This article by William Beinart, a South African-born historian now based at the University of Bristol, was intended to reorient explanations of segregation and apartheid away from metropolitan policy-making and towards the rural African reserves. Taking issue with Wolpe’s thesis about the role of the reserves in providing industry with a cheap labour force and the view that segregation/apartheid was tailor-made to the demands of capitalist mine-owners and industrialists, Beinart shows that the migrant labour system was significantly shaped by the dynamics of African societies themselves. Beinart is also concerned to counter the assumption in much liberal and Marxist scholarship that rural Africans were simply available to be reshaped by colonists—either as modernizing Christian peasants or as urban workers. He draws attention to the complex nature of local African politics and the varying forces to which chiefs attempted to respond. As the central state attempted to intervene more and more directly in rural life, some chiefs played critical roles in the defence of communal resources and values and even became the focus of political opposition. Others collaborated with the apartheid government in an attempt to secure their own positions or to preserve some local autonomy for their regions. But the line between resistance and collaboration was seldom impermeable. Segregation was therefore not simply imposed upon rural Africans from ‘above’ by a state enjoying absolute power; it was constantly negotiated and challenged even as the rise of apartheid led to a steady erosion of the bargaining position of rural Africans.
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