The Interconnected Socio-Economic Factors of the Collapse of Apartheid in South Africa

I feel I need to add some important qualifications to a paper that has generated nearly 4,000 hits since posted in January of 2009. In Impact of Economic and Political Sanctions on Apartheid I argued that sanctions played an important part in forcing the National Party to the table and the eventual dismantling of Apartheid. I wrote this paper in April and May of 2007, just months before I went to study in Durban, South Africa for the rest of that year. Since then, I have read even more broadly on South Africa and wrote my senior thesis on South Africa.

The clarifications I must make have to do with the conclusions that some might take away from this article. While, I am pleased that any one would read my writing and take away anything from my arguments, I feel I must refine my argument in the context of the overall scene in South Africa in the 1980s.

First, sanctions were not the cause of the end of apartheid in South Africa. While I make a semi-persuasive argument in my paper, the point of the argument is whether they were effective. I conclude that they did have a discernable impact. At the time I believed my paper was fairly watertight in its conclusions, but further reading and discussions with historians and South Africans have made me question that I perhaps overstated the effects on apartheid played by sanctions by not acknowledging other factors. Here are two important parts that I missed (in the case of the first), or did not understand in its full context (the second) but now believe they are important contributing factors.

1. Rugby. I strongly urge you to read Playing the Enemy by John Carlin. While writing Impact of Economic and Political Sanctions on Apartheid I had no clear understanding of the relationship between South Africans, especially Afrikaners, and rugby. Since Carlin’s book is devoted to the telling of the fall of apartheid through a rugby-lens and how rugby in fact united the nation it can be expected to overemphasize its importance. The importance of the ban on South Africa from international competition is a factor that I knew nothing about and thus fail to mention in my original paper. While I touch on the isolation that South Africans were feeling due to world pressure and the vitriol that was directed at them when they traveled overseas, when rugby is added to this dimension it takes on an entirely new importance. Unless you have lived in South Africa or interacted with South Africans it is difficult to comprehend how sport plays such a large part in their lives. While Americans and Britons can relate in particular instances, the religious zeal that accompanies rugby in South Africa exceeds even the die-hard football supporter in the UK or the gridiron fan in the US. I would specifically point to the Springbok tour of New Zealand in 1981 as perhaps a key turning point in the anti-apartheid movement. One must remember that while the rest of the world had seen and heard about conditions and violence in major media outlets happening in South Africa since the Soweto uprisings in 1976, white South Africans were not seeing these same images for the most part. The state-run broadcasting companies made little mention of events in the townships and when they did there was considerable propaganda and racism in the way they were reported. However, South Africans grew up with this style of journalism since before 1948, and many accepted the news reports as truth. It was when their national rugby team was vilified to such an extent in New Zealand that questions began to emerge about what was actually occurring in their own country. There is an important victim mentality that permeates Afrikaner history, much of it based on racist views of blacks from the treks across South Africa in the 1800s and dealings with the British Empire. For more on this mentality I would suggest reading White Tribe Dreaming by Marq de Villers.

Thus the subsequent loss of any opponent willing to play the Springboks caused an impact on Afrikaners that Westerners cannot fully appreciate (My use of Westerners is in regards to Europeans and Americans, as there is no such term for defining those two groups exclusively I will continue to use Westerners, even though for the most part South Africa is considered a Western nation). Therefore I would conclude that the sports boycott is an understated factor in the fall of apartheid and should be included in any discussion. However, keep in mind that this was the result of a sanctions movement, though I see no evidence that even those executing the actions of banning South African sports teams from international competition could understand or foresee the results. This is an important factor in future sanctions debate. Those activities or ‘luxury’ objects that the West does not value highly in terms of causing pain to the target nation may in fact be of great importance to the target population. (For an examination on the campaign through sports, click here)

2. Economics. I mention briefly how de Klerk “feels that the real factor in change was the economic growth of the country”. I have come to conclude that this is a more effective argument than I originally gave due. One must remember the influence of the mines on the Rand. Though I do not give a history of South Africa, nor of apartheid/segregation, an important factor in the development of the racial laws since the Union of South Africa in 1910 is the need for cheap labor by the mines. This need caused the great labor migration of Southern Africa, as well as causing the development of black townships near industrial centers, and this need played a large part in the pass laws.

While I could elaborate on each of these items, it is clear that the mines had a major impact in the creation of apartheid. Apartheid was in fact a great success from the mining industry’s point of view as it helped spur a massive development of industry and capital that was unique on the continent during that period.

However, it was this need for labor that had a major impact on the destruction of apartheid. Apartheid had been built to sustain a large pool of uneducated and unskilled workers. This was originally due in part to the demand by poor whites who worked at the bottom end of the mining industry as managers and supervisors, and these laws allowed them to keep their jobs. The mining companies were not always terribly happy with this arrangement, as they always wanted to employ the cheapest labor. But strikes by white workers in the early part of the 20th century, plus the involvement of Afrikaner and English politicians, who wanted to keep their constituents happy (or court new ones), led to the instituting of a colour bar that would permeate through all of South African industry.

Up until the 1980s the mining industry was still hugely profitable and through High Apartheid had a steady stream of black, unskilled labor and thus continued to fuel the South African economy. As a plus, blacks had never gained suffrage and thus had no recognized political organization to apply pressure on the mines on their behalf such as the white workers did in the early 1900s. As a result, mining conditions were still harsh and there were many avoidable deaths of miners. The labor pool allowed for the mines to overlook these safety hazards, plus the steady stream of workers from outside of South Africa meant that there were plenty of unskilled workers who saw it as their best opportunity for upliftment. By 1980s many black South Africans avoided working in the mines the best they could as they had already suffered through mine labor for three generations by then.

