Socioeconomic Class and the History of South Africa

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Socioeconomic Class and the History of South Africa


In any historical account gender, race, socioeconomic class and many more issues are closely interwoven. In fact, to try and separate them would be not only onerous but also a specious task because the resulting account, although perhaps straightforward, would be at best only partial. However, when considering the history of Southern Africa, the most encompassing account would be that of socioeconomic class. The motives behind the historical events of Southern Africa have been strongly socioeconomic, even if the motives then evoked racial or gender based issues. Thus, if one had to choose a way to understand South African history, it should be socioeconomically.

The motivation for colonization was economic. It eventually became more economically efficient for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to build its own port than to continue trading with Africans on its way to Eastern Asia (Ross, 21). Dealings between settlers and Africans were based on socioeconomics, whether the interaction was buying and selling cattle and sheep or a conflict over the amount of land that settlers were taking from the Xhosa. For Africans, using a large amount of land for grazing one’s cattle was a symbol of high status because it meant that you had many cattle to graze and that you could protect a large amount of land (Ross, 22). The settler’s invasion was an economic blow.

Also, the Great Trek was caused because Afrikaaners felt that they did not have the socioeconomic status they desired. Their land was being divided into small pieces, so they decided it would be better to go out and find other land than to continue to live as they were in the lower class. This was no mass movement of the “Afrikaaner People,” but only a number of small groups setting out to claim “free” land for themselves (Ross, 39). The wars between the Africans and Trekkers at these times were fought as the Africans realized that these people were coming to stay on their territory, and as the Trekkers realized that they would have to kill to keep the land they needed to secure wealth (Ross, 40).

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Only well after the time of the Great Trek did it become known as a cultural movement (Etherington, 342).

Even apartheid, whose laws completely defined people by the color of their skin, was socioeconomically motivated. Apartheid was created by the Nationalist Party, a party that represented a powerful minority that wanted to remain forever powerful (Ross, 115). Because in a normal democracy the massive majority would not allow the minority to retain the huge amount of wealth and power it had, the Nationalist Party went about creating a system that would never give the majority enough power to create socioeconomic equality. Those who voted for the Nationalist Party were also looking to keep their wealth at the expense of the masses; for example, many of the businessmen who voted for the Nationalist Party wanted “a black labour force which was disciplined and cheap” (Ross, 117). These goals were legitimized by a set of laws. An example of a law was that there could be no sharecropping between the classes of people. This law not only helped keep the elite group in power, it further separated those who had been on the boundary of their group. For example, in The Seed is Mine, Kas Maine becomes much poorer because he has been forced into the lowest socioeconomic class with the coming of apartheid. He can no longer work the land as he used to and so cannot produce enough to keep his old quality of life (Onselen, 375-6). Also, the Bantu education offered to Africans was “limited to those skills valuable for the maintenance of the white run economy” (Ross, 121). The point of the education was the continued subjugation of the lower class more than a racial view of intelligence. These laws also created a socioeconomic lure of apartheid to those allowed into the upper class. This is evident in Don’t Let’s go to the Dog Tonight when the family feels too poor in England, and so pack up and move to Southern Africa where they are automatically part of a higher socioeconomic class. “[I]t was unthinkable to either of my parents to continue living in such ordinarily lower-middle-class circumstances” (Fuller, 37).

Although apartheid was about keeping socioeconomic privilege in a small minority, to only define it in those terms is to lose much of the meaning of apartheid. Apartheid was created by the Nationalist Party because the white minority wanted to keep its power over the African majority. Thus all of the laws that kept Africans in a lower socioeconomic level were defined racially. For example, Kas Maine loses his livelihood not because he was a small step below his Afrikaaner counterparts in wealth at the beginning of apartheid, but because he is black. The revised Land Act “found instant favor amongst rootless ‘poor whites’” who were automatically favored because of their race (Onselen, 375). The Fullers move back to Africa after a short time in England because in Rhodesia they were automatically at a higher socioeconomic level because they were white. Although the ends of apartheid are social and economic stratification, the means is race.

