The collapse of a contradiction

An Economic History of South Africa
January 20, 2006

Until quite recently, an "economic history" was often a Marxist exercise in distortion, while books on South Africa by white Westerners were frequently more concerned with proclaiming their authors'

anti-apartheid credentials than with history. In the post-apartheid, post-communist world, this has changed - and Charles Feinstein's work shows this.

This work is appropriate for students in economics and African history, and provides a dispassionately detailed analysis of the economic background to South African racial policies, showing that coercive and discriminatory practices were ultimately self-defeating.

Feinstein's examination of how blacks were compelled to become low-paid labourers for white farmers and mining interests shows a process far more driven by economics than race. Seizing control of free land so people lost the option of becoming independent farmers and were forced to work for the new owners - the practice followed in South Africa during the 19th century - was, as Feinstein shows, a system also used in 18th-century Russia (where race was not an issue) to turn peasants into serfs.

In addition to land seizure, however, numerous other measures were taken to make blacks provide labour at the lowest possible wage. The most notorious was the restriction of black land occupation to "reserves" that provided such insufficient subsistence that their occupants were compelled to work on white-owned farms and mines.

In addition, official colour-bar policies ensured that blacks worked in unskilled jobs only, policies that were partly due to pressure from white mineworkers of the kind who, when mine owners proposed to employ blacks for semiskilled work in the 1920s, marched through the streets of Johannesburg under banners saying: "Workers of the world unite and fight for a white South Africa". This is consistent with the country's history in later years, when the greatest supporters of apartheid were poorer whites who needed it to guarantee white employment and to protect them against black competition, a fact ignored by some wistful white activists who tried to present South Africa's conflict as class-based.

As Feinstein points out, the gold mining industry responsible for South Africa's economic growth would probably not have survived the early 20th century had black workers been better paid, so racial labour policies were initially beneficial economically. These policies were confirmed in subsequent years, with South Africa's rulers believing that successful capitalism (although with heavy state intervention) could flourish under the apartheid system. In fact, the development of manufacturing industries and a more sophisticated economy showed quite early that a system based on a constant supply of cheap low-skilled labour, which worked for mining, was counterproductive in a more complex situation.

Also South Africa's economic performance, while impressive in the mid to late 20th century, was, as Feinstein shows, not as great as it might have been. A workforce deliberately kept low skilled and undereducated that labours under the burdens of insecurity, malnutrition, the denial of rights and poverty is ultimately a less productive one and, furthermore, is too poor to provide a significant domestic market for manufactured goods.

The whole concept of capitalist success based on an ample supply of downtrodden cheap labour - accepted by both South Africa's apartheid leaders and their sternest Marxist critics, for opposing reasons - is, Feinstein says, a complete fallacy. This, together with other economic and political pressures on the country in the later 20th century, contributed to a serious economic downturn. It led to grave unemployment and hardship, which, in turn, encouraged anti-apartheid militancy.

The ironic effect of this is that apartheid labour measures, designed to create a state in which successful capitalism and white supremacy existed together, ultimately contributed to the fall of the apartheid state.

Alexander du Toit holds a PhD in imperial and colonial history from London University.

An Economic History of South Africa: Conquest, Discrimination and Development

Author - Charles H. Feinstein
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 302
Price - £45.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 521 85091 6 and 61641 7

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