Preferred Citation: van den Berghe, Pierre . South Africa: A Study in Conflict. Berekley:  University of California Press,  1967 [c1965] 1967.

Chapter Three— The Social Structure of Modern South Africa: Culture and Status

Chapter Three—
The Social Structure of Modern South Africa: Culture and Status

In our analysis of the structure of modern South Africa, we shall decompose that complex society into four major aspects and show their interrelations. We shall deal in turn with cultural divisions, with social stratification, with the political structure, and with the economy.

One of the salient characteristics of South Africa is its cultural pluralism. The country has become the meeting point of three broad cultural currents and many more specific cultures. The imported European culture of the conquerors, both in its Dutch and in its English variants, has, like in other parts of the colonial world, steadily gained ground at the expense of the indigenous cultures. Of the latter, the Hottentot culture has been entirely stamped out, and the Bushmen subsist only in small groups outside the boundaries of South Africa proper. The cultures of the Bantu-speaking peoples have, nevertheless, survived up to the present, however much they have been influenced by Western technology. The other imported cultural strain, the Asian one, came, as we shall see, in two waves: first from the Dutch East Indies, and since 1860 from India.

Let us turn first to Western European culture. Through a common confusion in South Africa, "race" and "culture," "White" and "Western" are identified. While it is true that Western cul-


ture was introduced into the continent by Whites, the latter ceased as early as the eighteenth century to be the only representatives of the European way of life. Today there exists at best a very imperfect correlation between skin colour and religious, linguistic, or other cultural characteristics. We must therefore treat the cultural complex as distinct from the racial makeup of the country, not only analytically but also empirically.

To all intents and purposes, European culture has only two main variants in South Africa: the Afrikaner and the English. The former is a derivative of Dutch culture. A group of French Huguenots landed at the Cape in 1688, but, within a generation, they were absorbed by the Dutch colonists. More recently other European groups entered the country, notably Jews of many nationalities, Germans, Frenchmen from Mauritius, Italians, and Greeks. Although there are a few pockets of French- and German-speaking people in South Africa, most immigrants have become assimilated into one of the two dominant European cultures.[1] Sizeable Jewish communities exist in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, and other towns, but they are for the most part English-speaking, and, except for religion, well assimilated into the larger White society.

Aside from the Whites, the vast majority of the Coloureds and a small but growing minority of Africans and Indians are completely Westernized. One can safely say that nobody in South Africa has escaped Western influence, although the extent of that influence varies greatly from one person, from one group, and from one region to another. In the case of the Coloureds, the process of acculturation is completed, with one small and partial exception. Some 6 per cent of the Coloureds, known as "Cape Malays," have remained faithful to Islam (Table XIV),[2] but they speak Afrikaans as their mother tongue, and are deeply Westernized in most aspects unconnected with religious and dietary

[1] In the former German colony of South West Africa, now under South African administration, the German influence is still strong, however.

[2] The tables can be found in Appendix B.


practices. These Malays are the descendants of slaves and political exiles from the Dutch East Indies, and, through Islam, they have remained a cohesive and fairly closed group. During the period of slavery, they constituted an elite among slaves and were, for the most part, employed as skilled artisans. Even today their social status is higher, on the average, than that of the mass of the other Coloureds.

In 1955, 88.7 per cent of the Coloureds lived in the Cape, predominantly in Cape Town and vicinity. A glance at the distribution of Coloureds on a map of South Africa shows that the areas of greatest concentration coincide roughly with the settled districts of the Western Cape during the period of slavery. As we have already said earlier, the Coloureds are the product of a dual process of Westernization and miscegenation between Whites, Hottentots, and slaves.

Like most slave societies, the old Cape was particularly favourable to this cultural and physical amalgamation. Slavery is, paradoxically, a great cultural leveler insofar as it rapidly shatters the culture of origin of the slaves, and encourages miscegenation. African, Malagasy, and Asian slaves, who had already been forcibly torn away from their culture of origin, were then randomly distributed without regard for ethnic affiliation between isolated farms. The absence of a common culture, religion, or language between the slaves, and the impossibility of maintaining cultural ties between small, heterogeneous, and widely dispersed groups made for a quick adoption of the dominant European culture. The Muslims alone, through their strongly cohesive religion, managed to escape total acculturation, though even they adopted the language of their masters (while at the same time influencing what later became Afrikaans). The Hottentots were easily assimilated because of the fragility of their social organization, and they were quickly forced into serfdom by the Dutch. As to the Bushmen, they were exterminated or pushed back rather than assimilated. In 1951, 51 per cent of the Coloureds spoke Afrikaans only, 46.5 per cent spoke Afrikaans and


English, and a bare 2.5 per cent spoke English only. Eighty-nine per cent of the Coloureds spoke Afrikaans as their home language.[3]

The genetic counterpart of this process of acculturation was miscegenation, which took place simultaneously, and which was also favoured by slavery. The close symbiosis of masters and slaves, and the total subordination of the female slave to her male owners made for extensive intermixture. Other incentives accelerated the process. Through miscegenation the female slave could improve her condition and the status of her children. The White master, on his side, had, apart from sexual gratification, an economic interest in increasing and "improving" his human stock by producing highly priced mulatto slaves.

Had it not been for the development of a strong form of racial (as distinct from ethnic) prejudice, South Africa could have developed into the same type of harmonious society, racially mixed and culturally Western, as is found in Latin America. Indeed, from the cultural point of view, the Cape Coloureds belong to Afrikaner culture. They share with the Herrenvolk one of its three main identifying characteristics: the Afrikaans language. They meet only partially the second criterion, namely membership in one of the three Dutch Reformed Churches; just under 30 per cent of the Coloureds share the religion of the Afrikaners, but, still, the D.R.C.'s have more Coloured members than does any other denomination. Clearly, the main, not to say the sole, reason why Afrikanerdom rejects the Coloured is because of the latter's failure to fulfill the all-important criterion of superior status in South Africa, namely a "white" skin.

It is as fallacious to speak of a "Cape Coloured culture" as it is to speak of an "American Negro culture" distinct from the dominent White culture. Hottentot and Malay survivals in speech, for example, are found as much in the Afrikaans spoken by Whites as in that spoken by Cape Coloureds, and dialectical

[3] Muriel Horrell, A Survey of Race Relations in South Africa , 1958–1959, p. 279; 1959–1960, p. 25.


or pronounciation differences are more a function of region and social class than of "colour." The racial prejudice of the Whites is solely responsible for the social existence of a distinct Cape Coloured group, a fact recognized by many "moderate" Afrikaners today, and indeed by some Hertzogites as early as the twenties. Except for the concern with colour of South African "Whites" (many of whom have themselves "Coloured blood"), Afrikanerdom would be nearly twice as large as it is today, and would outnumber the English-speaking Whites by well over two to one. For every six White Afrikaners there are approximately five Coloured Afrikaners and four English-speaking Whites. In the entire population there are four non-Whites to one White, if colour is the criterion; but, if mother tongue is taken as the criterion, there are only two non-Europeans to one European. Should religion be chosen as the index of Westernization, Christians outnumber non-Christians by over two to one.

