifically for black miners. They would come on their own to the mines for specified short periods only; they would be housed in male-only compounds built on the mines specifically for them; and they would return to their rural “homelands” at the termination of their contract.
Other African workers were allowed to enter “white” South Africa only if they had a job and only for as long as they retained that job. “Influx control” was introduced to enforce this movement, with “passes” being issued to each worker as a means of imposing the legislation. To be without a pass in any public place meant instant arrest and virtually guaranteed jail time for all offenders. These work-providing, “temporary sojourners” were housed in special “townships”, located as far away as possible from white areas, factories and shops.
Compounding these problems of needing workers – but not the people who did the work – was the presence of other “races”: people who came from what was then India to work in the sugar cane fields of Natal; plus – particularly and originally in the Cape – people who came as slaves from other parts of Asia; and, finally, coloureds, people of mixed races, mostly involving “white blood”.
White supremacy met these challenges by introducing a hierarchy of civilisations. Whites were obviously at the top of the pyramid and Africans at the bottom. Coloureds, having “white” blood, were ranked next to 100% whites. Indians, probably because they came from India with its recognised-though-still-limited civilisation and, almost certainly because they were relatively few, were placed above the African untouchables.
All aspects of South African life and society reflected this hierarchical colour-coding. The racial pyramid was codified in law and enforced by the police and courts. Public service pay was determined not only by the work done but by the “race” of the worker. Thus, by way of example, teachers’ pay scales differed enormously, depending on which of the four “races” to which they were designated. Outside of the native homelands, where you lived was similarly determined by your race. The Group Areas Act of 1950 gave legal effect to this segregation. The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953 ensured each race received the amenities and services appropriate to the degree to which they were considered to be human.
Bantu education was the most explicit expression of this logic. By 1953, the term ‘native’ was giving way to Bantu. Hence, the Bantu Education Act of 1953. Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, the acknowledged main architect of apartheid, who was to become prime minister (in 1958), was responsible for this act. His reasoning bears repeating, and in his own words:
“The Bantu must be guided to serve his own community in all respects. There is no place for him in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour… For that reason it is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim absorption in the European community while he cannot and will not be absorbed there. Up till now he has been subjected to a school system which drew him away from his own community and partically (sic) misled him by showing him the green pastures of the European but still did not allow him to graze there. This attitude is not only uneconomic because money is spent on education which has no specific aim, but it is even dishonest to continue with it. [It creates the] … frustration of educated Natives who can find no employment which is acceptable to them. It is abundantly clear that [normal] … education creates many problems, disrupts the communal life of the Bantu and endangers the communal life of the European” [Speech as Minister of Native Affairs, 7 June 1954].
With one’s designated race determining virtually every aspect of one’s life, race classification was essential. And not only for each individual. Enforcement of the myriad race laws made it essential. Hence the Population Registration Act of 1952. The act ensured that every single South African was assigned to one of the four races, manufactured to meet the needs of white supremacy.
It was with good cause that apartheid was deemed to be a crime against humanity.
The tortures of empathy
All capitalists everywhere face the same major conundrum: to maximise their profits, they are compelled to pay the cheapest possible wages, as well as reducing all other costs of labour. Yet the workers they must exploit are also people. With rare individual exceptions, we all come to have empathy as part of the defining characteristics of our species. Empathy means we spontaneously see ourselves – our feelings, fears, needs and dreams – in everyone else. Empathy lies behind our morals and ethical systems, no matter what they might be.
Despite all the current talk of diversity, we all have similar ideas of fairness, of justice, of how we expect others to treat us. Moreover, again allowing for a few individual exceptions, we accordingly all have the same need to think well of ourselves. A shared, universal humanity lies behind this empathy, notwithstanding all the different forms it takes.
Not surprisingly, therefore, there is a common solution to this conundrum of the exploited also being people: deny their humanity. This is where diversity truly blossoms. This denial takes innumerable forms. A different language – accent even; religion – with all its different gods and in all its different denominations; country – even region or province of the same country; gender; sexual orientation; football team … the list is endless. Race tops the list in South Africa. The fact that race is a biological nonsense makes not the slightest difference. Most of the people who readily accept that race is a social construction as readily forget this reality in their actual behaviour.
