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. footnote1 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. footnote2 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. footnote3 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. footnote4 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’ footnote5 (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 footnote6 . . . 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.’ footnote7 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.

To understand the structural position of the white working class in the Republic, it is necessary first to recall the historical background of the peculiar politico-economic system of South Africa. The present State structure can perhaps best be described as a functional alliance between international and settler capitalism, after a considerable period of conflict between them. European settlement, of course, arose out of the needs of international capitalism, or imperialism. Originally the European powers—first Holland, later Britain—were only interested in South Africa from a strategic viewpoint. The Cape was on the sea-route to the East. Settlement was encouraged to provide supplies for passing ships, and subsequently to protect the coast from the indigenous inhabitants of the region. But since it was only the Cape peninsula that was important to international capitalism, the settlement inspired by it did not reach far into the interior. Accordingly white occupation of the interior of the country was largely the product of local settler initiative, following differences with the colonial authorities (e.g. over prices for crops and slavery). The move inland began in earnest in the early 19th century (the ‘Great Trek’ began in 1836) and by the last quarter of that century white occupation of the present territory of South Africa was virtually complete, after several important African military defeats. The economy created by the settlers, which replaced the native subsistence economy, was originally itself one of subsistence agriculture, but by the 1880s was becoming increasingly market-oriented with wool as the main product. By the 1880s white subsistence agriculture survived only in the most remote areas of the Transvaal, where transport was inadequate. But whether subsistence or market, settler farming depended on cheap black labour and since wages were low a number of more compulsive devices were introduced by the settlers to ensure an adequate supply of labour. The most common of these was the labour tenant scheme (which still survives in some areas today) whereby African subsistence farmers, living on what was now, in settler law, a white farmers’ land, were compelled to work part of the time for that white farmer as payment of rent.

But with the discovery of large scale mineral deposits, international capitalism began to view South Africa in a new light. In 1886 the Witwatersrand was declared a gold mining area, foreign capital poured in and two years later was yielding an annual return of £1,300,000. footnote8 With the inflow of capital came an inflow of skilled white labour, mainly men from the mines of Cornwall and Northern England.

The Transvaal settlers who had at first cautiously welcomed the discovery of minerals on their territory footnote9 began to fear that most of the benefits would accrue to ‘uitlanders’. It was true that the railway to the ports permitted farmers in formerly remote areas to market their products, but the railway also meant that produce from outside the Transvaal competed with Transvaal produce in the rapidly expanding urban market. Also Transvaal farmers were losing their labour as blacks preferred working in the mines because of the relatively higher wages there. The settlers responded to these challenges by using the only power that they possessed, their control of the state. They made this control secure by extending the residence qualification for the franchise from 5 to 14 years and then set up a number of state-run monopolies such as dynamite, hoping thereby to gain revenue and provide some diversified employment for their own community. The inefficiency of these monopolies and their consequent hindrance to the mineowners’ operations, as well as Kruger’s attempt to thwart British imperial policy in the North and the East, led to the Anglo-Boer war of 1899 to 1902.

One effect of the war was that much of the rural settler economy was destroyed, and accordingly large numbers of Afrikaners were forced to move into the towns. footnote10 Generations of the simple rural life had ill-fitted most of them for work in the towns. Few had any industrial skills, many could not speak the same language as their employers, and quite a large number were illiterate. The lucky ones found employment in the mines (75 per cent of the white miners were Afrikaners by the mid-1920s), footnote11 but many were unemployed. The existence of this unskilled white urban population led to a reinforcement of the demand for a segregated pattern of industrial relations, which first began in the Transvaal in 1893 when the Kruger government passed a law preventing blacks from working as blasters. Colour bars had not been quite so necessary for the earliest English miners, since they could bargain with their skill and experience as well. But in the 20th century, as in the days of Kruger’s government, a large number of white workers who had nothing else to bargain with, came to consider that institutional privileges over their black fellow workers (whom their background taught them to regard as inferior) were vital. Of course, the mineowners of the early 20th century were no more interested in abolishing colour bars for moralistic reasons than are today’s South African industrial capitalists; it was simply good business to pay an African less for the same work. Socialists of the period tried to re-direct the frustration of the white workers into an assault on the system as a whole; but the best they could do was to popularize a few slogans which then often became mingled with racist consciousness into such bizarre formulas as ‘Workers of the world unite and fight for a white South Africa’. The conflict between the white workers on the one hand, and the employers supported by the government on the other, came to a head in the 1922 General Strike and Rand Revolt, when employers tried to lay off white miners. The Rand Revolt was defeated, but its experience led the white workers to realize that on their own they were too weak. They were ready to form new alliances, and since they saw their fellow black workers not as brothers but as rivals, they detached themselves from the African proletariat and allied themselves with the reactionary white rural bourgeoisie which was waiting in the wings.