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R. Stone

Issues in South Africa’s General Election

A “Free” Election – For Whites Only!

(June 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 24, 14 June 1948, p. 3. [1]
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

JOHANNESBERG, South Africa – The South African general election is a unique event in world politics, outside the openly totalitarian countries. This election, democratic only for the white minority, delegated to this minority the right to decide in totalitarian fashion the fate of the black majority of South Africa’s population.

In South Africa, democracy and totalitarianism constitute the two heads of the white ruling class. This election was openly fought on what is known in South Africa as the”color question,” i.e., the most effective, the most methodical and organised way of keeping the non-white mass in its servile place.

Although both white camps – United Party (Smuts) and Nationalists (Malan) – are agreed and united in their ruthless determination to maintain the economic, social and political slavery of the non-white toilers, there are minor cleavages in their policies toward this key question.

Social Bases of Parties

These differences reflect the differing social bases on which these two political blocs support themselves. The United Party is the political receptacle of the predominant economic interests of British finance capital and the Rand mining lords, the local industrialists and the most prosperous farmers, and through the white labor party, of the aristocratic white workers. The Nationalist Party gives political voice to the wounded memories of the Boers who have not yet forgotten the 1903 war, the rising Afrikaaner intelligentsia and businessmen, the poor whites in town and country. They gained the support, this time, paradoxically enough, of the most Tory group of British imperialists, led by one Colonel Stallard, a former minister of mines, and they formed an alliance with the Afrikaaner Party (which has the support of the fascist Ossewa-Brandwag organization).

Below the outward appearance of economic boom and unruffled political stability which was Smuts’ pride, there exist subterranean layers of nervousness, apprehension and alarm in the European ranks which the United Party was not able to dispel.

The small but definitive victory of the Nationalist combination (79–74 seats) articulates a crisis mood in the country, particularly in the rural areas, which has now come to the surface. Stemming from some of the most economically insecure and consequently the most politically jittery strata, this precarious electoral victory vociferates their search for more trenchant defences against the non-white slave foes.

Main Issues in the Election

Cutting across all other issues – rising cost of living, acute housing shortage – was the color question. It superimposed itself onto every plank of the election platforms of both parties. The main issues were broken down along the following concrete lines: the “menace of Communism” and the nationalist interpretation of “Apartheid” (segregation).

The “Communist menace” is the shibboleth used by the white ruling class to express their fear and uneasiness of both the expansionism of the new Russian imperialism abroad and the danger that is inherent in the yet unexploded non-white mass at home.

Smuts stole the opposition’s thunder by deftly and pompously assuming the toga of an international elder warrior-statesman warning against the invading forces of Russian police-state “Communism.” In his home country he was not in anyway disturbed about the dangers of communism. His own smoothly running and ruthless police regime, curbing and harassing the non-white masses, was adequate to cope with any opposition movement that might develop.

Malan, on the contrary, concentrated his demagogic fire on the menace of communism at home, and called for a more ferocious use of the segregation sjambok which Smuts had helped to fashion. On the farms, on the mines and in the African reserves, the policies of British imperialism and of the Nationalists coalesce in their support of the migratory labor system and the slave-like conditions for non-whites which prevail.

Their differences in approach and estimation can be most graphically traced on the issue of segregation in the towns. Smuts, more astute though not by any means less reactionary or brutal, recognized that the industrialization of South Africa, which in the war and post-war period has been developing apace, was completely dependent on the labor of the African. He was prepared, consequently, to accept the already accomplished fact of their more or less permanent presence in the towns on the basis of segregation.

Population Trends Provoke Offensive

Smuts’ policy of segregation put the African into appalling slum ghettos or locations, fenced in from the outside white areas, strictly supervised and police-controlled. Africans in industry have no trade-union rights, no right to strike, and no political or democratic safeguards, this policy of Smuts is the deadline for the existence and functioning of industry.

Malan, on the other hand, giving expression to the more backward hidebound and conservative section of the backveld and of the poor whites in the cities, saw the increasing influx of Africans into the towns as (a) draining away the farmers’ labor supply, (b) creating potentially incendiary black fortresses in the towns. Confronted by the demands of industry and the urge of the Africans to escape from the hopelessness of the reserves and the brutalities of the farms, the Nationalists’ political blood pressure mounts like mercury in the tropical sun.

They look with the gravest concern at the following comparative population figures of Africans in the towns:



No. of Africans
in Urban Areas









They therefore propose, in the words of Mr. Strydom, M.P. (Nationalist leader for the province of Transvaal) that “... the native must only be allowed to a European area as a temporary worker. His wife and children must remain behind ... If, however, they are given the opportunity of developing in the European areas they cannot be suppressed and a blood bath must follow ...” (Forum, July 19, 1947, p. 15)

Smuts also recognized the explosive potentialities of the urban African situation. But unlike his Nationalist opponents, he does not think that they cannot be suppressed, or that more stringent measures than those already in force need be taken to maintain the status quo.

The Nationalists consider this Smuts setup as – dangerous liberalism! To counteract this liberalism and to quell the concentration of African workers in the towns, they propose to tighten and bind together the countless draconic laws already firmly regulating African urbanization.

How far the aid of more policemen and the sanction of their Calvinistic god can make more infallible the already foolproof setup existing, remains to be seen. For even the Nationalists will be forced to recognize that judicial and sanctified laws are never stronger than the elemental material and economic pressures to which they must conform. But the Nationalists will attempt to force back some of the African labor, at present stream-ing to the towns, and give the white farmers more black slaves.

(Continued next week)

Note by ETOL

1. The identification of Grace Lee Boggs as the author of this article is tentative, based on the fact that it the author’s name is the same as one of her pseudonyms.

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