Race, caste and class in South Africa

First published in Race & Class, 22/3, Winter 1981

Race, class and caste in South Africa – an open letter to No Sizwe 

Dear Comrade, I read your book on the national question in South Africa – One Azania, One Nation* – with great interest. But I have certain grave misgivings about your analysis of the elements in the theory of nation (chapter 6). Your discussion of course centres around Azania, but the questions you raise are not unrelated to the problems of other Third World countries. And it is for that reason – and in a spirit of enquiry and friendly discourse — that I take issue with you. 

The crux of the matter is your discussion of colour-caste – the implications of that analysis for revolutionary practice. But since you try to clear the ground of terminological’ and ‘conceptual’ obstacles before proceeding to your central thesis, it is to these issues I would first like to address myself. 

*No Sizwe, One Azania, One Nation: the national question in South Africa (London, Zed Press, 1979)

1. You seem to be saying that to accept the concept of race – however used (anthropologically, biologically or sociologically) – is to accept a racial classification of people, giving each (race) a weightage or, in the alternative, denying it weightage (and therefore a hierarchy of superiority) altogether. ‘For just as the supposed inferiority or superiority of races necessarily assumes the existence of groups of human beings called “races”, so does the assertion that “races” are equal in their potential for development and the acquisition of skill. 

So that, for you, it is as meaningless to say that some races are superior to others as it is to say that all races are equal. Hence there is no such thing. But you cannot do away with racism by rejecting the concept of race. 

2. You deny the reality of race as a biological entity. Hence you deny the existence of racial groups. For the limited purposes of genetic science, however, you are prepared to describe such groups as ‘breeding populations’ – since ‘such a description has no coherent political, economical or ideological significance’. But however you describe them – and however ‘inherently’ neutral the description – some ‘breeding populations’ do think of themselves as superior to other ‘breeding populations’ and act out that belief to their own social, economic and political advantage. Changing the description does not change the practice — but the practice can taint the description till that ceases to be neutral (so that for racism we merely substitute ‘breeding populationism’). 

In the final analysis, it is the practice that defines terminology, not terminology the practice. The meaning of a word is not ‘the action it produces’ – as you seem to maintain with I.A. Richards. If so, to destroy the word would be to destroy the act – and that is metaphysics. On the contrary, it is action which gives meaning to a word – it is in the act that the word is made flesh. In the beginning was the act, not the word. Thus ‘black’, which the practice of racism defined as a pejorative term, ceases to be pejorative when that practice is challenged. Black is as black does. 

You cannot do away with racism by using a different terminology. 

3. Similarly, the use of the term ethnicity to differentiate between human groups that ‘for some natural, social or cultural reason come to constitute a (temporary) breeding population’ is equally irrelevant. In fact, it is, as you say, ‘dangerously misleading’. For, in trying to remove the idea of group superiority while keeping the idea of group difference, ethnicity sidles into a culturalism which predicates separate but equal development, apartheid. It substitutes the vertical division of ethnicity for the horizontal division of class, political pluralism for class conflict, and freezes the class struggle. 

4. The concept of national groups implies, as you say, ‘a fragmentation of the population into potentially or actually antagonistic groupings’, and thereby facilitates the maintenance of hegemony by the ruling classes’. And the concept of national minorities, I agree, is essentially a European one and one that once again obscures the essential class nature of society. 

5. But ‘race’ in its original sense of a group of persons or animals or plants connected by common descent or origin’ (Shorter Oxford Dictionary) is no less neutral a term than ‘breeding populations’. And that there are differences between such groups is an observable fact. What is material, however, is neither the term nor the group differences it im plies, but the differential power exercised by some groups over others by virtue of, and on the basis of, these differences – which in turn engenders the belief that such differences are material. What gives race a bad name, in other words, is not the racial differences it implies or even the racial prejudice which springs from these differences, but the racist ideology that grades these differences in a hierarchy of power – in order to rationalise and justify exploitation. And in that sense it belongs to the period of capitalism. 

