From the book: The Eye of the Needle by Richard Turner

South Africa, everyone agrees, is a profoundly unequal society. It is marked by inequality of power, of wealth, of access to the means for acquiring power and/or wealth, of education, and of status. This much is agreed upon. Disagreement arises, however, when the causes of this situation are sought. Most whites see these inequalities as being the result of the unequal contribution made by the various ethnic groups. The whites have "brought civilization, developed industry, etc., and it is only natural that they should take the lion's share. The blacks have not really contributed, either because they are biologically inferior, or because they are culturally inferior. There is disagreement as to whether and when this cultural gap can be bridged, but there is wide agreement that it existed in the first place and is at the origin of today's inequalities. Most blacks, on the other hand, see these inequalities as being largely the result of exploitation and of inequality of opportunity.

The structure of South African society today is a function of its past. To understand the society and its conflicts, and, more important, to understand how it is likely to develop and how these conflicts may be resolved, it is necessary to look back to see which of these different accounts of the origins of inequality is more accurate.

What happened when Europeans first arrived in South Africa and slowly began to occupy it? What kind of relations did they try to enter into with the indigenous peoples? Did they try to cooperate on an equal basis with these people and to give them the benefit of whatever technological superiority they might have had? And if not, why not?

In 1652 South Africa was inhabited from the Cape to the Limpopo by self-governing peoples. It was not logically impossible for Europeans to have requested the right to immigrate, subject to the laws of the local people, and to have offered, in return, to share their technical skills with the inhabitants. This, after all, is the type of implicit agreement made by immigrants today, whether they are British artisans going to Australia or Indian doctors going to Britain. Did anything like this happen in 1652 or afterwards, and if not, why not?

The first question is easy to answer: Very obviously, it did not. The whole history of relations between foreigners and natives in South Africa can be summed up by the following quotation from Van Riebeeck's diary:

the reasons advanced by them [the Hottentots] for ... making war upon us last year, arising out of the complaints .. . that our people, living at a distance, and without our knowledge, had done them much injury, and also perhaps stolen and eaten up some of their sheep and calves etc. in which there is also some truth, and which it is very difficult to keep the common people from doing, when a little out of sight; so that they think they had cause for revenge, and especially, they said, upon people who had come to take and to occupy the land which had been their own in all ages, turning with the plough and cultivating permanently their best land, and keeping them off the ground upon which they had been accustomed to pasture their cattle, so that they must consequently now seek their subsistence by depasturing the land of other people, from which nothing could arise but disputes with their neighbors; insisting so strenuously upon the point of restoring to them their own land, that we were at length compelled to say they had entirely forfeited that right, through the war which they had waged against us, and that we were not inclined to restore it, as it had now become the property of the Company by the sword and the laws of war (Oxford History of South Africa [New York: Oxford University Press, 1969], p. 65).

Occupation of land by the whites, resulting in pressure on the land resources of the local people, conflict between the local tribes, war, and white victory, followed by a "lack of inclination" to return the land: That is the history of South Africa.

Although the question is so easy to answer, it is nevertheless vitally important to ask it. Otherwise, we fall into the trap of seeing the whole process of conquest as being as inevitable as a lava flow, as being the "natural" relationship between two groups.

In a sense, it was inevitable. But it was not inevitable because it is "natural" for people to behave in the way that the Europeans behaved in South Africa. It was inevitable because the culture that they possessed made it impossible for them to conceive of any other way of behaving.

The word "civilization" has long bedeviled rational thought about relationships between Europe and Africa. The polarization of the issue into a civilized - uncivilized dichotomy has prevented a clear analysis of the similarities and differences between African and European culture. Furthermore, by describing European culture as "civilization" one unconsciously tends to see it as unchanging, as final. One takes the greatest cultural achievements and the loftiest sentiments of the age and then tends to assume that everybody in the period was involved in those achievements and practiced that ethic.

But clearly the culture of seventeenth-century Europe was very different from what it is today. And, equally clearly, the great cultural figures of that and earlier times-Locke, Newton, Milton, Spinoza, etc. - were not exactly typical. Most European countries were autocracies, ruled by hereditary monarchs. Others, like England, were ruled by oligarchies: small groups of the wealthy, who were often corrupt and always ruled in their own interests. It was simply taken for granted that the mass of the people had no political rights. The culture was riddled with superstition. Even a famous philosopher like John Locke believed that you should collect medicinal herbs only at the astrologically correct time. Belief in witchcraft was endemic, and it is probable that witch doctors, that is, experts in counteracting witchcraft, were "at least as numerous and as influential as the regular clergy" (L. Stone," The Disenchantment of the World," New York Review of Books, December 2, 1971, p. 18).

