Socioeconomic Class and the History of South Africa
In any historical account gender, race, socioeconomic class and many more issues are closely interwoven. In fact, to try and separate them would be not only onerous but also a specious task because the resulting account, although perhaps straightforward, would be at best only partial. However, when considering the history of Southern Africa, the most encompassing account would be that of socioeconomic class. The motives behind the historical events of Southern Africa have been strongly socioeconomic, even if the motives then evoked racial or gender based issues. Thus, if one had to choose a way to understand South African history, it should be socioeconomically.
The motivation for colonization was economic. It eventually became more economically efficient for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to build its own port than to continue trading with Africans on its way to Eastern Asia (Ross, 21). Dealings between settlers and Africans were based on socioeconomics, whether the interaction was buying and selling cattle and sheep or a conflict over the amount of land that settlers were taking from the Xhosa. For Africans, using a large amount of land for grazing one’s cattle was a symbol of high status because it meant that you had many cattle to graze and that you could protect a large amount of land (Ross, 22). The settler’s invasion was an economic blow.
Also, the Great Trek was caused because Afrikaaners felt that they did not have the socioeconomic status they desired. Their land was being divided into small pieces, so they decided it would be better to go out and find other land than to continue to live as they were in the lower class. This was no mass movement of the “Afrikaaner People,” but only a number of small groups setting out to claim “free” land for themselves (Ross, 39). The wars between the Africans and Trekkers at these times were fought as the Africans realized that these people were coming to stay on their territory, and as the Trekkers realized that they would have to kill to keep the land they needed to secure wealth (Ross, 40). Only well after the time of the Great Trek did it become known as a cultural movement (Etherington, 342).
Even apartheid, whose laws completely defined people by the color of their skin, was socioeconomically motivated. Apartheid was created by the Nationalist Party, a party that represented a powerful minority that wanted to remain forever powerful (Ross, 115). Because in a normal democracy the massive majority would not allow the minority to retain the huge amount of wealth and power it had, the Nationalist Party went about creating a system that would never give the majority enough power to create socioeconomic equality. Those who voted for the Nationalist Party were also looking to keep their wealth at the expense of the masses; for example, many of the businessmen who voted for the Nationalist Party wanted “a black labour force which was disciplined and cheap” (Ross, 117). These goals were legitimized by a set of laws. An example of a law was that there could be no sharecropping between the classes of people. This law not only helped keep the elite group in power, it further separated those who had been on the boundary of their group. For example, in The Seed is Mine, Kas Maine becomes much poorer because he has been forced into the lowest socioeconomic class with the coming of apartheid. He can no longer work the land as he used to and so cannot produce enough to keep his old quality of life (Onselen, 375-6). Also, the Bantu education offered to Africans was “limited to those skills valuable for the maintenance of the white run economy” (Ross, 121). The point of the education was the continued subjugation of the lower class more than a racial view of intelligence. These laws also created a socioeconomic lure of apartheid to those allowed into the upper class. This is evident in Don’t Let’s go to the Dog Tonight...
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Fuller, Alexandra. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood. New York: Random House, 2001.
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Marks, Shula, ed. Not Either an Experimental Doll. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Onselen, Charles van. The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper 1894-1985. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.
Ross, Robert. A Concise History of South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
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