Blog post

Understanding apartheid as a consequence of capitalist development

Antiracist thinkers of the 1970s looked to South Africa as a case study on how deeply intertwined racism was with capitalism. 

11 September 2023

Understanding apartheid as a consequence of capitalist development

South Africa made apartheid its official policy in 1948 while the rest of the world was at least claiming to eradicate racism after the defeat of Nazism. By the 1970s, the apartheid regime seemed impregnable. The Sharpeville massacre in 1960, in which 250 unarmed African protestors were killed or wounded by police officers, put an end to mass protests, and then, over the next decade, the regime imprisoned or exiled leaders of the underground liberation movement.

There was also rapid industrial growth, at levels resembling that of Europe or the United States. That combination of structural racism and capitalist industrialization seemed to confound Marxist and liberal theories of economic development, both of which tended to see racial prejudice as a legacy of the more tradition-bound societies that existed before the industrial age. Capitalist development was, according to the theories, a rationalizing force in the sense that it organized itself according to abstract rules that were, in principle, generally applicable; in this sense, it ran counter to racism’s apparently irrational and arbitrary differentiations. But in South Africa, the force of racism seemed to increase the more advanced its capitalist economy became.

The apartheid system was not a legacy from the nineteenth century that had survived into the 1970s; it was the creation of a modern capitalist state in the 1940s. Apartheid could not be explained as simply the expression of age-old prejudices or hatreds: in very specific ways, it was a formation of the twentieth century. Apartheid South Africa thus posed in a particularly stark way the question of how capitalism and racism were related.

There was an additional problem for Marxists seeking to understand apartheid South Africa. The prevailing social antagonism did not appear to be, as orthodox Marxists would expect, owners of industrial capital arrayed against an industrial waged workforce, but a white minority ruling over a Black majority. Nor could one plausibly claim that apartheid racism was only an ideological superstructure concealing a material base of non-racial class antagonisms, along the lines of Wood’s argument. Apartheid’s racist legislative program—imposing on Black workers special regimes of surveillance and monitoring under the “pass laws,” removing millions of Black people from their homes and resettling them in specially designated areas, and racially segregating land and property ownership—was not an ideological manoeuvre to manipulate white workers, but rather constituted the material infrastructure of the entire South African political and economic system.

In the Marxist tradition, a possible answer to the question of how structural racism and advanced capitalism could coexist lay in the theory of national oppression that emerged from the 1920 Comintern discussions. Taking that approach meant seeing the apartheid system as a form of internal colonialism: white South Africa as an advanced capitalist sector subjecting the Black and “colored” peoples of South Africa to national oppression and blocking the regions where they lived from industrial development. If that had been what South Africa looked like, it could have implied a left political strategy based on Lenin’s two-stage program: first, a national liberation struggle to achieve democratic rights and the end of the apartheid policies; second, an anti-capitalist class struggle to create a socialist society. In fact, this was the program that the South African Communist Party adopted in 1962.

But the internal colonialism thesis was not a plausible explanation of South African apartheid. It could not explain the fact that, by the 1970s, the majority of the workforce employed in modern industrial production in South Africa, such as auto plants, textiles, and steel production, came from the nonwhite sections of South African society that were supposed to be colonized. Nearly half a million Blacks worked in the gold mines, the most important sector of South Africa’s economy, producing more than half of the world’s output. The situation of these Black wage earners was quite different from that of the masses of peasants in other colonial societies; an analysis that equated the two seemed to be missing the mark. South Africa refused to fit orthodox Marxist categories. At the same time, there were developed revolutionary organizations in South Africa seeking to topple the apartheid system. The combination of these two facts forced on Marxist theory a productive creativity.

In 1976, the London branch of the anti-apartheid movement published a pamphlet entitled Foreign Investment and the Reproduction of Racial Capitalism in South Africa. At this time, the anti-apartheid movement was calling for an international boycott of South African exports, though many opposed the boycott on the grounds that the best way to weaken the influence of racial prejudice in South Africa was to encourage economic growth and industrialization. Harry F. Oppenheimer, for example, chairman of Anglo-American Corporation, the world’s largest mining multinational, argued in 1974 that “the rapid economic development of South Africa would in the long run prove incompatible with the government’s racial policies.”

The pamphlet set out to show, on the contrary, that South African racism was strengthened, not weakened, by capitalist growth. Capitalism was not the solution to racism but the soil upon which it grew. Apartheid “was a consequence of capitalist development,” the pamphlet argued. Its “design is not a product of irrational racial prejudice” but the outcome of a plan to control African workers and maximize profits within a system the pamphlet called “racial capitalism.” The pamphlet’s authors, Martin Legassick and David Hemson, were part of a group of South African Marxists working in the 1970s—including Neville Alexander, Bernard Magubane, and Harold Wolpe—who started using the term “racial capitalism” to analyze the political and economic structures of apartheid South Africa. The pamphlet appears to mark the first time the term appeared in print.

— Excerpted from What Is Antiracism?: And Why It Means Anticapitalism by Arun Kundnani


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