Only a minority of Coloureds live outside the Cape Province. They are, for the most part, the product of more recent miscegenation between Whites and Africans, or, to a lesser extent, the descendants of the "Bastard" communities (such as the Griqua and Namaqua) who trekked to the North in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and settled on the Orange River frontier. As the small number of non-Cape Coloureds indicates, the Northern part of the country, which never knew a slave plantation economy, was much less of a genetic melting pot than the Cape. Nevertheless, the Coloureds outside the Cape are also completely Westernized and their position vis-à-vis the Whites is very similar to that prevailing in the Cape. The Natal Coloureds and most of the urban Transvaal Coloureds speak English, as do most local Whites, rather than Afrikaans.

Western culture is also making steady progress among Indians and Africans, though the process of acculturation has been rather different in the two groups. Let us first examine the position among South Africans of Indian origin. Coming from five different linguistic groups (Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, and Gu-


jarati), the Indian immigrants quickly adopted English as a common tongue. Anglicization was further speeded up by the use of English as a medium of instruction in the racially segregated Indian schools. Today, all but elderly people and some of the women in the poorer or more conservative Indian groups speak fluent English. In 1951 only 21.5 per cent of the Indians spoke no European language, 62.8 per cent spoke English, 14.6 per cent were conversant in both English and Afrikaans, and 1 per cent spoke Afrikaans.[4] A growing minority of Indian families speak mostly English at home, and the younger generation is, as a rule, more fluent in that tongue than in any of the Indian languages.

Religiously, the vast majority of Indians have retained their faith in Islam (21.5 per cent in 1951) or Hinduism (67.2 per cent). Only some 6 per cent have been converted to Christianity (Table XIV). These figures understate, however, the indirect influence of Christianity on Hindus. While Islam has remained unaffected by Christianity, the latter has exerted a profound influence on South African Hinduism. Through its tolerance and complexity of ritual and theology which favour eclecticism, Hinduism syncretized some elements of Christianity, while at the same time becoming ritually and philosophically impoverished due to isolation from India. For many Hindus, their religious affiliation symbolizes mostly a vague cultural allegiance, and is accompanied by little religious practice (aside from domestic rites carried out mostly by women), and an almost total ignorance of the tenets of Hinduism. Christianity is tolerantly accepted as an alternative road to the same spiritual goals, Christ and Krishna are often identified, and Hindus exchange Christmas cards as much as Christians.

Among Indian Muslims the situation is quite different. They have remained a very cohesive group, and reject all other faiths as being in opposition to their own. Through its simplicity of

[4] Horrell, op. cit. , 1958–1959, p. 279.


rituals and beliefs and its intolerance, Islam has retained its unifying strength and its dogmatic purity. It has also retarded the process of Westernization among Muslims (as compared to Hindus) in education and other secular aspects of life. One finds a much greater conservatism and traditionalism among Muslims than among Hindus, although, in such things as emancipation of women, Western influence is slowly introducing changes.

Some aspects of traditional Indian life have shown great resistance to change in South Africa. This is particularly true of cooking, family and kinship structure, and dress for adult women. Gradual change takes place nevertheless. To give only one example, neolocal residence with nuclear families tends to replace slowly the extended patrilocal household. Other important institutions of Indian life have survived only in vestigial form. The caste council (panchayat ) has ceased to exist, and the caste system as a whole subsists, for all practical purposes, only in a tendency towards endogamy which is now anything but strict.[5]

In short, South African Indians are far from being completely Westernized as a group though they are certainly moving in that direction. Linguistically, the process is very far advanced, and many Indians can be regarded as English-speaking. Among the intellectual and professional elite, the younger generation is approaching complete acculturation to the West. But, for the masses, membership in two of the world religions has delayed cultural assimilation. The proud consciousness of belonging to a great civilization is also widespread among Indians, but I do not believe that this "cultural pride" has retarded Westernization. It has rather led to the self-conscious retention of certain outward symbols of Eastern culture, such as the wearing of saris by Hindu women, without impeding gradual acculturation in

[5] For more detailed accounts of acculturation among Indians, see Hilda Kuper, Indian People in Natal; B. Rambiritch and P. van den Berghe, "Caste in a Natal Hindu Community"; and van den Berghe, Caneville, The Social Structure of a South African Town .


depth. Indeed, this "cultural pride" is most notably exhibited by intellectuals who are profoundly Westernized.

To trace the history and determine the extent of acculturation among Africans is difficult, for the process covers nearly 150 years, and encompasses many different African groups. Furthermore, the extent of Westernization covers a wide range from the almost totally Europeanized urban intellectual to the largely "tribal" peasant.[6] Unlike what happened among Indians, the first and the most important early agents of Westernization for the Africans have been the missionaries. Beginning in the first third of the nineteenth century, missionaries penetrated beyond the frontiers of White settlement, and entered into contact with the Bantu nations. Indigenous cults based on ancestor worship did not, like the Oriental religions, successfully compete with Christianity, and by the second half of the nineteenth century many Africans had become converted. Christianity also entailed exposure to the mission schools, and this early wave of conversions led, in some areas, to a sharp cleavage in rural African society between "school" and "red" people. This division is still found prominently in the Transkei.[7]

Today less than 40 per cent of the Africans are classified as "heathens," although nearly one-third of the Christians belong to a multitude of small African separatist sects, many of which have strong nativistic elements (Table XIV). These revivalistic movements are largely the result of disillusionment with the European-controlled denominations and their discriminatory practices.[8] In recent years, Christianity has become increasingly suspect to many educated Africans as a "White man's religion," and another disguised instrument of White oppression.

[6] Among the best studies of African-European contact are the following: Monica Hunter, Reaction to Conquest; H. Kuper, The Uniform of Colour; Philip Mayer, Townsmen or Tribesmen .

[7] Cf. Mayer, op. cit.

[8] See Bengt G. M. Sundkler, Bantu Prophets in South Africa .


Linguistically, acculturation among Africans has been much slower than among Indians. This is due to a number of factors. First, the African languages were solidly rooted: three languages (Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho) are spoken by over two million people each, and the first two are mutually understandable. Secondly, the mission schools (and now the government schools) used the child's mother tongue as the main medium of instruction, at least in the crucial first four years of school, beyond which the vast majority of pupils never went. Finally, many Europeans (mostly English ones) prefer to speak to their African employees in "kitchen Kaffir" (an impoverished pidgin), and resent English-speaking Africans, whom they consider "cheeky" and "spoiled." The rigid system of apartheid, by minimizing contact between White and Black, has also retarded linguistic assimilation. In spite of all these handicaps, at least half of the urban African men, a third of the urban women, and a smaller proportion of the rural Africans can express themselves in limited but fairly fluent English or Afrikaans. The 1951 census classified 29.2 per cent of the African population as able to speak a European language. Of those 7.3 per cent spoke English, 14.0 per cent Afrikaans, and 7.9 per cent both.[9] Most African men speak, in addition, several indigenous tongues, and Africans, as a group, are by far the most polyglottal group in South Africa. The completely fluent use of grammatical English is still limited to a small educated urban elite, however.

