Monday, 14 May 2012

Apartheid Revisited

By Gavan Tredoux

Apartheid has been credited with remarkable powers. To its detractors it has been the cause of most, if not all, evils in South Africa. Unemployment, illiteracy, crime, child molestation, AIDS, sexual harassment, corruption, and power outages have all been attributed to apartheid. The new black-controlled regime routinely ascribes the problems in which it is entangled to the legacy of apartheid. It is widely held that "apartheid fallout" will contaminate South African for many years to come.

In another era, apartheid was advertised as the solution to multiple evils, by Afrikaner Nationalists who were eager to be seen as political saviours of white South Africa. The very word "apartheid" was a product of the political propaganda devised by Nationalists in the 1940s. The central claim of this propaganda was that whites were being betrayed by the government of the day, and would be lost if they were not protected by the state. This proved to be a successful political weapon for the Nationalists, even though their opponents were mystified by the claim that they were any less pro-white.

Regardless of political sympathy, apartheid has acquired a reputation for efficacy. Since political policies have rarely been effective anywhere, this must raise questions about the accuracy of traditional accounts of apartheid. Crediting apartheid with unreasonable powers obscures not only the history of South Africa, but also its present.

Defining apartheid

Unfortunately, many things are meant by "apartheid", confusing any discussion of it. Since history is often politics by other means, the term has been used pejoratively to denote anything disliked. As the political climate has changed, so too has the meaning of apartheid, as it is assigned to new targets. Major uses of the word, in order of descending generality, are:
  • Everything
  • The White State
  • Social Segregation
  • Indirect Rule
"Apartheid" has become so ubiquitous it has been used as a description of everything prior to black rule. Peculiar and imprecise as this may seem, it is related to a fad for "systems theory" within the social sciences. For the systems theorist, societies are integrated systems, and elements of society are inter-related components of an overarching system. It is easy to poke holes, systematically, in this imprecise meta-theory, but it is enough for our purposes to note that sensible discussion of apartheid is not furthered by equating it with everything - it would be impossible to talk about anything else.
It is slightly more useful to reserve apartheid to refer to the white state. This singles out for attention the domination of the state by whites. The South African state is wholly a creation of European pioneer settlers, and it was run exclusively by whites, primarily for the benefit of whites, until quite recently. As apartheid evolved over the years, discarding elements once thought essential to it, its continued use depended on this very general identification with white rule itself. This alone does not distinguish South Africa from the rest of Africa, especially under colonial rule, failing to identify the distinctive and peculiar features of apartheid. There are different ways in which the state can be controlled by a dominant ethnic group, and this cannot be hidden by definitional fiat.

For many, apartheid was the set of segregationist measures designed to reserve certain facilities and areas for white use, and to prevent inter-racial miscegenation. This resonated with the American experience, where similar measures had been adopted until quite recently in some states. This fails to capture the political dimension of apartheid, for it is possible to have one without the other. For instance, whites could dominate the state without legally-sanctioning segregation. Social segregation was progressively abandoned throughout the course of white rule, without dampening enthusiasm for the term "apartheid".

Apartheid in the strict sense refers to the set of policies evolved by the white-controlled state to rule and administer blacks indirectly. Blacks were not represented within the white political system, which their vastly greater numbers would inevitably dominate, but were incorporated under their traditional leadership within areas they had been restricted to in the process of conquest. Although this system evolved theoretically, from an ambiguous set of dependent protectorates toward ethnic self-determination, in practice it was always indirect rule. Understandably, many would prefer to combine this political sense of apartheid with the segregation sense, but apartheid acquired legal segregation after indirect rule, and shed it before the end of indirect rule. It is useful to separate segregation from indirect rule, and this narrow sense of apartheid is intended here.

Inventing Apartheid

Apartheid was not invented in 1948 by Afrikaner Nationalists. The Nationalists were always eager to lay claim to apartheid, but this was a misleading element of their propaganda. Political parties are given to claims that they disagree with those who insist that they really agree. Apartheid was actually pioneered by the British colonial governments of Natal and the Cape Province.

Indirect rule of blacks was devised in the 19th century by Cecil John Rhodes in the Cape Province, and Lord Shepstone in Natal. Both of these territories were then under British colonial rule. The two key ingredients of indirect rule were integration of existing black political structures within the European-created state, by co-opting black chiefs, and confinement of blacks to the territory they had been restricted to by conquest. Black chiefs became salaried officials, on the payroll of the colonial authorities. In exchange, these chiefs kept order within their areas and assisted in local government of blacks. Black customary law was recognized, in a modified form, by the authorities. Rhodes passed laws requiring blacks to carry passes when travelling outside their reserves, a measure used in Russia, where it was known as the "internal passport".

