Christopher Saunders: The Making of the South African Past. 1988

Chapter 16
The Challenge Begins

Source: Christopher Saunders, The Making of the South African Past, Major Historians on Race and Class;
First published: in 1988 in paperback by David Philip Publishers (Pty) Ltd, Cape Town;
Transcribed: by Dominic Tweedie.

From about 1970 a concerted challenge was mounted to the prevailing liberal view of South Africa’s historical evolution by scholars who, to a greater or lesser degree, adhered to a materialist view of the past. These revisionists were centrally concerned to explain the nature of South Africa’s political structures in terms of its economic development. They rejected any idea that the political could be separated from the economic and focused on the inter-relationship between the two. Beyond a general commitment to a materialist approach, however, these revisionists were far from united, and there was soon a more vigorous debate amongst them than between them and those they criticised, for few liberals, and none of them historians, chose to respond directly to the new challenge. As in previous chapters, the new work will be considered through an examination of the careers and work of some of the principal scholars involved.

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The intellectual origins of the new radicalism lie more in new currents in Western historical scholarship generally, and in African history specifically, than in earlier radical writing on South African history. Of the professional historians, Macmillan was the one who — correctly — was most frequently seen as a pioneer, for he had called for the writing of social history, had investigated social conditions through field-work, had begun the study of rural stratification, and had stressed the importance of economics. His insights, and more specifically his work on the Herschel district in the 1920s, were to be used by Colin Bundy in the 1970s in his work on the African peasantry. But many of the early revisionist writers tended to be dismissive of all previous writing, including that of Macmillan. In its hostility to liberalism, the new writing belonged to a radical tradition with deep roots, some of which we surveyed in Chapter 13, though it is difficult to trace direct links with the earlier writing. The proposition that segregation was integrally connected with the capitalist system — a key argument in the early 1970s — was asserted, for instance, in the work of Hosea Jaffe in the early l940s, but the revisionist scholars of the early 1970s did not explicitly draw upon such earlier radical writing. Most of the writings of the intellectuals associated with the small Communist Party or Trotskyite movements were unknown to the young revisionist scholars of the early 1970s. They saw themselves as academics, not polemicists, even if they hoped that their writing would serve a political as well as an academic purpose.

One work that was widely read by the new generation was Class and Colour in South Africa 1850-1950 by Jack and Ray Simons, which appeared in a large Penguin paperback in 1969 and formed something of a bridge from the earlier, polemical and often recondite radical wilting to the scholarly work of the 1970s. Jack Simons (born 1907) obtained degrees in law and politics while working in the civil service in Pretoria. He then went to the London School of Economics to study for his doctorate, returning in 1938 to head a sub-department of Native law and administration — the name was changed in 1960 to comparative African government and law — at the University of Cape Town. He wrote on legal and political topics, and was active as a leading member of the Communist Party of South Africa. In December 1964 he was barred from teaching in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act. Ray Alexander, born in Latvia, had joined the communist movement before she emigrated to South Africa in 1929. In the 1930s and 1940s she worked tirelessly as a trade-union organiser in Cape Town and surrounding areas. In 1954 she was elected to parliament by African voters but was prevented from taking her seat because she was ‘listed’ as a communist. She and her husband left the country in May 1965, and Jack Simons took up a research fellowship at Manchester University for a year. In Britain they completed their detailed history of radicalism in South Africa, for which they had collected material over many years.

They called their book, not a history, but ‘an exercise in political sociology on a time scale’, and they made it clear that their purpose was not merely to recover the history of left-wing political activity, but to move beyond description to an analysis of the interaction between class interests and racial interests, between radical politics and the ‘national movement’, by which was meant the opposition of blacks to their oppression as blacks. They wrote, for example, of how in the first decade of the twentieth century members of the Social Democratic Federation, and later other socialists, insisted that class, not race, was ‘the basic cause of conflict’ in the society. To such people — and the Simonses did not hide their own sympathy for this position — colour consciousness was something ‘artificially stimulated’, whereas class consciousness was natural. Yet the attempts by radicals to forge a nonracial labour movement failed; the radical vision of a single society without class or colour distinctions did not materialise. Colour, not class, triumphed. Working-class solidarity had decreased, not grown, over the years; white working-class racism had been a powerful force. The Simonses explained all this by saying that white workers had traded their socialism for a share, in white power. Also, the white minority regime had used fascist means to perpetuate a racial order in a country with an advanced industrial economy. In their concluding chapter, the Simonses explicitly challenged the liberal view that the industrial colour bar was incompatible with economic expansion. In reality, they pointed out, racial discrimination had intensified as the economy had grown.