The schools for Africans which, historically, grew out of the missions, have played a leading role in assimilation. Of course, Africans have always been greatly discriminated against in education as in other aspects of South African life (Table XV and XVI). Since 1954, as a result of the counteracculturative endeavours of the government with its policy of "Bantu education," the situation has further deteriorated. Until the last few years, some 50 per cent of the African children never went to school, and those

[9] Horrell, op. cit., 1958–1959, p. 279.


who did rarely went beyond the lower primary standards. By now, the percentage has risen, but the quality of education (as measured, for example, by the rate of success in standardized examinations) has deteriorated. In 1958 only 3.2 per cent of all African schoolchildren were in secondary schools, compared with 22.7 per cent of White children.[10] About one African child out of four thousand finishes his secondary schooling. At the upper end of the educational pyramid, the racial discrepancy becomes greater yet. Of 33,242 students enrolled in South African universities in 1957, 29,775 (i.e., 90 per cent) were Whites (Table XVII). Approximately 1 White person per 100 was a student, compared to 1 per 400 among Indians, 1 per 2,500 among Coloureds, and 1 per 6,000 for Africans.[11] In 1953, on a per capita basis, the government spent sixteen times as much for White as for African school children.[12] All these handicaps notwithstanding, it was estimated that 35 per cent of the Africans over ten years of age were literate in 1958.[13] In the urban areas this figure exceeds 50 per cent, a proportion much higher than in any other part of sub-Saharan Africa with the possible exception of Western Nigeria. In spite of the fact that most of the lower primary school teaching has been done in the vernacular, the school programmes have been Western, and there is no question that the school has been a major agency of African acculturation. The tiny elite of university graduates is undoubtedly the most Westernized group of Africans.

Despite government attempts to revive the crumbling system of tribal authorities, the political structure of the "Bantu homelands" only preserves a superficial resemblance with the traditional system. The chiefs have, with some exceptions, become

[10] Ibid. , 1959–1960, p. 214.

[11] In spite of this racial discrepancy, South Africa has many more African university graduates, both absolutely and per capita , than most, if not all, countries of black Africa, a fact often cited by the government to "prove" how "progressive" its "Bantu education" policy is.

[12] Horrell, op. cit. , 1959–1960, p. 210.

[13] Ibid. , p. 240.


mere tools of the government, powerless and revocable at will, or, if they have shown any opposition, they have been promptly deposed and exiled. The most prominent of them, Chief Albert Luthuli, a Nobel Peace Prize Winner and the President of the banned African National Congress, was deposed, imprisoned, assaulted by thugs and by a prison warden, and subjected to countless other indignities. He now lives, under strict police restrictions, on his farm near Stanger, Natal, and is debarred from taking part in any political activities, from attending any gatherings, and from leaving the Stanger magisterial district except by special permission.[14] Many other less prominent chiefs have been summarily sacked for insubordination and now live in prison or exile, isolated from their people.

As under any colonial regime, powerful chiefs are "troublesome," and powerless ones are in constant danger of losing the respect of their people, of being regarded as tools of the colonial administration, and of becoming scapegoats for the people who resent the unpopular measures which the chiefs have to enforce. In either case, chiefs largely defeat the purpose for which the colonial regime intended them, namely as inexpensive go-betweens and as policy-enforcing officials. Only astute compromisers manage to walk the tightrope without becoming rebels or puppets, mostly the latter. While the empty forms of authority remain vested in chiefs, the latter have lost practically all of their former judiciary and military powers, and are disavowed by the majority of the urban population and many of the rural people.

Under the new Bantustan policy,[15] the powers and local autonomy of chiefs are being increased, to be sure; but as their tenure in office remains subject to their approval of apartheid policies, the increased powers of chiefs will probably result in further alienation from their people. Already, in the Transkei, many acts of terrorism (assassination, arson, cattle-maiming, etc.) against chiefs have taken place, and chiefs have been provided

[14] See Chief Albert Luthuli's autobiography, Let My People Go .

[15] For a treatment of it, see Chapter VI.


with "homeguards" for protection against their own subjects. "Native Law and Custom," which have been codified and administered by White officials in special courts, have in many cases been misunderstood by the government, or deliberately changed to suit White administration.

Economic forces have also played a powerful role in shattering the traditional rural structure and in exposing Africans to Western influences. As in other parts of the continent, the imposition of a capitation tax has, since the turn of the century, forced African men into the wage economy. The development of the "migratory labour system" in the mines and in other industries has been one of the most important factors of "detribalization." Operating in conjunction with the "pass system," the migratory labour system has disrupted the traditional family system by separating the men from their families for most of the year. The surplus of men in relation to women in the cities has its host of consequences, from prostitution and venereal diseases, to illegitimacy, broken marriages, and alcoholism. By throwing men of many different ethnic groups into the promiscuity of labour compounds,[16] ethnic ties and loyalties are undermined, and Africans slowly gain consciousness of belonging to a large proletariat rather than to ethnic or kinship units.

The migrant worker is exposed to modern political ideas of emancipation, comes into constant contact with the permanently urbanized African whose behaviour he often tries to emulate as more "civilized," and spreads Western influence into the rural areas when he returns home.[17] New economic needs are created

[16] Some employers of African labour, notably some of the mining companies, have tried to segregate their workers by ethnic group, and others (e.g., the Natal sugar industry) have recruited their labour predominantly from a single ethnic area. The residential and educational segregation of Africans by linguistic groups, even in the urban areas, is a major aspect of the government's policy of apartheid. This is presumably done in an endeavour to divide the African population, to revive ethnic particularism, and to stem the growth of African nationalism.

[17] As Philip Mayer has documented for the "red" Xhosa, some migrant workers are culturally conservative and resist Westernization, however.


which can only be satisfied by staying in a wage economy. Rural destitution and whatever few attractions city life may have for Africans make for a continuous urban influx. All attempts by the government to control and restrict this process of urbanization by mass arrests and deportations have been in vain. Large industrial centres like Durban, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and the Rand cities are cultural melting pots where the traditional way of life is gradually changed, and from where Western values and artifacts penetrate into the remotest parts of the interior.

The extent of Westernization among Africans is impossible to assess precisely, but a few generalizations can be advanced. There is no African group in South Africa that has not been profoundly affected by its contact with the West, in many cases for as long as a century or more. All African areas are closely dependent on the "White" part of the country, not only for their acquired needs for manufactured products, but also for their sheer subsistence. Few if any of the Native Reserves can feed themselves.[18] Two important (not to mention several smaller) pockets of cultural conservatism remain, however, in the Transkei and in Zululand, where a part of the peasant population has shown considerable resilience to Westernization. Most other Native Reserves are inhabited by a largely "detribalized" but only partly Westernized population. These peasants have become an impoverished rural proletariat, living well below the minimum level of requirements for health. The same applies to the third of the African population living as agricultural labourers and squatters on White-owned farms, except that the process of acculturation is somewhat more advanced there, and that, if their employer is humane, such Africans are better protected against starvation (though often at the cost of quasi-serfdom and debt peonage).

[18] In 1953-1954, for example, approximately one-half of the food consumed by Africans on Reserves had to be purchased from outside at a cost of £25,000,000. Cf. F. P. Spooner, South African Predicament , p. 222.