The system that Rhodes and Shepstone built proved to be highly successful, allowing the authorities to govern without maintaining large standing armies or police forces. It drew sharp criticism from the Boers, then self-governing within their own states to the North. The Boers were concerned that the British policy would leave the blacks independent, hostile and uncivilized. Most importantly, the Boers were concerned that the farms, then the basis of their economy, would be starved of labour by the isolation of blacks. Instead, they advocated dispersing the blacks across the country, thus placing them into the labour market in the most efficient manner, and bringing them under the civilizing influence of white Christianity [Du Toit, 1991].

The disparity in policies towards the blacks was brought to an end by the Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1903, which led to a unified government in 1910. The policy of the new government was an elaboration of the Rhodes/Shepstone system. With the passage of the Land Act of 1913, blacks were not permitted to own land outside reserves established by law, which were protected for their collective ownership. Blacks were not included in the political system created in 1910, and occupied an ambiguous position as subjects but not full citizens. Only the Cape had permitted some blacks to vote prior to Union, principally because they did so in insignificant numbers, and this continued within the Cape until black voting rights were abolished in 1936 and replaced with indirect representation. The thrust of race policy was to keep blacks within the reserve system as much as possible, maintaining a system of migrant labour rather than tolerating permanent settlement of blacks within white areas.

In addition to indirect rule within the reserve system, various measures establishing social segregation had been taken since the foundation of European settlements. Many of these were ad-hoc measures, customs or by-laws. After Union, laws were promulgated in the same spirit - forbidding mixed marriages, for instance, or prohibiting blacks from settling in white areas without permission. By the late 1940s an uneven patchwork of these measures held in place a legally-enforced system of social segregation and indirect rule. Subsequent government policy involved the continued elaboration and reconciliation of the various strands of established government policy toward blacks. There were to be no major conceptual breaks from the framework constructed by Shepstone and Rhodes until the late 1980s.

After the Second World War, a virulent strain of Afrikaner nationalism seized control of the South African state. The split within white politics was over reconciliation: between English speaking whites of British ancestry, and Afrikaans speaking whites of continental ancestry. The Afrikaner Nationalists, rooted emotionally in the old Boer republics, actively opposed reconciliation. The war government led by Jan Smuts was their principal opponent. Blacks and non-whites in general were entirely peripheral to this conflict. This is hard to grasp now that race has come to dominate any discussion of South African politics.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, race and race-policy were not of any practical significance for white politics, and no white political party would have split or realigned itself on race. Nevertheless, the Nationalists found that race could be useful as a distraction in the election campaign of 1948. By seizing the initiative and portraying the government as "soft on race" they were able to score easy points. The Nationalists had earlier coined the term "apartheid" to refer to their own race policy, and they campaigned vigorously using this theme, leaving the government perplexed since it was nothing more than a dressed-up version of its own policy.

The Nationalists cast themselves as protectors of whites in general and Afrikaners in particular. The policies they offered under the rubric of apartheid were shrilly advertised as emergency measures designed to ward off a crisis posed by the looming black majority. There was really no such crisis, and the thrust of the Nationalists was toward control of the state by Afrikaners -- as opposed to the English, not the blacks. The emergence of apartheid as a campaign issue can be likened to the perennial American political habit of questioning the patriotism of opponents, despite their protestations to the contrary. This took on an especially crude form when practiced by the Nationalists, as prominent government figures were linked fantastically to the Soviet Union, International communism and the "black peril". Although the Nationalists promised many benefits from their "new" policies, these should be weighed carefully rather than accepted at face value.

Apartheid was useful as propaganda and as a distraction from the nakedly ethnic and chauvinist basis of the Nationalists within white politics. It is doubtful whether the call to rally around apartheid really won the Nationalists a significant number of votes, but the peculiarities of the constituency-based electoral system returned them to power nonetheless, despite the fact that they garnered fewer votes than the government. Once the Nationalists came to power, they exerted a grip on white South African politics that only loosened in the mid 1990s. Internationally they became known as the inventors of apartheid, a race policy increasingly at odds with international mores. Although the Nationalists were pleased at first with their acquisition of the race issue, they later came to regret this success.

All of the early measures passed under the apartheid banner were rationalizations of previous policies, now organized more thoroughly and systematically. Part of the rationalization involved the ambiguous status of Coloureds, who were primarily descendants of the Cape Hottentots with some white and black admixture, but in neither the black nor the white camp. Likewise, the Nationalists sought to address the position of Indians. Coloureds and Indians were allotted an intermediate status, segregated from both blacks and whites, and from each other. The Nationalists were later to experiment with variations of indirect rule for both these groups, but this was ultimately peripheral to the real issues of South African politics.