Class and Colour included much more detail — from left-wing newspapers and journals in large part — on the history of the radical left than had Roux’s Time Longer Than Rope, and was altogether a more scholarly work. But its chief importance lay in the way it grappled, over more than 600 pages with the interrelationship of class and race in South African history. It was less successful in analysing class formation, or showing how the class structure had been transformed over time.

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The Simonses, who settled in Lusaka, Zambia, did not make further interventions in the historiographical debate. Because they were ‘listed’ people in terms of South Africa’s Suppression of Communism Act (from 1982 the Internal Security Act), their book was banned for possession as well as distribution in South Africa; though soon read clandestinely by people on the left in that country, it remained largely unknown to professional historians there, most of whom would anyway have dismissed it as the work of non-historians. But it helped shape the ideas of those who led the radical challenge.

Most of these were young emigres from South Africa who were studying in Britain for doctorates in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That a number of individuals were involved reflected the new opportunities offered thanks to the economic and population boom of the 1 960s: universities expanded, new jobs became available, and there was more money for research. Some of the white exiles or emigres had been active in South African student politics, but could find no political role abroad and so turned to historical research. They had been radicalised by the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and by what had followed: the banning of the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress in April 1960, the decision by the nationalist movements the following year to turn to armed struggle, and the progressive dismantling of most of what remained of the rule of law by John Vorster, Minister of Justice from 1962. Any prospect of peaceful reform or opportunity for extra-parliamentary protest seemed to disappear, and liberalism increasingly appeared to have no further role to play as South African society polarised, with blacks within the country preferring to work on their own in the black consciousness movement. The emigre’s no longer believed in the possibility of evolutionary change and instead hoped for a rapid, revolutionary transformation.

The radical challenge developed in large part as a response to the publication of the two volumes of the Oxford History. The first volume appeared only months before Shula Marks and Anthony Atmore began their seminar on the societies of southern Africa at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. Both Marks and Atmore wrote critical reviews of the first volume, as did Stanley Trapido, who had taught briefly in Jack Simons ‘s department at the University of Cape Town in the early 1960s before moving to Britain, where in 1970 he completed his doctorate on Cape liberalism in the nineteenth century at the University of London. In these reviews a new revisionist perspective on South African history began to emerge. That the Oxford History presented an Africanist interpretation, in which the history of South Africa was equally that of blacks and whites, was welcomed, but the revisionists concentrated on the failure of the volumes to explain central processes in South African society.

In his chapter in the second volume of the Oxford History the economist Hobart Houghton suggested that the history of industrialisation in South Africa was much the same as that in Britain. In an earlier unpublished but widely circulated paper, a young executive at the Anglo American Corporation, Michael O'Dowd, had predicted that just as industrialisation in Britain had led to greater democracy, so South Africa would follow a similar path. Trapido now argued that whereas Britain had been the first country to industrialise, South Africa, like other late industrialising countries, had taken ‘the Prussian road’, an autocratic route to modernisation, with the state intervening massively to impose discipline and to mobilise labour. State intervention had not hindered economic growth, but had been designed deliberately to promote the industrialisation process. Developing capitalism had not merely adapted itself to the racial system; it had played a major role in the creation of segregation and apartheid, the latter-day manifestations of that system. Segregationist racial policy had indeed served capitalist interests.

Those revisionists whom David Yudelman in 1983 christened the ‘elder statesmen’ of ‘the new school — Frederick Johnstone, Harold Wolpe and Martin Legassick — were not old in the early 1970s: the two trained as historians were under 30 when they began to pioneer the new approach. Frederick Johnstone was a Canadian with a cosmopolitan background, who had received some of his education in Geneva, Switzerland. As a graduate student at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, in the mid-1960s, he was drawn to work on a South African topic under Arthur Keppel-Jones. His master’s dissertation at Queen’s was a largely empirical and descriptive study of the 1922 Rand Revolt. He then went to St Antony’s College, Oxford, on a Canada Council scholarship in 1967, and there both expanded his master’s thesis into a doctorate, and adopted class analysis, for which his subject was eminently suited. The May 1968 student revolt in Paris and the anti-Vietnam war protests in America were radicalising influences, and a new, more flexible Marxism was taking the place of the old Stalinist dogmatism in British intellectual circles. Edward Thompson’s classic account of The Making of the English Working Class, first published in 1963, became available in a Penguin paperback in 1968, and made a profound impression on Johnstone and others, with its stress on the importance of class as a relationship, and therefore as an historical phenomenon. Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (1967) was almost as influential. By the late 1960s Marxist scholars — Edward Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill in Britain, Eugene Genovese in the United States — were producing exciting historical work, which grappled with great themes of social and economic change.

