This article is based on a talk I gave on October 27, 2012, at a conference hosted by the Los Angeles branch of the International Socialist Organization. It is part of a series:

Africa banner encoreFrom colonization to apartheid

Resisting white rule, 1946-1976

Soweto 1976

The mass challenge to apartheid

Aftershocks of the miners’ revolt

South Africa broke into world news on August 16, 2012, with the police massacre of 34 platinum miners. They’d been on a wildcat (i.e., an unauthorized) strike in the northern town of Marikana. The attack also wounded 78.

The massacre was reminiscent of earlier famous massacres from South African history. But those were attacks by white supremacist rulers defending their privileges under the apartheid system. This time it was Black people giving the orders, and Black people pulling the triggers.

The miners stuck with the struggle and won a 22 percent wage increase, way ahead of what other platinum miners have received under the established union that’s closely tied to South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC.

The strike at Marikana was not the first strike in South Africa’s mines this year [2012], but it has touched off a surge in strikes that has spread to gold mining and other sectors, including trucking. In a bigger context, South Africa strikes are part of a wider wave of struggles over wages in Africa, including other southern African countries such as Malawi, Namibia and Swaziland — as well as Egypt and Kenya to the north.

I’ll take up the politics of South Africa’s current struggles toward the end (in posts to come), but I want to spend most of my time on the the country’s background of struggle. That’s a history of many strands of resistance to regimes of white oppressors, resistance that finally achieved Black majority rule 18 years ago, in 1994.

Only by looking at this background can we start to answer a central question about South Africa today: How can the political ascendance of the Black majority exist side by side with levels of social inequality that are just as great as under apartheid? The background is also crucial to understanding the current dynamics of struggle.

The circumstances that spawned apartheid

To start getting a handle on South African history, it’s useful to look at some things that make the country special within Africa:

1) It was colonized a long time ago;

2) It’s very rich in minerals;

3) The minerals are key to explaining how the working class came to be a big factor in the resistance to white rule.

First, about colonization. In 1652, the Dutch arrived near modern Cape Town, in the west of modern South Africa. That area was dominated by the Xhosa people. The Dutch settled to become farmers, and later became known as the Boers, which means “farmer” in Dutch. They imported slaves from other colonies and forcibly took land from the Xhosa. This makes South Africa unusual on the continent, most of which wasn’t colonized by Europeans until the late 19th century, and even then, not as a program of settlement.

Over time, the settlers’ ties to the home country loosened, and they developed their own variant on Dutch, Afrikaans, with new words, some new grammar, and a significant shift in pronunciation. Afrikaans is now the most widely spoken language in South Africa. Most of the whites speak it, and so do the mixed-race people known as Coloured.

Cape Town was a globally strategic location at the southern tip of Africa, and Britain seized it in 1806. The Boers spread out to the north and east. They gained their new strongholds by fighting their way through territory that was controlled by the Zulus.

So that’s the first thing : well-armed, long-term colonists, first the Boers and then the English. They both became indigenous populations, although the British kept closer ties to the home country than the Boers did.

Then came the discovery of diamonds in 1867 and gold in the 1884. This was in the areas dominated by the Zulus and the Boers. The richest deposits were around modern-day Johannesburg and Soweto, and reaching north toward the Limpopo River, where Marikana is.

The discovery of the minerals gave rise to several important events. One was the immigration of more white people. Another was a new drive against Africans to get them off the richest land. And third was warfare between the British and the Boers, which the British finally won after the turn of the 20th century.

So that’s two of South Africa’s special features: (1) a sizable naturalized white population, and (2) a source of massive mineral wealth.

Those two features give rise to a third key feature of South Africa: the growth of a Black working class.

Somebody had to dig the gold and diamonds out of the ground, and it wasn’t going to be white folks as long as they had the guns. There were some all-white operations in the gold rush, but for the bigger operations, Blacks were used — so the Black industrialized wage workforce goes back about 130 years. (Wage labor on white-owned farms goes back even further.)

In order to create a wage force, the whites had to draw Black Africans into a cash economy. Otherwise they’d just continue to live by hunting and herding and farming. It wasn’t just brute force that drove them off the land. Whites also began to levy taxes on Africans, which forced them to sell their produce to raise money. Many took temporary work in the mines and on white-owned farms in order to pay the tax.

This was the origin of the practice of splitting men away from their families to do wage work. It’s also the origin of pass laws, under which Blacks were required to carry papers saying they had the right to be where they were — as if they were immigrants. With the pass laws came the idea that Black people really belonged in rural areas — to which they could be expelled when work dried up. Later, under official apartheid, these areas became known as “tribal homelands,” or more derisively, the “bantustans.” (Bantu is a language group that includes most African languages spoken in South Africa.)

