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

Chapter 17
Class and Race, Structure and Process

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.

For liberal historians, race was the dominant social reality in South Africa, and therefore the key element in any explanation of the overall course of South African development, though, as we saw, Macmillan in particular had not been unconcerned with social class. In emphasising class rather than race, the revisionists of the early 1970s were reacting especially against the emphasis given race in writing of the 1950s and 1960s, which had largely, if not completely, ignored or rejected class. In the mid-1960s Pierre van den Berghe, an American-based sociologist who had done field-work in South Africa, went so far as to state explicitly that social classes in the Mancian sense of relationship to the means of production... are not meaningful social realities in South Africa’. And there were various reasons why professional historians at that time paid no attention to class.

Though Anglophone liberal historians were shocked when an Afrikaner nationalist government came to power in 1948 committed to the implementation of a thorough-going policy of racial separation, they did not respond to the advent of apartheid by rejecting the importance of race in the country’s history. Monica Wilson, seeking in the Oxford History to counter the apartheid myth that people were happiest when separated racially, did cite examples of individuals co-operating across ‘the colour line’ in the pre-industrial past. But liberals continued to conceive of South Africa essentially in terms of the interaction of ‘racial groups’. None of the contributors to the Oxford History spent time tracing the emergence of classes; the reader of those volumes gathered that race had been the dominant cleavage in the country’s past. The liberal historians of the 1950s and 1960s abhorred racism, but the obsession with race in the politics of the day made them focus on — and exaggerate — the importance of race in the past. In a somewhat similar way, in Guyana the racial tensions which erupted on the eve of independence encouraged historians of that country to analyse its past in terms of racial animosities and divisions, and to ignore the fact that historically other divisions had been as, if not more, important.

Most professional historians of the 1950s and 1960s, whether in Britain, America or South Africa, worked within an empirical tradition in which concepts such as class were distrusted for their imprecision. The Marxist definition linked class to the means of production, and few historians of this era attempted to integrate economics into their analyses. While the Cold War was at its height, any economic interpretation ran the risk of being branded Marxist, and Marxism was associated with communist politics. In South Africa, ideological divisions ran particularly deep. Heavy penalties were prescribed by law for what the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 defined, very vaguely, as ‘communism. Professional historians had no time for ideas thrown up on the radical left. Under the influence of neo-capitalist economics, they took capitalism as given, something outside of and seemingly unrelated to the racial order.

For de Kiewiet, going to London in the 1920s had meant exposure to new ideas, where race seemed so much less relevant than it had in South Africa. Young South Africans who went abroad to study in the 1960s not only found in Britain and America a strong anti-racist climate, but also a new freedom to consider ideas taboo in their repressive country. When South Africa was viewed from a distance, race seemed to diminish in importance. How indeed could something as irrational as race prejudice explain the course of South African development? By the late 1960s, as we have noted, a new, more flexible Marxism, given intellectual respectability by the work of such eminent historians as Edward Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill, was gaining ground at British universities. Marxism, as a coherent body of theory, attracted emigre intellectuals searching for a way to understand South Africa. Many historians, not on the far left politically, nevertheless began to be influenced by a Marxist approach to history. It gave them, if nothing more, a materialist perspective and a conviction that class, and class struggle, were the key to unlock the past.

In reaction to the liberal neglect of class, some of the radical revisionists played down, and others entirely denied, the significance of race in the country’s past. Legassick accepted the importance of racist ideology, but others more crudely stood Van den Berghe on his head, claiming that class explained all, and dismissing racism as mere false consciousness. While the fact of racial discrimination could not be denied, revisionists could, and did, argue that it was merely a cloak, a mask for class exploitation, and that the significant cleavages in South African society were, and always had been, those of class rather than of race, though they acknowledged that the two had often coincided. Some argued that the very concept of race was itself a myth, inasmuch as there existed no such groups as ‘whites’ and ‘blacks'; by emphasising ethnic and racial cleavages, the liberal historians had accepted racial categories that had no existence outside segregationist ideology. Did not physical anthropologists agree that it was impossible to divide the human species into ‘whites’ and ‘blacks'? By concerning themselves exclusively with ‘race’, liberal historians had obscured or ignored the fundamental transformation that flowed from the spread of capitalist social relations .