When Johnstone visited South Africa in 1968-9 to undertake research in the Pretoria archives and in Cape Town, he was not only horrified by the inequalities in South African society; he was struck by the prosperity of most whites. Economic growth was said to be second only to that of Japan, and the average white standard of living to be comparable to that of Californians. Yet this was accompanied by ever more rigid apartheid policies. Liberal scholars seemed unable to explain this. Historians offered no answer, and economists assumed that the demands of a modern economy were at odds with an archaic, racist political system. Economic growth would bring about the elimination of racial discrimination. On his return to Oxford, Johnstone published in African Affairs an article which sought to explain how segregationist policies were compatible with economic growth. In ‘White Prosperity and White Supremacy in South Africa Today’, he did not confront explicitly liberal interpretations of the course of South African history, but his challenge had implications for the way the past as well as the present was viewed.

Johnstone first outlined what he called ‘the conventional wisdom': that there was an essential contradiction between racism and capitalism; that racial discrimination was dysfunctional to the rational development of an industrial economy; that restrictions on the mobility of black labour — influx control — and the reservation of jobs for whites made no economic sense. Liberals had tended to see industrialisation as a progressive, modernising process that required new social relations in which race would be excluded as a determining factor. If left unimpeded, they had implied, industrialisation would establish a rational, free social order. In his Anatomy of South African Misery de Kiewiet had spoken of the laws of the country’ frustrating economic growth. Other liberals had argued that greater foreign investment would promote economic growth and so help break down the racial order. Johnstone argued instead that the system of racial discrimination had aided economic growth. The liberal view of an incompatibility between state policies and economic interests was wrong; it ‘mystified’ the true relationship between capitalism and apartheid: apartheid had been functional for capitalism and aided its development.

Walker, de Kiewiet and other English-speaking liberal historians had indeed traced the origins of segregation to an Afrikaner, frontier tradition of racism. A younger liberal, David Welsh, who succeeded Jack Simons as head of the department of comparative African government at the University of Cape Town, suggested in a book published in 1969 that ‘The Roots of Segregation’ lay instead in Shepstone’s policy in pre-industrial Natal. Johnstone advanced a different argument: that industrial capitalism had been responsible for many of the key elements of the system of segregation. The liberal historians had failed to link the development of the economy to the evolution of the system of racial domination, or to explore the history of industrialisation. That was a task the revisionists began to take up.

After his visit to South Africa, Johnstone spent some further years at Oxford, completing his doctorate and then turning it into the book eventually published as Class, Race and Gold in 1976, the first full-length scholarly monograph on a South African topic from a radical perspective. For Johns tone the gold-mining industry was ‘the play within the play’, which revealed what the struggle in South Africa was all about: a struggle not of white against black but one in which a capitalist class sought to exploit two different groups of workers, the one white, the other black. Johnstone set out to explain the actions of the white mineworkers in 1922, not by their race, but in terms of their structural, class position.

Harold Wolpe, another influential figure among the early revisionists, had been a member of the central committee of the underground South African Communist Party while working as a lawyer in Johannesburg in the 1950s. A member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the organisation set up by the African National Congress in 1961 to plan sabotage, he was among those arrested in the police raid on the Umkhonto headquarters in the Rivonia suburb of Johannesburg in 1963. Together with another Rivonia detainee, he bribed a warder, escaped from jail and fled overseas. He became a lecturer in sociology at the new University of Essex and there began writing influential theoretical articles on South Africa from a Marxist perspective. They were not based on documentary research — he was not trained as an historian — but they threw up questions that directly challenged the liberal view of South African history. In his much-cited ‘Capitalism and Cheap Labour Power: From Segregation to Apartheid’, which appeared in Economy and Society in 1972, Wolpe argued that the reserves, a central element in the whole system of segregation, had served the interests of mining capital by subsidising labour costs. Migrant labour was highly exploitative because the mineowners paid a minimal wage, on the grounds that the families of the migrant workers could support themselves in the reserves and that the migrants themselves would, after their period on the mines, resume subsistence farming in the rural areas. This was not a new idea — it could be found in Leo Marquard’s Black Man’s Burden, for example — but Wolpe elaborated it within a sophisticated Marxist framework which spoke of the articulation of pre-capitalist and capitalist modes of production.

