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Chapter Eleven— Some Theoretical Considerations
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Chapter Eleven—
Some Theoretical Considerations

The previous chapters of this book, while largely analytical, in the sense of being rather far removed from sheer factual description, have deliberately not dealt with basic theoretical issues.[1] Obviously, South Africa is a very special type of society. Indeed, in many respects it is unique. So is every other society, or, for that matter, any entity whatever. The easiest intellectual escape from the problems of uniqueness is to adopt a historicist belief in the impossibility of arriving at valid generalizations about human behaviour. I believe, however, that general theory is the ultimate aim of any scientific investigation, and that the special nature of South African society calls not for despair concerning the feasibility of social theory, but rather for a critical reconsideration of basic assumptions and concepts. Because of its idiosyncracies, South Africa raises fundamental, but not unsurmountable, problems for sociological theory.

While much of my analysis of South African society has been in structural terms, I have already suggested at various points some inadequacies of conventional "structure-function" theory for the case at hand. At the same time, I have introduced on occasions a Hegelian dialectic in my arguments, and indicated


the usefulness of such an approach to analyse the conflicts and contradictions in South Africa. Yet it is equally clear that an orthodox dialectic, in either its Hegelian or its Marxian form of single-factor determinism, is inadequate. Elsewhere I have sketched what I considered the basic assumptions, the strengths, and the limitations of both functionalism and the Hegelian-Marxian dialectic, and I suggested that these two seemingly antithetical approaches were, in fact, complementary and reconcilable.[2] Here I do not intend to repeat myself, but rather to examine the main characteristics of South African society, and their implications for sociological theory.

The most salient idiosyncracy of South Africa is, of course, its racial syndrome. As we have repeatedly seen, whatever thread one picks up in the social fabric of the country, one ends up with "race." Race, in the social as opposed to the biological sense, is a special criterion of ascription based on human phenotypes. Physical characteristics have no intrinsic significance; they only become relevant as they are seized upon in a given society as criteria of group definition, and as pegs on which to hang prejudices and discrimination. South Africa is not the only racist country in the world. The closest parallels are the southern states of the United States at the height of the Jim Crow era (i.e., between 1890 and 1920), and Southern Rhodesia which, to a considerable extent, was settled by White South Africans. Other colonial or formerly colonial societies also have rigidly ascribed colour-castes. However, South Africa represents an extreme case in terms of the persistence and thoroughness with which the system of racial inequality is maintained, and a peculiarly complex case by virtue of the number of groups involved.

Two important consequences follow from the White ideology of racism. First, racism is one of the main factors which make for lack of value consensus in South Africa. In no meaningful


way can one say that the great majority of South Africans share a common system of beliefs concerning what they consider desirable. We have already shown that South Africa invalidates in this respect the postulate of value consensus advanced by some functionalists, notably by Talcott Parsons.[3] Consensus about basic values is undoubtedly an important source of social integration; its absence can produce serious strains; but it is not a prerequisite to the existence of a society, and other bases of integration can hold a society together.

Secondly, racist ideology, insofar as it is applied in practice, constitutes the major facet of what may be termed the social (as opposed to cultural ) pluralism of South Africa. Society is compartmentalized into four main racial castes with a quadruplicated set of institutional structures. Not only do the four colour-castes show a low degree of integration and complementarity, and have highly segmentary relations with one another, but these relations are based mostly on conflict. Other factors, notably linguistic divisions and social class, also contribute to social pluralism, but the ubiquity and increasing rigidity of racial barriers relegate these other factors to a secondary position. Such is the case of the Afrikaner-English split among Europeans, which, although still important, is overshadowed by the racial conflict.

Of greater interest yet is the lack of salience of social class in South Africa. To be sure, there exist income and occupational strata within each of the four races, but, at the same time, there is a high correlation between socio-economic variables and race. Social classes in the Marxian sense of relationship to the means of production exist by definition, as they must in any capitalist country, but they are not meaningful social realities. Clearly, pigmentation, rather than ownership of land or capital, is the most significant criterion of status in South Africa. The attempt to salvage Marxian orthodoxy by identifying the Whites with the


capitalists and the Africans with the proletariat is inacceptable because it does violence to the facts and is, at best, a grossly distorted oversimplification. Conversely, to lump White and non-White wage earners in one supposedly unified, class-conscious proletariat with common interests against the bourgeoisie is obviously nonsensical. As to traditional African societies, they cannot be analysed in Marxian class terms at all, as African socialists rightly point out. Communal land tenure, for example, puts the African peasantry in a radically different "class" position than the peasantry of Europe dealt with by Marx.