6. Your ‘central thesis’, however, is that ‘colour-caste’ best describes ‘the officially classified population registration groups in South Africa’ – and that it is of ‘pivotal political importance to characterise them as such’. About the importance of correct analysis for correct political action I have no disagreement. But, for that very reason, I find your characterisation of South Africa’s racial groups as colour-castes not only wrong, but misleading. 

Your argument for using the caste concept is made on the basis that South Africa’s racial system (my phrase) has the same characteristics as the caste system in India.* These refer to such things as rituals, privileges, mode of life and group cohesion (‘an integrative as opposed to a separatist dynamic’). And whether or not the origin of the caste system in India is related to the question of colour, the crucial difference is that in India it is ‘legitimised by cultural-religious criteria’, whereas in South Africa it is ‘legitimised by so-called “racial” criteria’, But in both, caste relations are ‘social relations based on private property carried over in amended form from the pre-capitalist colonial situation to the present capitalist period’. To ‘distinguish it in its historical specificity’, however, you would characterise the caste system in South Africa as a colour-caste system – in which the castes articulate with the fundamental class structure of the social formations …’ 

But, in the first place, these are analogies at the level of the super structure, with a passing consideration for the ‘historical specificity’ that distinguishes the two systems. They relate to ideological, cultural characteristics adjusted to take in considerations of class and social formations, but they do not spring from an analysis of the specific social formations themselves – they are not historically specific. That specificity has to be sought not in this or that set of religious or racial criteria, but in the social formation and therefore the historical epoch from which those criteria spring. The social formation in which the Indian caste system prevailed is qualitatively different to the social formation in South Africa, and indeed to that of India today. Secondly, it is not enough to say that caste relations are ‘social relations in private property carried over in amended form’ from a pre-capitalist era to a capitalist one, without specifying at the same time that private property in the earlier period referred mainly to land, whereas in capitalist society it refers also to machinery, factories, equipment. And that alters the nature of their respective social relations fundamentally. Thirdly, and most importantly, you make no reference to the function of caste. Caste relations in India grew organically out of caste functions of labour. They were relations of production predicated by the level of the productive forces but determined by Hindu ideology and polity. But as the productive forces rose and the relations of production changed accordingly, caste lost its original function – and, un-needed by capital, it was outlawed by the state. But because India, unlike South Africa, is a society of a thousand modes, caste still performs some function in the interstices of its pre-capitalist formation and caste relations in its culture. South Africa, however, has caste relations without ever having had a caste function. Such relations have not grown out of a pre-capitalist mode; nor are they relations of production stemming from the capitalist mode. They are, instead, social relations enforced by the state to demarcate racial groups with a view to differential exploitation within a capitalist system. 

To put it differently, caste as an instrument of exploitation belongs to an earlier social formation – what Samir Amin calls the tributary mode – where the religio-political factor and not the economic was dominant and hence determined social relations. The Hindu religion, like all pre-capitalist religions, encompassed all aspects of human life and Hindu ideology determined the social relations from which the class-state could extract the maximum surplus: the caste system. It is in that sense that India’s great marxist scholar Kosambi defines caste as ‘class at a lower level of the productive forces’. 

In the capitalist system, however, it is the economic factor which is dominant; it is that which determines social relations and, in the final analysis, the political and ideological superstructures. And how these are shaped and modified depends on how the economic system is made to yield maximum surplus value with minimum social dislocation and political discontent. Exploitation, in other words, is mediated through the state which ostensibly represents the interests of all classes. 

Since European capitalism emerged with the conquest of the non white world, the exploitation of the peoples of these countries found justification in theories of white superiority. Such attitudes were already present in Catholicism, but, muted by the belief that the heathen could be saved, found no ideological justification in scripture. The forces that unleashed the bourgeois revolution, however, were also the forces that swept aside the religious inhibitions that stood in the way of the new class and installed instead a new set of beliefs that sought virtue in profit and profit in exploitation. ‘Material success was at once the sign and reward of ethical superiority’ and riches were ‘the portion of the Godly than of the wicked’ — and each man’s station in life was fixed by heavenly design and unalterable. You were rich because you were good, you were good because you were rich – and poverty was what the poor had brought upon themselves. But to fulfil one’s calling’ was virtue enough. 

