Working Papers in Southern African Studies


Developments in the South African Social Formation 1933- 45

Clearly any analysis of South Africa must come to grips with the problem of race and the racial policies of the state. This paper attempts to explain aspects of the social formats of social categories, other than the purely racial. For reasons too many to here enumerate, I reject the "conventional wisdom" explanation which views Apartheid solely in terms of racial oppression - the product of the racial ideology of specific groups of whites and at variance with the demands of an inherently rational, colour-blind, labour-hungry industrial market economy. Suffice it to say that white and black groups are not undifferentiated populations, nor is Apartheid simply the result of an undifferentiated ideology or system of beliefs. As here conceived, racial policy is an historical product, the agent of a system of exploitation (in the technical sense of surplus expropriation and appropriation), designed primarily to facilitate rapid capital accumulation, and has historically been used thus by all classes with access to state power in South Africa. As the prime agent of economic growth, racial policy is open to a sequence of somersaults, deviations and permutations which endlessly confuse those who regard it as the product of a monolithic of a racial ideology.

Similarly, over and above its role as the instrument of racial oppression, the State is the instrument of class rule, utilised both to entrench and develop a capitalist mode of production, and to redistribute surplus between competing fractions of the bourgeoisie. This latter function played a key role in conflict between "foreign" (mining) and "indigenous" (manufacturing, agriculture and commerce) fractions 2. Racial policy has been a crucial agent of development and distribution. Thus an understanding of race relations in Africa must be rooted in a conception of the specific relations of production of South African capitalism, and manner in which racial policies both effect and actively disguise the nature of these relations, Variations in racial policy must be seen as flowing from changes in the structure of production and the alignment of class forces in the social formation.

The central question in any analysis of a capitalists social formation is what is the basis of exploitation- how is surplus value extracted? Clearly this is not static and alters in response to changes in the structure of production and groups controlling the state. In the early phase of industrialization in South Africa, (circa 1890-1930) the extraction of surplus value rested on the articulation between two modes of production - between a dominant capitalists mode, and a subordinate precapitalist mode- within an overall economic system. In the mythology of South African capitalism, peasant production in the African Reserves and the network of kinship relations within their redistribute economic were deemed to provide both subsistence and welfare functions for the families of thus furnishing the bulk of the necessary product for the reproduction of labour- power. Freed from the need to provide for the reproduction of labour-power in the form of wages, employers could fix wages at the subsistence level the individual worker, thereby facilitating a high level of surplus value appropriation. This system of cheap labour was premised on the workers' access to the means of production (land) in the Reserves. Thus primitive accumulation in South Africa depended not on the separation of labour from the means of production leaving it with no other means of subsistence than the sale of labour-power (as in Europe), but rather on maintenance and transformation of precapitalist relations of production in the Reserves, so producing a particular form of proletarianisation historical accident, producers in the precapitalist mode were black. They were exploited and oppressed not because of their pigmentation, but because the surplus value created by their labour was required for accumulation in the capitalist mode. The major contradiction lay thus not between undifferentiated white and black populations, but between the labour in the precapitalist mode and capital in capitalist mode. However this relationship between the modes produced conditions which gradually dissolved the precapitalist relations of production in the Reserves, leading to the development of a single capitalist mode of production. The basis of exploitation thus shifted from the relationship between two modes of production to one within the capitalist mode itself, and the major contradiction shifted to that between capital and labour within this single mode of production. 3

In response to the need for cash income (for taxes etc.) and the growth of new markets for produce, created by the burgeoning mining industry after 1870 during the 19th Century tribal African subsistence producers were transformed into a surplus producing peasantry within the colonial state. In may cases this peasantry competed with and outproduced white farmers, and a small group of small scale African capitalist farmers emerged to compromise a rural bourgeoisie 4. Given relatively unrestricted peasant access to land, agricultural production thus provided the peasantry with an attractive and lucrative source of cash income. The slow operation of market forces could not provide the requisite supply of labour for either the mines or white farms, and the machinery of the state had to be used to propel labour into these sectors. The two decades round the turn of the century saw a gathering legislative assault on the independence of the peasantry, culminating in the Land Act of 1913 (significantly passed after establishment of a unified South African state). This Act delimited the African Reserves for the first time, restricting them to some 13% of total land area; prohibited African; and purchase outside these areas; and limited the size of individual holdings within them. By severely restricting access to the means of production, the Act had the 3-foldeffect of undermining the economic base and independence of peasantry (effectively destroying a lucrative source of income and subsistence); controlling the growing differentiation within the Reserves (destroying the nascent bourgeoisie; and freeing African in large numbers for labour on white farms and the mines. Yet this was not a simple piece of legislative dispossession. By retaining the reserve system and (now restricted) individual access to land, whilst simultaneously controlling the influx of Africans to urban areas (through legislation and the pass system), it sought to provide and control a supply of cheap labour the maintenance of precapitalist relations of productions in the Reserves. Yet by effectively restricting peasant production, it increasingly produced conditions which undermined these relations. By 1920, the once large peasant surpluses had dried up as the productive capacity and ability of the Reserves to support their increasing populations declined. With almost monotonous regularity, Reports and Commissions after 1920 attested to the "creation of desert conditions in the Native areas", warned of "appalling poverty" and raised the spectre of mass starvation. 5