Cultural heterogeneity is another characteristic of South Africa which that country shares, of course, with many others, but in an extreme form. The cultures of three continents meet in South Africa, each of these major strains being subdivided into several linguistic groups. Furthermore, the dominant culture, although it has deeply influenced the total structure of the country, encompasses only about one-third of the population. This cultural heterogeneity adds another dimension to the lack of consensus, as each culture has its own ethos, and as the respective values held are often conflicting, incompatible, or, at any rate, completely different. One may then speak of a cultural aspect of pluralism as distinct from social pluralism. The relationship between these two forms of pluralism is particularly interesting. Originally, cultural lines of cleavage coincided with racial lines. The latter became increasingly rigid as cultural and racial distinctions overlapped less and less, due to miscegenation and acculturation. Apartheid ideology persists in identifying and confusing the two (speaking, for example, of "White civilization"), in wishing away the lack of identity, or, where it has recognized the trend towards increasing dissociation of race and culture, in implementing measures to reestablish the identity which existed for a short period in the seventeenth century. As we have already seen, this constitutes one of the major sources of strain in South African society.

Two last facets of pluralism must be mentioned again briefly,


namely the political and the economic dualisms which result partly from cultural, partly from social pluralism, but which may best be considered as special aspects of social pluralism. As a body politic, South Africa has the dual character of parliamentary government for Whites and an arbitrary colonial regime for Africans (and increasingly for Asians and Coloureds). To a limited extent this political dualism is being blurred, on the one hand, by the undermining of White parliamentary democracy and the extension of instruments of tyranny to the Herrenvolk , and, on the other hand, by creating the fiction of "independent" Bantustans. Basically, however, the dichotomy remains. Economically, South Africa consists partly of a booming and complex money or market sector, and a sub-subsistence sector.

Let us pause for a moment and examine more closely the concept of pluralism. The term "plural society," first coined by Furnivall who identifies it with tropical societies, is now being used so freely as to cover any group which is not culturally and socially homogeneous.[4] Smith reacts against this loose usage of pluralism, restricts the term to societies that contain incompatible institutions, and criticizes its application to societies which are simply stratified racially or socially, or which exhibit several variants of a common culture. Furthermore, he reserves the use of the term to countries where a cultural minority is dominant.[5] Braithwaite defines cultural pluralism in terms of diversity of values, but tends to regard racial or class heterogeneity as a form of pluralism.[6] Boeke applies the concept to economics in dealing with the Western and non-Western sectors of the Indonesian economy.[7] Kuper suggests three levels of analysis in dealing with pluralism: the units of cleavage (ethnic or racial), the cultural diversity in basic patterns of behaviour associated


with these cleavages, and social pluralism or separation in social organization.[8] A similar distinction between social and cultural pluralism is made by Padilla.[9]

Little seems to be gained by restricting the concept as Smith does. Clearly, pluralism is best conceived as a dimension rather than as an all-or-none phenomenon. A society is pluralistic to the extent that it is structurally segmented and culturally diverse. In more operational terms, pluralism is characterized by the relative absence of value consensus; the relative rigidity and clarity of group definition; the relative presence of conflict or, at least, of lack of integration and complementarity between various parts of the social system; the segmentary and specific character of relationships, and the relative existence of sheer institutional duplication (as opposed to functional differentiation or specialization) between the various segments of the society. Institutions do not have to be incompatible for a society to be pluralistic, but a degree of structural and functional duplication has to be present. In other words, a society is pluralistic insofar as it is compartmentalized into quasi-independent subsystems, each of which has a set of homologous institutions, and only specific points of contact with the others (e.g., common participation in a money economy, and subjection to a common body politic). A pluralistic society is one in which one cannot, to use Marcel Mauss' phrase, take a "total social phenomenon" and trace its ramifications in the entire society.[10]