Whereas for liberal historians irrational race prejudice, explained in mere psychological terms, was often cited as the reason for segregation and apartheid, for the revisionists racism itself-even the very racial categories historians used — had to be explained, and understood in its historical context. Racism had performed different functions over time: in the nineteenth century, it had helped justify white dispossession of blacks; in the twentieth it had served to divide the working class It was not the frontier tradition of racism — the no equality in church or state’ of the trekker republics — that had spawned twentieth-century segregation, as Walker and de Kiewiet had suggested, but the mining houses and other capitalist interests. Legassick found the origins of white racism to lie in the slave society of the south-western Cape rather than on the frontier, but he did not trace the origins of segregation to early white racism or to the spread of mercantile capitalism in the early nineteenth century Cape. Instead, for him the early years of the twentieth century were the crucial seedplot for segregation, as South Africa’s industrial revolution got under way. The racial policies then implemented, far from handicapping capitalist development, promoted it. These policies had been designed to keep blacks poor, and give the mines and farms the plentiful supply of labour required. Segregation had propped up precapitalist societies and functioned to coerce a black labour force and restrict its bargaining power. The migrant labour system, linking the reserves and the more developed areas, had subsidised labour-costs. State and capital had worked together, the state intervening to create a hierarchical division of labour based on race, in capitalist interests. Segregation had not conflicted with those interests, but had served them, whatever the individual motivation of the policy-makers and legislators.

For the revisionists, then, class analysis offered an exciting new tool to be used to reinterpret the South African past. In The Making of the English Working Class Edward Thompson had used class not as a fixed category, but one that was defined in struggle. So attention swung to class formation and class struggle, whether in precapitalist African societies or the very recent past. Trapido pointed out, for example, that late nineteenth century Boer society on the highveld had not been monolithic and homogeneous, but highly stratified. Others spoke of how the mineral revolution had created a totally new class structure; with a vast African workforce of 100 000 on the Witwatersrand goldmines by the end of the century. For them the South African War had been fought over access to a valuable material resource — gold — and not mainly for reasons of British imperial supremacy in the sub-continent. Afrikaner nationalism was no longer understood as a movement of ethnic mobilisation, but as a class-based phenomenon. Throughout, South African history was seen to have been shaped by material forces.”

In South Africa, as elsewhere, arguments about the past have often reflected hopes for the future. Radical revisionists hoped that black and white workers would combine in a non-racial mass movement for democracy’. They were concerned, then, to argue that racial divisions were artificial, and had been exploited, if not created, by segregationists to buttress their minority power. Claiming that there had been a much greater degree of class solidarity than previously admitted, and that it had often transcended racial and cultural divisions, they hoped to promote the cause of a non-racial class alliance. Others redefined the white workers as a ‘new petty bourgeoisie’, which enabled them to interpret conflicts between white labour and black workers as class struggles.

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In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the Oxford History of South Africa was published, a more critical attitude to the Africanist history of tropical Africa gained ground. By the end of the 1960s it was clear that independence was not going to solve the problems of African development, as many naively had hoped. Those who became disillusioned with the governments of the new states often also grew critical of the historical writing which had accompanied the rise of African nationalism. Walter Rodney, a West Indian whose doctoral dissertation at the University of London was on the history of the upper Guinea Coast and who taught at the University of Dar-es-Salaam, now argued, together with other ‘radical pessimists’, that much of the Africanist history of the 1960s had served to legitimise the national bourgeoisie, the new ruling class. It had not explained Africa’s poverty. Rodney explained that poverty by using a concept borrowed from a debate on Latin America: in a classic polemic he surveyed the way Africa had been ‘underdeveloped’ by Europe. More detailed, scholarly application of underdevelopment theory was undertaken by others, most notably on East and South Africa. Cohn Bundy, a South African who wrote his doctorate at St Antony’s College, Oxford, described how a group of Africans had responded to new market opportunities and become successful ‘peasants’, producing for exchange, and how the state had then acted to cut off this development. Bundy and other revisionists rejected the idea of two quite separate economies, one modern and white-run, the other backward and African. For them, as for Macmillan fifty years before, South Africa’s history was the story of the development of a single economy. To this the historians of the early 1970s added that the other side of the coin to the emergence of the highly developed ‘metropoles’ had been the underdevelopment of the ‘peripheries’. It was not African backwardness that had made the rural reserves such backwaters, but their structural relationship with the more developed regions. Underdevelopment seemed to explain the stark inequalities that had arisen in South Africa, where most whites were affluent, almost all blacks poor.