Specific relationships developed by apartheid can be defined using socioeconomic terms. For example, in Maids and Madams we saw a poorly educated lower class forced to work for minimum wages in poor conditions because of the massive inequality between the huge supply of maids and the small number of madams. A more specific relationship is that between the three women in Not Either an Experimental Doll. Although Mabel is white and Lily is black, Mabel is able to compare Lily’s desire to better herself with her own. She compares her monetary help with similar help she received when she was trying to get an education she could not afford (Marks, 137).

Again, however, these same relationships are closely tied to race. Even some of the poorest white families are able to have African maids because their color forces them into a higher socioeconomic class. In Not Either an Experimental Doll, Mabel feels that since she cannot get through to Lily, perhaps Sibusiswe can since she shares the same racial background (Marks, 141). Also, the color of their skin is one important reason that Mabel feels that she and Lily are different classes of people (Marks, 136). Even though particular relationships in South Africa boil down to who has the access to money, they are heavily shrouded in race relations.

Even the struggle against apartheid is the struggle of the poor masses and their supporters to overthrow a more powerful and wealthy minority. The most powerful vehicle for the liberation of Africans in South Africa was the ANC, a movement that strove to remain colorblind through most of its existence with a “tradition…to work with anyone who was against racial oppression” (Mandela, 137). The movements that had the most effect involved boycotts, and when such a large constituency of the population worked together, a constituency that would include more than only Africans, the economic effect was staggering.

The struggle, however, was not solely based on socioeconomic motivations. If that were the case, there would not have been members of the “African elite” who also fought for the cause, even when their livelihood was threatened. Mandela is, of course, the prime example of this in that he was raised to be a lawyer and make his way to the top of the socioeconomic ladder for Africans, but he ended up running away and refusing to return. Instead, he fought to help Africans who were in much worse situations than himself as a “freedom fighter” (Mandela, 140). Although one may argue that this was more a personal belief than a racial consciousness, to talk about the struggle in purely socioeconomic terms would be to belittle many of its members.

Finally, many of the reasons apartheid finally ended were economic in nature. COSATU had organized so many strikes that businessman finally decided that they needed to negotiate with the lower class that held so many of the vital menial jobs. The manufacturing businessmen also wanted the end of apartheid because they wanted to be able to sell their goods to the lower class. The lower class was a huge majority of the people of South Africa, and they were not making enough money with which to buy any luxury items. Also, much of the international reaction involved economic sanctions and shunning South Africa from international society. The sports sanctions were a heavy blow to the Afrikaaner ego. Also, although some of the economic sanctions actually made South Africa more self-reliant, some, such as the oil sanction, truly hurt the South African economy. Another repercussion of apartheid’s unrest was that international banks refused to roll over their loans, which caused a serious financial crisis (Lecture, Nov 18). Although these were not the only reasons, without them there would have been a much higher chance that apartheid would not have fallen for many more years.

Most of the historical events in Southern Africa were driven by socioeconomic reasons. Although these reasons were often shielded by racial or nationalistic issues they remained the most important motive. Even relationships that are often seen in racial terms, such as that between maids and their madams, may in fact come down to socioeconomic differences. Presently in South Africa there are newly wealthy Africans who can afford maids, and these Africans may in fact treat their maids worse than their white counterparts (Lecture, Nov 25). Race is not a defining difference in society; it is how different people react to their socioeconomic situation that creates the setting of a society and the swing of history.


Works Cited

Etherington, Norman. The Great Treks: The Transformation of Southern Africa, 1815-1854. London: Pearson Education Limited, 2001.

Fuller, Alexandra. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood. New York: Random House, 2001.

Maids and Madams. Videorecording. London: Channel 4 Television Co., 1985.

Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995.

Marks, Shula, ed. Not Either an Experimental Doll. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Onselen, Charles van. The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper 1894-1985. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.

Ross, Robert. A Concise History of South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


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