Politics of Race in 20th Century Africa

Rainbow Nation

Prior to the Afrikaner-dominated Nationalist Party coming to power and implementing their apartheid policies, the British grappled with the question of how to handle the ‘native question’. In 1911, Maurice Evans, the listened-to expert of his time on offered, “I have put the question many times, often without answer, and at best to have been told that our policy would be to keep him (the African) in his place,” his defense of a paternalistic policy towards Africans.  To Evans, that place was a role of subservience and obedience to White interests. Even he would acknowledge, though that the African’s “place is a shifting one; we ourselves are altering the plane; what was his place yesterday may not know him tomorrow.” He was ahead of his time, forecasting the violence that would result in the second half of the century as a result of such oppression, “in other words, repression with an appeal to the rifle.” (Kidd, 171)

It is this uncertainty alarmed Afrikaners, in an age of systemic racism. The bitter end of the Boer Wars and white poverty birthed sympathy and attraction to the Nationalist cause. Issues such as black suffrage and equitable land apportionment were seen as a direct threat to Afrikaner interests—even equated with ‘suicide’. It was also seen as damaging to the morality of whites to associate with blacks. Very often, the ‘natives’ were portrayed as contented or childish, on the whole. In 1925, Ernest Stubbs would claim that “contact means the utter and irretrievable ruin of the white races of South Africa.” (Stubbs, 224) The fact that blacks could obtain a Western intellect, or that they had it, innately, was a hard matter for many whites to grasp. Like Dudley Kidd’s account, westernized—therefore qualified to vote blacks—were few and far between, confined to a niche. In 1908, Kidd posits “if we may judge by the violence and intemperance of their language, this handful of educated Kafirs wants the franchise very badly.” (Kidd, 171)

A series of pass laws prohibited black migration. At a hearing for African labor concerns in 1904, one line of testimony calls it “Giving a right to a man to interfere with another man when he is in his own castle. (African Workers Discuss, 194) The Native Land Act would be passed in 1913, and like the pass laws and the franchise, it affected everyone. However, “this Act satisfied no one,” said DDT Jabavu who offered an analysis of the Act in 1928. The Professor found that the Act “confirmed the natives in the sole occupancy of their reserves in which they were already overcrowded.” (Jabavu, 224) Sol Plaatje would say fifteen years earlier that it “allowed Dutchmen, Englishmen, Jews, Germans, and other foreigners may roam the ‘Free’ State without permission—but not natives…It would mean a fine and imprisonment to be without a pass.” (Plaatje, 218)

To address these grievances, Africans organized politically, first in local Congresses, and then ultimately consolidated into the African National Congress. The movement attracted many intellectuals. According to ANC President, Reverend J.A. Catala in 1938, “the inception of the National Congress was due to a crying need for comprehensive machinery by which to manage and direct national affairs.” The ANC’s purpose was “to unite, absorb, consolidate, and preserve…existing political, and educational associations, vigilance committees, and other public and private bodies whose aims are the promotion and safeguarding of the interests of the aboriginal races.” (Catala, 1938) Catala reasons that their work was “to make the Government realize that the African is an integral part of the body politic of South Africa.” In response, the Nationalist sentiment of the Afrikaners grew stronger. Catala would lament that “South Africa is a funny country in that its rulers are full of fear…they fear the black people who outnumber them by 3:1…It is a country of many races, yet it is possible for it to have a Cabinet composed of men of one race. This signifies that the problem of race relations is not easy to solve.” (Catala, 1948)

The older rhetoric of a separate Black and White South Africa would still pervade the country even after the close of World War Two, which saw whites fighting alongside blacks in many areas of the globe. The Stubbs sentiment, that separateness could be obtained and would be beneficial to all, was popular, albeit quaint. “We cannot have an all-white South Africa…We can have, with all the elements of permanency a White South Africa and a Black South Africa, side by side.” (Stubbs, 224) Kidd’s point-of-view still carried weight, and many Afrikaners agreed—“If (blacks) are left to follow their own natural political development, the result arrived at will be more stable and will have a more permanent value than the outcome of an impatient patchwork of our own.” (Kidd, 171) However, blacks were not left to their own natural development. Their efforts were increasingly thwarted by the state, and whites were still dependent on black labor. The conditions were so onerous that they demanded challenge. In reporting on the condition of African Farm Workers, Drum Newspaper opines that “while the Industrial Revolution is causing as much chaos in South Africa as it caused in 19th century Europe no lessons have been learnt…the same abuse of labor is repeated in the same style…farm prisons and contracted labor…depends upon compulsion, not persuasion. (Drum, 267) International and internal pressure would mount on the Nationalists, and laws would be passed, such as the ‘Abolition of Passes Act’ and the ‘Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Bill’ but typically, according to Nelson Mandela, these titles meant “the opposite of what the measures contained.” (Verrwoerd’s Tribalism, 2)

Robert Sobukwe labeled the treatment “humiliation, degradation, and insult,” stating that blacks were “ruthlessly exploited.” Steve Biko would later elaborate that “the leaders of the white community had to create some kind of barrier between blacks and whites so that the whites could enjoy privileges at the expense of the blacks.” (Biko, 87-88)  This policy of labor exploitation and segregation became a moral weak point for whites and the violence at Sharpeville became the proof of this moral degradation. The efforts towards non-violent revolution would peak in 1960 with Nobel Peace Prize winning ANC President Lutuli, but go by the wayside. Despite their position on the moral high-ground, the ANC would respond with violence. Umkonto we Sizwe, or “the Spear of the Nation” would be called to action by Nelson Mandela. The ANC would splinter off its non-violent activists like Sobukwe, and adopt more radical ideologies and tactics offered to them by Communism. The South African Communist Party would face bans, and imprisonment, and create figureheads out of Robben Island prisoners, whom the public could rally around for another thirty years.

Kidd recognized in 1910 that “if we insist upon keeping alive racial conflict, we must be prepared for the inevitable consequence; racial problems will then remain an open sore.” (Kidd, 172) Apartheid would finally reach a settlement and majority representation and a new constitution obtained. The new government carries with it the stain of the past racial struggle and the violent history of both the Afrikaner and ANC, though it remains very plain as it did 100 years in the testimony of Dr. Abdurahman in 1912: “Show the…people that the government is for the good of all, not for the privileged class…grant them equal opportunities. If you do so, then the happy harmonization of the community will be achieved.” (Abdurahman, 214)

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