The Thirties and Forties witness very rapid growth in the South African economy, and significant changes in the structure of production. The almost total dependence on agriculture and mineral exports was transformed into a high level of industrialization. The contribution of manufacturing to National Income first surpassed agriculture in 1930 and outstripped mining in 1943 6. Stimulated first by the rise in the price of gold after the abandonment of the Gold Standard in December 1932, and then by wartime production, the economy expanded in two unprecedented periods of growth, 1933-9, and 1940-6. In fourteen years National Income almost trebled from £236 9m to National Income almost trebled from £704,2m. The number of manufacturing establishments rose from 6 543 in 1933 8 505 in 1939 and 1946 stood at 9 999. The gross value of their output increased by 140% in the first period of growth and by a further 141% during the war. Within manufacturing, fundamental sectoral shift in the emphasis of production occured. The industrial group comprising metal products, machinery and transport equipment established itself as the largest group within the manufacturing sector even war, its contribution to total manufacturing output rising from 17,6% 26,6% 1930-40, whilst that of food, beverages and tobacco fell from 31% to 24%. This was reflected in the increasing capital intensity of industry, the capital to labour ratio -rising from £794-£981 per worker 1932-9, reaching £1 156 per worker in 1946.

The struggle between the national and metropolitan fractions of the oriented fractions of the bourgeoisie eased slightly 1933-9 . The crisis in South African capitalism induced by the Depression and the 1932 Gold Standard crisis united the Afrikaans-speaking rural and the English-speaking mining, industrial and commercial fractions of the bourgeoisie. With the exception of a small group led by Dr. Malan in the ruling Nationalist Party, they sank their bitter political differences and joined together under General Hertzog in the United South African National Party (U.P) in 1934. An additional 100 000 whites entered industrial employment in the rapid growth 1933-40, and the "poor white problem" disappeared by 1940 7. The 1924-31 Nationalist Labour Party "pact" government had entrenched skilled white labour in a position of privilege. The disappearance of the poor white problem substantially eased pressure from this one remaining militant group of white workers, though it was Malan's who were to be the full beneficiaries of this. The much feared threat to Afrikaans Nationalism posed by potential class mobilisation largely removed, freeing a future Nationalist government to consolidate Afrikaner capital provided it defended of both skilled and unskilled white labour. 8

But what of the effects of this growth on the African population? The Urban population trebled 1921-46. By 1946, almost one in four Africans were in the urban areas. A significant pointer to the permanency of urbanization was the increasing ratio of African women to men in the cities, from under 1:5 in 1921 to 1:3 in 1946, whilst the national ratio remained constant 9. Between 1933 and 1939, and additional 240,000 Africans entered industrial employment. Though corresponding figures for trade and commerce are unavailable, it has been estimated that if taken into account, the increase in urban African employment during this period was in the order 400,000, almost doubling the size of the urban African labour force 10. A striking feature of this huge influx of labour is the changing ration of those employed in mining to manufacturing, construction and electricity, from 316:187 in 1932, 348:187 in 1939, and 328:321 in 1948. Whilst the migrant percentage of the manufacturing labour in 1946 is not known it is widely accepted that it was both small and decreasing. By this stage a substantial African proletariat (in the classic sense, "freed" from the means of production and forced to sell their labour-power to subsist) had developed. But mine labour was purely migrant. How did development affect these workers?

This can only be answered by a necessary brief and crude examination of the effects of development on the precapitalist relations of production in the Reserves on which the cheap labour system rested. The crucial distinction between a peasantry and a proletariat is that whilst the former may supply various quantities of labour as a form of rent , they retain possession of the means of production 11. Here is the source of the peasantry's relative economic independence. If this capacity to put the means of production into operation is reduced or removed, the independence is destroyed and peasants are forced to sell their labour-power in order to subsist even though they may still live (or in the South Africa case, be compelled by the state to live) on the unproductive land In such cases it is argued, rural residents form part of the proletariat if denied possession (in the sense defined) of the means of production and are thus forced to sell their labour-power in order to subsist.