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The single most important figure in the radical challenge of the early 1970s was Martin Legassick. Born in Scotland, but educated in Cape Town, where he attended the Diocesan College, he began studying science at the University of Cape Town in 1959, where he was soon active in student politics (he later wrote the history of the National Union of South African Students). Before completing his degree at Cape Town, he went on a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. He was radicalised by Sharpeville and the repression that followed, while the dismissal of his father as head of the General Botha naval academy by the Nationalist government because he was English-speaking increased Legassick’s hostility to the regime. After gaining a first class for physics at Balliol in 1963, he switched fields. He first went to study at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana for a year, there working with Thomas Hodgkin a British Marxist then pioneering the study of the politics of tropical Africa. From Accra Legassick moved in 1964 to the University of California, Los Angeles, to work under Leonard Thompson, the leading South African historian of the day, who had served under Legassick’s father on a Royal Navy ship in the North Atlantic during the Second World War.

In California Legassick chose to research the Cape northern frontier in the early nineteenth century. He could not return to South Africa to consult the archives, for the government had barred his return after he had urged the executive of NUSAS to adopt a more radical stance, but he went to London to use the extensive mission records there. The result was an outstanding thesis, which was never to be published because he was soon unhappy with ~ and his interests moved to other fields. In over 700 pages, Legassick examined what he called the politics of a ‘frontier zone’, a concept derived in part from the insights of Jan Vansina’ s work on the kingdoms of the savanna region of tropical Africa. Legassick focused on relations between the Griqua, the Sotho-Tswana and the missionaries along, and to the north of, the Orange River from 1780 to 1840. He was later critical of the limitations of his analysis, arguing that the very concept of frontier was descriptive rather than explanatory, but many other scholars found most fruitful the way he developed the idea of a ‘frontier zone’, in which there was no single legitimate authority, yet in which acculturation took place. Legassick wrote his dissertation as an Africanist, wanting to understand the dynamics of African society, and arguing that the establishment of white supremacy had been no easy, straightforward process. He stressed, too, the long history of autonomy for black societies, and criticised the failure of white-supremacist historians to recognise this. Like the liberals, Legassick was concerned to ask whether South Africa could have taken ‘a different path’. He suggested that had the Griqua states survived, they might have ‘provided the nucleus for a South Africa less dichotomized along “racial” lines'; the growth of a class of freed slaves and persons of mixed descent at the Cape might have provided the social base for ‘a society whose divisions were not based on colour’. But even in his dissertation, Legassick began to move away from a liberal Africanist approach: his introduction noted that two major themes dominate the history of nineteenth-century South Africa: the extension of white colonial control and the integration of the peoples of the region into a capitalist system which had its ultimate centre in industrialising Europe. He was soon to believe that the second theme — not tackled in his thesis — was the determining one.

In California in the late 1960s various personal, intellectual and political influences further radicalised Legassick. While completing his dissertation, he taught South African history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, from 1967 to 1969, years of much turmoil and ideological flux: of black power, the Berkeley free speech movement and the protests against the Vietnam war. Among American historians, a ‘New Left’ began to demand a relevant and usable past. Some of these historians criticised their predecessors for assuming that white racism had always existed and had not undergone change over time, and that it could be explained adequately in psychological terms. They started to explore the ways in which it had served capitalist interests, securing privilege and dividing the working class. Vulgar Marxists reduced racism to a class phenomenon, but Legassick was influenced by the much more sophisticated work of Eugene Genovese, of the University of Rochester, on slavery and racism in the American South. Genovese denied a simple relationship between the development of American capitalism and the growth of racism, pointing to the precapitalist roots of racism, and observing that, in the aftermath of the First World War, American capitalism had no longer needed racial discrimination and had sought to remove it. Genovese concluded that racism in America grew out of a complex conjunction of historical forces, and that, while it could only be adequately explained in class terms, it could not be reduced to a question of class.

