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The race-class debate

This essay serves to explain the race-class debate with reference to key theorists; in doing this
it will comment on the relevance of this debate for contemporary South African politics. It
will firstly start by defining what the race-class debate is and then touch on the view of
Revisionist, Liberal and Marxist ideas. It will also take a stance on how segregation was
functional to capitalism and how the process led to the class advancements of the minority.
The race-class debate is the idea of racial supremacy where by one race oppresses another
race in every way that is beneficial to its own interests and development while the other race
suffers and is stagnated in terms of development and welfare. It is generally the analytic
relationship between the concepts of race, racial policy and ideology on one side and those of
class interests, relations and struggle on the other (Posel 1983). This debate is quite relevant
to contemporary South Africa as policies of racial discrimination and capitalist
development were placed on South African society which put white minority on top of the
hierarchical table or placed them amongst the high class while the black majority fell into the
lower class (Posel 1983).
In respect to this definition, liberal-protagonists within the race-class debate understand that
liberals treat this debate as prejudice of race, rather than one of class-struggle, as the core of
struggles within the society of South Africa. According to this view liberals regard racial
segregation as the force behind the South Africas history. Race is therefore taken as the
primary variable in liberal analysis, in which class relations are seen to be treated as
secondary to, even derivative of, racial conflict (Posel 1983).
Secondly, according to Frederick Johnstone liberals at that time were understood to have
been arguing that the policies of apartheid had imposed illogical & redundant constraints on
capitalistic growth in South Africa. Liberals saw racial supremacy in South Africa as wholly
at odds with renewed economic growth, the force of the latter being sufficient finally to erode
its racial fetters. On this view, industrialisation and capitalist development produce not
merely an economic interest in liberal reforms, but an ultimately irresistible pressure issuing
inevitably in evolutionary change in that direction (Posel 1983).
According to Johnstone racial dominance in South Africa was viewed as an interruption on
the capitalist-economic-system. One would argue against this stance because racial
domination is what brought apartheid in the first place and it is because of this segregational
policy that black people were split into low-class areas known as Bantustans were they had
no room to grow and better themselves in terms of class whilst the whites lived in the suburbs
where they had access to good education, good jobs that allowed them to climb up the class
structure placing them in the high class so it would be wrong to say that racial
domination/segregation was dis-functional to capitalism because it's the other way around
(Johnstone 1976).
Liberal perspectives are therefore characterized as declarations of logical variables of race
over those of class, and of the complete dis-functionality, rather than functionality, of
segregation and then apartheid for capitalism in South Africa. However when re-defined in
revisionism this liberal stance amounts to the total opposite of liberal priorities in the sense
that class now has primacy over race, and segregation is seen as being functional, rather than
dis-functional to the development of South African capitalism (Posel 1983). Frederick
Johnstone's study of racial policies in the mining sector, clearly explains that the South
African racial-system was directly linked/associated with a class system; in which class
interests were promoted (Johnstone 1976). These developments in history were clearly
explained by Johnstone & thus validates this explanation and stance.
Furthermore in explaining racial policy in terms of class factors, without posing the question
of their interdependence or historically variable relationship, Johnstone thus accepts and
reproduces the terms of the debate as having an 'either-or' form. Class and race are said to be
categories that are analytically independent, ranked in a hierarchical order and invariably
with class being the core fundamental variable. This accounts for the functions and
development of racial policies (Johnstone 1976). The very terms in which the race-class
debate is set up thus preclude a different mode of inquiry, oriented by a different question,
which does not seek a uniform ranking of one variable over another, but rather their concrete
interrelationships, in the ways in which racial cleavages and practices themselves structure
class relations (Posel 1983). This makes the race concept analyticaly inseparable from our
comprehension and very conceptualization of existent class-relations in any specific
Revisionist views of the relationship between apartheid and capitalism are characterised by a
similar form of argument. A large number of revisionists have shown in their research; how
South Africa's economic growth was advanced by apartheid. The formulation of Martin
Legassick's problem in his book 'South Africa: Capital Accumulation and Violence'
symbolizes this approach through this direct quote which goes as follows: this essay seeks to
show that the specific structures of labour control which have been developed in post-war
South Africa are increasingly functional to capital: though the particular combination of class
forces which instituted them and have maintained them may be debated, nevertheless they
serve the interests of capitalist growth in the South African situation (Legassick 1974). This
is further evidence that once again suggests that segregation was indeed functional to
capitalism and thus promoted the class of the oppressors/minority.
The questions that early revisionists tried to answer were of great importance, they were
relevant against the beckdrop of the 1960s at which South Africa's economy flourished being
number two after that of Japan, however around this same time state repression also
intensified. Certainly, the first occurrences of the debate where conducted in the wake of one
of the starkest demonstrations of a largely successful partnership between capitalist growth
and racially discriminatory policies (Posel 1983). The capitalistic benefits of racial
segregation were not only confined to the 1960's as the expansion of South Africa's economic
growth testifies to a persistence that is historically variable and compatible with the country's
economic and political systems.
