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Back | Project: Racism and Public Policy

Abstract of Paper by Bernard Magubane

  • Project from: 2000 to 2001

The Social Construction of Race and Citizenship in South Africa

The spirit and practice that characterized European relations with so-called non-European others can be summed up in two words: white supremacy. In 1776, Adam Smith in his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations described two events that he said ‘were the greatest and most important in the history of mankind’. These were the ‘discovery of America, and the passage to the east Indies by way of the Cape of Good Hope’. ‘What benefits, or what misfortune to mankind may hereafter result from these great events’, he went on, ‘no human wisdom can foresee’. But it was possible for Smith, even in 1776, to foresee that ‘the savage injustice of Europeans’ toward those Europe was in the process of colonizing would ‘render an event, which ought to have been beneficial to all, ruinous and destructive to several of those unfortunate countries’.

In Capital (volume I), first published in 1867, Karl Marx wrote that the ‘discovery of gold and silver in America’, led to the ‘extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of indigenous populations, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for commercial hunting of black skins’, which he said were ‘all things which characterize the dawn of capitalist production’. Marx goes on to remind us that ‘while the cotton industry introduced child slavery into England, in the United States it gave the impulse for the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery’ into a system of commercial exploitation’. Indeed, he says, ‘the veiled slavery of the wage labourers in Europe needed for its pedestal the unqualified slavery of the New World’.

In this paper, I explore the use of race to perpetrate and naturalize the ‘savage injustice’, and ‘the unqualified slavery’ of settler colonialism that we in South Africa only emerged from in 1994.

The Dutch East India Company first incorporated South Africa into the evolving world economy as a victualling station in 1652. In 1688, French Huguenots fleeing persecution following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes were brought to the Cape. This revealed something even more fundamental about Europe’s colonial enterprise: the colonies became dumping grounds for the continent’s social rejects. In 1806, the Cape became a permanent part of the Second British Empire by the fact of conquest. English occupation of the Cape was motivated by two considerations. Having lost its American colonies, the British turned their eyes to the East, especially to India. And the Cape held a strategic importance in this trade. Second, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain faced what came to be called the Malthusian population crisis. At the time, British political economists were waxing eloquent about the virtues of settling Britain’s social outcasts in the colonies. Hence, in 1820, the British Parliament voted £50,000 to ship 5,000 settlers to the Eastern Cape. The 1820 settlers came practically from every part of the United Kingdom, including Ireland and Scotland. They were selected to constitute a slice of British society with all its prejudices.

From 1806 through 1994, the indigenous peoples of South Africa became victims of two forms of imperialism: that of the descendants of the Dutch, whose mode of surplus extraction until the 1950s was agriculture; and the British, whose initial mode of surplus extraction was wool production, then sugarcane in Natal and, from 1867, diamond mining. The mode of surplus extraction determined the construction of citizenship. The imperatives of a social and political system, reared first on slavery and then on peonage, negated the emergence of democracy based on universal values. This had a precedent in slave-based Greek democracy.

I argue that a study of white settler racism, especially its construction of citizenship, is inextricably intertwined with modes of surplus extraction from ‘non-white labour’. I do this by looking at the evolution of the South African and the place ascribed to the indigenous population in the evolving economy and polity. Indeed, the worldwide phenomenon of white supremacy, and its ideology of racism, is historically embedded in colonialism, and a full-fledged solution must be worldwide.

The introduction of British settlers to the Cape affected every aspect of life. Cape wool production increased. Simultaneously, the wars of conquest and dispossession intensified. As a result of dispossession, Africans were forcibly incorporated into the settler economy as a ‘subject race’. The various justifications for treating the Africans as inferior and dispensable ‘others’ were formulated, among others, by Robert Knox and Charles Dickens, the famous novelist.

The abolition of slavery in 1834 saw the exodus of some 15,000 Boer farmers into the interior of the country. This offered wool farmers great opportunity to expand their farms. The expanding frontier of ‘settler capitalism’ saw the recrudescence of the worst form of racism. The old social relations of usurious and commercial capitalism, with its conquistadors and slaves, were replaced by the dominion of industrial capital, with its plantation and wage slaves.

The abolition of slavery, which incensed the Boer farmers and forced them to quit the Cape for the interior, gave the British even more land to expand wool production. Wool production, like sugarcane and tobacco production in the United States, set the frontier of ‘settler capitalism’ as the scene of conflict and war as the settlers invaded lands of chiefdoms and kingdoms. Thus, while Africans were subjugated by force of arms, the settlers attributed their success to their innate superiority as Europeans qua white.

When Bartolome de Las Casas, the Bishop of Chiapas, recommended the enslavement of stronger and more plentiful Africans when faced with the certain destruction of indigenous Americans, racism became eminently functional. This, I argue, is no better demonstrated than in South Africa. The abolition of slavery in 1834 gave British humanitarianism a new sense of purpose. This was exhibited in the Cape in what is called the Liberal spirit. Yet, its rhetorical commitment to abstract ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’ could not resolve the fundamental commitment to cultural imperialism, white supremacy and genocidal colonial wars. Recent neo-Marxist historiography has demonstrated that Cape Liberalism was deeply embedded in capitalist practice. In its initial phase, the interests of humanitarians, à la John Philip of the London Missionary Society, coincided with the need to create for capital unrestrained access to ‘free’ land and labour, which necessitated the abolition of slavery. Indeed, laws devised for indentured white immigrants, free ‘Coloured’ workers and emancipated slaves were forerunners of South Africa’s master and servants laws, which from 1910 were transmuted into segregatory laws, and from 1948 into apartheid.

Soon after the abolition of slavery, British imperialism embarked on a series of wars to ‘free’ African subsistence producers from their means of subsistence. After the discovery of the mineral riches of the Rand, these wars intensified. The extraction of minerals continued many features of the slave regime. It used a plentiful supply of cheap labour, mobilized under close supervision of white skilled labour, to achieve maximum returns. The need to build the settler economy on cheap black labour for mines and agriculture made it impossible to install democracy that was universal. Contrast this with the 1994 Constitution and the Government of National Unity led by the African National Congress: it is not only committed to ethnic equality, it has also made a fundamental commitment to gender equality.

I conclude by discussing the changes in discourse that have occurred since 1994. The Government of National Unity is engaged in a mammoth task of creating, out of the various ethnic identities, a truly South African national identity. It understands that the rhetoric of equality and democracy will remain a chimera unless the deep class fissures created during almost 300 years of white supremacy are breached by deliberate, systematic and purposeful policies of ‘affirmative’ action.