Nationalist race policy was not innovation so much as continual adaptation to practical domestic concerns and international developments. During the 1950s, segregation steadily lost ground worldwide. The colonial powers shed their onerous commitments abroad, offering little resistance to movements for national independence in the colonies. Elite circles within the Nationalists concluded that subjugation of blacks would no longer be defensible, internationally or domestically. By tying in to the worldwide movements for national independence, and the global respect for Woodrow Wilson's principle of self-determination, the Nationalists hoped to convert apartheid into a respectable policy [Rhoodie, 1959].

Indirect rule mutated into a scheme for national self-determination within the existing native reserves, which it was hoped would become independent nation-states. In this way whites would be ensured their own self-determination, as would blacks, though it was never clear where the Coloureds and Indians would fit into this scheme. This was ultimately all just ideological gloss on the existing system, though, since all it culminated in was the elevation of the black chiefs into Presidents and renaming of the reserves.

The Nationalists made some effort to establish whether the reserves could become self-sufficient, and quickly balked at the financial implications [Davenport, 1982]. Then as now the reserves had no economy of their own, being blessed only with the subsistence agriculture that blacks had employed prior to European settlement. The only economy of any importance in South Africa was that built by the settlers, based at first on commercial agriculture, then on mining, and later on manufacturing.

Not having any economies, the reserves were destined to remain dependent on the larger South African state regardless of name changes. Considerable effort was expended by the Nationalists to deny this, and large sums went into attempts to lure industries to the reserves, or adjacent areas. The reserves would always prove to a poor drawcard when compared to the white areas, which were vastly more prosperous. South Africa proper was a far greater prize, in which blacks would be guaranteed numerical preponderance anyway.

Faced with accelerating urbanization, which threatened the reserve system itself, the Nationalists desperately tried to halt the permanent influx of blacks into white areas outside the reserves. They were unsuccessful, faced with demographic forces beyond their control. The end of apartheid may be traced to the first concession of this fact by the white state in the mid 1980s. Once irreversible urbanization was conceded, this meant the end of the reserves and thus the end of indirect rule [Kane-Berman, 1990].

The end of apartheid provides striking confirmation of the narrow interpretation provided above. The policies of social segregation and many other measures commonly associated with apartheid changed dramatically with time, as the Nationalists pragmatically adapted government policies to meet the needs of the day. Only the underlying practical policy of indirect rule survived through this period, as social segregation was slowly relaxed after the 1950s (though this is not commonly recognized), and then scrapped altogether by the mid 1980s.

Economy, Society and Development

Leaving aside the historical roots of apartheid, it is remarkable how much has been attributed to this set of policies in accounts of contemporary South African history. More immediately, many of the present-day woes of South Africa have been linked directly to apartheid, especially by the new black regime and foreign observers. Black poverty and white wealth are often portrayed as flip sides of an apartheid coin. Few mention current economic problems in South Africa without raising apartheid, and the harmful effects of it on the economy and society are taken as moot. Since apartheid now has few defenders, this is a safe and apparently comforting argument. However sentiment should be discarded when reasoning about the South African economy and its relationship with apartheid.

In African terms, South Africa is a superpower and easily the most wealthy country on the continent. This notwithstanding the equal or greater natural advantages possessed by other African countries. The striking difference between these states lies in the pattern and duration of European settlement, which proved to be temporary and short-lived outside of South Africa. Under white rule the country developed a social and economic infrastructure comparable to Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

It is sobering to reflect that other African countries, which had achieved modest development under colonial tutelage, rapidly retrogressed after colonial departure [Sowell, 1998]. Whatever South Africa's problems, they were and are not on the order of the Congo, Tanzania, Malawi or Uganda. Weighed on the African scale, South Africa's economic achievements are comparatively hefty.

Since the founding of the modern economy by European settlers, an average economic growth rate of between 2 and 3% has been maintained. During the 1960s, a period often believed to be the height of white rule, an average growth rate of nearly 6% was maintained, comparing favourably to the United States (4.4%), the United Kingdom (3.1%), and Korea (7.7%). Average growth rates for the 1970s and 1980s were 3.1% and 1.6% respectively. Real economic decline can be traced directly to the late 1980s and the 1990s in particular, a decade in which economic growth has been negative (-0.8%) on average [CPS, 1989]. If anything, there seems to be a positive relationship between the strength of the white state and economic growth.

Some will argue that delayed effects of apartheid were responsible for the decline of the 1990s, but this is hard to sustain. As argued above, apartheid was not a Nationalist innovation and had been government policy in one form or another for much of the century. Loss of investor confidence in South Africa in the late 1980s and most of the 1990s must play an important role in any account of economic decline, as must rising state debt and expenditure propelled by ambitious social programs. Although few have provided explicit causal links between apartheid policies and the state of the economy, relying instead on general hostility toward apartheid to carry their arguments, evidence of this nature is long overdue. The performance of the economy under apartheid was robust by comparison to the transition period and the tenure of the new regime. This is illuminated by one of the enduring features of historiography in South Africa: the split between Marxists and liberals over the connection between apartheid and Capitalism [Lipton, 1986]. In the aftermath of the Cold War this debate has lost much of its sting, but it remains relevant today for the close attention given to economic aspects of apartheid.

