Accepted paper:

From sweetheart to Frankenstein: white workers, labour reform and the changing political imaginary in 1970s South Africa


Danelle van Zyl-Hermann (University of Basel)

Paper short abstract:

Existing scholarship on 1970s South Africa focuses either on state reform and repression from above or black resistance from below. In contrast, this paper examines the position of white workers in the apartheid political imaginary, revealing important local shifts which mirror global changes.

Paper long abstract:

Globally, the 1970s marked an emerging crisis of capital accumulation; in South Africa, this was compounded by the eruption of African labour unrest from 1973. The ruling National Party's reformist responses to these pressures have been identified as efforts to modernise apartheid and gain control over the elements challenging it in order to safeguard white minority rule. Existing scholarship on the late apartheid period therefore typically concentrates on high politics and the apartheid state, or, on the crescendo of black resistance and the liberation struggle. This paper takes an alternative approach by investigating the changing position of white workers in the apartheid political imaginary of this period. Employing parliamentary debates, media reports and internal documentation from the secretive Afrikaner Broederbond, it demonstrates that the plight and power of white labour were central preoccupations shaping the political elite's response to the unfolding crisis of the 1970s. Observing widespread labour unrest in countries like Britain, sections of the local elite were adamant that white unions be made subservient to the 'national interest'. This signalled significant shifts in NP priorities and apartheid ideology, shifts synchronous with global changes in state-labour relations amid moves towards neoliberal policy alternatives. This offers insight into the reversal of white workers' incorporation into the racial state, detailed earlier in the century, and reveals the dual nature of the apartheid state at this historical juncture: a colonial government attempting to forestall black politicisation and an advanced capitalist regime struggling with a powerful white labour movement.

panel His03
Alternative histories of decolonisation in Southern Africa