Chapter 3. The Poor White Problem

From the moment I assumed office, I came face-to-face with the "Poor White" problem, one of the major tragedies of South Africa.

People abroad believe that all Europeans in South Africa live, and have always lived, in comfort and affluence. In South Africa itself, even during the 'twenties and 'thirties when the poor white problem was at its worst, half the white population had no idea if the poverty and misery in which the other half lived. A white skin in South Africa is a protection against racial discrimination: it offers no defence against poverty, and for generations large sections of Whites have lived below subsistence level.

The " Poor White " problem has been investigated by government commissions and other bodies since the 'nineties of the last century. Its causes and effects have been admirably described by professor Macmillan in Complex South Africa (Faber and Faber, London, 1930), and by Professor De Kiewiet in A History of South Africa . Social and Economic (Oxford University Press, 1941). The problem has now been largely solved, chiefly through the growth of the manufacturing industries, but the basic factors underlying it ill remain, rooted in the social and economic structure of the country, and need some examination. Indeed, the problem may appear in a more devastating form unless there is a radical change the country's political, economic and social policy.

The fundamental cause of the problem is to be found in the Master Race philosophy of the Whites; this has produced a national inertia, a parasitism that has had a paralysing effect upon every sphere of economic activity, and has made it difficult for South Africa to adjust itself to modem conditions. Such progress as - the country has made has been the result of resisting or ignoring the Master Race philosophy. Even today when the country is passing through a tremendous industrial revolution there is a bitter conflict between the economic forces and the backward political theory of apartheid. The Master Race philosophy, far from proving beneficial to the Whites, has brought disastrous consequences.

After a hundred and fifty years of white domination, nine successful Kaffir Wars, the seizure by Whites of about 90% of the land and the creation of a mass of landless African labourers, the Europeans in South Africa had failed to build an economy which could provide them with even a measure of comfort and security. The poverty into which they drove the non-Europeans, far from resulting in increased prosperity for the Whites, dragged the majority of them down to almost the same level. They were rescued from complete degeneration and ultimate extinction only by forces which completely disregarded their fantastic notions of racial superiority.

According to the Report of the Carnegie Commission on The Poor White Problem in South Africa (Stellenbosch University, 1932), it was conservatively estimated by 1929 that out of a total of about 1,000,000 Afrikaners, more than 300,000 were very poor that is, they lived on a pauper level. An equal number were poor but lived above the pauper level. These figures were obtained prior to the calamitous depression of 1930 which brought about widespread destitution among all sections of the community.

The Report of the Social and Economic Planning Council (U.G. No. 10, 1945) gives figures of the cash incomes of the European farming families (these are mostly Afrikaners) for the year 1941, when the Poor White problem was becoming less acute. It shows that over 45% of the total farming population had cash earnings of less than £100 a year, and of these about half earned under £50. 2

For generations the Europeans planned to establish a permanent slave or feudal society where people with white skins would enjoy leisure, comfort, privileges and all the good things of life. Instead, all they succeeded in creating was a community where the majority was reduced to a state of misery and degradation. Yet that belief in white supremacy remained unshaken; the most poverty-stricken Bywoner, whose income was only' £10 a year, considered himself to be a farmer, not a landless peasant, and thought himself a " Master " in relation to the non-European. The white " Masters," however, were feudal lords in name only, without any of the privileges the feudal lords of Europe enjoyed. Hopelessness and despair filled their lives; and in the course of time they lost not only the possibility of escape but also even the energy to extricate themselves from their misery. The imposition of a modern economy by the introduction of extensive mining operations left them untouched at first. The mines were owned by " Uitlanders" and the wealth produced went into the pockets of foreign investors. As landed aristocrats, the Afrikaners had no desire to work in the mines, and as they lacked industrial skill, there were no jobs for them. Indeed, the rise of the mining industry led to their further impoverishment. Land which had formerly been plentiful and cheap had now become scarce and dear. The inauguration of a modern capitalist economy raised the standard of living, but not their incomes. Then came the Boer War, and this brought further economic and social ruin. Commissions which were appointed to investigate the Poor White problem issued lengthy reports, and made numerous recommenda­tions but the poor became poorer and their number increased. Ministers of the Dutch Reformed Churches interested themselves in the problem, offered prayers and a little charity; but; what else could they do? Politicians unscrupulously exploited the misery of the poor to secure votes. They shed tears, expressed sympathy, and blamed the British and the Africans-later the Jews-for the widespread poverty of the Afrikaners. Ultimately the Poor White problem was accepted with fatalistic resignation, as a scourge sent by Providence. There was not one statesman in South Africa who had the necessary courage and vision to tell the people that the poverty of more than half of the Afrikaner population was not ordained from Heaven but man-made; or that the position could be remedied by land reforms and the introduction of modern methods in place of cheap, inefficient, semi-slave labour. The problem was acute and a great national effort was needed to solve it. The white people needed to be told plainly that in the twentieth century no slave state is possible; that they must abandon their traditional outlook and learn to organise production and to handle machinery and tools; to build and develop industries and help the African people to advance. The fact that a man's skin is white is not going to materially improve the nation's income, productivity or prosperity, whilst the facts prove beyond doubt that a colour bar in industry is a bar to industrial progress.