The Marxists, tenured like their liberal counterparts in the universities created and supported by the white state, argued that Capitalism was closely linked to apartheid. Many features of apartheid commonly supposed to be economically dysfunctional artifacts of racism were actually functionally important to Capitalism. In particular, the migrant labour system, usually traced to the reserve and influx-control policy, was really an essential supply of cheap labour for the mining industry. Migrant labourers would commute from their rural homelands to the mines on contracts, after which they would return home. This kept them poor and unskilled, and depressed the price of their labour, or so the Marxists argued. Following the true Marxist spirit, apartheid was a necessary step in the evolution of South African Capitalism, a reflection in the social superstructure of the economic base. Once the contradictions between the base and its superstructure grew too intense, a cataclysmic revolution of the type dear to Marxists would consume apartheid and unleash the next era, which the Marxists were confident would be non-racial.

The liberals maintained that apartheid would ultimately prove to be economically dysfunctional, as it impeded black urbanization and hence economic development, and wasted government resources on unproductive projects aimed at luring blacks back to the reserves. Critically, apartheid cramped the supply of skilled labour by removing the urban stability essential for its development and restricting the economic role of blacks outside the reserves through job reservation. The liberals predicted that apartheid would be superceded by economic development, as the economy demanded skilled labour and made apartheid measures impractical [Butler, 1987].

Neither of these schools correctly identified the demise of apartheid. The supply of black skilled labour grew with apartheid, and there was no revolution. Instead the white state pragmatically bargained itself out of existence once it became clear that black urbanization could not be stopped and economic integration was a fait accompli. Economically, apartheid and the economy coexisted, though never as comfortably as the Marxists claimed, and never as uneasily as the liberals predicted. All other things being equal, it is conceivable that South Africa could have sustained continued economic growth under white rule.

Apartheid has also been blamed for South Africa's world-leading crime rate and widespread collapse of the state, but with little evidence. Crime under apartheid was managed with relative ease until the early 1990s. Indeed, if the height of apartheid is taken to be the 1960s, this was a relatively crime-free period. The best evidence of this is the historically small size of the South African Police force. In the early 1980s the country maintained a police to population ratio of 2:1000. This was lower than West Germany and France. Similarly the state spent a relatively modest percentage of the Gross Domestic Product on the military, substantially less than many developed countries [CPS, 1989]. This is in sharp contrast to the international image of the country as a garrisoned state.

Simplistic links have been made in many different contexts between crime, or general social instability, and poverty. Yet blacks were substantially poorer in the 1960s than they were in the 1970s, and even more so in the 1950s and previous decades. If crime is traceable directly to poverty, or even to the ferociousness of apartheid, one would expect to find more crime in earlier decades. The statistics show precisely the opposite, with a slow increase of crime starting in the mid 1970s and accelerating sharply in the 1990s.

Debates about the impact of apartheid on economic prosperity and variables like crime and civil unrest are often conducted in imaginary realms of infinite possibility, with myriad gradations between policy choices and outcomes. In reality, limited choices are available between a discrete number of major alternatives.

Speculating about what might have been requires evaluation of counterfactuals, scenarios in which historical facts are considered false for the sake of argument. It is likely that there are finitely many stable alternatives, since facts depend on one another. This is especially true of political policies. If apartheid was bad for South Africa's socioeconomic development, then it must compare unfavourably with other stable alternatives. The major alternatives turn on colonization and its aftermath.

1. No European Colonization;
2. Benevolent White Despotism;
3. Early Majority Rule.

If South Africa had never been colonized, would the black population be better off? Resentment of colonization itself is a central theme in black political movements, which trace black land loss to the arrival of Europeans. Yet South Africa has relatively little good farm land. An uncertain rainfall produces repeated, catastrophic droughts. Prior to colonization the country possessed no modern technology, being dominated by collective subsistence agriculture. Without the wheel, and with no written languages or metal working, economic prospects were bleak by current standards. Contrary to modern, neo-pagan, back-to-nature mythology, life in primitive societies of this kind is Hobbesian - nasty, poor, brutish and short - even if it is not solitary.

Conquests of primitive societies by more advanced civilizations are often brutal and bitterly resented. Still, as Thomas Sowell has recently pointed out [Sowell 1998], conquest is just as often in the better interests of those societies in the medium to long term. More advanced technology, more rational state forms, mature law and diligent administration provide the foundation for economic and cultural progress. This was as true of Roman Britain as it was of modern Africa. The Boer republics experienced tremendous longer-term benefits from the British victory in the Anglo-Boer war, not the least of which was a much-enhanced education system built by British teachers. Without European conquest, South Africa would surely rank among the most backward countries internationally.