In such a scheme of things, the bourgeoisie were the elect of God, the working class destined to labour and the children of Ham condemned to eternal servitude – ‘a servant of servants … unto his brethren’. Each man was locked into his class and his race, with the whites on top and the blacks below. And between the two there could be no social mixing, for that would be to disrupt the race-class base on which exploitation was founded. To prevent such mixing, however, recourse was had to Old Testament notions of purity and pollution. Social or caste barriers, in other words, were not erected to preserve racial purity; rather, racial purity was erected’ to preserve social, and therefore economic, barriers. The reasons for the racial divide, that is, were economic, but the form their expression took was social. 

Thus, the racism of early capitalism was set in caste-like features – not ordained by religion, as in Hinduism, but inspired by it, not deter mining the extraction of surplus but responding to it. The Calvinist diaspora, ‘the seed-bed of capitalistic economy’,} would sow too the seeds of racism, but how they took root and grew would depend on the ground on which they fell. 

In general, however, as capitalism advanced and became more “secular’, racism began to lose its religious premise and, with it, its caste features and sought validity instead in ‘scientific’ thought and reason -reaching its nineteenth-century apogee in Eugenics and Social Darwinism. Not fortuitously, this was also the period of colonial capitalist expansion. But at the same time, with every advance in the level of the productive forces and, therefore, in the capitalist mode – from mercantile to industrial to finance and monopoly capital – racist ideology was modified to accord with the economic imperative. Slavery is abolished when wage-labour (and slave rebellion) makes it uneconomical; racism in the colonies becomes outmoded with the ad vent of neo-colonialism and is consigned to the metropole with the importation of colonial labour. And within the metropoles themselves, the contours and content of racism are changed and modified to accommodate the economic demands (class) and political resistance (race) of black people. Racialism may yet remain as a cultural artefact of an earlier epoch, but racism recedes in order that capital might survive.* 

*Racialism refers to attitudes, behaviour, ‘race relations’; racism is the systematisation of these into an explicit ideology of racial superiority and their institutionalisation in the state apparatus. 

But not in South Africa. There, though the economy is based in the capitalist mode, the superstructure bears no organic relationship to it. It does not on the whole respond to the economic imperatives of the system. And that inflexibility in turn inhibits the base, holds it down, prevents it from pursuing its own dynamic. Hence, there is a basic contradiction between the superstructure and the base. 

Where that contradiction is located, however, is in that part of the superstructure which relates to the black working class – and black people generally. In effect, there are two superstructures (to the same economic base) – one for the whites and another for the blacks. The white superstructure, so to speak, accords with the economic imperatives – and is modified with changes in the level of the productive forces and of class struggle. It exhibits all the trappings of capitalist democracy (including a labour movement that represents the interests of the white working class) and of capitalist culture (except when it comes to mixing with the blacks). For the blacks, however, there is no franchise, no representation, no rights, no liberties, no economic or social mobility, no labour movement that cannot be put down with the awesome power of the state – no nothing. The ‘black superstructure’, in other words, is at odds with the capitalist economy, sets the economy at odds with itself, and inhibits its free development — so that only changes in that superstructure, in racism, can release the economy into its own dynamic. South Africa, therefore, is an exceptional capitalist social formation. 

In the second place, South Africa’s racist ideology, compared to that of other capitalist societies, has not changed over the years. Instead, it has gathered to itself the traits, features, beliefs, superstitions, habits and customs of both pre-capitalist and capitalist social formations. Its caste features bear an uncanny resemblance to the Hindu caste system of medieval India, though we know them to be inspired by Calvinism, the religion of capital. It combines, in Ken Jordaan’s exact phrase, ‘the Afrikaners’ fundamentalist racialism with the instrumentalist racism of British imperialism’. It finds authority in religion and in science both at once – in the doctrines of the Dutch Reformed Church and the teachings of Darwin. (“At the birth of the Union of South Africa’, says Jordaan, ‘Calvin and Darwin shook hands over the chained body of the black.’) It is enforced by a capitalist state and receives its sanction from the church. And it is as open, obtrusive and unashamed as the racism that once justified the trade in human beings. 