From the above treatment of pluralism it should be clear that I use the concept in a broader sense than have American political scientists in the de Tocquevillian tradition. Interestingly, this latter tradition, applying the concept to the analysis of competing political interest groups, has tended to associate pluralism with democracy and political integration. Possibly this difference in the analysis of the consequences of pluralism is due to the


restricted application of the concept to the political sphere and to societies which, like the United States, exhibit a fairly low degree of pluralism. Indeed the pluralism that de Tocqueville talked about presupposed consensus about essential social values and aims, and acceptance of the legitimacy of the existing political system. Conflicts exist insofar as various contending groups have different interests; the latter are viewed as exerting more or less random pulls in various directions, so that they tend to cancel each other out, and to lead to a harmonious democracy. Clearly, this older conception of pluralism deals with a limiting case of minimal pluralism which must not be confused or identified with the much broader class of phenomena analysed here.[11]

What are the implications for functionalist theory of the multi-dimensional pluralism found in South Africa? Much of functionalist theory has been based on a monistic model of society. In its most extreme form, functionalism assumes an almost complete cultural homogeneity within a society, whereas more sophisticated functionalists, such as Parsons, and Clyde and Florence Kluckhohn, speak of "dominant" as opposed to "deviant" or "variant" subcultures.[12] This is not to say that functionalism advances an undifferentiated model of society. On the contrary, differentiation and specialization of function and structure between complementary and interdependent parts are cornerstones of functionalism. But neither the concept of differentiation, nor that of deviance (or variance) is adequate to deal with plural societies. South Africa is partly differentiated into complementary parts, but it is also split into non-complementary, non-functional, and often conflicting segments. The Whites are dominant in terms of power, wealth, religion, and language, but


the other groups, with the possible exception of the Coloureds, cannot be called "variants" of the dominant group.

Pluralism raises the question of social integration. The two terms seem antithetical: the more a society is segmented into heterogeneous and non-complementary parts, the less integrated it is. In Durkheimian terms, a pluralistic society is low on both "mechanical" and "organic" solidarity, insofar as it is composed neither of similar units joined by a strong collective consciousness, nor of interdependent units.[13] Whereas most African countries, in the face of pluralism, endeavour to foster integration, the South African government wants to perpetuate racial, political, and cultural pluralism by deepening existing cleavages and counteracting the integrative forces of acculturation, urbanization, and industrialization. Nevertheless, South African society is integrated in some ways, otherwise one would not be able to speak of it as a society. This point is stressed by Gluckman in his analysis of African-White relations in Zululand, which he views as a system of counterbalancing conflict and co-operation, cleavage and integration.[14]

Again the functionalist model of integration is inadequate in several ways. Merton and other sophisicated functionalists have successfully repudiated the extreme Malinowskian views that a society is a perfectly integrated whole in which every part has a function and is indispensable.[15] But even the more cautious proposition that integration or equilibrium is a limit towards which societies tend is very questionable. South Africa has been moving towards increasing malintegration for half a century,


and seems inevitably headed for disintegration. As we already suggested, South Africa offers the spectacle of a social system that "went amok." Economic forces have brought about much the same set of transformations as in many other "developing" countries, including a tendency to undermine the traditional, paternalistic system of race relations, and the quasi-colonial body politic. But, far from adjusting internally to economic transformations, and externally to the drastically changed postwar international scene, the White ruling albinocracy proved sternly uncompromising, and bitterly determined to maintain its monopoly of power and wealth, basing its claim on racial superiority. Every attempt was made to resist social (in contrast to strictly technological ) change, or even to revert to a paternalistic, master-and-servant model of society. Lack of change (or reactionary change) can thus result in ever increasing malintegration, and one may describe the political deadlock as one of static disequilibrium.

Clearly, the Nationalist government is doomed to failure, and hardly any of its aims has come nearer realization. On the contrary, there developed a growing tension and disharmony between economic imperatives and political objectives, between the fluid class system created by urbanization and the rigidly ascriptive mold of colour-castes, between the protest ideology of the non-White masses and the status quo ideology of the Whites, between the benevolent despotism of "ideal" apartheid and the ruthless tyranny used in trying to implement that racialist utopia. The entire society is caught in a vicious circle which can no longer be reversed by gradual, adaptive change, as the functionalist model of dynamic equilibrium postulates. South Africa not only shows that the "tolerance limits" for disequilibrium and conflict are very much wider than functionalist theory would lead one to expect; it also impels one to predict that change must be revolutionary, i.e., abrupt, profound, qualitative, and probably violent. In short, the Hegelian-Marxian dialectic of


change through conflict seems to impose itself to the analysis of South Africa, though more as a complement than as an alternative to a functionalist approach.