The extent of acculturation among the some 32 per cent of urban Africans varies according to economic level, education, and length of urban residence. An increasing proportion of townsmen are born and raised in cities, and have few if any ties with the rural hinterland, but even these Africans are not completely westernized. While many of these townsmen are literate, speak a European language, are Christians, dress in Western clothes, and have adopted many tastes as well as the material culture of the Whites, they continue to speak their mother tongue, and to retain a number of African values and traditions, such as marriage by bride-wealth (lobola ). Indeed, even the most highly educated Africans are deprived by the colour-bar from social contact with the Whites, and are forced to live in segregated Black areas. This forced segregation certainly hinders complete acculturation, in spite of a strong desire for cultural assimilation among many members of the African elite. Contrary to most Indians, most of the emerging African intelligentsia and clerical class exhibit a sentiment of "cultural shame" towards traditional rural life, which they consider primitive and backward. At the same time, economic, legal, and social barriers render full participation in the dominant Western society impossible.

In Chapter Nine I shall come back to the various reactions which the contact between different cultures have brought about, and to the conflicts engendered by this combination of Westernization and racial discrimination. Here I merely sketched in its broadest lines the "cultural map" of South Africa to show that, while culture overlaps with other aspects of the social structure, notably with "race," the overlap is far from complete. The phenomena of culture and culture contact must be clearly distinguished, both analytically and empirically, from the other elements of South African society.

In short, a number of cultures originating on three different continents met in South Africa. The net result of this extremely complex process of culture contact has been the gradual Westernization of all non-European groups. Of course, the influence


has not been entirely one way. The South African variants of European culture bear some traces of Indian and African influences in the language, in cooking, etc., and traditional European values have been profoundly modified by the Whites in response to their privileged position. Colour prejudice and discrimination have hindered Westernization, and there have emerged counteracculturative movements such as the African separatist churches of the "Zionist" type, the prophetic movement of the Xhosas in 1857, and the Zulu Poll-Tax Rebellion of 1906. Though acculturation has taken place differently, and at varying rates depending on the period, the region, and the particular groups in presence, the overall trend in South Africa is towards a predominantly Western society, and a gradual cultural absorption of the remaining pockets of African traditionalism.[19]

We turn now to the second important aspect of the social structure of the country, namely social stratification and segmentation. It is not surprising that as heterogeneous a country as South Africa should have an extremely complex stratification, and that, in addition, it should be segmented in ways that cut across the social hierarchy. For broad descriptive purposes, the South African system of stratification can be described in terms of caste and class, as Warner, Dollard, Myrdal, and other authors dealing with the United States have done.[20] It is not my intention here to reopen the debate on the use of the term "caste" in a racial context, for the discussion is largely one of definition.[21] I shall therefore adopt a minimum definition of "caste" as an endogamous group, hierarchically ranked in relation to other groups, and wherein membership is determined by birth and for life.

[19] In this respect, South Africa is qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from all the rest of the continent, where European cultural influence has been less profound, though obviously far from negligible.

[20] See Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma; John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town; Allison W. Davies, B. B. Gardner and M. R. Gardner, Deep South .

[21] Oliver C. Cox is one of the prominent opponents of the use of the term "caste" in the racial context. See his Caste, Class and Race .


To avoid equivocation with Hindu caste, I shall speak, where necessary, of "colour-castes" or "racial castes."

In most general terms, South African society consists of four racial castes, and each of those is subdivided according to the usual criteria of a Western class system. Such a description is only approximative, however, insofar as many other lines of cleavage, some hierarchical, others not, further subdivide the population. Let us begin, nevertheless, with the most important criterion of status in South Africa, namely "race." Although race gives rise to an extremely rigid division into four easily recognized colour-castes, its social definition is oddly vague. There exist numerous legal definitions of "race," adopting differing combinations of physical appearance, ancestry, association with other people, and even "reputation"; (e.g., the testimony of witnesses can be accepted as evidence concerning one's racial membership). Unlike statutes in the southern United States which gave precise definitions of Negroes as any persons having more than a specified percentage of African "blood" (1/16th, 1/32d, etc.), no such precision exists in South Africa. This lack of formal precision about the most basic single principle on which society is organized is only one of the many paradoxes of South Africa.

In practice, however, there is relatively little confusion as to who belongs to which group, except in the Cape, where a long history of miscegenation allows many light-skinned Coloureds to "play White," and where many "Whites" have "a touch of the tar brush." A number of lighter-skinned Africans can also successfully pass for Coloured, but, in the large majority of cases, physical appearance is a reliable indicator of race. The four racial groups satisfy the minimum definition of "caste" given above. They are hierarchized, almost entirely endogamous, and mobility between groups is, with a few exceptions, impossible. Let us examine each of these three characteristics in turn.

The Whites or Europeans numbering 19.4 per cent of the total population are clearly at the top of the hierarchy (Tables I and II). Not only do they enjoy a much higher standard of living,


education, and health than the vast majority of the non-Whites, but they virtually monopolize all the occupations above the level of semiskilled workers; they are, for all practical purposes, the only group to have political rights, and they enjoy countless other legal and customary privileges (Tables XV, XXII, XXIII, XXIV, XXVII, and XXVIII). By comparison, all three non-White races occupy a much lower status, and the differences between the three non-White groups are smaller than those separating Europeans and non-Europeans. The Coloureds (9.4 per cent of the total population) are nearest to the Whites insofar as they suffer under fewer vexations and legal disabilities than the other non-Whites, but, in terms of education and income, they stand perhaps a little lower, on the average, than the Indians, who constitute 3 per cent of the population. Indians and Coloureds occupy thus a nearly equal position in the hierarchy between the Europeans and the Africans, but nearer the latter than the former (Tables XXII, XXIII, and XXVIII). The Africans, more commonly referred to by the Whites as "Natives" or "Bantu," number 68.2 per cent of the population and constitute the broad base of the racial pyramid (Tables I and II). Their standards of living, occupational status, and education are the lowest, and they are the target of most discrimination (Tables XXII, XXIII, and XXVIII). The three lowest colour-castes are often referred to collectively as "non-Whites" or "non-Europeans" to mark the gulf that separates them from the Whites, so that it might be more appropriate to speak of two colour-castes, the lower one subdivided into three subcastes. For purposes of simplicity, however, I shall speak of four castes.

Not only is the socio-economic gap between Whites and non-Whites wide and unbreachable, but, in some respects, the racial differential has increased until the mid-fifties, largely as a result of political restrictions. In spite of a tendency towards equalization of wages in developing economies, Africans then got a diminishing share of the National Income (less than 20 per cent), and were worse off in terms of purchasing power than before the


War (Tables XXII and XXIII). Educational statistics indicate that Africans are progressing proportionately faster than Whites (Table XV), but, since the passage of the Bantu Education Act, the quality of African schooling is steadily decreasing.

Endogamy, the second essential characteristic of caste, is likewise found in the four racial groups in South Africa.[22] Since 1949 marriage between Whites and all non-Whites is forbidden under the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act. There is thus complete compulsory endogamy between these two groups. Even miscegenation outside marriage is a criminal offense under the Immorality Act of 1927 as amended in 1950 and 1957. Marriages between Indians, Coloured, and Africans are legally permitted, but actually rare. The same was true of White-non-White marriages before they were forbidden. In 1946, for example, only 1 European out of 714 married outside his racial group. The corresponding figures for Coloureds, Indians, and Africans were 1 in 20, 1 in 31, and 1 in 67 respectively. Of the total number of registered marriages in 1946, only 1.38 per cent were racially exogamous.[23] Among the Europeans, there exists now, contrary to the tolerant attitude in the old Cape, a strong taboo against miscegenation, and even more so against intermarriage. In the other groups, the racial taboo is not as strong as among Whites, but other factors such as religion, language, and education level effectively hinder exogamy.

