In this contribution, Deborah Posel, a Witwatersrand University sociologist, questions two views of apartheid that were common until the mid-1980s: on the one hand, the perception of liberal critics that apartheid was a seamless ‘grand design’ created and implemented by Afrikaner zealots; on the other hand, a Marxist interpretation that sought to explain apartheid ideology in terms of the competing interests of different ‘fractions of capital’. By carefully disentangling the different elements which comprised the Afrikaner nationalist alliance in the 1940s, Posel argues that the meaning and intent of apartheid was strongly contested from within. Posel stresses the tensions between those idealists who believed in ‘total’ apartheid (a position that implied dispensing with African labour and creating wholly self-sufficient African ‘homelands’) and the pragmatists who sought to implement apartheid without abandoning the migrant labour system. She shows how this competing conception of apartheid was reflected in the landmark Sauer Commission Report of 1947 which played an important role in articulating the apartheid vision. In view of these incompatible positions, Posel concludes that the Sauer Report was unable to develop a logically coherent blueprint for apartheid and that it remained ambiguous on crucial issues—most notably, the continuation of migrant labour. The historiographical significance of Posel’s contribution lies both in her re-evaluation of the relationship between ideological and material factors, and also in her rejection of theories that see apartheid as the working out of a long-term grand plan.
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