Review: “South Africa’s Transkei: The Political Economy of an ‘Independent’ Bantustan’ – Roger Southall

Roger Southall’s “South Africa’s Transkei: The Political Economy of an ‘Independent’ Bantustan” (Monthly Review, 1983) is a technical book that examines the emergence of ‘independent’ bantustans in South Africa from the 1970s to the end of apartheid in 1994. Using Marxian political economy, Southall unravels the economic and material basis of the bantustans, focusing on Transkei, the first of the ‘independent’ bantustans, to demonstrate how the supposedly ‘de-colonized’ black states were inextricably a product of and subservient to apartheid and white capital.

According to Southall, the Natives’ Land Act of 1913, which established native “reserves” and other legislative acts of segregation, served to subsidize capitalist interests. This was especially true in the case of South Africa’s most important industry – gold mining. Gold is a unique commodity, as readily detailed in A. Anikin’s “The Yellow Devil: Gold and Capitalism” (Progress Publishers, 1983). On the one hand, since the price of gold was fixed internationally, the cost of labour could not be readily passed on to the consumer in the form of price increases. On the other hand, the market would accept all the gold that was offered, eliminating crises of overproduction and the consequent decline in the rate of profit. The primary emphasis in pursuing mining profits was thus on minimizing the cost of labour.

No less dependent on cheap labour was settler agriculture. With the expansion of the home market as a result of the mining industry, settler agriculture was increasingly in competition with mining interests for cheap labour. The effect of this mutual competition for labour was to raise, rather than depress, wages, necessitating extra-economic coercion to induce a supply of labour at a price below that which would be available under free-market conditions.

Segregation and the native “reserves’ – and later the ‘independent’ bantustans under apartheid – served this aim. By stabilizing the existing land distribution between blacks and whites, the 1913 Land Act arrested the development of landlessness among blacks, allowing Africans to retain limited access to land but insufficient to allow for their subsistence, necessitating wage labour at the mines and settler agriculture. Since the subsistence requirements of Africans could be partially, but not entirely, met by farming on the reserves, “capital was enabled to pay African labourers at a coercively induced cheap wage. In other words, the workforce was paid at a rate below the cost of physical reproduction as a class, so that, in effect, the productive capacity of the reserves served as an indirect subsidy to white-owned capital” (p. 26).  

By 1948, when National Party came to power, the reserves’ declining ability with their pre-capitalist production modes to subsidize white-owned capital reached crisis proportions. Overpopulation and environmental degradation had significantly reduced the agricultural capacity of the reserves. Moreover, rising African national consciousness, European decolonization, and the requirement of South African manufacturing for semi-skilled workers increased the political pressure on the South African regime.

The solution devised was to create a class of African petty-bourgeoisie in their own nominally independent states but subservient to South African capitalism – the bantustans. On the one hand, the bantustans served to weaken African national consciousness through divide and rule. “By restoring the traditional leadership and by binding it to the state as the source of its wealth and authority, the National Party sought to counter the heightened political consciousness of the African masses by dividing the latter into its ethnic segments and subjecting it to a system of indirect rule” (p. 103). On the other hand, the bantustans served to continue to subsidize South African white-owned capital. The bantustans “bore the stamp of an explicit process of intended apartheid-style neo-colonization, whereby the reins of power within Transkei would be handed over to a pliable elite, and the conditions of bantustan existence so circumscribed that it would have no alternative but to service the labour needs of the South African economy” (p. 115). “But as the wind of change swept across the continent, the regime found it expedient to adopt the vocabulary of decolonization and to ape the imperialists by the grant of (a limited form of) ‘self-government’ to the tribal homelands” without changing the substance of their dependence on South Africa (p. 103).

Overall opinion: Southall’s political economy of apartheid bantustans is an excellent primer to anyone interested in a Marxist analysis of apartheid, although I found it repetitive and excessively wordy for my liking.

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