Segregation and Apartheid in Twentieth-Century South Africa

By William Beinart; Saul Dubow | Go to book overview

3

CAPITALISM AND CHEAP LABOUR POWER IN SOUTH AFRICA:

From segregation to apartheid 1*

Harold Wolpe

More than any other single work, Harold Wolpe’s discussion of the cheap labour and reserve-subsidy thesis became central to the radical analysis of segregation. Wolpe had been an opposition activist in South Africa at the time of the political upheavals before and after Sharpeville (1960). He escaped imprisonment to establish himself as a politically committed academic in Britain. Wolpe argued that cheap labour in the South African context was best procured through the system of migrant labour and that key elements of segregation policy reinforced this arrangement. The migrant labour system ensured that the mines predominantly used the labour of adult males whose families remained in rural areas. Capitalists were able to pay African workers meagre ‘bachelor’ wages because the costs of both the physical and social reproduction of the labour force were borne by their families who remained primarily responsible for maintaining subsistence agriculture in the reserves. Wolpe’s analysis was innovative in that it recognized the inadequacy of a simple class analysis of South African society and attempted to theorize the relationship between segregation, the labour market and reserves. If this system was to survive, reserves for African people had to be entrenched (as envisaged in the 1913 Land Act); mass urbanization, he implied, would undermine the cheap labour supply. Wolpe’s article continues to examine how the reserves strategy was pursued in the middle years of the century when the capacity of these areas to provide subsistence for their inhabitants was undermined. He suggests that the more directive and coercive homeland policy post-1948, by which the state intended to exclude Africans through tighter control of population movements rather than development of the reserves, resulted from the collapse of subsistence production in these areas.

-60-

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