As we mark twenty years of democracy and the end of apartheid in South Africa this week, it might be worth reconsidering the process by which the franchise was increasingly racialised in the 1920s and 1930s.
Between 1926 and 1936 Prime Minister J.B.M. Hertzog pushed his Native Bills through parliament, stripping Cape African voters of their franchise rights. At the same time both the Pact and the United Party governments sought to foster white unity under the banner of ‘South Africanism’. This unity required the establishment of a common white citizenship, and was reflected in the extension of the vote to white women and the removal of franchise qualifications for white men in the Cape and Natal. Dubow argues that on the surface there appears little to connect Hertzog’s native policy and the push for white unity. However, the relationship between these two policy initiatives was a close one, for the successful creation of a unified ‘white nation’ under the rubric of ‘South Africanism’ was predicated upon the exclusion of Africans from civil society.
When the South Africa Act was enacted in 1909, the suffrage laws of the four constituent colonies were incorporated into the Union’s constitution. Franchise legislation in the Transvaal and Orange Free State discriminated along clear lines of race and gender. All white men of mature age, regardless of income, property and education qualified as voters, while women and black men were denied political rights. In the Cape and Natal a qualified franchise remained in force. Natal’s income and occupation qualifications restricted voting rights to approximately two-thirds of the white male population at the time of Union. In theory, these qualifications did not discriminate along racial lines, but in practice 99 per cent of registered voters were white men. In the Cape, the right to register and vote was open to any adult male resident, regardless of race, who could sign his name, write his address and occupation and earned £50 per annum or occupied a house and property worth £75. In 1909, 85 per cent of registered Cape voters were white, ten percent were coloured and nearly five per cent were Africans.
Therefore when the Union was formed in 1910, South Africa’s franchise laws reflected two competing notions of citizenship. In the Transvaal and Orange Free State, citizenship was defined exclusively in terms of race and gender and white men of all classes were automatically entitled to become citizens. In the Cape (and to a lesser extent Natal), citizenship was defined largely in terms of class and gender. Only ‘civilised’ men - those who were employed or owned or rented property - were entitled to become citizens. While both notions of citizenship successfully ensured that political control remained in the hands of white men, they were ultimately incompatible once the creation of a unified white nation became a political priority in the decades after Union.
As the Minister of the Interior, D.F. Malan, noted in 1931, if the two systems were not reformed, ‘a constantly stronger opposition between the franchise system of the south and the north’ must develop in the future. Increasing numbers of African men were congregating in urban locations and seeking work in the countryside; under the Cape system, all of these men were ‘potential voters, and many have actually obtained the franchise’. The only way to break the strong voting power of black voters would be progressively to raise the franchise qualifications. However, qualifications could not be raised without also ‘doing an injustice to a large section of the Europeans in the Cape Province’ who would be unable to meet the requirements and therefore lose their right to vote. The perpetuation of the Cape policy would inevitably lead ‘to an increasing subtraction of the franchise from the Europeans’ and would result in a widening gulf between the ‘extreme democratic’ white vote in the north and the ‘anti-democratic’ non-racial vote in the south. In time it would become impossible to ‘get a decision from the people which is obtained on a uniform basis, and of which you can say that the people have made it’.
If the creation of a unified white nation was contingent on the exclusion of Africans from civil society, it also required a legitimising ideology. Dubow demonstrates that during the inter-war years proponents of segregation drew from a wide array of intellectual traditions, in particular scientific racism and the emerging discipline of anthropology. On the surface, scientific racism provided a ready justification for the consolidation of a white political community at the expense of Africans, for it purported to prove the innate superiority of whites and the inferiority of Africans. However, a simple assertion of white racial superiority was not an adequate legitimising ideology in the South African political arena for two reasons.