The functionalist notion of integration is inadequate on another count, namely in its answer to the question: What makes a society hang together? We have dealt with the inadequacy of the postulate of value consensus advanced by the main stream of functionalism from Comte to Parsons via Durkheim. What are, then, some of the alternative bases of social integration? Coercion, which plays an increasingly dominant role in South Africa, is obviously an alternative, though a notoriously unstable one, leading to the eternal vicious circle of tyranny. However, to reduce the problem of integration to a consent-coercion dichotomy, or to varying blends of these two elements, is still far from adequate. More important than coercion as an alternative to consensus is economic interdependence, or what Durkheim called "organic solidarity," which goes together with any complex division of labour.[16] Clearly, participation of disparate ethnic groups in a common system of production is a crucial integrative factor in all African countries, and is one of the major factors which has held such a conflict-ridden society as South Africa together for so long. The utter dependence (at a starvation or near-starvation level) of the African masses on the "White" economy in South Africa has been one of the main inhibiting factors to such mass protest actions as general strikes. There is, of course, a reverse side to economic integration in South Africa. The more economic interdependence there is, the less feasible apartheid becomes. Two major elements of the social structure, namely the polity and the economy, pull in opposite directions, thereby creating rapidly mounting strains.

Finally, there often exists compliance in the absence of consensus. One can "play the game" without accepting the rules. Such is the aim of coercion, but behavioural conformity to norms


of another group is also often the result of free choice, for the sake of status, convenience, monetary gain, etc. Punctilious adherence to arbitrary and often trivial norms, combined with conflict of basic interests and disagreement about basic aims, takes an extreme form in international diplomacy, for example. Similarly, Philip Mayer, Clyde Mitchell, and other anthropologists familiar with urban African conditions have observed how migrant workers can adjust to town life, so that, while in town, they appear quite Westernized, only to become very traditional again at home in the rural areas.[17] In my study of Caneville, I have shown how many Africans and Indians comply with the etiquette of race relations by behaving subserviently towards Whites, without in any way internalizing a sense of inferiority.[18]

To phrase the above remarks in more general form, plural societies are compartmentalized into autonomous subsystems. The notion of autonomy is, of course, not incompatible with a functionalist viewpoint. Indeed, interdependence of functionally differentiated parts of a system implies the mirror-image concept of relative autonomy. But the kind of autonomy dealt with here is different. We are concerned neither with "organic solidarity" of complementary parts, nor with "mechanical solidarity" of self-sufficient parts united by adherence to a common system of values and norms. Plural societies are characterized in part by the coexistence of autonomous but non-complementary subsocieties which do not share common values, but individual members of which interact in highly segmental, though crucial relationships. Rather than consensus and interdependence of parts, what holds such societies together is thus partially a network of segmental ties between individual members of ethnic or racial groups, some of whom may indeed "shuttle" or "commute" between cultural subsystems.

This last formulation introduces a new dimension in the


analysis of acculturation or cultural contact. Much of the work done in that field has suffered from at least two shortcomings. First, acculturation or "detribalization" (to use a word dear to Africanists) has generally been conceived as a continuum on which individuals could be placed, and where movement is overwhelmingly away from "traditionalism" and towards "Westernization." While such a conception provides a reasonably approximate description of the over-all tendency, it breaks down if one endeavours to apply it to individuals, because it grossly underrates the individual's adaptive flexibility, and his capacity to "shuttle" between two cultures. In practice, it is often difficult to determine how "detribalized" an individual is, because he may continually oscillate between two systems, rather than move steadily towards one and away from another. Indeed, the applicability of a unidimensional continuum to as complex a process as culture change through contact is highly problematical, but a discussion of this point would take us too far.