The legal precursors of the bantustans were the black “reserves” established by the Natives Lands Act of 1913, 35 years before the formal advent of apartheid. The reserves comprised just 7 percent of the country’s agricultural land, although Blacks made up about two-thirds of the population. The new law prevented Black Africans from owning land in white areas or residing in white areas with out proof of white employment — a clause that effectively converted Black sharecroppers into waged employees. The Boer-controlled Orange Free State had already imposed similar legal restrictions in 1876.

In some ways, the reserves resembled the Indian reservations established in North America in the same period. There’s a difference, though. Native Americans were driven off the best land and marginalized both economically and politically. South African blacks were pushed off of choice land and marginalized politically, but as wage workers, they stood at the center of the South African economy. So they always had leverage in white society that Native Americans have not.

More than anything, it was a question of relative numbers. In North America, the natives were decimated by war and disease, while South Africans were healthier and remained a majority. So wage workers in North America were white, and slaves were Black. But given their numbers in South Africa, wage workers were mostly Black — while slaves came in several different colors.

I’ll digress some more to mention the demographics today. The population has risen from about 5 million in 1904 to 50 million today, but the racial proportions are about the same as before:

Blacks are about 70 percent;

Whites are just under 20 percent;

mixed-race or Coloured people are just under 10 percent;


Asians are about 3 percent — mostly Indians, who are concentrated around Durban, a major port city that faces the Indian Ocean.

So we’ve gone through some of the key developments that set the stage for the racist system we know as apartheid: a white population of indigenized settlers that dominates a Black majority; the growth of wealth from mineral discoveries; and the creation of a politically disfranchised Black working class.

Next I’ll make a quick point about colonial relations before I turn to the nature of African resistance. South Africa attained British dominion status in 1910, which was a step to full independence in 1931.

Colonies are outposts that are set up to extract the wealth of a country and send it back to the mother country. The economic significance of the growing separation was that more and more profits from South Africa began to stay in South Africa. These profits formed the basis for a diversified industrialization and the further growth of the working class. I’m talking about a trend from 1890 to 1940.

At the same time, while white South Africa accumulated capital, it never become self-sufficient for it — it didn’t have quite enough capital, and the quality of investment tended to be low. Advanced techiques generally have come from foreign investment, a factor that became important in the struggle against apartheid and since the end of apartheid in 1994.

African resistance

Now Iet’s turn to resistance. In the early 19th century, Shaka (1787-1828) established the Zulu Kingdom, principally through military incorporation of neighboring peoples. In Shaka’s lifetime, whites did not encroach significantly on Zulu-controlled territory, which was northeast of the Xhosa and white areas around the Cape. In the decades after Shaka’s death, however, whites moved aggressively into the northeast. The Zulus put up a formidable, but ultimately unsuccessful, armed resistance to the advance of white forces.

Shaka Zulu in 1824, the only known drawing

Shaka Zulu in 1824, the only known drawing

Zulu conquest, which included forced relocations and massacres, had already put the region’s tribal structures under stress. Tribal connections are built on kinship relations — not just biological relations but socially-constructed kinship categories that specify where each person fits in the social fabric. With the defeat of the Zulus, white hegemony intensified the upheaval in the relations among Africans, because the massacres and dislocations continued. Over the years, the drive toward wage labor also played a role, because tribal affiliations can start to break up when people migrate toward centers of wage work and became parts of multi-ethnic workforces.

Whites, of course, tried to set tribes against each other, both in warfare and in the workplace. So the white rulers eventually found an interest in preserving and rigidifying tribal distinctions.

One method was to prop up and pay off traditional leaders in the hope that they would push the tribe or ethnic group toward conciliation with the whites. If suitable stooges couldn’t be found among the established chiefs and elders, the whites would invent new “traditional” leaders to do the job, setting them up with enough money to establish a following based on patronage. The whites developed and refined this strategy, especially in the 20th century, when “tribal” stooges of the apartheid regime ruled over the bantustans.

It was the whites, therefore, who tried to systematize tribal relations and tribal distinctions. One bit of ideology that they foisted on the Africans was the idea that one person could speak for the entire tribe, which is not generally the way that tribes work. Another bit of ideology was that the tribes were racial groups of fixed membership, each with distinct abilities and temperament that came from biology. The encroachment of capitalist property relations also changed the tribes’ connection to the land, as each “tribe” was assigned its own fixed territory. None of this reflected how tribes operated before European colonization. Where tribal relations govern society, tribes can migrate, overlap, fuse together, split apart, and evolve technically and culturally.