In the field of law and punishment, as Monica Wilson has written, "in the 18th Century, when the gibbet, the wheel, and the rack were still publicly displayed at the Cape and flogging with up to 100 lashes was a regular punishment for soldiers and sailors, the rule of the chief was mild in comparison" (Oxford History of South Africa). Slavery was an accepted feature of society. Domestic slavery in Europe itself was only just dying out, and the slave trade as a vital part of economic life was already under way. Slavery was accepted by nearly all, if not all, Christian denominations, as was social and political inequality.

The essential change that had come about in Europe was in the economy. The static, subsistence economy of the Middle Ages, in which money played little part, and in which wealth was largely for use rather than for accumulation and reinvestment, was giving way to a growth - and accumulation-oriented money economy. In Europe, the growth of this economy meant that the network of personal relations, rights, and duties between serf and lord was being replaced by the impersonal relations of the market, in which workers became merely instruments of production, toward whom the employers had no more duties than toward the machines. In the relation between Europe and the rest of the world, this economic change was both cause and result of imperialism. The period of European expansion had begun. Backed by the self-righteousness of their assumed Christian superiority, Europeans were moving from a trading relationship to a conquering relationship with the rest of the world. This was made possible by a sudden burst of technological advance which, for the first time in the million years of human life, was giving Europe a very definite technological and hence also military lead over the rest of the world.

Although the basis for imperialism lay in superior military power, the Christian churches played a vital supporting role.

The right to conquer was often formulated in terms of religion: Christians were God's chosen people; as such they were culturally superior to all other people and also had rights that others did not have. The churches fully backed this. It was, after all, a pope who divided the already inhabited western hemisphere between Spain and Portugal.

Usually, when envisaging the 1652 settlers, we mentally take farmers off their tractors, or clerks out of their offices, dress them up in funny clothes, and place them on funny little ships in Table Bay. But these settlers were not modern people in funny clothes. Their cultural background was the Europe we have just described; a culture which, on the one hand, although beginning to develop a rational technology, was still basically superstitious and pre-scientific, and, on the other hand, was characterized by an acceptance of gross inequality between person and person, by callous indifference to human suffering, and by the acceptance of the right of one person to exploit another.

It was this culture, which made it "impossible" for them to act other than as they did. To condemn them for it would be anachronistic. It is pointless passing ethical judgment on the people of one period using the standards of another period. But to feel offended at the realization that one's ancestors were like this would be even sillier than to pass judgment on them. The point is that early white settlers in this country were not mark­edly culturally superior to the other inhabitants. They had links with the technological growth point of the modern world, some of them were literate, and they were Christians. But even their Christianity was far removed from the "rational" Christianity of today and was tied up in the superstitions of the pre-scientific era.

How, then, did they come to dominate the whole sub­continent and to place an enormous gap between themselves and the original inhabitants? The first instru­ment used was military power. The history of South Africa from 1657 (first Hottentot War) until 1906 (Bambata's Rebellion) is the history of conquest. The process varied in ferocity. The smaller Khoi (Hottentot) and San (Bushman) groups did not have the internal organization to resist dispossession of their lands, and once this occurred their tribal structure crumbled. Various "anti-vagrancy" laws had, by the end of the eighteenth century, ensured that they could survive only by serving the whites. The acquisition of land thus meant also the acquisition of labor, since the previous owners, deprived of their means of production, had no alternative but to work for the "new owners" in order to survive.

In the course of the nineteenth century the whites met and conquered the Bantu-speaking tribes, and although the conquest was more difficult, the pattern was the same. At times there were treaty agreements, but even when these were voluntarily entered into by both sides, they were understood differently by each, and the whites used their military superiority to impose their interpretations. The African tribes did not have private property or a concept of "ownership" as opposed to "use." Thus when they granted the whites permission to use bits of their tribal areas which they were not using at the time, they were rather surprised when the whites turned round and explained that the land was now the exclusive possession of the whites, whether they were using it or not. And if they objected, then the whites, often honestly believing that they had bought the land, used force to impose their definition of the situation.

To see this process of conquest and occupation, as being one whereby whites merely took over unused land in a half-occupied continent flies in the face of the historical facts. But even if it were true that the blacks were never dispossessed of land that they were using at the time, the argument would still be invalid. For a person is never using all his resources at once. The argument is analogous to that of a man who enters my bedroom when I am in the kitchen, and then explains, when I return, that it was unoccupied, so it is his bedroom now. And perhaps, into the bargain drives me into the pantry and takes over the kitchen as well, to punish me for complaining.