Firstly, scientific racist research was not directed exclusively at Africans and other ‘non-white’ races, it was also used to explain the position occupied by the lower classes within European society. In the South African context, some commentators explained poverty in hereditary terms and claimed that poor whites, most of whom were Afrikaans speakers, were genetically inferior. In their most extreme form, these arguments characterised Afrikaners as a degenerate race. Sir Carruthers Beattie, the University of Cape Town’s Vice Chancellor, asserted that poor whites were ‘intellectually backward and that there was something inherent in the Afrikaners’ that led to white poverty. Afrikaner nationalists were acutely aware that hereditarian arguments could be used against their interests and so tended to favour environmental explanations for the poor white phenomenon.
Secondly, the ideas associated with scientific racism were contradicted by older enlightenment ideologies that had underpinned the liberal project in the nineteenth century Cape and continued to shape political discussions in the Union. Opponents of Hertzog’s policy to disenfranchise African voters employed the language of civilisation to argue against discrimination on the basis of race or colour. In discussions with Hertzog on native policy held in 1928, leader of the opposition Jan Smuts proposed general franchise reform to constitute a ‘common franchise all over South Africa, based on occupation and income or salary’ that would ‘apply to all, black and white alike’.
Smuts suggested a 5s. a day wage as the minimum wage qualification and he added that to his mind any unskilled white man who could not earn that amount ‘was not entitled to vote’. However, he was confident that his suggested income qualification of £75 per annum and an occupation qualification of £100 would
not keep a single decent white man off the roll, nor would it be a bar to a decent Coloured man, or even Native who had reached a certain standard. But it would keep off the register the vast mass of the Native population and also large sections of Coloured people whose standard was no better than that of the raw Native.
Smuts also proposed a civilisation test that would be applied to all non-Europeans, ‘the presumption being that the European was civilized, and that the non-European had to prove his adoption of European civilization.’ Hertzog rejected Smuts’ proposal on the grounds that it would prevent poor and unemployed whites from voting. Dubow and Giliomee both conclude that Smuts’ commitment to a non-racial qualified franchise was half-hearted at best and he was willing to compromise on the issue, especially once he had joined forces with Hertzog to form the United Party government in 1934. Nevertheless, Smuts’ views on the native franchise until at least 1930 reflect the continuing influence of Cape liberalism in the political arena.
Similar language was employed by legislators who opposed the provisions of the 1931 Franchise Laws Amendment Bill. This measure, introduced in parliament after white women were granted the vote in 1930, sought to remedy the anomaly created by the unqualified enfranchisement of white women. Voting qualifications for white men in Natal and the Cape remained on the statute books and the Pact government was eager to remove these qualifications before the next election. In introducing the bill, D.F. Malan emphasised that the measure not only ‘put on an equal footing the white man and woman throughout the Union’ but also introduced uniformity ‘insofar as the vote of the white man is concerned’ by extending the unqualified racial franchise of the northern provinces to the rest of the country.
Smuts and fellow SAP frontbencher Patrick Duncan castigated the government for betraying its pledge of political equality between white and coloured South Africans and for introducing a measure that ‘openly, unashamedly, unblushingly’ placed ‘the coloured people of this country on a lower political status than the whites’. Cape opponents of the bill went further. The member for Mowbray, R.W. Close, lamented the abandonment of the Cape policy, which ‘held before the native and the coloured man the possibility of attaining a thing which he values highly, and that is the right to vote in his own government and administration’. The qualified, non-racial franchise had ‘helped to turn the native from the raw barbarian into the civilized human being’ and was ‘an inducement to people to come from their state of uncivilization to a state of civilization which it should be our aim and object to encourage in every possible way’. Even Dr A.J. Stals, Nationalist MP for Hopetown, expressed the view that ‘so far as civilization is concerned the coloured people often advance more quickly than the whites’. He did not believe that ‘those whom we put on the voters’ roll by this Bill are on the whole competent to bear the responsibility of the franchise. We cannot say that merely because a man is white he is competent and a suitable citizen to carry the responsibility’.