The four racial groups in South Africa also satisfy the minimum definition of caste, in that membership in them is ascribed at birth, and mobility is practically non-existent, except through surreptitious passing. The offspring of racially exogamous unions is defined at birth as Coloured, regardless of the parent groups. In fact, a number of light-skinned Coloureds manage to be accepted as Whites, and brown-skinned Africans as Coloureds. A number of first-generation Coloureds also become assimilated

[22] For a more detailed study of mixed marriages and miscegenation see my article: "Miscegenation in South Africa."

[23] Ibid.


in the African group. The extent of passing is, of course, impossible to determine accurately or even approximately, but, while passing has probably become increasingly rare during the last decade, the racial groups today are certainly anything but "pure" after three hundred years of miscegenation. Since the genetic situation remained relatively fluid until at least the first third of the nineteenth century, one can safety estimate that anywhere from one-tenth to one-quarter of the persons classified as "White" in the Cape Province are of mixed descent, and that almost every "old family" in White Cape society has genealogical connections with Coloured families. The passage of the Population Registration Act in 1950, however, intends to eliminate passing, and to make the four castes absolutely rigid. Indeed, the Act provides for the issue of identity cards where the race of the person will be indicated. Special boards are entrusted with the task of deciding once and for all the racial membership of marginal persons who contest their classification. While the task of these boards is still far from completed,[24] mobility between the colour-castes has become virtually impossible.

Besides the properties of the racial castes already mentioned, membership in a given "race" entails many other crucial consequences. We shall come back to various aspects of colour discrimination later, but, here, we must at least enumerate the main social correlates of skin colour in South Africa. To be White entails full humanity and citizenship plus a number of special privileges restricted to the master race. All Europeans over eighteen years of age (except convicted criminals) have the franchise at all levels of government. White workers are protected from non-White competition, insofar as they detain a virtual monopoly of skilled manual jobs, as well as of higher clerical, managerial, civil service, and professional posts, at rates of pay from five to fifteen times those of unskilled non-White jobs. They have the right to organize in trade unions, to go on strike, to

[24] Some 21,000 borderline Coloureds have yet to be classified, according to a Time report of May 24, 1963.


bear arms, to own land in freehold in most of the country (except in the Native Reserves and in the few areas declared for occupation of Indians and Coloureds), to move freely in the entire country (except in certain African areas where they need permits), to change freely their place of residence, to buy and consume alcoholic beverages,[25] to stand for elective office, etc.

Technically, of course, the Europeans are subject to racial segregation, as are the non-Europeans, and a White person may not use facilities reserved for non-Whites, or live in non-White areas. In practice, such restrictions are only irksome to a small minority of liberal Whites who reject segregation in principle, and who resent the possession of racial privileges. For the vast majority of Europeans, these "restrictions" are, in fact, advantages, since the Whites monopolize the lion's share of existing facilities and resources, in terms of both quantity and quality. Whites own and occupy, for example, 87 per cent of the country's land. In many cases, a given amenity (e.g., park bench, swimming bath, golf course, cinema, etc.) is only available for Whites in a given community.

To be non-White means being deprived of most or all of the above advantages, and being treated as a helot and an unwelcome intruder in one's own country. Non-Whites are not only segregated, but almost invariably given inferior service and facilities, or no facilities at all, in practically every sphere of life, except in most shops (which have become sensitive to the threat of non-White economic boycotts). Racial segregation is the rule in restaurants, hotels, cinemas, hospitals, schools, waiting rooms, park benches, beaches, cemeteries, residential areas, ambulances, taxis, trains, buses, picnic areas, airports, entrances to public buildings, swimming baths, sport grounds, post offices, lifts, banks, toilets, bars, national parks, and many other places. Non-White servants accompanying their masters are, however, tolerated in many of these places, provided their servile condition is

[25] Since 1962 this right has been extended to Africans.


unambiguous. Some of that segregation is "customary" (i.e., imposed by traditional White prejudices), while some is compulsory under law. To avoid any ambiguity as to whether segregated amenities must be equal in their physical plant, a special law, the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, was passed in 1953, stating that facilities may not only be separate but also unequal .

All non-Whites (except foreign diplomats and the Japanese, who, for reasons of international trade, have recently been declared to be "White") are subject to the daily humiliations of segregation. No non-European may bear arms in the defence forces, stand as a candidate for Parliament, or live anywhere but in specially set-aside "Group Areas." Beyond these restrictions, there are differences between Africans, Indians, and Coloureds in the number and extent of disabilities and vexations. Africans are by far the most oppressed, and the Coloureds are the least underprivileged of the non-Whites, although their condition is rapidly deteriorating.

The Coloureds in the Cape Province still have a vestigial, though meaningless, franchise on a separate roll electing special White representatives to Parliament, whereas the Africans and the Indians have no franchise rights in the election of national, provincial, or municipal representatives.[26] The Coloureds still retain an increasingly precarious foothold in some skilled trades from which Africans and Indians are excluded. Unlike Africans who have to carry a "reference book" limiting their spacial mobility, and unlike Indians who are forbidden to enter or to stop in certain areas of the country (such as the Transkei and the Orange Free State), the Coloureds are relatively free to travel in South Africa. Coloureds have always had access to liquor, from which Africans, and to a lesser degree Indians, have been debarred by law until 1962. Where there is segregation between the non-White groups, as in schools, the amenities for Coloureds and

[26] Since the establishment of the first Bantustan in the Transkei, Africans living in that area may elect a minority of the members of the Transkeian Assembly. See Chapter VI.


Indians are generally better than for Africans, though considerably inferior to the White facilities. Coloureds and Indians still have a limited right to strike which is completely denied to Africans. Similarly, Coloureds and Indians have a right to own land in freehold in certain small areas legally set aside for their occupation. Africans, on the other hand, with a few insignificant exceptions, may possess land nowhere in their own country. Land tenure in practically all Native Reserves is communal, not personal; in practice this means that the right to use and occupy land can be granted and revoked at the whim of government-appointed chiefs.

As can be seen from the above, the Africans bear the brunt of White oppression in South Africa. Well-to-do Indians and Coloureds can isolate themselves to a degree from much unpleasant contact with Whites, and from daily humiliation from the officialdom. Africans, on the other hand, are constantly exposed to police intimidation, imprisonment for purely technical offenses under the liquor or pass regulations, arbitrary deportation and countless other indignities.

Although "race" is by far the most important criterion of status in South Africa, it is not the sole relevant factor in the system of social stratification, for each racial group is internally subdivided. We shall take in turn the Whites, Coloureds, Indians, and Africans. The Whites are first segmented into three distinct subgroups along linguistic and religious lines, namely the Afrikaners, the "English-speaking South Africans," and the Jews, not to mention much smaller groups such as the Germans. These divisions are not directly hierarchical but they are related to social status and to political and economic power.