White supremacy in South Africa was made easy for most of the supremacists until the late 1970s and early 1980s. They eagerly held on to the belief that they were superior either by the good fortune of their race or the grace of their gods. Long before this period, however, colour-coding was so ingrained in everything they did, experienced and saw everywhere that the economic origins of the need to deny humanity to anyone not white had either been forgotten or never even understood: Being white gave them natural majesty over everyone else. It was not only their own identity, but one affirmed by the Other, in the classical master-slave symbiosis of Hegel.
A measure of how this symbiosis became normalised is to be found in butcher shops that catered for the wealthy. They provided three grades of meat: meat, dogs’ meat and boys’ meat, with boys’ meat being the cheapest of the three. For women of my mother’s generation, this pecking order was so natural that buying meat for their servants that was inferior to what they gave their dogs was done without even thinking about it. Yet, in other respects, they were sensitive, caring and loving mothers.
An additional dimension to this normality is that these women, who I knew, were Jewish. This meant that, like my parents, they never ceased reminding their children of the 6 million Jews who had perished during the Holocaust because of the Hitlerite denial of Jewish humanity. To my knowledge, boys’ meat remained available until at least the early 1960s.
The horrifying power of white supremacy rested in the complete reciprocity between the exploitation and rationalisations, a harmony that made dehumanisation of Africans an untroubled part of whiteness and the ensemble of privileges it guaranteed.
A challenge: The metrics of racial inequality
What moves race from being a social construction to a material force that cannot be ignored? Whatever it is or however it is mediated, it must materially and substantially shape the lives of everyone deemed to be part of that particular social construction based on a stereotype that cannot allow for exceptions. The binary of white supremacy and black oppression, and exploitation needs to meet these criteria, if the prevailing idea of racialised inequality in 2020 is to be compelling. This requirement needn’t be of the same standard as the original Racial Capitalism, but it must approximate it sufficiently to be persuasive in the coherence of its detail.
At the risk of labouring the point, blackness has two faces in South Africa 2020: one poor, the other rich. What is needed is an analysis based on white racism that simultaneously accounts for both black poverty and black wealth. What is additionally needed is a racialised explanation of how black poverty, bequeathed in 1994 as a product of capitalist exploitation, has survived intact for 26 years under an African-dominated Parliament, government and civil service, and, moreover, done so within a legal system that has both repealed all apartheid legislation and introduced a swath of statutes outlawing all forms of racism.
As an extension of racialised poverty, race as a proxy for disadvantage might seem obvious. The challenge here is to go beyond merely talking about the proxy. What is needed is a race-bound analysis of the how and why. And this is apart from poverty not being defined and, more importantly, that increasing numbers of black people are rich, no matter how defined. Being a proxy, even if only for poverty, is inadequate unless a racialised explanation of the correlation is demonstrated.
What must be emphasised in presenting this challenge is my emphatic affirmation of the fact of racism among some white people. (I say “some” because, to my knowledge, impressions, speculations and anecdotes have flooded the space left empty by the absence of scientific evidence.)
More specifically, my challenge for those who advance the idea of racialised poverty is to demonstrate how the racism of 2020 faithfully reproduces poverty’s unchanging black face from 1994. Should it fail to do so, should it additionally be unequal to the task of demonstrating the racialised societal connection between black poverty and white privilege – of how the one necessarily involves the other – colour can be little more than a confused comprehension of an accurate description.
Race has been most effective – via affirmative action, BEE and a host of supporting legislation – in the creation of Thabo Mbeki’s “black bourgeoisie”, of the ever-increasing entry of black people into the formerly exclusive world of white privilege. Unfortunately, the new South Africa has also created its opposite: a seething mass of poor (made only more visible by Covid-19).
Lost in the attacks on the liberalism of the DA’s now non-racial policy is that its objective is economic justice. It offers a liberal road to the liberation of the tens of millions now being excluded. There is, however, also an alternative offering: a Left one. One that causally links the poverty of most people to the plenty of some.
If racialised poverty and privilege prove to be a confusion, the real debate can begin. Capitalism or socialism? DM