The foundations of apartheid

Economy, strategy and race

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 2


The system of Apartheid may have been formalised in 1948, but it has its roots in the preceding centuries of European invasion, conquest and exploitation.


By the 1930s, Southern Africa was arguably the most important part of Africa, at least in terms of global economy and strategy.


Its economic significance arose primarily out of mineral wealth, vital for the West's industrial civilisation, whilst its strategic influences arose from a combination of the region's wealth and the rising importance of the Cape route for sea-traffic between Asia and the western world.


A third element that has profoundly affected the history of the wider Southern African region is that of race. The interplay between economy, strategy and race has shaped the landscape of Southern Africa for centuries, and embedded in these themes lay multiple, interconnected sub-themes.


The economic story of Southern Africa covers land, namely the struggle for the best and most fertile land; labour, both voluntary and forced; and capital, namely extractive capital from the land's resources.


The strategic story of Southern Africa can be summed up in historian David Chanaiwa's assertion that:

"What should be remembered is that if there is any part of Africa for which the Western world would be prepared to go to war to ensure Western access to its resources, that part is indeed Southern Africa..."

As for the story of race in Southern Africa, this can be told in the greater context of world history during this period. Namely, the global struggle against fascism and racial repression in Europe during the Second World War, followed by continued Western acceptance of fascism and racial repression in Africa in the form of apartheid.


In South Africa, white settlers worked to maintain a monopoly over land, minerals, jobs and social services. Across the socio-economic spectrum, white settlers sought to protect their economic privileges against any contemporary or prospective African competition.


On the one hand, the white bourgeois-class wanted laws eliminating any competition with Africans over land, minerals or produce. Whilst, on the other hand, the white labourer-class wanted laws that would eliminate any competition with African workers, perpetuate the scarcity of skills and increase their wages. Where both classes were aligned was in subsidising their high standards of living by passing on the tax burden to the Africans.


White workers formed all-white unions, and white consumers boycotted African products in order to eliminate competition from African farmers and manufacturers.


By the 1930s, South Africa had passed an array of segregationist laws with the purposes of:

  1. Expropriating African land and minerals

  2. Procuring cheap African labour

  3. Controlling the deployment and movement of African labourers

  4. Eliminating inter-racial competition


The Industrial Conciliation Act, for example, did not recognise African workers as employees. Instead, they authorised councils of white workers to negotiate on wages, conditions of work and benefits on behalf of the Africans. Africans were not allowed into apprenticeship programmes and had no right to strike or to collective bargaining.


Under the Workmen's Compensation Act, Africans were excluded from retirement benefits, healthcare schemes and occupational-safety measures.


These laws, to name but a few, provided the legal foundation for the economic, strategic and racial elements at play in Southern Africa. Creating the environment of underdevelopment necessary to perpetuate a system of dependency, whilst systematically destroying African resources, endeavour and autonomy.


The apartheid regime would go onto double down on these injustices.

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