In actual practice, “tribal” connections did continue to evolve — under white rule and despite white attempts to rigidify them — as Black Africans adapted their mutual relations under the pressure of new social circumstances. It was “a process,” as Michael Chege put it, “in which Africans were creators of their new identities, not the hapless tools of colonial exploitation.” As a result, it was not a foregone conclusion whether the new “tribes” would conservatize Black Africans or serve as rallying points for resistance. Nevertheless, capitalist development, urbanization and white minority rule all promoted self-identification by the broader categories of class, “color” or nation, even where so-called tribal affiliations persisted.

“Tribal” connections were probably the most weakened among the urbanized Black middle class. This was a small group, mostly lawyers and other literate professionals and functionaries. They often had close connections to white society, even though they weren’t welcome in it. Their own racial exclusion reinforced an identification with the Black majority. This is the kind of group that had formed the Indian National Congress in 1885, which established itself a lobbying group for democratic inclusion — and thought of itself as the government-in-waiting, because they felt they were the society’s natural superiors.

One hundred years ago, in 1912, members of this relatively elite African stratum founded the South African Native National Congress — precursor to today’s African National Congress. They took the name from the Indian Congress, with which it shared similar ideas and social prejudices. The ANC did represent an advance in a couple of ways, by asserting that (1) Africans were capable of re-establishing Black rule, but that (2) Africans could only succeed by organizing as a national force, not as separate tribal forces.

In the first decades, the ANC developed in parallel with — and in relative isolation from — the development of working-class struggle and class organization. There was also a tiny white working class. From the 1920s to the 1940s, both Black and white workers asserted themselves on the job, although they were segregated into different workforces.

In the 1920s, the Communist Party was founded as a white organization with a slogan of, “Unite and fight for a white South Africa.” They later cleaned up their act and became the leading multiracial force on South Africa’s left.

South Africa took a major leap in industrialization in the two decades following full independence in 1931. The rulers’ strategy for development is known as import-substitution industrialization, in which the state promotes domestic industry and protects it from foreign competition with methods such as subsidies, tariffs, guaranteed prices and access to cheap inputs.

This is the time — the 1930s and 40s — of a major influx of Blacks into industry, while the mines were also still expanding. The number of urbanized Blacks grew by more than a third between 1936 and 1946. Looking ahead, we can see that the Black manufacturing workforce grew to 800,000 by 1951, then to 1.6 million by 1976.

The advent of apartheid as a system

White politics took a major shift in 1948 with the victory of the National Party. They’re also known as the NP or the “Nats” — which sounds a lot like Nazi, and that’s not really an accident. The NP was based among the Afrikaners, as the Boers were now known, and it launched a campaign to systematize racial segregation and discrimination by writing it into sweeping legislation. In fact, they simply borrowed whole chunks of Nazi laws on race.

The system came to be known by the NP’s campaign slogan of “separate development,” which in Afrikaans is “apartheid.” As we’ve seen, apartheid didn’t happen all at once. Many features of apartheid were built up through previous efforts to control the Black population and, specifically, to regulate Black labor. That includes that the idea Blacks belonged in scattered tribal homelands, so they could be treated as foreigners who needed passports to work anywhere else. It also includes a system of tribal authorities who owed their power and fortunes to the white-controlled state.

After 1948, the program of apartheid extended local practices to a national scale and kept inventing new features to deal with new challenges. Some of it was just nutty. Apartheid laws mandated separate drinking fountains and bathrooms, just as Jim Crow did. But apartheid also segregated the blood supply so the blood of different races wouldn’t mix.

One important detail was a policy of providing white schools with about ten times the funding that Black schools received — a special irritant that stimulated student struggle. The disparity in schooling was part of a broader scheme to coopt working-class whites by guaranteeing a them a high standard of living. Black miners lived in wretched hostels outside the mines, while other Black workers lived in sprawling shantytowns on the outskirts of the cities. (Millions still do, of course.) White workers lived in the cities along with the other white classes, in houses with running water and electricity.

There were two measures in particular that discouraged white workers from identifying with or uniting with Blacks. One was occupational segregation to go along with residential segregation. They didn’t work the same jobs. If they did work alongside one another, the white guy drove the garbage truck, and the Black workers heaved the garbage cans. The other key ingredient in maintaining division between white from Black workers was the disparity in living standards. White wages were so much higher than Black wages that white workers, not just the white middle class, could afford Black house-servants.

This degree of racial polarization ruled out any anti-apartheid strategy that called for Black and white to unite and fight. Some white workers did defect and join the resistance on an individual basis, but that was not something you could expect white workers to do in any great numbers.

The main features of apartheid were laid out in the early years, but it wasn’t a static system. The regime needed to keep changing the way it managed the workforce — partly in response to new waves of resistance.

Next: Resistance in the first three decades of apartheid. – – – – ->

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