If European colonization is accepted, the nature of white rule has two major trajectories: benevolent despotism or some form of apartheid. Under benevolent despotism, fair government without democratic representation of blacks would foster economic and social development. Maintenance of the rule of law, efficient administration and political stability would produce many of the prerequisites for success. This alternative favoured by earlier white liberals, who had less faith than their successors in the prospects of black government

Without debating the merits of despotism, however benevolent, it is unlikely that this would have been a stable alternative. Blacks would have displayed as little enthusiasm for it as they displayed for apartheid, since it would have negated their primary goal, political power. Given widespread opposition and consequent civil unrest, it is likely that the liberal rule of law would have given way to emergency measures aimed at the maintenance of order. Without a long-term alternative to despotism, no legitimacy could have been established, since the principles underlying a liberal government in the modern era lead inexorably toward a popular democracy. So liberal despotism would probably have transposed into a variation of either apartheid or black majority rule.

The only unexplored alternative left is an early transition to black majority rule, in the aftermath of WWII or even earlier. The nature of this can be guessed at from similar experiences in Africa, and the brief reign of post-apartheid majority rule. In ethnically divided societies, elections are a census by other means, since few parties attract significant cross-ethnic support. This consigns minorities to permanent political powerlessness, dependent on the good graces of hostile majorities. It is not surprising then that secession and irredentism are powerful forces within ethnically divided societies [Horowitz, 1986]. In the first post-apartheid election, leaving aside widespread de facto restrictions on free political activity, a census pattern was strongly evident, with almost no blacks voting for white parties, and no whites for blacks. Aside from upper-echelon window dressing, all the parties were themselves racially dominated. Intriguingly, the only party to draw significant support outside its primary base was the white National Party, which attracted a majority of Coloured and Indian voters. Still, with some 34 million blacks and a mere 6 million whites, 2 million odd Coloureds and under a million Indians, the results of such an election are entirely predictable.

Subsequent articles in this series will explore in far greater detail the experiences of South Africa under black majority rule. These have followed the pattern in post-colonial Africa, with accelerating corruption, a collapse of the rule of law, loss of effective administration, and burgeoning white emigration. There is no reason to believe that circumstances would have been any better under an earlier transition to black rule. There is also no pressing need to debate the merits of this arrangement, since a significant portion of the population, the whites, would plainly have voted with their feet and emigrated. Regardless of political sympathies and speechifying, loss of the critical white population would always be disastrous for the country, since whites built and staffed the modern state and economy.

White and Black Prosperity

There is a curious contradiction in the popular understanding of apartheid. Nobody would now claim that apartheid was a long-run policy success since the reserve system had to be abandoned and whites were forced to concede control of the state to blacks. Yet apartheid is credited with one of the more strident items of National Party election propaganda - the economic protection of whites from black competition. Many attribute white economic success to apartheid, and conversely, black poverty. A popular version within South African black politics goes further, claiming that white wealth was really stolen from blacks, and is hence illegitimate and a proper target for government-enforced redistribution. This flatters the National Party and its predecessors unduly.

White wealth is the product of entrepreneurship, education, advanced skills, relatively good government and the traditions of social order and economic organization that whites brought with them from Europe and actively cultivated. In no scenario would South African whites ever have been less well-off than blacks. As a practical matter, apartheid provided no meaningful economic protection for whites and undoubtedly harmed them far more than it benefited them. The key measures at issue here are the job reservation provisions, established first in the 1910s and later elaborated over the years. The Nationalists made job reservation a prominent element of their election platform in 1948, and had succeeded in drumming up some hysteria, to their political advantage. Job reservation applied mostly to the margins of economic activity, between skilled and unskilled labour. White Afrikaners had been forced into mine labour after the ruinous Anglo Boer war, and for a short period competed directly against blacks in the unskilled labour market, where blacks were easily able to undercut their wages. Legislation was passed to reserve certain jobs for whites, especially skilled positions on the mines.

At its height in the late 1950s and early 1960s, job reservation legislation attempted to specify in minute detail precisely which jobs blacks could not do in many economic sectors. In truth, these measures were not enforced vigorously and progressively wilted away in the face of economic and social reality [Lipton, 1986]. The critical economic problem in South Africa has not been an over-abundance of skilled labour, but rather an acute shortage [Nattrass, 1981]. Job reservation was often ignored on the mines, since skilled white labour was not available in this relatively low-paying sector of the economy. The mines simply employed blacks to do the same jobs under different job descriptions. Meanwhile whites, especially Afrikaners, had rapidly been moving out of the unskilled labour market ever since the 1920s. The social mobility afforded by a growing economy, after the depression of the 1930s, meant that whites constantly moved up into better paying jobs with better working conditions [Adam, 1979]. When competing for more skilled positions, blacks were not a source for concern, since whites had always had superior education, domestic and international contacts, and the skills in demand. Although state protection for whites made good propaganda, it was of no use to the broad white population, and of diminishing use to the small marginal white sectors still competing directly against blacks. Without job reservation, white economic fortunes would be no worse than they are today.

