This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse this site you are agreeing to our use of cookies. For more information, see our privacy statement

New Left Review I/82, November-December 1973

Robert Davies

The White Working-Class in South Africa

At present, there is no liberation movement in South Africa which seriously regards the white working class as a potential ally, because of the benefits that this section of the settler community derives from Apartheid. Some currents within it have recently even revealed symptoms of political sympathy for the extreme right wing of white bourgeois chauvinism. [1] Much of the support for Albert Hertzog’s breakaway Herstigte Nasionale Party (literally Reconstituted Nationalist Party) came from vulnerable sections of the white working class. There have also been conflicts between white workers and the government over the floating colour bar, some aspects of which have received attention from the press. In the course of one of these conflicts a white mining trade-union official, Dr Ras Beyers, spoke thus: ‘the kaffirs are pushing you out. How would the cabinet feel if you appointed a fat black semi-savage as deputy prime-minister just because it would cost the country less?’ This social phenomenon has tended to baffle observers. Some bourgeois analysts have seen the existence of a militantly reactionary sector of the working class as a refutation of Marxism: a proof that factors other than class can be the fundamental division in capitalist societies. [2] See, e.g. P. L. Van den Berghe: South Africa a Study in Conflict: (Wesleyan University Press 1965). Van den Berghe argues that South Africa satisfies a minimal definition of a caste society. He writes ‘Social classes in the Marxian sense of relationship to the means of production exist by definition, as they must in any capitalist country, but they are not meaningful social realities. Clearly pigmentation, rather than ownership of land or capital is the most significant criterion of status in South Africa. The attempt to salvage Marxian orthodoxy by identifying the whites with the capitalists and the Africans with the proletariat is unacceptable because it does violence to the facts . . . Conversely to lump white and non-white wage earners in one supposedly unified class-conscious proletariat . . . is nonsensical. As to traditional African societies, they cannot be analysed in Marxian class terms at all.’ pp. 267–8. This view has even, to some extent, been adopted by Marxists—who, seeking to avoid being categorized as dogmatists in the face of empirical facts, have accepted the thesis that there is a conflict between racist ideology, which has now (so the argument runs) acquired a dynamic autonomy of its own, and capitalist economic forces. [3] See for example A. Asheron, ‘Race and Politics in South Africa’, New Left Review No. 53, January-February 1969. Reformists argue that these economic pressures will triumph and that South Africa will emerge as a more ‘normal’ bourgeois society, whilst revolutionaries argue that the ideology is too strong to be reformed. For its part, the South African Communist Party is also trapped within this problematic and maintains, following the late ‘progressive leader of all mankind’, that class-based action is not now on the agenda and can only be after a successful national revolution eliminates the structures of racial oppression. [4] The two-stage theory of revolution is presented in its programme ‘The Road to South African Freedom’ (African Communist Pamphlet) adopted in 1962 and still in force. A Communist minority within the anc did, however, argue at the anc’s 1969 Morogoro (Tanzania) Conference that the mainspring of the South African revolution should be proletarian class-based action: see S. Johns, ‘Obstacles to Guerrilla Warfare—A South African Case Study’, Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. ii, No. 2 June 1973. However, as an acute recent analysis has pointed out, since international capitalism does not now seriously seek a ‘neo-colonial solution’ to the ‘South African problem’ [5] G. Arrighi and J. Saul, ‘Nationalism and Revolution in Sub-Saharan Africa’, Socialist Register 1969. (because this could only be bought at the expense of widespread disruption within the Republic), racism can only be eliminated by the destruction of the capitalist system as such in South Africa. Arrighi and Saul add: ‘the minimal aspirations of the African people . . . can only be fulfilled by seizing control over the industrial apparatus itself and its reorientation towards the economic and social uplifting of the African masses. Moreover, contrary to what has sometimes been supposed, this . . . clearly cannot be initiated by an African bourgeois “revolution” aiming in the first instance at removing the racialist component of South African capitalism . . . . (Since) the peasantry has been effectively proletarianized [6] According to the 1970 Census: 4,450,000 Africans (30 per cent of the total) lived in the towns and must be regarded as an urban proletariat; 3,525,000 Africans (24 per cent of the total) worked on white-owned farms and must be regarded as a rural proletariat; 6,918,000 Africans (46 per cent) lived in the ‘reserves’ or ‘homelands’. The migratory labour system and the low standard of living in the rural slums means that most Africans (men at least) are employed part of their lives as wage workers. This is what Arrighi and Saul mean by the proletarianization of the peasantry. . . . revolution in South Africa . . . can only be a proletarian and a socialist revolution and the liberation struggle will not succeed unless it is restructured in accordance with this premise.’ [7] Arrighi and Saul, op. cit., p. 155 and p. 173. The present re-emergence of the black proletariat as the leading force in the struggle against the Vorster regime, has made the necessity of adopting a proletarian and socialist perspective of paramount importance. It is to be hoped that a fresh analysis of the local white working class will perhaps contribute towards the development of a new Marxist approach towards the South African revolution.

Subscribe for just £45 and get free access to the archive
Please login on the left to read more or buy the article for £3


Robert Davies, ‘The White Working-Class in South Africa’, NLR I/82: £3

If you want to create a new NLR account please register here

’My institution subscribes to NLR, why can't I access this article?’