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The New International, May 1935


R. Lee

The Native Question in South Africa

From New International, Vol. II No. 3, May 1935, p. 110–111.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE MOST striking feature of South African social and economic life lies in the coexistence of, and contradictions between tribalism and bourgeois democracy.

The economy of native life is founded chiefly on the exploitation of women, who perform all the labor in the tribune and so acquire a market value as beasts of burden (under the lobola system a wife is bought for so many cows, etc.). All disputes that arise out of infringements of the rights of the tribal patriarchs in the ownership of women, children, cattle, etc., are brought before the chief for settlement, and the chief keeps order among the tribesmen because he possesses by native custom the right to fine any offender against the tribal laws. The cattle received as fines become the property of the chief and are the source of his wealth in the tribe. If he does sometimes give a part of the fine to the injured party, this is an act of grace; he is not compelled to do so. The wealthier tribesmen support the authority of the chief because this is the only means of preserving “law and order” in the tribe; i.e., the only means of protecting their property (women, cattle, etc.), from the tribal criminal (seducer, thief, etc.).

In this way, the chief represents the state power in the tribe, and concentrates in his own person all the functions of the state apparatus: he is simultaneously law-giver, judge and chief of police: he is legislature, judicature and administration all rolled into one.

When the native territories in the Cape were annexed to the British Crown a century ago, the new rulers were faced with the problem of wresting the power from the chiefs and concentrating it in their own hands, and this object was peacefully achieved in a manner consistent with the cunning tactics of the Empire Builders.

The year 1851, a year of drought and famine for the Xosa tribes, was chosen as the occasion for making a most enticing offer to the native chiefs. The British government was to pay the chief a yearly income in cattle equal to the average amount he obtained from fines, and in return for this, the fines were to be paid to the government, whose representative, a magistrate, was to be present in an “advisory capacity” at all trials.

The guileless chiefs were tempted by this offer, all the more so because this year’s income for them in fines was so small on account of the drought. And so they accepted. The magistrates were duly installed in the native courts. It was not long before the chiefs began to lose interest in the tribal cases, since the fines went in any case to the government and they received their salaries whether they attended the court or not. And so gradually they ceased to attend trials and the magistrate became in all but name the chief of the tribe, concentrating in his own person the functions of the state: legislature, judiciary and administration.

In this manner in the succeeding years nearly all the tribes were brought under the control of the imperialist bourgeoisie through their magistrates, headed by the Governor-General. The native laws were codified for the guidance of the magistrates, and the chiefs, having sold their birthright for a government salary, were reduced to the mere figureheads which they are today.

There exists therefore in South Africa today a double system of government: on the one hand we have the bourgeois democratic system with its parliament elected by European voters, and on the other, the tribal system in which the magistrates have usurped the power of the chiefs and rule the native tribesmen by proclamations issued by the Governor-General, the paramount chief of the native people as well as the constitutional representative of the king – i.e., of British imperialism. The connecting link between the two systems is the Native Affairs Department.

But sharply divided though the tribal system is from the bourgeois democracy as far as the political superstructure is concerned, the two are firmly united on the economic foundations, because it is upon the native population in the territories that both the mines and the farms draw for their “labor supplies”. There is a profound and complex economic interaction between the two systems, and thus there arises the fundamental contradiction of South African life: the political division and economic unity of the two systems which in turn gives rise to the ten thousand contradictions that render the South African political and social landscape so bewilderingly complicated to all save those who have learned to employ the Marxian method in disentangling these problems.

In order to get a better understanding of the problems involved, it would be profitable to glance at the history of one of the conflicts that exist today: the Xosa-Fingo antagonism.

When Chaka was building his Zulu empire, the scattered remnants of tribes which he had broken fled southwards into the Xosa territory. The Xosas, themselves hard pressed by the European colonists, slaughtered the refugees as they came, until at last, when the fugitive tribesmen entered Xosa territory, they flung down their weapens, crying “Siyamfengusa!” [We come to serve!] The Xosas “took pity” on them, and they became the slaves of the Xosa patriarchs, and were known as Fingoes (slaves, servants).

In the wars that followed between colonists and Xosas, the Fingoes who naturally hated their Xosa taskmasters, became the allies of the white men, and helped them to wrest a huge stretch of territory from the Xosas. A portion of this was given to them on which to settle, partly as a reward for their services, but chiefly to erect a buffer territory between colonists and Xosas. A bitter feud arose between the two tribes, and with the passing of years the increasingly intense land hunger in the territories has not only kept the feud alive, but has added fuel to the flames.

Into these territories come the labor recruiting agents, and both Xosas and Fingoes are compelled by hunger and taxation to contract themselves to slave in the gold mines. Toiling in the narrow stopes where a man cannot stand upright, harried by kicks, blows and sjambok strokes; fed on a diet calculated to the fraction of a calorie; robbed by their wage being artificially kept at a fixed minimum irrespective of labor shortage; robbed again by fines, illegal deductions and recruiting charges, and robbed yet again by the concession storekeepers; deprived of the society of his women-folk, forced into sodomy and unnatural vice, with syphilis lying in wait, racked and torn by blasting accidents, miner’s phthisis, entombment and sudden death – this is the life of the wage slave in the mine.