The Afrikaners (formerly known as the Dutch or the Boers) are the Whites who speak Afrikaans. The vast majority of them also belong to one of the Dutch Reformed Churches. Afrikaans-speaking Coloureds are, of course, excluded from the Volk. Afrikaners number approximately 57 per cent of the Whites, and, under a practically all-White franchise, they have played a pre-


dominant role in the politics of the country. Since 1948 they hold a virtual monopoly of political power through the Nationalist Party which represents the vast majority of them. In terms of education and economic status, however, they still lag behind the other Whites, on the average, although these differences tend to disappear. Among Johannesburg Whites in 1952, for example, only 1.5 per cent of the Afrikaners compared to 10 per cent of the English families earned more than £ 1000 a year.[27] In Durban in 1951 the mean per capita income was £ 299 a year for English-speaking Whites and £ 187 for Afrikaans-speaking Whites[28]

The Afrikaners are less urbanized than the English and the Jews, and their representation in big business, mining, and banking is still small compared with that of the English Whites. In 1949 it was estimated that Afrikaners were in control of 6 per cent of South African industry and 25 to 30 per cent of commerce. However, the number of Afrikaner-owned firms increased from 2428 to 9585 between 1939 and 1949, and Afrikaner gains have continued since.[29] Yet, in the mid-fifties, Afrikaner capital in all branches of mining controlled only 1 per cent of total production.[30] The "poor Whites," who continued to be numerous until the depression of the 1930's, were practically all Afrikaners, but through government subsidies and the so-called "civilized labour policy," "poor Whites" have disappeared as a class.[31] In spite of this, Afrikaners are more heavily represented than the English or the Jews in the lower White echelons of the occupational, income, and educational scale. In the medical and legal professions, however, the Afrikaners are rapidly increasing. The vast majority of civil service posts reserved for Whites are held by

[27] Stanley Trapido, "Political Institutions and Afrikaner Social Structures in the Republic of South Africa."

[28] Heinz Hartmann, Enterprise and Politics in South Africa, p. 64.

[29] Sheila Patterson, The Last Trek , p. 163.

[30] Leo Kuper et al., Durban, A Study in Racial Ecology , p. 89.

[31] Of course, improved economic conditions in the late 1930's and during the Second World War also contributed to the disappearance of "poor Whites."


Afrikaners, at all levels of administration. The 1957 civil service recruitment figures show that of 100 White entrants at the professional level, 81 were Afrikaners; at the clerical level, 89 per cent of the new recruits were Afrikaans-speaking.[32]

The term "English-speaking South African" is doubly ambiguous, insofar as it is not only a linguistic label, but also a racial and a religious one. English-speaking non-Whites are not included in this category, since, in the eyes of most Whites, they are not citizens of the country. This label sometimes also implies membership in, or allegiance to, one of the Christian denominations. While most Jews are linguistically assimilated to the English Whites, they generally consider themselves, and are considered by the Christians, as constituting a separate group. Altogether, some 39 per cent of the Whites speak English at home. The English and the Jews share many socio-economic characteristics, as opposed to the Afrikaners. Both groups are predominantly urban, the Jews almost exclusively so, detain a virtual monopoly of large commercial, mining, and financial concerns, and are practically excluded from political power and the civil service, except in the Natal Provincial Administration and in the large municipalities of the Transvaal and the Eastern Cape. Compared with the Afrikaners, the other two White groups are wealthier and more highly educated. This is even truer of the Jews than of the English. Politically, the majority of the English support the United Party, but in recent years the English upper class and many Jews have turned to the less conservative Progressive Party.

The three main White subgroups cannot be called "castes," as the divisions between them are not rigid. Intermarriages are fairly common; many persons of Afrikaner origin have become Anglicized; and conversely a few originally English families are Afrikanerized. The 1951 Census classifies 73 per cent of the Whites as bilingual, though only 2 per cent habitually speak both

[32] Hartmann, op. cit. , p. 62.


European languages at home.[33] The main importance of the linguistic cleavage within the White caste is in the field of politics, as we shall see later.

The three White groups cannot be ranked hierarchically. While many Afrikaners have traditionally had a cultural inferiority complex vis-à-vis the English,[34] and while they are on the whole of a lower socio-economic status than the English and the Jews, the social class system cuts across linguistic and religious distinctions, and must be analysed independently. We shall presently turn to this task. In general, the White class system resembles that of the United States, Canada, or Australia, except for the virtual absence of a lower class. The class of impoverished farmers and unskilled labourers known as "poor Whites," which numbered up to one-sixth of the European population in the depression of the 1930's, has almost disappeared. White artisans enjoy a legally protected position and a relatively high standard of living, and lack any consciousness of belonging to a proletariat opposed to the White bourgeoisie, or having any common interests with the non-White proletariat. To speak of class alignments in the Marxian sense of relationship to the means of production does not correspond to social reality in South Africa. This absence of a White proletarian class consciousness accounts for the weakness of the South African labour movement. The latter has always been tainted by racialism in South Africa, and has always defined its function as that of protecting the White manual worker against non-White competition.

There is no clear-cut distinction between European artisans, smaller farmers, and petty civil servants or white-collar workers. Together they constitute what could be called a petty bourgeoisie or a lower middle class. Many White industrial workers come from a rural background, as a number of small farmers have been forced away from marginal land into the urban economy. This bottom stratum of White society has, in general, primary and

[33] Horrell, op. cit. , 1958–1959, p. 279.

[34] See for example: Patterson, op. cit.


some secondary or technical education, and an income of £40 to £80 a month; it lives in modest but comfortable houses, owns a small motorcar, and employs one or two non-White servants. Politically, members of that stratum are as conservative as other Whites, if not more so, and they distinguish themselves from the upper bourgeoisie mostly through lower income and education, and through taste and life-style differences which these imply. Rather than constituting a well-defined, corporate class in the Marxian sense, they are an amorphous stratum of individuals sharing roughly the same socio-economic status in the sense of Warner's "lower middle class."

The White upper bourgeoisie is similarly ill-defined. It consists of persons having at least secondary education, and occupying the higher echelons of the occupational scale. It includes as disparate groups as higher civil servants, managers, large farmers, small businessmen, and professionals. Its style of life is more luxurious than that of the petty bourgeoisie. Homes and motorcars are larger, newer, and more elegant, and the number of nonWhite servants often reaches three or four. Tastes in reading and entertainment become more "refined."

At the apex of White society, one finds small groups wielding considerable power. Like in many other "new" societies, there is no entrenched aristocracy in South Africa, but rather a number of distinct and conflicting elites or oligarchies competing for power. Of these, the most important are the big-business and the political groups. The relation between these two antagonistic groups will be examined later. The military is not a distinct power group in South Africa. The White intelligentsia is small, geographically scattered in the various universities and large urban centres, internally divided along political lines, largely excluded from direct participation in power, but nevertheless influential in certain spheres. Needless to say, these various White elites, while sharing a high socio-economic status, differ widely in their tastes and modes of life, and do not, in any sense, constitute a unitary upper class.


In short, we see that the White class system is relatively fluid and open. The fact that South Africa is a fairly "young" country may account, in part, for this fluidity, but the colour situation has also played an important role. South African Whites view themselves, first and foremost, as members of the dominant racial group. Internal class differences become secondary, and the gulf that separates Europeans from non-Europeans serves to minimize class consciousness and the perception of objective class differences within the dominant White caste. As a corollary of the rigid system of racial castes, there exists among Europeans what might be termed "Herrenvolk egalitarianism." Not only does colour-consciousness create bonds of solidarity between all Whites regardless of class, but it also prevents the establishment of class ties across racial barriers. Colour overshadows and weakens class and class consciousness.