The economic success of whites, in particular Afrikaners, has also been popularly attributed to direct government support, through protected employment programs in the state sector, and state support of Afrikaner business in the form of soft contracts and favouritism. It is certainly true that the state, especially while controlled by Afrikaner nationalists, provided sheltered employment for marginal Afrikaners and indulged in corrupt business practices favouring Afrikaners. This was part of the system of political patronage which bolstered National Party power. Some have even claimed that this state support was crucial in "lifting" or "saving" Afrikaners from penury, after the disastrous Boer war and the great depression of the thirties had ruined many, creating the bulk of what was then called the "poor white" problem. At the time, the Nationalist government was indeed eager to claim responsibility for the past and future salvation of Afrikaners and the whole white race. In truth, the benefits of state patronage were far outweighed by the costs to Afrikaners.

Marginal Afrikaners, who made up the vast majority of poor whites, were able to escape their penury through a steadily expanding economy, driven by a robust private sector and an economy that was only burdened by government interference and corruption [Adam, 1979]. Afrikaners who were taken in to the fold of protected state employment - for example, on the railways, the police force and the lower ranks of the bureaucracy - received short term protection at the expense of long-term economic enrichment in the private sector. Protected employment schemes have been failures wherever they have been tried, and it is surprising that so much success has been attributed to this discredited mechanism. Draining productive labour from the economy and locking it up in uncompetitive and expensive employment, sheltered from incomparably more efficient market forces, may benefit select groups of people in the short run but it impoverishes both them and the economy as a whole in the longer term. If 'protected' Afrikaners had been forced to make their living in the private sector, they would have generated wealth, rather than consumed it, and improved their own lot more rapidly than they could in the low-paying government sector. No longer stagnating in government departments, they would have had greater incentive to improve their skills and apply them to the benefit of themselves and the skill-starved economy.

Some 40% of South African whites are English speaking descendants of British settlers. They were not enrolled in protected state employment to any significant degree, making their way in the private sector, which they still tend to dominate. Their economic wealth accumulated faster than Afrikaners, and they were instrumental in the growth of the economy, providing essential skills, business know-how and international trading contacts. The use of a burgeoning state to provide soft jobs only imposed extra burdens on those who actively created wealth in the productive portion of the economy, something considered especially irksome by English-speaking whites. In some ways the fate of English speaking whites was similar to that of Jews in late 19th century Europe, who were denied opportunities in the ossified state bureaucracy and were forced instead into the private sector, which they turned to far greater advantage than the gentiles they left behind in sheltered employment.

State patronage carries a tremendous opportunity cost, to both the economy and the patronized. Political propaganda should not obscure a simple law of economics - there is no free lunch. The energy-sapping embrace of the state cost many marginal Afrikaners the opportunity to be engaged in the competitive economy. It is reasonable to conclude that, given all we know about the growth of the South African economy under white rule, Afrikaners and whites as a whole would have been better off economically without the statist 'protection' of their Nationalist 'benefactors'.

Returning to the idea that white wealth was stolen from blacks, this is a curious claim given that blacks really had no wealth to steal. At the time of colonization and up until quite recently blacks eked out a marginal living by practicing subsistence agriculture in a country not well suited to agriculture [De Kiewiet, 1941]. The exploitation of minerals, which powered the initial economic boom, and then the introduction of capital-intensive manufacturing, which sustained economic growth, was a wholly white innovation. In any competitively organized economy, whites would have augmented their wealth precisely as they did in the South African economy - through the benefits of hard work, know-how, thrift, entrepreneurship, savings, investment and skill-development.

Although many blacks maintain that whites benefited greatly from the occupation and conquest of agricultural land claimed by blacks, more ambiguously than is commonly supposed, this has more to do with the resonance of land within black culture than with economic reality. White wealth rests on urbanization and the modern economy, of which agriculture has proved to be the least prosperous and most backward segment, usually requiring generous state subsidies to survive. It is only via modern methods of agriculture, introduced by whites, that farms have made a go of it at all in South Africa.