Against this background, the “treachery” of the hated Fingo is ten thousand times more abominable to the Xosa. And in spite of the mine officials keeping the two tribes in separate compounds miles apart, in spite of constant mine police watchfulness, there occasionally flares up a faction fight of incredible savagery. Home-made hand grenades are made by filling jam tins with metal punchings and stolen dynamite and fuses, and these bombs explode with devastating effect amongst the enemy. Knives, assegais, bicycle chains and occasionally bullets are used. It is principally for fear of faction fights that such heavy penalties have been inflicted in the past for illicit liquor-selling to natives.

This same story, with variations, must be repeated for hundreds of tribal conflicts. “Old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago” find their echo in heavy industry, ancient tribal grudges are wiped out with modern dynamite bombs. In these contradictions we see, in fact the core of the “native problem”. The imperialist bourgeoisie in this country is compelled as elsewhere to preserve the most archaic systems – in this case tribalism – in order to perpetuate its rule. The pious phrases of the bourgeois, with their “liberal” ambitions to “preserve native culture”, to shield the “child races” from the baneful effects of civilization, to shoulder “the white man’s burden”, all this hypocritical talk means simply that the bourgeoisie is compelled through its insatiable greed for profits to hold the native peoples, deliberately and artificially, in a state of backwardness, because it is this very backwardness that enables the bourgeoisie to wring its superprofits from the toil of the native peoples. The bourgeoisie exerts the tyrannical powers of the native chiefs through its magistrates. It maintains the pre-feudal system of production for use, and prevents the development of any kind of commodity production amongst the native, for instance by refusing to issue to natives a licence to trade. The result is that the only way for them to raise the money to pay taxes is to sell their labor power to the owners of the mines and farms. But while the bourgeoisie strives to keep the territories intact and to hold back the progress of the tribesmen, at the same time it is drawing on these very territories for its labor. In this way it telescopes the development of the native people, it imports tribal problems into industry; it imports the agrarian problem into the mines, for land hunger is the root source of both recruiting and faction fights, and in the same way social problems are carried from the city to the territories on the tide of returning labor. Strive as the bourgeois will, he cannot both have his cake and eat it, he cannot preserve the tribal system and still use it as a reservoir of cheap labor. And yet in order to work the mines, he is compelled to consolidate tribalism. Capitalism has no way out of this dilemma – only the victorious workers’ revolution can solve the “native problem”. Only the workers’ revolution can appease the land hunger of the tribes and destroy the basis of tribalism by destroying its economic roots – the primitive productive methods which the bourgeoisie deliberately fosters.

Because Russia was a backward country, because capitalism entered Russia so late, the development of Russia was telescoped. Russian capitalism began where European capitalism left off, the latest developments of mass production machinery were imported; as a result of this the Russian proletariat was more concentrated and a greater percentage of it was employed in large scale industry than in the more advanced countries. Thus the very backwardness of Russia was responsible for its achieving a proletariat ahead of the proletariat of other countries in concentration and in class consciousness.

In South Africa, too, backwardness has occasioned a greater concentration of a larger percentage of the proletariat in heavy industry than even in Czarist Russia, more than half being employed in mining.

Bourgeois university professors in South Africa are fond of bringing new proofs that the native peoples are a child-race with many stages to pass through before they reach the level of the whites. They forget to take into consideration the fact that this “belated child-race” grows up under the influence of capitalism, that its growth is forced, that it telescopes some stages and leaps over others and so it achieves by combined development in a single generation a stage which the pioneer races took many generations to accomplish.

The same mechanical notion is put forth by the CPSA in its slogan of a “South African native republic as a stage towards the workers’ and peasants’ republic”. The idea common to both is the scholastic notion that there is a kind of logical ladder of development which must be mounted step by step, and various nations are at different rungs, but the same intervening rungs must be crossed by each in turn to reach the top.

The falseness of this unrealistic and undialectical way of thinking is demonstrated daily in the development of the native proletariat.

In the recent strike of the laundry workers we witnessed the spectacle of barefooted workers, most of them from the territories, and saving money in order to purchase wives when they went home, standing together in firm solidarity. In any similar group of workers in secondary industry taken at random, the telescoped development is likely to be found.

While the bourgeoisie cannot hold back the development of the inhabitants while they recruit labor from among them, the nigrophile liberals cannot on the other hand clear a path for development within the framework of capitalism. Only under the slogan of “The dictatorship of the proletariat, leading the oppressed of the countryside”, can there be ultimately solved the racial, the agrarian and the social problems of South Africa. In our participation in the daily struggle of the workers and oppressed peoples, our practical partial demands must be for the abolition of the tyranny of the chiefs and magistrates, for democratic rights for Africans in the territories as well as in the rest of the Union, for equal right for all races.

Johannesburg, December 1934

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