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  • South Africa's 1940s: worlds of possibilities
  • Clive Glaser (bio)
Saul Dubow and Alan Jeeves (eds) (2005) South Africa's 1940s: worlds of possibilities. Cape Town: Double Storey.

For an edited collection of conference papers South Africa's 1940s is an unusually coherent book. It is not merely the focus on a single decade which provides this consistency. The book is essentially an exploration of public policy and political ideas that circulated during the 1940s, a decade which, as the sub-title suggests, was remarkably full of possibilities and yet concluded with the imposition of rigid apartheid.

In his articulate introduction, Saul Dubow identifies three important strands of political ideology which competed robustly during the decade: African nationalism, Afrikaner nationalism, and liberalism. All of these strands were themselves diverse and hotly contested. Within the African nationalist movement, the old-guard moderates of the ANC, with their more inclusive notion of African identity, were facing a fierce challenge from the more militant and more exclusivist Youth League. Afrikaner nationalism was torn asunder by the debate over war participation. It gave impetus to a harsher, racially hyper-conscious, in part Nazi-sympathetic, faction of the nationalist movement which later came to formulate the policy of apartheid. Liberalism was perhaps the most diverse of the categories, for it could include a range of thinking from segregationist paternalism through to inclusive social democracy. Through a series of thematic and biographical case studies, dealing both with the state and oppositional figures, the book offers a fascinating cross-section of the range of political imagination in South African intellectual life.

The war loomed over the decade and, although it never reached South African soil directly, it had a profound impact on South Africa life. The war fuelled the expansion of industry which, in turn, triggered mass African [End Page 131] urbanisation. It also brought changes to the landscape of ideas: a crystallisation of an exclusive Afrikaner nationalism, an infusion of anti-racist human rights ideology, and a new respect for left wing economic thinking.

Probably the most important and originally handled theme in this collection is the expansion of the social welfare system in the 1940s. In fact the whole first half of the book, six of the 12 chapters, deals directly with the development of social security and social services in South Africa. The South African government, along with many of its liberal allies, was influenced by an important contemporary strand of thought in the western world, epitomised by Beveridge in Great Britain, which linked the notion of citizenship to the welfare obligations of the state. In South Africa, of course, the issue was complicated by a debate over who was included as a citizen. It is clear that poor whites became the chief beneficiaries of state-managed social services in areas ranging from unemployment insurance to the establishment of cheap and accessible national parks. Nevertheless, this book demonstrates that, for a brief moment in the first half of the 1940s, black South Africans were incorporated, albeit in racially differentiated ways, within the welfare state.

Although the proposals put forward by liberal welfarists, and their allies like Douglas Smit in the Smuts government, went far beyond any actual implementation, the liberal reformism of the Smuts administration in the war years cannot be entirely dismissed. Black South Africans made some significant gains. For example, non-contributory old-age pensions were introduced for all South Africans, albeit on a sliding racial scale. (Remarkably, though the real value of African pensions declined during the 1950s and 1960s, it survived throughout the apartheid era.) Interestingly, the wage gap between black and white workers narrowed throughout the war years under the influence of a Wage Board which believed in the principle of a 'living wage'. The Social and Economic Planning Commission, established in the early war years, was consistently concerned to break down racial barriers, particularly in education and skill-levels, in the interests of general economic expansion. In line with this, the state invested substantially more in black education. It also cooperated with the welfarist lobby in attempting to 'stabilise' the urban African family. Not a great deal of concrete progress was made in this respect...


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pp. 131-134
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