The term “apartheid” was not coined when the National Party, after it came to power in 1948, presented its policies in the form of a comprehensive doctrine. As that wily old opportunist. General Smuts, declared during the 1948 General Election: “Room must be found for them (Non-Whites) on the principle of apartheid. It is neither a new word nor a new thing" (South Africa: An Historical Introduction, F. Troup, 1972, p.285).
Indeed, much of what constitutes the bloated corpus of apartheid legislation today can be traced back to the early part of this century after the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. For instance, the present-day allocation on paper of 13 per cent of the land to the African majority is based on the 1936 Native Land and Trust Act. This, in turn, built on the crucially important 1913 Native Land Act prohibiting Africans from purchasing land outside the reserves designated for them as part of the strategy to force them into the migrant labour system on which the mines depended — and still depend. Then there are the stringent conditions under which Africans today are allowed to reside in the urban areas of so-called “White” South Africa, conditions laid down in the Urban Areas Act first promulgated in 1923 and amended since. (The 1922 Stallard Commission recommended that “Natives should only be allowed to enter the urban areas to minister to the needs of the white man and should depart therefrom when he ceases so to minister." This is strikingly similar to the view expressed by M. C. Botha, later Minister of Manpower Utilisation, in 1976, that “The basis on which the Bantu is present in the white areas is to sell their labour here and for nothing else".) Such examples, and there are many more, illustrate the historical continuity of Nationalist rule and what one author has described as the "Age of the Generals" preceding it, presided over by the bitter old rivals. Smuts and Hertzog.
Nevertheless, 1948 was a significant watershed in the history of South Africa. The somewhat haphazard racist legislation inherited by the Nationalists was systematically reworked and extended into the rigid and comprehensive structure with which the term “apartheid" is commonly associated. More recently, however, some shifts in policy have occurred which have been interpreted (as, indeed, the "reformist" Botha government would wish to have them interpreted) as suggesting a somewhat more flexible, pragmatic approach on the part of government to apartheid.
But “neo-apartheid" (as some have called it) has clearly disturbed a growing proportion of the all-white electorate. Several developments have fuelled this white reaction. There is the much talked about but rather limited relaxation of "petty apartheid" (which applies to the mixing of races in public places like hotels, restaurants, beaches and parks). There is, too, the erosion of the traditional colour bar restricting skilled work mainly to whites. While most of the legislation that entrenched this colour bar has been scrapped (due to the tremendous shortage of skilled labour that developed with the growth in manufacturing industry after the Second World War) traditional practices are sometimes maintained by closed shop and apprentice agreements with white unions. Finally, there is the constitutional proposal to co-opt the Coloureds (mixed race) and Asians into an expanded (but segregated) electorate which would vote for representatives for a three chamber parliament in which the white chamber would be dominant. The African majority would remain totally excluded on the grounds that they must seek their political emancipation in the ten "ethnic” homelands, four of which have already achieved "independence".
In particular, this proposed change to the constitution has been the subject of intense political debate over the past few years (and a national referendum held last month). In 1982 it precipitated the formation of the ultra-right Conservative Party, led by Dr Andries Treurnicht, as a result of a split within the National Party. Together with the smaller but similarly inclined Herstigte National Party — which likewise broke away from the NP in 1969 — the Conservatives have recently been gaining ground. This will obviously influence how far the government is likely to proceed down the road of "neo-apartheid" as it anxiously surveys its (once massive) support draining away. There is, after all, the precedent of the National Party itself to make the government wary of a political opponent eager to assert its claim to be the true heir to Afrikaner nationalism. In 1934 the “Purified Nationalists" under Malan split from the old Nationalist Party led by Hertzog on account of the latter's fusion with Smuts’ South African Party to form a huge party of the “centre” — the United Party. Yet it took just 14 years for the comparatively small and reorganised National Party to become, with the aid of the sinister Afrikaner Broederbond, the government of South Africa in 1948.