The declining productivity and rapid impoverishment of the Reserve areas following the Land Act has already been noted. Not only did productive capacity fall, but landlessness became acute. The 1948 Fagan Commission identified three broad classes in the Reserves: owners or occupiers of land: landless who owned no cattle; and landless whose cattle were grazed on common land. In Ciskei Reserve, for example, it found 30% of families were landless, and over 60% owned five or fewer cattle, 29% owning none. In stressing the acute landless problem, an earlier report found that the vast majority of recruits to the mines came from the landless in the Reserves, and for the bulk of such migrant workers "Reserve production is but a myth" 12. In the period under review, the African mine labour force increased by 135,000 or 40%. Almost all of this largest ever increase in mining labour 1933-9, when cash wages remained virtually constant, even declining briefly, and real wages fell. When real wages rose relatively rapidly 1943-50, total African employment on the mines actually fell 13. The rise in the number of migrants see-power cannot therefore be explained in terms of the increasing attractiveness of wage labour. Rather, when subsistence requirements and the fiscal demands of the state can no longer be met through the consumption and sale of commodities produced in the precapitalist mode, wage labour changes from a necessary activity, regard wages rise, fall or remain constant 14. The impoverishment of the Reserve so widened the gap between productivity in the precapitalist modes, that even those with access to the means of production were forced to sell their labour-power on a continuing basis in order to subsist. This is dramatic illustrated by the fall in the number of Africans classified as peasants in the census-, return 1921-51(Table I)

Census Year

Total "Economically Active" population over age 15 (a)

Table I 15

Total Classified as Peasants (b)

(b) as a percentage of (a)











832, 748

447, 653





This fall is partially explained by reclassification. Women played a crucial in the system of peasant production. After 1946, all African women, except those who explicitly labelled themselves peasants or farmer, were classified as dependants (i.e. economically inactive). No longer were they regarded as peasant producers, but as people dependent for subsistence on cash income from the sale of an implicit governmental recognition that the basis of cheap labour had been eroded.

Whilst the reclassification does partially account for the decline in the size of the peasantry (the number of women classified as peasant dropping from 1,3m to under 10 000 explains only the fall between 1921-51), it explains only the fall between 1936 and 1946-51. Similarly, the real rise in the number of economically active Africans is concealed by the administrative withdrawal of over 1 million women from this category. Effectively deprived of possession of the - means of production, by 1946 the peasantry had been fairly thoroughly proletarianised. However, the influx control measures of the state maintained the sale of labour power in a migrant form for many.

The period of rapid development 1933-46 did not produce as African bourgeoisie 16. Rather, a small trading petty bourgeoisie emerged in the rural areas, dealing almost exclusively in foodstuff, together with a new petty bourgeoisie of professional, administrative, and clerical workers. Together these comprised 0.2% of all adult Africans in 1921, 0,9% in 1926 and 1,2% or a total of 62,246 individuals in 1946 17. The exploitation of the African proletariat produced no material benefit for the African but was in fact the direct cause of their political oppression. The labour policies of the state which differentiated between skilled and unskilled on racial grounds venues of mobility to this class and effect lumped them together with the proletariat as politically rightless and economically exploitable.

Thus by 1946 primitive accumulation, the process which takes away from the labourer his possession of the means of production" 18 was far advanced. Whereas the process rested on the use of the state machinery to maintain precapitalists relations of production in the Reserves the development of the economy and the inherently contradictory nature of this policy led to their dissolution, and the peasantry were proletarianised, i.e. incorporated into capitalist relations of production. The path of capitalist development in South Africa produced both rural impoverishment and intense urban poverty as the sing amount of necessary product provided by Reserve production was not replaced by-significantly higher wages in the capitalist mode 19. Capitalist development thus generated conflict not only over wages, but all facets of urban and rural life. This structurally induced centred on cheap labour, bringing into question the structure of the system of exploitation. These conflicts came to a head in the period 1942-6, when the problem of political control over urban Africans became acute, culminating in the 1946 strike with the use of massive repression to stifle the challenge. All classes had then to develop new responses to this conflict. After the "Hertzog Bills" of 1936 - disenfranchising Cape Africans in return for seven (white) parliamentary representatives and an advisory Native Representative Council and slightly extending the area of the Reserves - African protest and mobilisation in the period under review occurred almost exclusively within the capitalist mode of production, itself the source of structural conflict 20. The central question about African opposition after 1936 revolved around the relationship between the African petty bourgeoisie and proletariat, as manifested in their respective organisation.

This is a complex relationship which I have examined elsewhere 21. Very briefly, the leading African organisation, the African National Congress (ANC or Congress), rejected radical leadership at the outset of the Thirties, cut its link with African trade unions and functioned almost exclusively as a disorganised organ of petty bourgeoisie protest during this decade. The failure of the ANC and the All African Convention opposition to the "Hertzog Bills" finally brought home the need for organized mass opposition. During the war the ANC concentrated on reforming and rebuilding its organisational structure 22.