By the time Johnstone’s Class, Race and Gold appeared in 1976, revisionist writing — a stream of articles, reviews and unpublished seminar papers — had become richly varied. Beyond a basic commitment to materialism, there was no unanimity among the new revisionists. Those who in the early 1970s adopted a highly structuralist approach to the South African past were not specifically trained as historians, and their writing was heavily sociological. Robert Davies, Dave Kaplan, Mike Morris and Dan O'Meara — whom a critic labelled the ‘gang of four’, after Madame Mao and the Chinese ‘hard-liners” — worked together as graduate students at Sussex University in the early-to-mid-1970s, and were influenced by the structural Marxism of Poulantzas. They focused their work on the twentieth-century state, and sought to show its functionality for capital accumulation, especially in mining and agriculture, and demonstrate how different capitalist interests -fractions of capital — had shaped state policies. Belinda Bozzoli, another doctoral student at Sussex, investigated the ideology of the manufacturing dass, relating that ideology to the changing material base. Davies and his colleagues were more concerned with capital than labour, and with white workers rather than black. O'Meara did write about the African mineworkers’ strike of 1946, but he set the strike in a broad political economy context. It may be that the relative lack of attention these scholars paid Africans reflected the fact that they had been undergraduates in South Africa at a time when blacks had either been ‘silent’ or had taken a black consciousness position and rejected whites. In the early 1970s, state and capital seemed all-powerful, and able to determine state policy without any consideration for African responses. These young South Africans were already abroad when the Durban strikes of 1973 ushered in a new phase of struggle in South Africa. They began their dissertations before 1976, after which black resistance was indelibly associated with the name Soweto In turning away from the study of African societies, the use of oral tradition, and the concern of Leonard Thompson and others to write an Afrocentric history, they rejected the Africanism as well as the liberalism of the historians of the 1960s.

Other revisionists had kept the Africanist perspective alive, and after Soweto the link between radical work and an Africanist perspective was strengthened. This was in part a result of the influence on South 4frican scholars of the work of French Marxist anthropologists on precapitalist societies, the revival of peasant studies, and the social history — ‘history from below’ or ‘history from the bottom up — approach of the British Marxist historians and the History Workshop movement. Shula Marks, in London, was well placed to learn of the new developments in historical writing, and she exploited that opportunity to the full. Students who worked on doctorates under her supervision — most notably Jeff Guy and Philip Bonner — led the way in the exploration of the nature of precapitalist African societies, and the transition to capitalism. In July 1976 the first of two workshops on precapitalist societies and colonial penetration in southern Africa was held in Lesotho, where Guy was teaching. Those who attended were interested in the way precapitalist societies worked, the forms of stratification and exploitation which had existed in them, and how precapitalist modes of production were transformed, first by merchant capital and then by industrialisation. Whereas underdevelopment theory focused on exchange relations — the capitalist core was seen essentially to control the dependent periphery through the market — the historians of precapitalist societies wrote of systems of production and how they had changed over time. The development of new ways of approaching the precolonial past did, however, come at a price — the doctorates written by Guy on the Zulu and Bonner on the Swazi took a decade to bring to compie tion.

