The revolutionary struggle of the black masses in South Africa is at its inception, and the problems of what path it must take—rural or urban guerrilla, a strategy based on the Reserves, on foreign base-camps or on the city ghettoes and shanty-towns—are still unsolved. It goes without saying that as socialists our fundamental commitment is to those who are already confronting the repressive apparatus of the South African régime with arms in their hands. But at this early stage of the struggle, the very power of that régime has led to a certain pessimism in some quarters about the possibilities for its revolutionary overthrow. Hopes are consequently placed in some evolutionary erosion of white dominance as South Africa’s economy expands, which will in turn lead to a more ‘normal’ bourgeois democracy—no longer based on race lines—in which a ‘normal’ class struggle could re-emerge. It is this reformist thesis which is the subject of the article which follows; the aim is to demonstrate that only economic and political functional aspects to become an autonomous entity which in itself circumscribes any movement towards reforms by the dominant white élite. As a consequence of its ‘economism’ the reformist thesis is unable adequately to inform us about that to which we are most concerned to seek an answer, viz. how the blatant contradictions between South Africa’s economic and political systems, between the economic base and the (racial) ideological ‘superstructure’, will be overcome.

An examination of the origins, historical development and consequences of race discrimination and ideology in South Africa will not only reach radically different conclusions to those suggested by the reformist thesis, but will in addition afford the opportunity of highlighting the significance for political analysis of examining a society’s specific historical legacies; the fundamental relation between structure and superstructure and the too often neglected effects that the latter has upon the former. South Africa affords a specific and ideal opportunity for such an examination; for race discrimination is not only embedded in her social, political and economic structures, it is also embedded in the consciousness of her peoples.

From shortly after their arrival at the Cape in 1652 the European Dutch, through superior force of arms, were in a position to dominate the indigenous Hottentot population. As a direct result of this situation, the resultant socialization process, in terms of the allocations of roles and status between the two groups, lay primarily in the hands of the European. However, in this early period of South African history, this ‘naming’ of roles and status was defined by the European primarily in terms of religious belief rather than skin pigmentation. Non-literate coloured races were seen by the European either as ‘little lost souls’, to be rescued and converted to Christianity or, alternatively, as ‘pagans’ who had no soul to lose and were therefore born to slavery. Thus a non-European at the Cape, once baptized into the Christian religion, was immediately accepted as a member of the white (Christian) community. And if baptized as a slave, was entitled to his freedom.

With the importation of a considerable number of slaves from the East, European attitudes with regard to race underwent a significant change. The Europeans came to associate all forms of manual labour with servility, and became increasingly reluctant to undertake this form of work. Thus economic factors gradually began to intrude and undermine the original Christian/Heathen status differentiation. In place of the latter distinction, an economic and social hierarchy based on skin pigmentation was set up because those in the lowest economic and status groups were clearly distinguishable by their skin colour.

By the beginning of the 18th century, European agricultural expansion was taking place at the Cape; there arose the beginnings of a frontier society, and a resultant frontier mentality which was decisively to affect race attitudes in South Africa. Being intensively engaged in the struggle for survival, a frontier society can afford to give little consideration to other peoples. Under such conditions, self-identity and status, through the use of social distance, must be kept to a maximum. In the meeting of the pastoralist Boer and African tribesman (1770 onwards), and with competition for water and grazing lands, it became imperative from the Boer point of view to dominate the Africans and to accentuate their difference. The Boers’ Calvinist religion of predestination conveniently placed the ‘heathen’ African beyond salvation. By virtue of his religion the frontier farmer thus justified his right both to extend his own lands and to subjugate the ‘heathen’ by whom he was surrounded. The idea that Christians and non-Christians were in any sense equal was utterly foreign to the frontier mentality. Indeed, the Boer farmers conceived the difference between themselves and the African to be as great as that between themselves and their cattle, with the Africans in fact being named by the Boers as Zwarte Vee (Black Cattle). It was upon these foundations that the precursor of present-day Apartheid, the master-servant social fabric of the 19th century Boer Republics, was built up. Thus in the Transvaal Republican constitution it was specifically stated that there should be no equality of race in Church or State. Upon these determinants, the psycho-sociological and historical legacies of (racial) conflict and (racial) fear, Afrikaner Nationalism was later to build its most powerful weapon in its pursuit of the total domination of South African society—racist ideology.