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Alex Callinicos

Class, Race and Gold

(November 1976)

From Notes of the Month, International Socialism (1st series), No.93, November/December 1976, pp.31-32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Class, Race and Gold
F.A. Johnstone
Routledge and Kegan Paul, £5.95.

The Puritans in Africa: A Story of Afrikanerdom
W.A. de Klerk
Pelican, £1.50.

THERE is a traditional liberal myth about South Africa that goes something like this. Apartheid contradicts the economic self-interest of rational capitalists. If South Africa’s future were in the hands of men like Harry Oppenheimer, chairman of the huge Anglo-American mining corporation, then apartheid would gradually wither away. Unfortunately, the argument continues, irrational Afrikaner racists hold power and have created the apartheid because of their tradition of keeping blacks at the bottom rung of the political and economic ladder. One implication of this argument is that western investment is South Africa is a good thing since it strengthens the forces of economic rationality.

The test case of the argument is surely the South African gold mines, for nearly a century the base of the country’s economy. Frederick Johnstone’s superb study punctures the liberal myth. He shows how the profitability of the gold mines has always depended on a massive supply of cheap unskilled labour power. The only source for this supply has been the black peasantry of South Africa and neighbouring countries. The whole weight of the state was thrown behind the mineowners to force these peasants off their land and into the mine-compounds. The origins of the present apartheid system can be found in the legislation passed since the late 19th century to prevent these black workers from becoming a threat to white power and privilege and in maintaining a migrant labour system - pass laws, influx controls, etc.

So the basis of today’s South Africa was laid in the mines. The gold mines would not be profitable without the massive network of state controls aimed at supplying the mines with plentiful, cheap, obedient black migrant workers, Johnstone shows how the colour bar in jobs – which reserved skilled jobs at very high wage-rates to whites – is much less significant. But the colour bar cuts into employers’ profits by making skilled workers expensive and scarce. So the minowners. especially when times are hard, press for a loosening the colour bar that will let them use cheap black workers in skilled jobs.

One such attempt took place after the First World War. The white mineworkcrs. response was the Rand Revolt of 1922, when they organized an unsuccessful armed insurrection against the employers and the state under the slogan – ‘Workers of the World Unite for a White South Africa’. Johnstone analyses this case in detail and shows how, despite this conflict, employers and white workers had a deeper common interest – against the black masses. Black liberation would mean an end to mining profits and white wage differentials alike. He also shows how class and national consciousness developed among black workers in the first struggles against the mineowners and the pass laws, again, after the First World War.

Although Johnstone’s study only goes as far as the mid 1920s the picture he paints remains valid. In 1969 black rmineworkers earned less in real terms than they had in 1911. White wage differentials had widened to 20 to one. In September 1973 black workers at Western Deep Levels mine near Carletonville went on strike. The owner of the mine, the ‘liberal’ Harry Oppenheimer, called in the police. 11 blacks were shot and killed.

Johnstone’s book, better than any other, shows how the the violence and racism of apartheid is rooted in capitalism. The only thing wrong with it, apart from the rip-off price, is its very heavy academic style (the book started life as a doctoral dissertation). Still, this only becomes really oppressive in the conclusion, where Johnstone argues for a ‘quasi-Marxist, quasi-structuralist approach’, whatever that may be.

The liberal myth, as we saw, makes the Afrikaners the root of all evil. Obviously, there is an element of truth in this. It has been the Afrikaner Nationalist Party, in power since 1948, that has turned apartheid into a system and perfected a police state that shoots down schoolchildren in Soweto for not wanting to learn Afrikaans. But the Nationalists have ruled in the interest of capitalism, English-speaking as well as Afrikaner, Western as well as South African. There is a large dose of anti-Afrikaner racism and class snobbery involved in the liberal myth, as well as a desire to cover up the role in apartheid of English-speaking capital (traditionally dominant in the mines).

So de Klerk’s book makes a welcome change. Himself an Afrikaner, he depicts the shift in the Afrikaner world-view.Till the end of the last century Afrikaners were a pastoral people of cattle farmers, living off the land, exploiting black labour within a feudal, paternalistic framework, fighting off the encroachments of British imperialism. Today the Afrikaners live in the cities. They are mainly white-collar or skilled manual workers, with a growing layer of capitalists at the top. The ideological crisis that this shift, combined with the growing challenge of the black working class, unleashed among some Afrikaner intellectuals is well reflected by de Klerk.

He himself influenced a group of young Afrikaner writers, the Sestigers (men of the 1960s), who increasingly came to challenge the status quo in South Africa. The most famous of them, the poet Breyten Breytenbach, is now serving a long gaol sentence for supporting the banned African National Congress.

Unfortunately, de Klerk subscribes to the old liberal myth. Apartheid, according to him, is the product of the Afrikaner worldview, which is a version of Calvinism (apparently fascism, Marxism and capitalism are also all versions of Calvinism!). The wall-paper holds up the walls, ideas shape reality. This idealist approach means that the reader is subjected to page after page of cloudy, irrelevant metaphysics.

The result is that de Klerk tends to present racist Afrikaner Prime Ministers like Herzog and Verwoed as tragic and sympathetic figures. No-one should approach his book without having read, say, Freda Troup’s South Africa: An Historical Introduction in the Penguin African Library series. Still, if one remembers this, and if one skips the tedious philosophical bits, de Klerk provides an useful insight into the dominant group in white South Africa.

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