Military force and the threat of military force laid the basis for the inequality of South African society. As we have seen, white control of the bulk of the land also made available a large labor supply to them. This labor supply was further controlled and channeled by two kinds of law:

1. The "anti-vagrancy" laws of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were designed to make it virtually impossible for the remnants of the Hottentots in the Cape to survive without working for whites and to make it difficult for them to change jobs once they were working. The Masters and Servants Acts, first introduced in the 1840s, provide severe penalties for breaking contracts, and so can be used, inter alia, against strikers. (Strikers are as I write being prosecuted under the Masters and Servants Proclamation in South West Af rica.) The "pass laws," which have been gradually strengthened throughout the twentieth century, control the movement of black workers to suit the needs of white employers and especially of white farmers. Finally, specific legislation has made it illegal for Africans to strike under any circumstances, and the penalties are much higher than are those for whites who strike illegally. The lack of official recognition, plus administrative action, has made the growth of African trade unions very difficult.

Laws like these, controlling and regimenting black labor, are still absolutely central to the structure of South African society.

By rationalizing the exploitation of black labor and backing this exploitation by the law, and, behind the law, by armed force, these laws guarantee white economic privilege.

2. In the early days, when there was often still enough land in the reserves to go round, the poll tax was introduced. By making it necessary for Africans to pay money taxes it forced them to go to the only place where they could get money: the white-controlled market economy, where all they had to sell was their labor.

Up till about 1870 South Africa was still a predomi­nantly rural society, with both black and white, away from the main ports, farming at a subsistence level. But the discoveries of gold and diamonds in the last third of the nineteenth century changed this. The mines pro­vided a stimulus to capital accumulation and a stimulus to the growth of secondary industries. They directly provided new markets for agriculture, and, by requiring and financing railways, they indirectly opened up other markets to farmers. The mines were crucial to the whole development of the South African economy. Some of the capital, much of the machinery, and some of the special skills needed were imported from Europe. But the mainstay of the mines was cheap labor, cheap black labor. It was by underpaying the tightly controlled black labor force that the mine owners were able to accumulate the capital that laid the foundations for South Africa's industrial revolution. They saved, not by cutting back on their own consumption, but by drastically limiting the share of the product received by the black workers.

The accumulated capital is usually referred to today as "white capital." This is merely to add insult to injury. It is, if it has to have an ethnic label, white-controlled black capital. Any original capital from whites was refunded years ago in fat dividend payments.

The mines also introduced a new type of "labor prob­lem" into South African society. Up till then, the "labor problem" had been simply getting black laborers for white-owned farms. Whites were owners, blacks were unskilled workers. Now two new kinds of worker appeared. Mining and industry attracted new European immigrants, mostly skilled men who could command relatively high wages. At the same time, many white South Africans were moving off the land, lured by the hope of quick wealth and pushed by developments within agriculture. By the end of the nineteenth century the land which had been distributed in six thousand acre handouts to white farmers was begin­ning to run out. The Dutch system of inheritance bad led to much subdivision of land into uneconomic units. The new pressure on the white-owned land was exacerbated first by the rinderpest epidemics of the 1890s and then by the British scorched-earth tactics of the 1899-1902 war, in which many farmers lost all their possessions.

Unlike the European immigrants, these white workers were not accustomed to an urban environment and to the habits and practices of an industrial society. They had been educated, as had been the Africans in a different way, for life in a subsistence rural economy. On the technical level they had little superiority over the black workers also coming into the towns from the rural areas, In fact they were to a certain extent disadvantaged, in the sense that their cultural tradition tended to despise manual labor as "kaffir work."

But now they were in direct competition with Africans for jobs. They had only one essential advantage, and this was their political power. From 1870, gradually replacing the military conflict over possession of land and ultimately dwarfing in significance the conflict between British imperialism and local whites, the political quest of white workers for political control came to be the main theme of South African politics.

The mine-owners and industrialists wanted a cheap and docile labor force. Strong white unionism threatened industrial unrest and, by demanding job reservation, prevented the most efficient exploitation of the cheapest labor supply. On the other hand, all the capitalists' profits rested ultimately on continued white control, and to this extent white worker and white em­ployers had an interest in common. Initially, black workers were too ill-organized and politically powerless to make anything other than occasional eruptions onto the scene.

The skilled immigrant workers came from a tradition of closed craft unions, in which the skilled worker often saw the unskilled mass as being as much of an enemy as the boss was. This tradition gradually combined with the local white racial attitudes and with white monopoly of political power in a common front of white workers, skilled and unskilled, against blacks. There was always a minority that preached class solidarity rather than race solidarity, but the immediate material interests of the white workers conflicted with those of the blacks.