Nor is the colour of the skin a mark of civilisation. The cultural and intellectual level of the Poor Whites, indeed of all rural Whites, may readily be guessed. Away from the towns, they lived in scattered communities, often shot buck, and read the Bible. They were usually good, respectable husbands and fathers of large families. The children grew up in rustic simplicity and were taught to obey their parents and fear God. They went regularly to church, listened with reverence when the Bible was read-and vegetated. Intellectually, young and old were dead.

The wealthier farmers would not employ their poorer brethren as workers; they preferred the cheap, docile labour of Africans and Coloured. Many of the poor became Bywoners on the farms of big landowners but very few proved a success: the majority could hardly eke out an existence. As unskilled labourers, in the towns, the Poor Whites had to meet the competition of the Africans. After the unsuccessful strike of the white miners on the Rand in 1907, many Afrikaners found employment in the gold mines and their number increased as time passed. But the mines could absorb only a very limited number and the white population increased considerably.

In the 'twenties, it seemed as if the problem was insoluble and that the majority of the Afrikaners-more than one-third of the total white population-was condemned to eternal poverty. Then relief came. With very little government help, in the face of bitter opposition from the Chamber of Mines, the manufacturing industries began to develop; slowly and painfully at first, but later with enormous strides. Poor Afrikaners began to leave the rural areas and trek to the towns to work in the newly established factories.

In Australia, Canada and New Zealand, tens of thousands of agricultural workers have found employment at reasonable standards. In South Africa, about a million Africans are employed as agricultural labourers at a wage of less than £30 per year and there is no scope for employment of Europeans. Small-scale farming cannot be carried on profitably. The comparatively few Europeans who have been successful, as farmers have received vast sums from the government in bounties and subsidies. With its primitive and inefficient methods of production, agriculture in South Africa has only been saved from bankruptcy as a result of a number of purely fortuitous circumstances such as the enormous rise in prices of wool and farm produce after the Second World War. At the moment the industry is prospering, but production per head and per acre is a fraction when compared with countries where modern methods are employed, and should the world be faced with another depression, which is not impossible, South African agriculture will face actual bankruptcy. To reorganise South African farming on a modern basis, a revolution is necessary not only in production methods, but also in the outlook of the farmers and in the entire political and social structure of the country. In the modern capitalist world, farming conducted on a feudal basis cannot prosper.

The mining industry cannot give employment to more than about 30,000 Europeans at the most. In addition, the mining of precious metals is highly speculative and no one can foretell what the position of gold will be in 10 or 20 years time. In another generation or two, the precious minerals of the country 'will be exhausted.

It is clear that the future prosperity of South Africa depends on extensive industrial development, and substantial progress has already been made in this direction. For industry to progress, an extensive local market and increased exports of manufactured goods are imperative. The two essentials for success are modem methods of production to enable the country to compete against countries with up-to-date industrial systems, and a rising standard of living for everyone. In addition a peaceful atmosphere, which will attract investments both at home and abroad, must replace the fear and insecurity now so preva­lent. The policy of apartheid must inevitably instill in the minds of White South Africans the idea that as members of a Master Race, work and efficiency are beneath their dignity. Why worry about becoming a skilled worker when all that really matters is the possession of a white skin? The millions of non-White workers are denied education, vocational training and the opportunities to develop as full citizens, and are deliberately prevented from making the most of their abilities; instead of increasing their productivity and raising their purchasing power, measures are repeatedly introduced to keep their productivity and consumption at a low level. The policy of apartheid has also resulted in the exclusion from industry of vast sums of capital and thousands of skilled artisans, both of which are urgently needed by South Africa. Master Race parasitism reduced half the Afrikaner population to paupers. In industry, the social forces in their upward or downward trends operate with far greater speed. I therefore venture to prophesy that unless South Africa rids itself completely of its national backwardness, and introduces modern methods in production and progressive ideas in politics, within one generation the majority of the Afrikaners will be driven back to a state of poverty, compared with which the conditions of Poor Whites in the past will seem a paradise.

The Poor Whites on the land enjoyed advantages which the Poor Whites in the cities lack. They were free to move about at will in the spacious and beautiful veld. As they had never enjoyed high standards, they did not feel so acutely the low ones which they were ultimately forced to accept. The workers in industry in the big cities, once industrial development is crippled, will have nothing to fall back upon and their misery will increase immeasurably because they have become accustomed to reasonable standards of living. The future everywhere belongs to science, technology and skilled mechanics, and woes betide those countries which lag behind.

Fortunately, the rising manufacturing industries were not hindered by a legal colour bar, and the employers were at liberty to employ whomever they liked. There were no lengthy conferences and debates between employers and workers, to decide what jobs should be done by whom. These new industries did not follow the backward semi-feudal methods of the farmers or the semi-slave labour pattern of the mines. They started generally with little capital and poor organisation, and exploited their workers-White, African, 'Coloured and Indian-mercilessly. But the workers soon organised into trade unions, improved efficiency and productivity and fought with a great measure of success for better conditions. Industry prospered, gave mployment to several hundred thousand Whites and to many more non-Whites; helped to create ancillary avenues of employment; and substantially solved the Poor White problem. A careful examination of South African economic development will conclusively prove that where Master Race theories, colour bars and apartheid are applied, the white people do not benefit; on the contrary, they suffer. Conversely, where modern methods and ideas are encouraged, and where economic development is not hampered by backward theories about race, there are benefits for all. The colour bar is not a defence of, but an attack upon, the standards of Europeans.

Garment Workers in Action