More worrying to the government, as the post-1936 Department of Labour reports illustrate, was the steady growth of African Trade Unionism in the Thirties and its mushrooming during the war. Though without official recognition and subject to a wide range of legal and other restrains by September 1945 the Council of Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU) claimed a national membership of 158,000 in 119 unions embracing more than 40% of the 390,000 Africans employed in commerce and manufacturing and CNETU did not account for all African trade union membership. In both the Cape and Natal, African unions were largely under the umbrella of parallel white unions, and many African Belonged to either mixed or Coloured unions 23. While accurate figures are impossible to attain as official statistics exclude membership of non-registered i.e. African, unions,24 it is safe to conclude that by 1945, at least 40% of Africans in commerce and private industry were unionised, if not as fully paid up members, at least as intermittent subscribers.

The growth of African trade unions 1930-45 saw a corresponding growth in militancy. The number of "non-whites" on strike first exceeded that of whites in the late twenties 25. This trend was temporarily reversed during the depression, but with the exception from 1933-46 the number of "non-white" strikers consistently and often spectacularly exceeded that of whites 26. The increase during the war is noticeable. In ten year period 1930-9 inclusive, 26, 254"non-whites" struck work for an average of 2.7 and a total of 71 078 mandays. In the six year period 1940-5 inclusive, the corresponding figures rose to 52,494 strikers, an average loss of 4.2 per striker for a total of 220,205 mandays. In 1942 a rash of strikes in CNETU's campaign for a 40/- weekly minimum wage led directly to further state action against African unions. War measure 145 of December 1942 outlawed with severe sanctions. With promulgation, striking Africans were prosecuted. Despite "firm instructions" to prosecute "where ever possible". In the two years between promulgation and December 1944, Africans were involved in some sixty strikes. Although unions were strongly warned to restrain their members, the 1945 Department Report complained that "Natives ignoring War Measure 145" 27. Before the Measure, the Wage Board was not obliged consider a union's complaints. The Measure thus accorded the first (and only) partial official recognition to African unions machinery was extensively used. The year of Africans for whom 1942/3 saw a spectacular increase in the number of Africans for whom the Wage Board made-determinations - from 1,084 to 67,632 28. As the unions virtually monopolised representations under the Measure, this partially illustrates their instrumentality in improving the wages of their members.

The real earnings of Africans in private industry 9,8% in the eight year period 1930/1 -1939/40. In the next six years, 1939-40-1945/6, they rose 51,8% 29. Like the present increase in African earnings, this large, rapid rise is not solely attributable to increasing National income during the period, otherwise a correspondingly higher increase in the first eight year period could be expected. Protected by the racial policies of the state, there was little obligation on employers to raise wages with increased profits. Indeed South African history indicates that all significant wage increases resulted from organised worker pressure. The growth of African trade unionism certainly altered the power position of African workers, giving them a weapon which, as the strikes indicate, they were not loath to use, a number resulting directly in wage increases 30. African unions thus played a key, though often difficult to determine role in the rise of African industrial earnings period.

Unlike the earlier Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union (ICU), the African unions of the Thirties and Forties were organised on an industrial basis and designed to improve higher wages and improved working conditions for their members. This change from the "big unionism" of the ICU was significant 31. It implied recognition of the proletarian role and its utilisation to confront the system of exploitation at its source within the capitalist mode of production. The rapid growth of trade unionism reflected a growing consciousness of the proletariat - a recognition of the need for independent class action; that the conglomeration of peasantry, chiefs proletariat and petty bourgeoisie in the ICU prevented the single minded pursuit of workers' interests. Without the overtly "political character of he ICU, these unions were objectively "political" in a more fundamental sense. In South Africa, the pursuit of higher wages and improved working conditions for Africans was not just a demand for a share in the fruits of growth, but a direct challenge to the pattern of that growth, based on the racial division of labour as the instrument of capital accumulation.

The 1922 General Strike had shown that enfranchised white labour would resist dilution of its privileged position. A system of cheap labour could only be maintained with its active connivance, a condition of which was protection from competition from black labour. Hence the job and wage colour bars in which race differentiate skilled from unskilled, and which effectively closed avenues of mobility to educated Africans. In its acceptance of the liberal myth of slow African advance within the framework of the existing system and its concern for the conditions of individual participation and the removal of barriers to social mobility, the ANC failed to recognise that the alignment of class forces in South African capitalism frustrated these aims. The unions by contrast effectively questioned the system of exploitation based on a racially defined cheap labour force. The significance of their growth lies not only in their contribution to the system of exploitation, but also in their role in forging and capitalising on a growing proletarian consciousness, and its effect on the African national consciousness, illustrated most clearly by the African miners' strike.


Last updated : 03-Apr-2011

This article was produced for South African History Online on 03-Apr-2011