Communal subsistence farming is guaranteed perpetual poverty, which is why it was progressively abandoned by blacks themselves for the opportunities of the cities. The Land Act of 1913, which pegged land ownership and restricted blacks largely to their reserves, did not ultimately deny blacks of useful land, though this is hard for many to accept due to the emotive connotations of the Act. If land ownership had been left to free-market forces, small-scale black farmers would have been forced off productive land by a combination of repeated droughts and greater white agricultural capital. Bought out by larger-scale white farmers, black farmers would have been forced into the urban areas to make their living. Communally owned land not lost to market forces could only have been unproductive to the point that it was not worth bidding for, and would therefore have generated little income.

Black Education
[See also 'Education is key to South Africa's Problems?']

One of the chief culprits in explanations of modern black poverty is the education system attributed to apartheid. However, black education provides a clear illustration of the limits of government policy: the inability of political actors to direct government policy to preset plans, and the limits of state capacity to cope with social problems. What is commonly referred to as the "failure of black education" is certainly not the result of a diabolical apartheid scheme to deprive blacks of intellectual sustenance, nor is black education and its correlates a few policy steps away from prosperity.

Black education in South Africa is an entirely modern phenomenon, pioneered by missionaries and philanthropists - who were later supplanted by the state. Indeed, the missionaries introduced the first written black languages. Large scale mass enrollment of blacks in schools is an even more recent development. It was not until the late 1970s that the current mass enrollment in schools until matriculation came to pass - prior to then, only an elite segment of black society had undertaken a full course of high-school education, and the number of blacks progressing to universities was insignificant [SAIRR Annual Surveys, 1975-84]. This was in most part a reflection of the largely rural and relatively primitive state of black development through most of the century. With the accelerating urbanization of the late decades of the century, and the rapid evolution of new institutions in black society, there was a sudden surge of black pupils into the school system.

The school system in which blacks now suddenly found themselves in overwhelming numbers was, like most social institutions, segregated - administered separately, attended separately, taught separately and examined separately. Indeed blacks were not welcomed by the white state, which considered its first responsibility to be white children - after all, white parents were the sole tax base of the state, and blacks were considered near-foreigners. In its first flush, the post-war Nationalist government was especially inhospitable, preferring to shepherd blacks back into their own areas, and discourage them from flocking to what were then white areas. However, the overwhelming demographic and economic forces, against which apartheid eventually stood powerless, pushed toward black urbanization and economic integration. The government increasingly found it itself left with no choice but to accommodate blacks in growing numbers, little as it welcomed the prospect. In real terms black education under post-war white governments steadily expanded, claiming a growing share of the budget and placing severe strain on fiscal resources by the early 1980s, when it became the single biggest item of expenditure.

Far from being the victim of the white state, modern black education was created by it, at a greater cost than the military budget. Of course, the education system created for whites was, per capita, more expensive and in all ways superior, and the same is true for the other lesser education systems reserved for Coloureds and Indians. Yet the state eventually found itself spending far more in total on black education than it did on white education, and almost all of this spending transferred wealth from whites to blacks. Between 1948 and 1960, public expenditure on black education grew at an average rate of 5.4%. Between 1960 and 1974, expenditure grew at an average rate of 15.4%. Over the years between 1973 and 1977 expenditure grew even faster at an average of 26% [Nattrass, 1981]. Despite this accelerating expenditure, the system was swamped by the influx of black pupils in the late 1970s, and this would prove to be a turning point. Prior to this, black education had been steadily improving, but now it found itself decaying rapidly. Unable to cope with the new cohorts, examination results declined precipitously and a long period of severe attrition set in. It is fair to say that black education has been retrogressing ever since regardless of government wishes or policies; indeed, regardless of the government itself, since the New South Africa has done worse, as will be seen later in this series.

If by the late 1970s black education staggered precipitously under the logistical and fiscal burden of handling a mass influx of pupils, it was then floored by a rising tide of political activism and violence. The Soweto riots of 1976, initiated in the schools but quickly quelled by the government, presaged a full-scale onslaught in the 1980s and 1990s. The schools became a battleground of choice for blacks, who turned from direct military confrontation with the state to a scorched-earth campaign within black areas. The schools were just one component of this strategy, embraced by the ANC and other black political organizations, the aim of which was to destroy black local government and state assets in black areas [Wentzel, 1995].

Recall that the crux of apartheid was indirect rule of blacks through dependent political structures. The new campaign sought to destroy all institutions in black areas related to the state, and this expressed itself in a campaign of murder, political intimidation and destruction of state property and assets. School buildings, teachers, headmasters, inspectors, textbooks, equipment and learning in general became targets. A long period of decline in examination results set in, from a 70% pass rate in the early 1970s to a 30% pass rate by the mid 1990s [SAIRR Annual Surveys, 1975-96]. It should be stressed that this pass rate represents an absolutely minimal standard, with few students attempting science and mathematics, and precious few entering the university preparation track. Moreover, the conditions of anarchy created in urban schools especially have persisted and even worsened after the transition to black rule.