Second, studies of culture contact have overemphasized "borrowing" of cultural items as the major process of change through contact. Naturally, acculturation theory is not based on a simplistic and mechanistic model wherein traits are exchanged like bananas or groundnuts on a cultural market place. All anthropologists are aware of the complicating factors of selectivity and reinterpretation of items or traits, and, indeed, many avoid altogether such atomistic concepts as "item" or "trait." Nevertheless, the fact that cultures almost invariably adjust to and react against as well as borrow from one another has, I think, been underemphasized. White colonial society is different from White society in Europe, not so much because it borrowed from African culture, but because it adapted its values, its eating, drinking, and sleeping habits, its architecture, etc., to African and colonial conditions. African societies similarly adapted themselves to the conquerors in terms of their own internal dynamics. When, for example, an urban woman in South Africa earns her own lobola (or bride-wealth) in order to hasten her marriage,


she is obviously not becoming Westernized; she finds a radically new solution to a new situation but in terms of a traditional institution. Or, to use another illustration, most messianistic religious sects do contain elements borrowed from Christianity, but, at the same time, they constitute a reaction against European domination, as Sundkler shows in the case of South Africa.[19] In short, societies in contact do not only undergo a process of cultural osmosis, however, complex, but they also generate change from within, in terms of both adaptation to, and conflict against, other societies. We shall return to that point presently.

So far we have considered cultural pluralism in its most obvious form, i.e., the coexistence of different ethnic groups. This pluralism is gradually reduced by acculturation, which has created a Westernized (or, in the case of the Sudan belt, an Islamized) elite that often transcends ethnic particularism. Conversely, however, acculturation has introduced another form of pluralism, and increased cultural heterogeneity. Nowhere in Africa did European culture come close to eradicating indigenous traditions, except in the Western Cape Province of South Africa. Consequently, by differentially permeating various layers or segments of ethnic groups that were originally homogeneous, Westernization added a new dimension to cultural pluralism, as we have already suggested earlier. Philip Mayer, for example, documents in detail the profound and enduring rift between the "red" and the "school" people among the Xhosa of the Eastern Cape.[20] While, elsewhere, acculturation has typically not given rise to a sharp dichotomous cleavage in the indigenous population, it invariably introduced a new dimension of heterogeneity.

Related to pluralism are of course, the problems of conflicts and contradictions arising out of social and cultural heterogeneity, and the resulting dynamics of change. Here, too, the functionalist approach suffers from serious limitations. I do not


wish to repeat the unfair criticism that functionalism is a static approach. Though Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski have, each in his own way, introduced an a-historical bias in much African anthropology, functionalism as such allows for at least three sources of social change: individual invention and discovery; adaptation to external change; and a gradual, orderly process of growth in size and complexity through functional and structural differentiation. However, this approach to change is only a partial one, and must be complemented by an Hegelian-Marxian view of change as an internally generated process of conflict and contradiction between opposites. Much change is abrupt, qualitative, and revolutionary; and pluralism often fosters acute conflict. Whether one adopts a positivist view of the Hegelian dialectic as inherent in the reality studied, or a nominalist one, considering it simply as a useful analytical tool, need not concern us here, though I personally lean towards the nominalist approach. Nor does one have to adopt Hegelian idealism, or Marxian materialism, or any other dogmatic application of the dialectic based on one-factor determinism. My argument is simply that the dialectic method complements the functionalist approach to change. This point has already been expended on elsewhere.[21] Here, I shall confine myself to illustrating very sketchily the usefulness of a dialectic approach in dealing with South Africa, by recapitulating some of the arguments made in previous chapters. Several of my remarks are applicable, mutatis mutandi , to the rest of the continent.

A society as ridden with tension as South Africa offers almost too facile an application of the Hegelian dialectic. Let us concentrate on the major source of conflict, namely the syndrome of White domination, and show how it called forth its opposite and sowed the seeds of its own destruction. At the level of values and ideology, the European settlers developed an elaborate racial mythology to rationalize their rule, but at the same time they


brought with them a libertarian and egalitarian tradition which they applied to themselves, and which they wittingly or unwittingly spread among Africans through missionary education and other forms of culture contact. This ideological contradiction takes both a political and a religious aspect. While the fundamentalistic Calvinism of the Boers has been reinterpreted to defend racialism, the English missionaries generally taught a more universalistic gospel of brotherhood and human dignity.