Liberal discourses of civilisation continued to motivate opposition to Hertzog’s native bills once Smuts had made the decision to support them after the creation of the United Party. Both F.S. Malan and Jan Hofmeyr criticised the measures along these lines at the joint sitting of parliament in 1936 that enacted the Native Representation Bill. Hofmeyr decried the fact that once the bill became law, ‘even the most educated Native would never have equality with even the least educated and least cultured White or Coloured man.’ F.S. Malan proposed that a qualified non-racial franchise be extended throughout the country and appealed to the principle laid down by J.H. Hofmeyr in 1887: ‘Have one principle for your voter, make the test as high as you like, but when a man comes up to that test do not differentiate, let him be treated as a full citizen of the country.’
In spite of such opposition, challenges to racial segregation based on appeals to civilisation and the Cape liberal tradition were of limited effectiveness in the interwar years. One reason for the weakening of the liberal challenge is that proponents of racial segregation were able to appropriate the language of civilisation and progress for their own ends. Dubow points out that the ‘elusive quality’ with which Hertzog invested segregation ‘was its very strength, for it drew differing groups into its discourse’. In particular, segregationists were successful in combining the idea of civilisation with the principles of biological racism, arguing that civilisation was itself an outcome of the biological evolution of superior races. Black people ‘were seen as people inherently divested of “civilization”’ and thus civilised whites were obliged to rule over them.
For example, D. F. Malan could claim that due ‘to tradition and legislation we have for years been able to take it that every European is civilized and complies with certain elementary qualifications’ and therefore he endorsed the principle that ‘every white man is a civilized person who ought to have the franchise’. Hertzog also insisted that ‘we should assume that every European was civilized and that all should be put on the same footing’. It was ‘nonsense that the Europeans merely for the sake of the natives to be put on a different basis in the Cape Province than in the other provinces’. Those who rejected racial essentialism in principle found this logic difficult to counter, for even liberals agreed that white South Africans formed the vanguard of western civilisation in South Africa, that the vast majority of Africans were mired in ‘barbarism’ and that whites should rule South Africa for the foreseeable future.
Although explicit racial explanations for white supremacy became more prominent in the interwar years, segregationists were still faced with the visible problem of poor whites who seemed to undermine their equation of race with civilisation. Poor whites were supposedly members of a superior and inherently civilised race, and yet their poverty, habits and mode of living did not conform to civilised standards. Many poor whites were unemployed, owned little or no property and were itinerant; as such, they would not meet the requirements for citizenship as laid down in the franchise laws of the Cape and Natal.
This point was hammered home in the debate on the Franchise Laws Amendment Bill by E.R. Roper, the member for Wynberg. As far as he was concerned, ‘[w]e have our heel of Achilles in this country in the poor white. Politically and economically he is our serious problem’. The maintenance of white supremacy was the aim of those on all sides of politics, but it needed to be a ‘real supremacy, not a supremacy maintained by Act of Parliament’ and required political power to be
in the hands of that portion of the white population which is fit to exercise the franchise in an intelligent and disinterested manner. Our object should be to ensure that every man and every woman who has the privilege of a vote is competent not only by civilization and mode of living, but by education to exercise that vote in a responsible manner….There are many white men in this country who, in education and mode of living and in their outlook upon life, are in no way superior to the coloured section of the population.
White poverty had first become a pressing concern in South Africa in the 1890s and by the first decades of the twentieth century the issue had increasingly come to occupy the minds of legislators, church leaders and academic researchers. It needs to be stressed that these white middle class commentators frequently made the association between poverty and immorality. It was common, even in official documents, to describe ‘indigent whites of a low class’ as ‘debased’ and ‘degraded’. Eugenicists and doctors working in the 1920s argued that poor whites in South Africa were likely to engage in criminal and immoral behaviour.
Even the liberal commentator W.M. Macmillan claimed in the early 1920s that ‘nearly one-twentieth of the white population of the Union were in permanent absolute poverty, many of them perhaps demoralized beyond redemption’. The 1932 Carnegie Commission on the poor white question warned of the ‘demoralising influence’ exerted by poverty, which caused ‘loss of self-respect and a feeling of inferiority. It easily has a detrimental effect on honesty, trustworthiness and morality’. Furthermore, poor whites who migrated to urban areas were ‘subject to the demoralising influences of life in the city’ because of the ‘uprooting effects of leaving their old environment with its sanctions and customs’.