The new government has found, to its chagrin, that government spending on education reached its feasible limits under the previous government. Unable to spend any more, and rapidly discovering that money does not in itself produce results, they have few workable alternatives. The rallying cry of the black politicians has always been equality, and this applies especially to government spending on education. A principal aim is to equalize spending and standards, to the level of the now de-facto white schools. One of the bitter lessons the new regime faces that this is not possible without simply destroying the white system, and further alienating whites, already prone to emigration. Not only are the resources not available for doing so, but neither are the social conditions nor the respective parent populations, which are incapable of supplying the underlying stability and resourcefulness of the white population. Reallocation of government resources will not improve black education much if at all, though de-financing white education is capable of destroying that system entirely, converting one working part and one non-working part into a matching pair of non-working parts. This topic will be dealt with in far greater detail later in this series.

Choosing Victims Wisely
[See also 'Apartheid an inhumane system?']

What always rankled most about apartheid and the white state was discrimination, especially the unequal allocation of government resources. Education was only one example of this, and the same pattern was clear from the structure of the state medical sector, allocation of local government spending and the countless other sectors in which the modern state has become involved. Internationally this was especially poignant, given the history of segregation in the United States and the colonialist past of many European countries. Consequently, the South African situation was used as a low-cost emotive issue in the domestic racial politics of others.

There is no question that the South African state and its economy was built with whites in mind. The bureaucracy was staffed and directed by whites, as was the police force, the military and the courts. When spending was at issue, the interests of whites were first at hand. In all this, blacks only figured ambiguously, not within the system but never entirely excluded from it. Most importantly, the fiscal basis of the state was almost entirely white. Even now, some 95% of all personal income tax in South Africa is paid by whites [SAIRR Annual Surveys, 1990-96], under one of the world's most punitive tax codes. This fundamental point cannot be overemphasized: the development of the South African state was always matched directly to the level of white economic development and capacity. Where the government allocated spending to whites, it did so in healthy proportion to their taxability, and hence its own fiscal capabilities.

At any stage in the development of the South African state, significant spending on blacks entailed a proportionally significant transfer of resources from whites to blacks. This remains true today since, despite substantial economic progress on their part, almost no state tax revenue derives from blacks due to endemic tax and service-payment evasion. Massive investment of state resources in black education, for example, can only be financed by punitive taxation of whites, whether directly in the form of income taxes, or indirectly in the form of company taxes (eventually, all tax is paid by individuals). It has already been conceded by most that equalization of spending at previous levels is impossible, so the return to whites from their heavy tax burden must be greatly diminished. Spending cuts have already resulted in severely compromised levels of service by the state, forcing whites to turn to the private sector for health care, education and even policing. This situation is not a modern aberration, although it has been exacerbated by extensive maladministration, but a consequence of ostensibly egalitarian policies.

Steadily increasing state spending on blacks is not even an innovation of the post-apartheid regime. The white state also found itself spending more on blacks with each passing year, until levels of spending on education, for example, reached very nearly their current levels. In order to sustain this increased spending, the tax burden on whites grew heavier with each government budget. By the twilight of the white regime, the state had probably already exceeded its prudent fiscal capacity to finance black education and development. The catastrophic effect of this mismatch between the fiscal basis of the state and its constituents is that whites no longer receive any appreciable returns for their taxes. Denied the society and state that they created, few incentives remain for them to stay.

It is an idle parlour game to debate whether the whites ought to transfer their wealth to blacks or somehow "deserve" their current lot, since loss of white confidence and commitment trumps anything. South Africa is now faced with massive emigration of its white population, especially the all-important elite most in demand by countries promising a better return on their labour and loyalty. The devastating effect of this on South Africa cannot be overstated. Those whites who cannot emigrate are sure to become an especially troublesome presence and a potent source of instability for any future government. Machiavelli might have advised his future prince that, if one plans to discriminate, it is wise to pick victims who cannot emigrate, or least will not be missed if they do.

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  • Lipton, Merle Capitalism and Apartheid: South Africa, 1910-86 (David Philip, Cape Town, 1986)
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  • Nattrass, Jill The South African Economy: Its Growth and Change (Oxford University Press, Cape Town 1981)
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  • Wentzel, Jill The Liberal Slideaway (South African Institute of Race Relations, Johannesburg, 1995)
Originally published HERE
Discovered HERE


  1. Verwoerd's Apartheid was filled with good intentions. Verwoerd wanted to develop homelands and then grant complete sovereignty when the homelands were ready for it.

  2. Dr Verwoerd referred to it as a policy of good neighbourliness, acknowledging and accepting the differences between people, but acting the way good neighbours do.
    Listen to him say it himself.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.