This white worker front grew in strength and, after some great industrial conflicts-such as the 1913 and 1922 strikes, both of which led to fighting between white workers and troops-finally turned the defeat of the 1922 Rand rebellion into victory in the General Election of 1924, which brought a Labour Party-National Party coalition government into power.

This marked the definitive defeat of the white owning-class and their acceptance of the white workers into full partnership.

The Pact government entrenched the position of the white workers in three ways:

1. The Industrial Conciliation Act established a collective bargaining system that effectively excluded all Africans from the process and gave great power to the white trade unions. It thereby institutionalized the system whereby white workers shared with white owners the fruits of the exploitation of black labor.

2. It legalized the color bar on the mines, thus keeping black workers out of all those skilled jobs which were not also very dangerous. By the introduction of the "civilized labor" policy it ensured that white workers would have first option on even unskilled jobs in government service, particularly the railways, at higher rates of pay than blacks would receive in the same posi­tion. One of the main reasons why the Iron and Steel Corporation of South Africa (ISCOR) was started in 1927 was to provide jobs for white workers. The "civilized labor" policy was also extended to private industry by granting Import Permits that were tied to specific ratios of black to white workers,

3. The government ensured that the acquisition of skills, through ordinary and technical education health, and welfare schemes, paid for out of the general wealth of the country, should be an almost exclusively white preserve.

The government represented a coalition of white workers and farmers, whose interests were not in conflict, since the rural work force was totally black, and the farmers benefited through very large subsidies, loans, improvement, and training schemes. These were once more paid for out of the general wealth, but were directed almost exclusively to white-owned agriculture, while black agriculture was neglected.

Thus the great inequalities in South African society are a result of the fact that whites have consistently used their military superiority and their political power.

(a) To monopolize the resources of the country (land and labor) and (b) to monopolize the acquisition of skills. Inequality did not just happen through white racial or cultural superiority. It is to a certain extent a product of the technological virtues of some whites, but it is also the product of the ethical vices of nearly all whites.

From this brief summary of key aspects of South African history, it seems to me to be legitimate to draw two conclusions about South Africa's present and future.

First, inter-group conflicts and tensions are ultimately bound up with economic inequality, with conflict over ownership of resources and of the fruits of industry. The alternative analysis of conflict, in terms of cultural and/or racial differences, is not even a half-truth. Cultural, racial, or religious differences, per se, are not a cause for conflict. They only become significant when these differences overlap with other significant differences of interest.

By this I do not mean to deny that race prejudice on the part of the whites has a role independent of economic self-interest. Race prejudice is a real phenomenon, compounded of ignorance of different cultures, of an unthinking explanation of very real social differences in terms of biological differences, and perhaps also of a psychological necessity to see the individuals one is mistreating as in some way deserving their fate.

Race prejudice, although a real factor, is based on ignorance and irrationality. But to remove that ignorance and irrationality through education will not remove the very real clash of material interest between two groups which, for historical reasons, can be defined in racial terms.

Nor do I mean to deny that the co-existence of different language, cultural, and religious groups can pose certain political problems. It is necessary, for example, that they should have equal education and employment opportunities. Where there are many language groups but one school system it is probable that members of one language group will be favored if that language has greater currency in the school system. On the other hand, if there are separate school systems it is necessary to ensure that they get equal facilities. There is thus a possibility of conflict between groups over finances at this level. But these kinds of conflicts are of a very secondary nature as compared to the major black-white confrontation over wealth. And designing a system of local and national government in such a way as to give power to minority groups can solve them technically. But technical solutions of this sort, although they must of course be embodied in the final solution to South Africa's conflicts, cannot of them­selves resolve the conflict.

Second, a just society cannot be brought about in South Africa simply by a declaration of equality of opportunity. The whites are already so firmly entrenched that they probably don't need any of the legal barriers to black advancement anyway. If you allow some runners a half hour start, the race doesn't suddenly become equal when you finally permit the others to leave the starting post.

One thing, however, is clear. One specific characteristic of "white culture" is a major determinant in the conflict system: the drive to accumulate wealth and the drive to seek personal satisfaction in the consumption of material goods, rather than, and often at the expense of, relations with other people. While this continues to be a dominant cultural trait, the details of the conflict may change, but the essentials will not.

We have seen therefore that the capitalist human model is (1) incompatible with Christian ethics, and (2) the root cause of conflict in South Africa.

Let us now turn to look at a model for a society that would be compatible with Christianity and free of de­structive conflict.