His dissertation completed, Legassick settled in Britain, where Marks, Atmore, Trapido, Johnstone and others were developing their criticisms of the Oxford History and other liberal work. A Ford Foundation grant enabled Legassick to research the development of segregation in South Africa, its intellectual roots and material underpinnings. He now argued that the essential features of segregation dated, not from the seventeenth- or eighteenth-century frontier, but from the early twentieth century, and that they were intimately related to the development of the modern economy. The larger work he planned was never completed, but in London in the early 1970s Legassick produced a number of preliminary papers — some not published, and only circulated in cyclostyled form — of seminal importance to the development of the new radical perspective. The most famous of these developed what he had sketched in the first pages of his dissertation; a critique of the frontier thesis advanced by Eric Walker in his Oxford lecture of 1930 and then by other liberal historians. Legassick knew that Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis on the significance of the frontier in American history, which had so influenced Walker, had come under heavy fire from American historians. Presented to Shula Marks’s London seminar in 1970, Legassick’s critique of ‘the frontier tradition in South African historiography’ questioned the use to which the notion of frontier had been put by liberal historians, and suggested that racism could not simply be explained on its own terms, as something carried intact from the eighteenth century frontier into the twentieth century, but had to be related to the changing material base of society. That mature racism was intimately related to capitalism in its mining phase was a theme he explored further in other papers.

One of the most important of these, entitled ‘South Africa: Forced Labour, Industrialization, and Racial Differentiation’, was completed in 1971 and circulated in mimeographed form, but not published until 1975 in a volume of case-studies written, according to its editor, ‘as a protest and hopefully as an alternative to the conventional Western social science literature on Africa’. In it Legassick rejected the idea that ‘modernization’ would necessarily have led to a reduction in racial inequality, had it not been for white racism and the existence of a separate African ‘subsistence economy’. He cited Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy to make the point that ‘modernization’ had taken different forms in different countries, depending on pre-existing social relationships. In South Africa no ‘dual economy’ had developed, but rather one ‘forced labour economy of gold and maize’. Economic growth had not taken place despite white racism but as a result of a variety of forms of non-economic coercion, created through conquest and justified by an ideology of white racism. In a dazzling 30-page outline of South African history, Legassick sketched how economic changes had produced new classes, how racial segregation had emerged, and how what he termed ‘the development of underdevelopment’ had taken place in South Africa.

Like both Wolpe and Johnstone, who joined the staff at Memorial University, Newfoundland, in the mid-1970s, Legassick became a lecturer in sociology when he took a teaching post. That Johnstone and Legassick should, despite their historical training, have become sociologists was a reflection of the way their political-economy approach drew them from detailed empirically based research to more theoretical, conceptual work. After the publication of Class, Race and Gold, not having access to original sources in South Africa, Johnstone turned to writing general historiographical articles on the ‘new school’. At the University of Warwick Legassick became increasingly involved with trade-union activity related to South Africa and exile politics, and his academic writing virtually ceased. Suspended, and then expelled, from the African National Congress because he and others criticised the organisation for laying too much stress on armed struggle and not enough on mobilising workers, he resigned his lectureship to devote himself full-time to political and propaganda activity, and then worked in the East End of London for the Southern African Labour Education Project, formed in 1980 to provide materials for workers’ education to trade union movements in southern Africa. He spent much of his time producing the journal of the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the African National Congress, Inqaba ya Basebenzi.

In the early 1970s Johnstone, Wolpe, and Legassick by no means always agreed with each other’s work. Legassick’s ‘Forced Labour’ paper was criticised in print by Wolpe, as well as by non-Marxists, before it was published. That the radical revisionists criticised each other’s work helped keep the flood of papers appearing in the early 1970s, as did a sense of intellectual excitement similar to that among the Africanists at the time of the Lusaka conference. They were developing what seemed to them a quite different interpretation of South Africa’s past, one which they believed had important political implications and would influence the course of the struggle in that country. If the system of racial segregation was indeed intimately connected with the form of the capitalist economy that had evolved in South Africa, then it could be argued that both should be eliminated together. Many of the new revisionists believed that the power of black labour would grow and the capitalist order eventually be swept away in a revolutionary transformation. A number, after writing of the past, ended with some such prognostication for the future.