Thursday, February 17, 2005

Harold Wolpe: Capitalism and Cheap Labour Power in South Africa

In Capitalism and Cheap Labour Power in South Africa, Harold Wolpe analyzes what separates the plight of African workers in South Africa from workers of color in the US. “Apartheid entails a considerable increase in White domination through the extension of the repressive powers of the state…[and] limited local government which, while falling far short of political independence and leaving unchanged the economic and political functions of the reserves” (Wolpe 61). Apartheid not only represents physical separation, but also an economic bind that keeps Africans at a continual level. South Africa’s dual economy is interesting in that it’s both capitalist and anti-capitalist at the same time. By abridging African working rights, South Africa goes against the ideals of efficiency and comparative advantage that a capitalist economy is based on. However, by exploiting the hard work of Africans while rewarding them with minimal payoff, it yields the most economic profit possible for the dominant whites (Wolpe 66). While the US government, in theory, provides protection for blacks against the inequality, both the South African government and the white populous are aligned to marginalize this group. Laws strictly forbid strikes (Wolpe 81), organized coalitions (80), capital investment from whites (83), and land occupation outside of selected areas (71). Also, while US workers look down on African-Americans as inferior in economic value, South Africans view the black Africans as competition for the same jobs (Wolpe 62). Therefore, it was in the own best economic interests of competing workers to impede this class (even if collectively, it would have benefited society to grant blacks better jobs).

While Wolpe’s assessment of apartheid in South Africa as uniquely discriminatory has merit, it unintentionally underplays any possible connections with the United States. Frederickson in White Supremacy spends 280 pages noting the similarities and differences between blacks in the two countries, and by the end, the similarities stick out more. While the US government has equal protection claims on a federal level for minorities, the split-labor market still exists on the state and local level due to the dual-federalist nature of the Union (Frederickson 212). While the laws of the land never say that African-Americans hold a distinctly lower bearing in the economic sphere, it is surely implied. African-Americans are often used a strikebreakers in the factories, fueling resentment amongst the lower-class whites and making it impossible for the two groups to integrate economically (Frederickson 226). Finally, Wolpe argues that black communities in South Africa are maintained in tact by white South Africa so that neighbors could leach off each other as a form of welfare, and make governmental services more obsolete (Wolpe 70). A striking parallel exists in the movie Nothing But a Man where the entire African-American population of Alabama seemingly relies on each other for loans, work, and the other necessities that are systematically excluded from them.

The second and final criticism I have of Wolpe’s argument is that it fails to take into account losses in efficiency and aspiration experienced amongst the marginalized workers. The economics of South Africa are based on exploiting the black African worker’s skills without just compensation. However, this theory assumes that no disillusionment occurs in the process. Nothing But a Man accurately depicts this disillusionment, as Duff Anderson, unwilling to become an economic sycophant, spirals into fury in an effort to support his family. In Mapantsula, Panic, unwilling to work a tedious job, turns to more illicit activities, with his girlfriend Josie relegated to providing welfare. Both men symbolize powerful minds that if not fully utilized, end up attacking and damaging the communities that these economic restrictions create. Regardless of whether the poverty is implemented through law or society, the immobilization is the same.