Thus the so called monolith of Afrikaner nationalism is, once again, visibly cracking under the strain of conflicting views. At issue is not whether the apartheid system ought to continue but the form it should take in the circumstances prevailing today. According to the Johannesburg Financial Mail, the difference between Botha and Treurnicht is that “The first is seeking an accommodation with certain blacks — but only on white terms; the second is contemptuous of such an accommodation — it is seen as weak” (Apartheid: The Facts, p.51).
This attempt on the part of the Botha government to accommodate a black elite is a key component of what it has called its “total strategy”. This strategy — a hint of the close links that have been forged under Botha between the military top brass and their political counterparts — is based on the realisation that it will take more than the military might of the state to counter the threats to the apartheid regime. In the words of the 1977 White Paper on Defence and Armaments Production, "The resolution of a conflict in the times in which we live demands inter-dependent and co-ordinated action in all fields — military, psychological, political, sociological." (Apartheid: The Facts p.68). What prompted this new approach was, partly, the events in Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe which swept away the cordon sanitaire of Portuguese colonialism and Ian Smith's Rhodesia, making South Africa more vulnerable to guerrilla insurgency; partly, the rising resistance to apartheid within South Africa itself which culminated in the riots on the streets of Soweto in 1976; and partly the growing international pressure against apartheid during the seventies.
It is against this background, therefore, that the Government has sought to woo the urbanised black elite by modifying certain aspects of apartheid. The aim of this, according to Patrick Laurence (Guardian 22 November 1978) is to build "a buffer between the white elite and the relatively impoverished black masses, and thereby transfer a racial struggle between white and black into an ideological one between capitalism and marxism". For the majority of blacks, however, there has been little change and indeed in some respects there has been a deterioration. The number of arrests for passbook violations in 1982, for example, exceeded 200,000 — a 90 per cent increase since 1981. For all the talk of reform, the traditional pattern of apartheid — its draconian pass laws and the deportation of "superfluous" people to the desperate poverty of the Homelands — is still remarkably resilient.
With hindsight it is easy to see how wildly over-optimistic was Lord Milner's observation in the last century that “Two wholly antagonistic systems, a medieval race oligarchy and a modern industrial state" could not exist permanently side by side. The emergence of capitalism in South Africa did not, in some mechanistic fashion, erode the racist outlook of a hitherto pastoral Boer community. On the contrary, the latter was successfully and insidiously grafted onto this emerging capitalism — above all in the mining industry whose white union is still today a bastion of staunch conservatism and racist bigotry.
On the other hand, it does not follow at all that apartheid and capitalism are inextricably intertwined and that the struggle against apartheid is thus intrinsically "anti-capitalist". Yet clearly it would suit the government very well if this was widely accepted. It could then better mobilise the support of the comparatively privileged section of the black population (as Laurence suggests) against the supposed “marxist" threat to the South African "way of life”. It could also more easily tar its liberal critics with the "communist" brush as it has long tried to do.
But the plain fact is that the overwhelming majority of apartheid’s opponents are not opposed to capitalism as such. While some elements within the black nationalist camp (in particular within the banned African National Congress) adopt the terminology of socialist revolution, their goal is the discredited leninist one of state capitalism. Yet even this misrepresentation of the socialist objective seems to attract little support: a recent report of the Buthelezi Commission estimated that a resounding majority of more than five to one blacks preferred private enterprise to state ownership (New Society, 13 May 1982). The paradoxically strong support the "socialistic” ANC enjoys, particularly amongst urban blacks, is not because of any leanings it may have towards “socialism” but rather the result of its militant opposition to apartheid.
The workers of South Africa must look beneath the skin deep changes that apartheid’s demise can at best offer. It is towards their own emancipation as a class that they must turn their eyes. The impressive growth of independent non-racial trade unionism since the early seventies is a tribute to the courage of many thousands of black and white workers but also a hopeful indication of what can be done even in a climate as repressive as South Africa’s.