Apartheid was the means of segregation that the white minority put in place in order to carry
out their capitalistic interests and with this policy owners of farms and mines exploited and
oppressed the black citizens of South Africa who did not own any means of production such
as the minority and as a result were forced into offering their labour for low wages just to
sustain themselves. For example hut taxes were introduced in Zulu land and other African
communities as a way of transforming the natives into proletariats which gave the natives no
choice but to work for wages so that they would be able to pay their taxes. Those who didnt
have jobs had to sell off some of their cattle as a way of raising up money to pay their taxes
and the downside to this was that the price they sold their cattle was below market value.
(Guy 1982).
According to Bundy the natives of South Africa produced surpluses within the industrial
sectors/markets due to demands for exploitable cheap labour which motivated mining capital
to find ways of transforming black South Africans into a labour force. The only way they
could do this was through a process of primitive accumulation based on land dispossession
and imposition of different hut and dog taxes, in order to get wage-labour (Bundy 1779).
White capitalistic minority had to do this as natives didnt have to work in order to sustain
themselves as they could easily do this by living off their lands through subsistence farming
(Bundy 1779).
The self-sufficiency of the African peasants withheld labour for the mine owners; the
dispossession of Africans and destruction of the African peasantry was linked to the needs of
capitalist development in South Africa. In other words, the capacity for the African peasantry
to produce provided them with the source of income and livelihood, thus reducing their
dependency on industrial capital which is why capitalists had to take that means of survival
away from the natives so that they could use the native population to peruse their self-centred
interests to further promote them into a high class.
However according to Wolpe such measures didnt have to be taken as he argued that
capitalistic development didnt have to abolish pre-capitalistic modes of production as he
theorised that capitalism could have actually co-existed with pre-capitalistic mode of
production by organically infusing the two together. According to Wolpe capitalism in South
Africa feeds on pre-capitalistic modes of production, which serves as source for cheap
labour (Wolpe 1975).
In Wolpes view racial supremacy on South African natives through the migrant-labour
system was of great use to capitalists as reserves subsidized the black-working-class forced
essential labour. According to Wolpes theory subsistence agriculture in the reserves
contributed to the social reproduction and maintenance of migrant workers. In other words,
rural areas or reserves took care of the old aged natives and provided them with social
security as well as a source of remuneration which is why Wolpe argued that the two could
co-exist with each other.
According to Merle Lipton Apartheid benefited capitalism especially in the agricultural and
mining sector till the 1970s (Lipton 1985). In relation to Hutts idea of developmental
capitalism eroding prejudice, Lipton argues that the dis-functionality of racial forms of
political dominance manifests in the structural changes of the economy from a labour
intensive type of work to a capital intensive kind of work, which required skilled-labour (Hutt
1964). Apartheid became dysfunctional for capital accumulation due to the growth of the
manufacturing industry as it now required skilled labour & black purchasing power. From
this point of view, racism had both benefits & costs for the accumulation of capital.
Segregation laws provided the political structure with an fitting opportunity to exploit and to
exclude natives from accumulating and helping from the economy, as places like
Witwatersrand were said to be white people s places and such places are occupied with
normal resources and industries. Apartheid signifies the effort to preserve the rate of
remaining worth and gathering in the expression of the failure of the entrepreneurial economy
and maximizing profit (Bond, 2006).
The benefits were that cheap labour was provided which was in high demand within the
mining and agricultural sector which were capital intensive, and the state intervened by
reproducing labour. The costs procured came as a result of the absence of skilled black labour
and capital had to rely on expensive white labour. However regardless of this it could be
argued that the manufacturing sector benefited from racial policies which prevented the
formation of worker struggles (Lipton 1985).
From this it is quite clear that segregation was used as a means of promoting the class of one
race over that of the other. Furthermore freedom fighters such as Steve Biko opened the eyes
of his fellow African brothers to help them see what was really happening to them in terms of
class and that if they were to beat this class-struggle they had to unite and uplift each other so
that they too could climb up the class hierarchy from a lower class to a middle class and for
the fortunate hard workers, they would secure positions within the high class. At this point it
was hard for the capitalists to use segregation as a way of exploiting the workers because at
this time the natives were conscious of what was taking place around them which helped
balance the class-struggle and render apartheid useless because with consciousness came the
will to fight off segregation by the natives which led to the abolishment of this oppressive
system known as apartheid. This also saw the beginning of a black rising middle class (Biko
In conclusion this essay has critically defined what the race class debate is and how relevant
it is to contemporary South Africa. Furthermore this essay has shown how segregation was
functional to capitalism and how the process led to the class advancements of the minority.
Due to South Africas history of apartheid and its segregation laws theres still inequalities
within contemporary South Africa and the effects of this will continue to haunt us as a

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