Politically, the "Herrenvolk egalitarianism" of the Boer Republics, and later of the Union of South Africa, coexisted with arbitrary and despotic colonial government for the Africans. Western-educated Africans eventually adopted much of the universalistic, liberal, and Christian ethos, became aware of the contradictions in the value system of the local Whites, and used Christianity and liberalism to challenge the legitimacy of White domination. At the same time, White racialism called forth its antithesis, namely the Black racialism represented in the local brand of Pan-Africanism, and in some religious sects of the "Zionist" variety. Similarly, Afrikaner nationalism and African nationalism developed side by side with, but in opposition to, each other. To the cry of White unity against the "Black peril," there arose, in response, the call for non-White unity against "White oppression." Ever since Union, there has been a steady polarization of political opinion along colour lines.

White supremacy is busily digging its own grave in many ways other than ideological. Economically, the exploitation of South African resources became a large-scale venture only with the development of diamond and gold mining in the second half of the nineteenth century. This led to rapid urbanization and industrialization with their host of familiar consequences: the breakdown of geographical isolation; the spread of mass media of communication, elementary education, literacy, European languages, and industrial skills among Africans; the annual migration of hundreds of thousands of workers who are seasonally or permanently cut off from their rural environment and


thrown in the great ethnic melting pot of workers' compounds; the decay of traditional authority; the undermining of family life; the rise of individualism, etc. Certainly, all these developments contributed, at least as much as ideology, to the breakdown of ethnic particularism among Africans, and to the rise of militant, politically conscious, urban masses.

In erecting a rigid colour-bar, the dominant Whites succeeded in maintaining a monopoly of leading positions in government, commerce, industry, finance, farming, education, and religion. By the same token, they prevented the rise of a substantial class of Africans with a stake in the status quo . For all practical purposes, there is no African landed peasantry or bourgeoisie (in the Marxian sense of owners of means of production). Conversely, the Whites created an exploited urban proletariat, a middle class of underpaid clerks and other petty white-collar workers, and a tiny elite of professionals and semiprofessionals who are strongly discriminated against. All these strata share a common interest in radical change. The African intelligentsia furnishes the leadership of the liberatory movements; the white-collar workers, many of the local organizers; and the proletariat, the mass support. As to the traditional African framework of authority, the government rightly viewed it as a conservative force, and tried to preserve it, if only for administrative economy and convenience; but at the same time the government undermined the traditional system by misunderstanding its nature, transforming it for its own ends, and subjecting it to the onslaughts of urbanization. In short, then, the ruling White group, as in much of the rest of the continent, inevitably undermined what it sought to preserve, and brought into being what it tried to prevent. It so completely monopolized wealth and power, and so rigidly identified itself with the status quo that any change in the distribution of social rewards must be against it.

All the above illustrations are rather obvious, and have been elaborated on earlier. South Africa and, more generally, pluralistic societies call for a model of change which gives conflict,


contradiction, revolution, and malintegration a prominent place. If functionalism be called the thesis, and the Hegelian-Marxian dialectic the antithesis, then African societies, because of their pluralism and their extraodinary dynamism, offer us a unique opportunity to reach a new synthesis in sociological theory. Briefly, I suggest that both approaches be stripped of their needless postulates, be reformulated in minimal form, and be reconciled in a grand new general theory. What few more concrete suggestions I have already advanced towards this ambitious aim have been stated elsewhere.[22] A theoretical treatise would be out of place here. However, at the risk of sounding insufferably avuncular, I should like to make one last remark. Functionalist and structuralist anthropology and sociology have reached such pinnacles of conceptual and descriptive elegance in the works of such giants of the tradition as Lévi-Strauss and Evans-Pritchard that one might have feared premature fossilization of the behavioural sciences. Now that functionalism is coming under increasingly intense fire, that danger is effectively warded off. But there might now exist another danger, namely that the recognition of the limitations of the "structure-function" approach might herald a new wave of sterile historicism, and of despair about the feasibility of social theory. The perverse complexity of a society like South Africa should not only be an excuse for exploding the boundaries of existing theory, but also a challenge for the construction of more generally applicable theory.


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Chapter Eleven— Some Theoretical Considerations
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