The Coloured group is stratified along lines similar to the Whites, but at a much lower socio-economic level. The Muslim Malays are slightly better off than the other Coloureds, but, because of their greater conservatism, they are less well represented in the professions. Whereas the lower class is almost nonexistent among the Whites, the vast majority of the Coloureds constitute an impoverished proletariat of agricultural workers, domestic servants, and unskilled or semiskilled factory workers. Above this lower class, one finds a much smaller but sizeable lower middle class of artisans and petty clerks, and a tiny upper middle class of small businessmen and professionals, mostly schoolteachers. In economic terms, this Coloured elite lives at about the same level as the White petty bourgeoisie, because Coloureds earn much less than equally qualified Whites doing the same work.

The Coloured stratification system is, however, qualitatively different from the White system in one important respect. Of the four racial groups, the Coloured group is the only one to be internally differentiated on the basis of physical traits. All other things being equal, the more closely a Coloured resembles a


White person in skin colour, hair texture, and facial features, the higher his status is. Coloureds are, on the average, at least as colour-conscious as the majority of the Europeans. In recent years socio-economic criteria have become more important than physical traits in determining status within the Coloured group, but appearance still plays an important role among older and uneducated people.[35] Educated Coloureds, for the most part, react strongly against status differences based on physical characteristics, and against the approval of concubinage with Whites among some members of the Coloured lower class as a method of "improving" the race. In practice, the two sets of status criteria are difficult to dissociate, because there is still a fairly high correlation between physical traits and various indices of socioeconomic status within the Coloured group.

Racial consciousness among Coloureds has also entailed other consequences. As an intermediate caste, the Coloureds have traditionally been caught between their feelings of racial superiority vis-à-vis the Africans, and their constantly frustrated hope of acceptance by the Whites. This has led to ambivalent attitudes towards the Whites, to political passivity, and to a failure to identify with the Africans. The mass of the Coloured proletariat has, like the White manual workers, refused to identify with the African proletariat, which it views with feelings of superiority and hostility. We shall return to this marginal position of the Coloureds in the political context.

Of the four racial groups, the Indians are by far the most complexly stratified and segmented. They are first divided along religious and linguistic lines which are not hierarchical, but which are correlated with socio-economic status. The most profound rift is between Muslims and Hindus. Religious intermarriage is extremely rare, and social intercourse is limited largely to the fields of employment, education, and politics. The few Christians,

[35] On this subject, see: W. van der Merve, "Stratification in a Cape Coloured Community," and van den Berghe, "Some Trends in Unpublished Social Science Research in South Africa."


who are almost all converts from Hinduism, interact rather freely with Hindus. Although there are some poor Muslims and a few rich Hindus, the Muslims are, on the average, considerably better off than the Hindus, and are overrepresented in the merchant class.

Each of the Indian religious groups is subdivided along linguistic lines. The Muslims are either Gujarati or Urdu, and the Hindus are divided among the Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, and Gujarati. The language groups are not as widely apart as the religious communities, but except between Tamil and Telugu, intermarriage is rare. The Gujarati, whether Muslim or Hindu, belong almost all to the merchant class, and constitute the conservative economic elite among Indians. Among Hindus there are profound cultural differences between the northern Indian groups (Hindi and Gujarati) and the southern groups (Tamil and Telugu). Each of the Hindu linguistic entities is itself subdivided into hierarchized varnas and castes, but these traditional cleavages are quickly losing in importance. Varna endogamy is still largely practiced, but the rules of caste endogamy are broken with increasing frequency. In other aspects of life such as religious practices, diet, commensality, and purification rituals, the Hindu caste system has practically ceased to operate.[36]

Yet another line of cleavage among Indians is the distinction between "indentured" and "passenger." The former are the descendants of indentured labourers who came to Natal to work in the sugar-cane plantations, whereas the latter paid their own sea voyage from India and established themselves mostly as merchants and clerks. Although the distinction is losing in importance, the passengers, who are in minority, consider themselves superior on the whole to people of indentured stock. Most passenger Indians were Gujarati, and to a lesser extent Hindi

[36] For more detailed description of social stratification among Indians see H. Kuper, Indian People in Natal; van den Berghe, Caneville; van den Berghe and Edna Miller, "Some Factors Affecting Social Relations in a Natal North Coast Community"; Rambiritch and van den Berghe, op. cit.


and Urdu. A far greater proportion of Muslims than of Hindus is of passenger origin. The passenger-indentured division is thus correlated with religion and language groups, and is clearly hierarchical. Among the younger generation the distinction has, however, lost almost all of its meaning, as has the Hindu caste system. Religious barriers remain quite strong, but linguistic divisions progressively lose their rigidity, as English slowly supplants Indian languages in all spheres of life.

Western criteria of status, such as education, income, and occupation, on the other hand, are of growing importance, and stratify the Indian group along increasingly distinct class lines. Contrary to European belief, most Indians are poor, and are either small farmers, agricultural labourers, or unskilled and semiskilled industrial workers. Above this poor working class, one finds a lower middle class of medium farmers, clerks, small shopkeepers, and skilled workers. The Indian upper middle class is divided into two distinct groups: a conservative, traditional elite of large merchants, some of whom are quite wealthy, and a Western-oriented, politically active intelligentsia consisting mostly of teachers, physicians, and lawyers. The White image of the Indian is largely based on the small merchant class which is anything but typical of the Indian community.

The African "race" is both stratified into emerging social classes and segmented into ethnic groups, but the two types of division are in an antithetical relationship to one another. In short, one can say that ethnic affiliation recedes in importance as social classes emerge from the process of Westernization. This statement is too schematic, however, and covers a more complex reality. Since practically all Africans still speak a Bantu language as their mother tongue, and retain other African cultural characteristics, they almost all belong to a so-called "tribe" in a formal sense. For most town dwellers and many rural inhabitants, this ethnic affiliation has become vague, however, and has ceased to be an important social reality. Such people are integrated into the Western economic system; they have lost all political, and


even sometimes kinship, ties with traditional society; they are Christians, at least nominally so, and they live altogether outside of the traditional environment. They continue to speak their mother tongue at home, and they may preserve a sense of affiliation to their original national group, but many factors make for the rapid disappearance of "tribalism."

All urban centres are ethnic melting pots where Africans learn not only European languages, but also Bantu tongues other than their own, and common "pidgin" dialects. The disintegration of the traditional family through the migratory labour system favours interethnic unions, in the form of both marriage and concubinage. More and more Africans are thus of mixed stock. As members of Christian denominations, as neighbours in the "locations," as fellow workers in the mines or factories, Africans of various linguistic groups constantly mix with one another. Moreover, Africans are becoming increasingly conscious that they are subject to a common system of political oppression and economic exploitation. Political consciousness militates against ethnic particularism and leads people to think in terms of "we Africans."