It was feared that poor whites, already susceptible to moral decay, would if left to their own devices lose ‘the tradition which counteracts miscegenation’. R.W. Wilcocks, author of the Carnegie study entitled The Poor White, noted that ‘the great majority of poor whites have a deeply engrained feeling of their superiority over the coloured peoples’ and that ‘the importance of this feeling as a deterrent to miscegenation’ could ‘hardly be overestimated’. However, he warned that economic equality between white and black tended to bring about social equality, thereby increasing the probability of miscegenation. Interracial sexual unions were
consequent on a poor white having sunk to a socio-economic status which eventually causes him to associate with natives or coloured people on an equal footing. Hence such unions occur amongst poor whites of the lowest type. The relation in which they place themselves to members of the coloured races is a clear indication of absence or loss of self-respect on their part.
Furthermore, once poor whites fully realised that they had ‘sunk economically and socially’ to the level of Africans, they became ‘resigned and habituated’ to this position and their characters underwent ‘far-reaching changes’ that greatly increased the difficulty of eventual rehabilitation.
After 1924 the newly elected Pact government set out to alleviate white poverty by mandating the employment of whites in ‘civilised’ capacities in both the public and private sector. Improved education was seen as an essential part of the solution to the problem and spending on white education and training dramatically increased. In essence, the Pact aimed to provide the conditions for poor white people to maintain a ‘civilised’ standard of living. The Carnegie commission endorsed the government’s position, recommending that better education, the acquisition of skills, increased work opportunities in urban areas and improved conditions of employment would remedy white poverty.
If there was a consensus that the state had an obligation to improve economic and educational opportunities for the white poor, there was also widespread agreement that the poor had a concomitant obligation to improve themselves. The Carnegie commission report concluded that the alleviation of white poverty could not be accomplished ‘by purely external measures, but must depend on changes in the people themselves’. The state should not neglect to make opportunities by which the poor could make progress; however, ‘complementary measures should not be omitted by which they can develop the personal qualities – often absent – necessary for them to make proper use of their opportunities.’
The development of these personal qualities would require moral instruction and accordingly the Carnegie commissioners recommended that the ‘social education of the nation should be undertaken much more purposefully and effectively’. In particular, poor whites ‘ought to be trained in thrift, self-help, temperance, health, solidarity and racial self-respect.’ In short, poor whites needed to embrace a middle-class morality in order to live like whites. As DF Malan noted in 1938, ‘South Africa expects of its poor whites that they remain white and live white’. In order to live white, poor whites needed to be educated in middle-class moral values.
Malan’s injunction that poor whites should ‘remain white and live white’ demonstrates that membership of white civil society was not dependent on biological race alone. While it is certainly true that by 1936 franchise qualifications for whites had been removed and Africans struck off the voters’ role, the fusion of discourses of biological race with those of civilisation demanded that whites conduct themselves in a ‘civilised’ manner. Whiteness was defined in both moral and racial terms, and those whites who lived immorally confused the equation of race with civilisation and blurred the racial boundaries on which white supremacy was predicated.
Miscegenation was in many respects the ultimate immoral act because it resulted in ‘race hybridisation’ and ran counter to the standards of ‘civilised’ behaviour. As A.J. Stals remarked in the debate on the Franchise Laws Amendment Bill, there should be no social equality or intermixture between ‘the white man’ and ‘any other race’ because
the white man must be the torch bearer of civilization and if…put on a social equality with one less civilized…then I fear that the white man will miss his high aim…to remain the torchbearer of civilization. Therefore it is also of the greatest importance that we should allow no race mixture in South Africa.
Black Sash activists protest the disenfranchisement of coloured voters in South Africa, 1955. This photograph forms part of a Museum Africa exhibition (available online at http://dw.de/p/1Bnzq)
This post is sourced from J. Martens, 'Citizenship, "Civilisation" and the creation of South Africa's Immorality Act, 1927', South African Historical Journal Vol. 59 (2007), pp. 223-241. Please refer to this article for a full list of citations.