Thursday, February 03, 2005

Bonner, Delius & Posel: "The Shaping of Apartheid: Contradiction, Continuity, and Popular Struggle"

Lily C. Lyons
Comp. Freedom Movements
Peter Rachleff
January 31, 2005

“The Shaping of Apartheid: Contradiction, Continuity, and Popular Struggle”:
An Overview

In “The Shaping of Apartheid,” authors Bonner, Delius and Posel seek to examine the important trajectories of industrialization, urbanization and popular struggle that played important roles in the creation of the apartheid system in South Africa. In the years leading up to apartheid, the state began to build its economic system around a low-wage economy characterized by mining, agriculture and manufacturing. The emphasis on these industries increasingly brought people to urban centers, creating concentrations of low-income masses that challenged the state’s potential for urban control. As a result, by the 1930s and ’40s, labor shortages and struggles presented major problems, prompting an expansion of the government itself and of its involvement in urban labor issues.

As explained by the authors, South Africa’s reliance on cheap labor had numerous consequences: “while cheap labour fuelled often impressive rates of economic growth, it also entailed losses in the form of high labour turnover and low productivity, in particular for manufacturing” (4). Higher wages in urban areas prompted black migration to the cities, where labor markets were characterized by still-low wages and state interventionism aimed at regulating the distribution of workers and improving productivity and economic growth. Poor working conditions in urban centers were the cause of housing shortages and shortcomings, poverty, unemployment and disenchantment, which were particularly marked in the black proletariat. These workers presented a significant threat the state’s power and control, especially during wartime. In response, the state heightened regulation and surveillance, which gradually grew into a political and social system of racialized control—apartheid—which is generally dated to 1948 when the National Party won the election.

The authors argue that apartheid can be seen as a capitalist attempt at resolving the economic hardship that by the 1940s needed drastic attention. Urbanization and the growth of manufacturing drew workers from the mining and agricultural sectors. Women increasingly took over the domestic work sector, which had previously been a male domain. This newfound economic opening, in conjunction with the building of social networks, often in the context of churches, led to the stabilization female urban populations. Also integral to the rise to apartheid were the movements of organized resistance, including those of the communist parties (CPSA & SACP), which constituted a real challenge to the ideology of the Nationalist party. In particular, the CPSA worked with the trade unions. Finally, in addition to examining the effects of the social, economic and political trends on the black workers and members of the black petty bourgeoisie, the authors argue it is important to examine the situation of the white workers and Afrikaner petty bourgeoisie throughout the same period (20). Clearly, the urbanization of black workers introduced new competitors for the urban white workers, who generally claimed higher wages. As the perceived and real vulnerability of the white working class grew, its members increasingly supported the Nationalist government.

Lastly, the authors examine the workings of the apartheid state and its policies, which they argue were the “Nationalists’ immediate, often ad hoc, efforts to resolve the contradictions of urbanisation and industrialisation, bequeathed to the state in the aftermath of the Second World War” (23). Reacting in fear to being able to control the new and exploited urban populations, the Nationalist party introduced its plan for “stabilisation,” which targeted (segregated) housing, healthcare and education. These plans, which were meant to stabilize, often accomplished the opposite, as the increasingly educated African youth provided heightened resistance and convoluted systems such as “urban labor preferences” failed to address the unemployment, crime and disenchantment of the workers. Segregation, deeply embedded in the prevailing Christian-Nationalism, characterized formal and informal social organization. By the 1950s, it was clear even to the Nationalists themselves that many of the target issues of stabilization had not been adequately addressed, which prompted stricter but similar attempts to control the urban population and the parameters of employment. The chapter ends with a brief description of the 1960s through the 1980s, in which the authors explain that it became more obvious as time passed that apartheid policies had only further exacerbated the problems it was aimed to address.

In my opinion, the emphasis that Bonner, Delius and Posel place on the trends of urbanization and industrialization to the development of apartheid is essential to understanding its origins and perpetuation as a system of social, political and economic control. However, without prior knowledge of the centrality of racism, new readers could read the chapter and come away with a conception of apartheid that lacked a critical analysis of the system’s racism. Perhaps the authors write in response to a history of writing about apartheid as a system of racial control, but I found myself disappointed when the article didn’t make more concrete links about how the processes of urbanization and industrialization, which clearly affected segments of the population differently, were so integral to not just a system of control for the working masses but one that had specific ramifications for people of different races. To their credit, the authors examined the role of women and youth more specifically in relation to the political, economic and social trajectories discussed.