However, by the 1980s, despite the pool of labor, the mines were experiencing a labor shortage. It was a shortage of skilled labor. By the 1980s mining had become such a complex operation that more skilled labor was needed. This was not the primary concern however. As mining became more complex due to the depth of the mining, the extraction of minerals became more expensive. By this time period, white skilled workers had a secure ally in power in the form of the National Party, but were seen as a cause of driving mining prices up. The mines wished to supplement white skilled workers, with cheaper black skilled labor. However, the colour bar was a hindrance in this goal, as was the National Party. Costs of mining were rising even though the price of gold was floating on the world markets by the 1980s (the fixed rate of gold was a massively important factor in the need for cheap labor in the 1890s and 1900s. I would argue that had the price of gold floated during the gold rush on the Witwatersrand, apartheid would never have had such a economic incentive and thus would not have been institutionalized in South Africa as it did). Thus the mines began to pressure the National Party to revise some of the apartheid legislation in order to educate and promote black workers in order to fill the labor shortage that existed in order to replace more expensive white workers. Remember that education standards were very low for non-whites because they were seen by the state as simple tools for manual labor. The need was arising for a more educated black workforce, which the education system of South Africa was not providing, to the detriment of the economy as a whole. Economic growth in South Africa was stagnating as a result. This was partly due to the disinvestment and divestment movements, but I believe had South Africa implemented some of these reforms desired by the mines, the affects by those movements would have been negligible.

These are not unquestioned issues, but ones that receive little if any mention by Mandela or any other ANC member. And why would it receive any attention? The ANC was not under pressure from the Mining industry in the 1980s. The ANC likely knew little, if any, of the desire of the mines to revise apartheid legislation to allow more commercial freedoms for non-whites. De Klerk on the other hand would have felt this financial pressure immensely, and as he says, was part of his reasoning to begin negotiations with the ANC. This process of ‘liberalization of apartheid’ would obviously not have appeased the African National Congress or the worldwide anti-apartheid movement. But had it been implemented there would have been an eventual end to white-only rule. And I find it likely that De Klerk saw this writing on the wall, which is why he made the decisions he did. He chose to implement the changes himself so he could dictate and control the process. As we know now, he did not gain this hoped-for power in the process, but it was his best chance at having a seat at the table (though it did seem to temporarily pay off, as he was a Vice-President in the post-1994 government). However, of the options of liberalizing apartheid laws or a bloody civil war, De Klerk obviously made the right call in attempting to find a middle ground. Mandela as a result was all too happy to accept this, as it clearly gave him more power in dealing with the National Party since both sides knew black rule would eventually come to pass, how bloody this process was to be now completely up to Nelson Mandela.

People have often referred to this process between the ANC and the National Party as a miracle. As a Westerner it can be hard to completely understand why South Africans feel this way about the transition to majority rule, indeed, what’s such a big deal about establishing one man-one vote in the year 1994? The United States started to get its act together back in the 1860s (though only completed the task in the 1960s), so why is South Africa such a darling of the world? It is only when one considers all of the numerous factors that came to a head in the late 1980s, that one can realize how unlikely such an occurance of a perfect storm of dynamics was from the perspective of citizens of South Africa in the dark days of the mid-1980s. The fall of the Soviet Union, the ‘Total Onslaught’ that resulted from the loss of all white-ruled nations in Southern Africa, the costs of domestic-made military hardware, the mental siege fatigue of the white population, the negative impact apartheid was having on the mining industry, the debts that began to mount on the South African Treasury, the sports boycott, the arms embargo, the international anti-apartheid movement, and the once-in-a-generation figure of Nelson Mandela who taught reconciliation. Each one of these pieces of the puzzle could easily fill a 10-page thesis paper. Each piece could be argued persuasively that it was the important factor.

It is now my opinion, from an additional three years of learning and research in and about South Africa, that not one of these many issues could be said to be the cause of the fall of apartheid. I have heard many people and many organizations point to one or two as the main causes. However, I can argue for and against each of these ten issues persuasively enough that I could show you that they had little impact or tremendous impact. Each factor has attachments to another that creates a web of interconnected issues that all came together in a stirring point in history. It is important to recognize the many facets of this story and realize that South Africa is indeed a special case in terms of sanctions, majority rule negotiations, and reconciliation. To draw direct conclusions from South Africa and apply them to other countries would be difficult because of its unique condition and exceptional leaders. It is best to conclude and thus agree with the locals on this major point:  The New South Africa is its own miracle.

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6 thoughts on “The Interconnected Socio-Economic Factors of the Collapse of Apartheid in South Africa

  1. Pingback: Apartheid & The United Nations: The International Debate Over Economic Sanctions | Critique Society

  2. Great follow-up article to the Economic Sanctions piece. I have been writing a paper on South Africa for the past couple months, and you summarize many of my findings, and tie up some questions i had regarding the dynamic between De Klerk/Mandela very well. Thanks!

  3. You are more than welcome, Alex. I also felt sanctions for the most part were not that important until the US Anti-apartheid Act, given the even greater position of the US in the late 80s. S.A. withdrew from the Commonwealth fairly early in Apartheid (1961?) amid international outcry. You made the good point that most economic policies takes time to take effect, and since economic cycles were longer prior to 2000, sanctions like the UN Arms embargo took longer to make a difference. This combined with the US sanctions, the international isolation, MK/IFP/SACF bloodshed, and all of your economic points came together to tip the scales.

  4. Wonderful blog! I found it while searching on Yahoo News.

    Do you have any tips on how to get listed in Yahoo News?
    I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Many thanks

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