All of these factors notwithstanding, a substantial segment of the rural population remains integrated, through kinship and local political ties, in the traditional way of life. This is particularly true of the Transkei and Zululand, the two principal remaining pockets of cultural conservatism in South Africa. These people, known among the Whites as "raw Natives" or "red-blanket Kaffirs," enter periodically into the Western economy in order to provide minimum means of subsistence to their families in the impoverished Reserves, but remain often staunchly traditional and reject Christianity, Western education, and the other "White man's ways."[37] Even in these conservative rural areas, however, a segment of the population known as the "school" people have accepted missionary influence and are in the process of acculturation.

[37] Philip Mayer documents this peasant conservatism in his Townsmen or Tribesmen .


Traditional Southern Bantu society is unstratified in Western class terms, though there are, of course, wide differences in status between commoners and chiefs, and between various clans. Ownership of cattle, polygyny, and a numerous descendance are important status symbols in traditional rural society, which has thus its own prestige system independent of the emerging class system of urbanized and Christianized Africans. Traditional Africans are on the margin of the class system which they do not accept, and in which they do not participate. At the same time they constitute a stratum at the bottom of the African community, insofar as status among Westernized urban people is largely a function of the degree of acculturation to the European way of life. The "raw" Africans are viewed by most educated urban Africans as backward, primitive, and ignorant pagans, or, at least, as naive and unsophisticated countryfolk.

Among Africans at various stages of Westernization, class distinctions following Western lines are becoming increasingly sharp. Prestige is closely related with the extent to which a person has acquired European culture, and the urge towards Westernization is strong. This is not to say that urban or Christian Africans want to be "White," as many Coloureds do, but rather that they have accepted the values of Western culture. The principal criteria of status among urban Africans are education, Christianity, occupation, clothing, and moral "respectability." Wealth does not play the role that it does in the White community, because the scope for capital accumulation among Africans is stringently limited. An African may not acquire land, or open a business except in a few small areas, and discrimination debars him from practically all better-paid jobs, no matter how well qualified he is. The monotonous uniformity of municipal housing in the "Native locations" imposes a common mold and standard of living on Africans of all classes. Except in clothing and furniture, there is little scope for conspicuous consumption, and for material symbols of wealth.

The majority of Africans live on or below the minimum


standard for health, as domestic servants, mine workers, agricultural labourers, or unskilled workers in secondary and tertiary industry. Agriculture in the Native Reserves is almost invariably sub -subsistence, and must be supplemented by wage earnings. A small minority of petty white-collar workers live more or less precariously above the vital minimum as a Lumpenbourgeoisie , and an even smaller class of teachers, students, ministers, nurses, and other professionals constitutes the elite of the emerging African middle class. In 1959 there were 49 African lawyers, 67 librarians, 81 medical doctors, 73 chartered accountants, 176 laboratory assistants, and 61 analytical chemists in the entire country.[38] Even this elite lives at a material level inferior to that of all but destitute "poor Whites," in spite of the fact that many of its members have matriculated and hold university degrees. Literacy, knowledge of a European language, mostly English, membership in an established (i.e., non-"Zionist") church, and a certain standard of moral respectability are the minimum requirements for membership in the Lumpenbourgeoisie , and correspondingly higher requirements are necessary for membership in the tiny elite. It is largely from this last group that the political leadership of the liberatory movements is recruited.

Unlike among Indians, there is practically no African business class, partly for reasons just mentioned. The relative absence of an indigenous entrepreneur class is common to most African countries where commerce, finance, and industry have been monopolized by European and, secondarily, by Asian interests. But although the South African economy is considerably more developed than that of Ghana or Nigeria, the African entrepreneur class is even more embryonic than in these two countries. A survey of the South-Western townships of Johannesburg (the large ghetto for Africans some 12 to 20 miles from the metropolis) reveals that only some 1200 African traders serve a population of approximately 400,000. By far the greatest majority

[38] Hartmann, op. cit. , p. 43.


of these traders are small businessmen with net assets of under £ 1000, such as 400 general dealers, 243 butchers, 176 fresh produce dealers, 136 eating-house keepers, 95 wood and coal dealers, etc. By far the greatest handicaps mentioned by a sample of forty-seven African merchants are lack of capital, and of police protection.[39] Rules of African hospitality (misleadingly termed "family parasitism" by Europeans), whereby a financially successful man is descended upon by numerous relatives who expect him to share his wealth, are of course another important hindrance to capital accumulation. This African system of familial social security, which had a definite function in a traditional rural milieu, thus becomes a liability in the urban environment, or at any rate in one that is dominated by a capitalist system of production.

In addition to this cultural limitation, and to crippling apartheid restrictions on the purchase of real estate, African traders are granted licences only in African areas, and draw their clientele almost exclusively from their own racial group, as the government intends that they should. Not only do their customers have limited purchasing power, but African merchants have to compete with larger European and Indian merchants, who generally undersell them through volume of trade. Lacking real estate as guarantees for loans, the raising of capital for Africans is extremely difficult, except in small sums and at usurious rates of interest. On the other hand, in order to retain customers, African traders have to extend credit beyond their financial capacity. This leads to a relatively high rate of bankruptcies, and the latter, in turn, reinforce the European stereotype that Africans constitute bad risks, and make it even more difficult to raise capital. In view of such staggering handicaps, it is a wonder that

[39] Lawrence Reyburn, African Traders , pp. 2, 10–13. On the other hand, the government's policy of denying trade licences to persons of a race different from that of the population living in a specific "group area" has protected to some extent African traders from competition from European or Indian merchants.


any Africans at all have become successful businessmen, as indeed a few have.[40]

From the above description it can be seen that the stratification system of South Africa is far too complex to conform in detail to the American "class and caste" schema of Warner and others. The only principle which pervades the whole society is that of "race," leading to a rigid, fourfold classification imposed by the Whites, and rejected as illegitimate by the non-Whites. But each of the four colour-castes is internally subdivided and stratified according to criteria which differ from one group to the other. While there is a general tendency in all groups to develop social classes along Western lines, numerous other traditional factors continue to play an important role. Even when status is distributed according to Western class criteria, the standards of achievement are proportionally lower according to the position of the racial group in the colour-caste hierarchy. A middle-class African is, for example, not equal in status to a middle-class Coloured or White, because he belongs to a different "race" which is itself hierarchically ranked. Furthermore, the relative emphasis placed on the various criteria (such as wealth, education, and occupation) differs from one "race" to the other. Not only are the objective characteristics of class widely divergent from one racial group to another, but such class consciousness as exists is largely limited to one's racial caste. Because of the all-pervading racial barrier, each "race" constitutes at once a separate reference group in the status system and an autonomous subsystem of status with its own criteria. At the same time, the significance of "race" and the acceptance of racial criteria of status vary widely, being greatest among Whites and Coloureds, and minimal among Africans and Indians. Racial barriers are objective realities, but the vast majority of the non-Europeans are not accommodated to their lower status, and deny any legitimacy to the racial hierarchy which is ultimately maintained through the might of the White-controlled state.

[40] For a more detailed treatment of the African urban middle class, see Leo Kuper, An African Bourgeoisie .


Chapter Three— The Social Structure of Modern South Africa: Culture and Status

Preferred Citation: van den Berghe, Pierre . South Africa: A Study in Conflict. Berekley:  University of California Press,  1967 [c1965] 1967.