7. But what are the material conditions that made South Africa’s racist ideology so intractable? What is the significance of the modifications that are currently being made in the racist structure? 

These are not your questions and I am not competent to answer them, but you (and Johnstone) go some way to answering the first in implying that South African capitalism was neither colonial nor industrial (in the strict sense), but extractive – derived from diamond and gold mining. Which meant that the labour process called for a mass of unskilled labour which was found in the native black population – and a docile workforce which could be fashioned by racism. Hence, the nature of early South African capitalism reinforced and did not loosen up on racism as, for instance, in the USA. 

Secondly, South Africa was a settler society which neither assimilated itself into the indigenous social structure (as Aryan India) nor was able to decimate the native population (as in the USA or the Caribbean). The settlers instead were (and are) a slender minority, distinguished by race and colour, faced with a massive black population. (The only parallel is Zimbabwe.) Hence, the only way they could preserve their economic privileges and their political power was to stand full-square against the encroachments of the black masses. 

But and here I am addressing myself to the second question – the demands in the economic imperative, both nationally and internationally, can no longer be ignored. Hence, Botha’s attempts to ‘modernise’ racism — to accord with monopoly capital – by removing its caste features. 

There are other changes, however, which have been in train for a longer time – and which are more dangerous. And these, as you rightly point out, are the creation of a black comprador class (comparatively negligible) and, more importantly, of black ‘nations’. 

In theoretical terms, what these strategies hope to resolve is the contradiction between superstructure and base, and so release the economic forces without incurring the loss of (white) political power. First, by removing the caste barriers and thereby providing social and economic mobility for the black working class within the central social formation. Secondly, by removing the superstructure for the blacks in to a social formation of their own, a black state, in which they would appear to govern themselves while still being governed. The conflict, in other words, is extrapolated into a different (black) social formation – which is then subsumed to the needs of the central social formation, thereby maintaining, as you say, the hegemony of the ruling classes — to me, the white ruling class. For, surrounded as South Africa is by black African nations – and given the lesson of Zimbabwe – there is no way it is going to cede an iota of white power of which racism is the guarantor. So that even if, at some far point in the future, racism dies for capital to survive, it will have to be resurrected – for capital to survive in white hands. 

8. Which brings me to my final point. You say – and perhaps you are forced into saying it by virtue of your colour-caste interpretation (and on behalf of marxist orthodoxy) – that in the final analysis, the struggle in South Africa is a class struggle, to be waged by the working class as a whole, black and white alike. 

But, as I hope I have shown, South Africa is the one capitalist country (Zimbabwe might have gone the same way but for black guerrilla struggle) where ideology and not production relations determines white working-class consciousness. * That is not to say that there are no class contradictions between white capital and the white working class, but to say that — vis à vis the black working class – the horizontal division of class assumes the vertical division of race: the horizontal is the vertical. Class is race, race class. In other words, so long as the blacks are forced to remain a race apart, the white working class can never become a class for itself. And as for the blacks, if the unending rebellion of the past few years and the birth of the Black Consciousness Movement are anything to go by, they are fast becoming both a race and a class for themselves – and that is a formidable warhead of liberation. In sum, the racist ideology of South Africa is an explicit, systematic, holistic ideology of racial superiority – so explicit that it makes clear that the white working class can only maintain its standard of living on the basis of a black under-class, so systematic as to guarantee that the white working class will continue to remain a race for itself, ** so holistic as to ensure that the colour line is the power line is the poverty line. 

To reiterate, in its ability to influence the economic structure — rather than be influenced by it — South Africa’s racist ideology belongs to a pre-capitalist social formation but, anachronistically, is present in a capitalist one — thereby distorting it. (It is not a pure capitalist social formation, in other words.) The emphasis on the ideological instance produces a characterisation of the population groups in South Africa as caste groups demarcated on colour lines (and ‘articulating with the class structure); an emphasis on the economic mode produces a straightforward (marxist) race-class concept and characterisation – thereby leading one to conclude that the economy in trying to burst its bonds would burst also the racist nexus. But if they are both comprehended equally and at once, holistically, South Africa shows up as an exceptional capitalist social formation in which race is class and class race – and the race struggle is the class struggle.