Others followed Guy and Bonner in writing the history of a nineteenth-century African state or ‘ethnic group': Jeffrey Peires, for example, wrote on the history of the Xhosa of the eastern Cape, for a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin, Peter Delius went to London to work on his doctorate on the Pedi of the eastern Transvaal under Shula Marks. Conservative historians who were apologists for the apartheid regime attempted to appropriate the new work on precolonial societies for an ethnic interpretation of South African history which might fit the government Bantustan ideology. A conference on ‘African History’ organised by the Rand Afrikaans University in 1974 implicitly attempted just that. A leading Afrikaner historian, Professor F. A. van Jaarsveld, found in Omer-Cooper’s Zulu Aftermath what he regarded as historical justification for the Bantustan policy; for him the Afncan states which Omer-Cooper had depicted emerging from the Mfecane were the precursors of the Bantustans being led to independence in the 1970s. What Omer-Cooper had conceived of as an anti-apartheid project — one aiming to give Africans back their past, and so to promote their cause in the present — was used in support of Bantustan nationalism. The marrying of an Africanist and a materialist approach was one response to the ‘ethnic trap.

The early work of the liberal Africanists tended to present Afncan societies as classless and undifferentiated. Now an attempt was made to understand the divide between rulers and ruled, chiefs and commoners, as the major cleavage or contradiction in precolonial African societies. Peires argued this in the Xhosa case at a workshop he organised in 1979 on Nguni history at Rhodes University, Grahamstown. When it came to explaining why these societies were destroyed, Guy, Delius and others emphasised — as Atmore and Marks had in their seminal article on the role of the imperial factor — the importance of the British army, but they also sought to show that the British intervention in the 1870s was a response to the new era of capitalist development ushered in by the discovery of diamonds.

Whereas the structuralists depicted Africans as victims of the overwhelming power of a new capitalist order which made them helots, those revisionists who studied African societies showed, through detailed empirical work, that Africans had shaped their own history. Migrant labour, for example, did not originate with the new needs of mining capital, but had an earlier history, and was to be explained in part in terms of inter-generational struggles within black societies themselves, as a response to ecological disasters, and as a means of acquiring guns for defensive purposes.

Other revisionists turned to the writing of South Africa’s more recent social history, and in doing so adopted an empirical approach. Much influenced by the work of Edward Thompson, they distrusted theoretical abstractions, stressed the importance of human agency, and believed in bringing history to life by dealing with the activities of ‘ordinary people’ in the past. Though Macmillan had recognised the importance of the productive and other activities of such people half a century earlier, by the beginning of the 1970s no professional historian had successfully rescued the lives of the underclasses from what Thompson, in a much-quoted phrase in The Making of the English Working Class, called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’. A highly structuralist approach could so emphasise the collective that the individual seemed to play no role. Those who allowed room for human agency and did not see state policies as only impositions from above — the mere diktat of capital — were able to point to how whites had often been divided, and how Africans had helped determine the way they were ruled. Consciousness became an important theme, to explain, say, why some blacks had worked with whites in the elaboration of the system of segregation. After the revival of worker action in the early 1970s — the Durban strikes of 1972-73 ushered in a new phase of militancy — historians turned from the institutional and organisational history of working-class action to worker experience. The doctorate which Charles van Onselen wrote at St Anrony’s College, Oxford, on labour in the gold-mining industry in Rhodesia led him to study worker consciousness, and then the lives of ordinary people, black and white, criminals, cab-drivers and liquor-merchants, in the early years of Johannesburg. The best of such work always related individual lives to broader social processes, so opening new perspectives on the changing experience of the majority. Van Onselen explicitly styled his volumes on Johannesburg an exercise in historical materialism’, but though he analysed how the exploitation of the gold deposits on the Rand had social consequences for individuals and classes, he also showed how ‘ordinary people’, black and white, had to some extent made their own lives. As first director of the African Studies Institute at Wits, Van Onselen was a key figure in helping to set the agenda for work on both urban and rural social history, as was Belinda Bozzoli, his wife, a lecturer in sociology at Wits, who took the lead in organising in 1978 what became the first of a series of Wits history workshops, held at three-yearly intervals. They were a leading forum for the presentation of work in the new social history.