It is a pervasive and entrenched narrative (accepted with the same confidence that we accept that summer follows spring and spring follows winter, and winter autumn) that white South Africans benefitted from Apartheid while black South Africans suffered under Apartheid.
This myth needs to be squashed and refuted for the nonsense that it is once and for all. I doubt a little story on Human Action will change the collective belief in the lie (yet), but at least let’s get the conversation going.
Firstly, let’s get all the necessary caveats out the way and pay homage to the reality of Apartheid so that some reactionary readers don’t have a fit on the spot. Yes, blacks suffered painfully under Apartheid. Yes, Apartheid was evil. Yes, whites were inordinately privileged compared to blacks. Yes, whites lived better lives than blacks. Yes, whites had infinitely better economic opportunities available to them than blacks. Yes, whites were 1st class citizens and blacks were 2nd class citizens.
We all get this and we don’t need to deny it or overemphasise it. It happened. It sucked. Period.
But the central question we are posing here is: did whites benefit under apartheid? That is to ask in another way: were whites better off under Apartheid and the White Supremist Fascist Nationalist State than whites otherwise would have been under a (imperfect) constitutional democracy as has prevailed since 1994?
To this the answer is emphatically NO!
How on earth can we argue that whites benefitted from forced autarky, trade sanctions, industrial subsidies, central economic planning, capital controls, restricted association, lack of freedom of expression, monetary debasement, group areas act, forced ‘morality’, a police state, excessive military spending, international travel restrictions, and goods rationing?
The Apartheid state, to maintain the grossly unstable status quo of oppressing the vast majority of the population, had to destroy the basic freedoms of whites as well.
It is true that whites, as the owners of businesses, may have ‘benefitted’ from being able to hire black labour at below market prices, enabling more profitable businesses and cheaper production of goods for white consumption. But even here the assumption we are making is that by coercing blacks into forced settlement in the homelands wastelands, whites destroyed black living standards and economic opportunities to such a degree that they were able to offer very poor marginal labour opportunities to blacks that were readily accepted. But it could also be argued that by shunting blacks off to the wastelands, whites actually limited their available labour pool and therefore paid more not less for labour.
But even if the dubious proposition that labour was cheaper under Apartheid is indeed true, vastly countering this is the myriad of ways in which black subjugation created far more economic hardship than benefits for whites. The list is almost endless, but would include the following few:
- Disallowing blacks from gaining skills kept those skills more scarce than they would otherwise have been, making goods and services produced by those skills more expensive, thereby excluding more whites from consuming those goods and services and/or forcing more income to be diverted to those goods and services, thereby diverting income away from other goods and services, limiting those business opportunities.
- No blacks producing goods and services and running their own business meant competition was weak, allowing oligopolies to easily form and high prices to become entrenched, reducing real wealth and spending power.
- Forcing blacks to accept horrible economic opportunities and denying them education and the ability to up-skill, create value and earn good incomes, not only kept the pie from growing and all benefitting (after all blacks and whites would have freely traded), but kept the size of the consumer market small, meaning that white producers had limited selling opportunities compared to what they otherwise would have had. That they were then subject to international sanctions meant that exports were limited in addition to a limited local market, a double blow for white entrepreneurs.
- Whites could not legally take on black business partners and allow black ownership of their businesses, losing out on executive skills that blacks would have been able to offer.
- White employers, due to the Group Areas Act, had to jump through numerous red tape hoops to legally allow a black person to live permanently on their property for the purpose of work. In fact, the Apartheid state had to enact a pot of alphabet soup of regulations pertaining to interracial business and economic relationships that made life unambiguously harder for white business owners.
- Whites who spoke out against the government were jailed or killed.
- White anti-state associations were banned.
- Whites did not have legal or easy access to certain overseas products, books, movies etc. Choice for whites was limited under Apartheid.
- Commercial trade between black and white (barring the employment-labour trade) was usually banned or greatly curtailed by law and by spacial aspects of the Group Areas Act. Few opportunities for trade definitely made whites worse off than they otherwise would have been, because, by definition, more free and mutually agreed trade is utility-enhancing for everyone, while less or restricted trade detracts from welfare and wealth.
- Whites (especially Afrikaners) who were employed by the large Apartheid state, were generally employed in inefficient sectors, gained poor skills, and leached off the other white taxpayers. These folk may have appeared to ‘benefit’ under Apartheid, but when equal opportunity arrived, or technologies made their jobs redundant, these formerly state-employedprotected folk were left destitute with little capacity to function successfully in a modern economy. Apartheid had benefitted them falsely.
There are certainly many other ways in which black racial subjugation by law, and the coercive statist rule that accompanied it, made whites’ lives worse than they otherwise would have been. We must understand that whites adopted Apartheid out of fear for what they PERCEIVED incorrectly as a potentially worse situation, that of black majority rule. But just because whites in South Africa were as economically illiterate as all other people anywhere in the world, and therefore derived a fallacial psychic benefit from black oppression, does not mean they ACTUALLY benefitted from it in an economic sense.
Blacks, or indeed anyone, who complain that whites are only in the prosperous economic standing they are because of Apartheid are completely wrong. Whites are where they are DESPITE Apartheid. Despite the bans and central planning. Despite the debauched currency and limited trading opportunities with blacks.
Since 1994, whites have been incredibly prosperous and are immeasurably better off than they were before (as indeed are blacks!), able to find better access to offshore markets, able to trade freely with blacks, partner with blacks in business, marry blacks, work for blacks, sell products to blacks, build houses for blacks, get good ideas from blacks, and generally live freely with people of all races (albeit an imperfect freedom).
The reality is that white South Africans’ living standards had fallen embarrassingly behind those of Americans and Europeans by the end of the 1980’s. White South Africans had become international country bumpkins, walking around offshore destinations wide-eyed as they gawked incredulously the living standards, choice, technologies, freedom, variety, colour and dynamism of overseas economies and societies. In short, Apartheid saw white South Africa stagnate and even begin to regress.
No my friends, Apartheid did not benefit whites any more than one would ‘benefit’ from never driving a car for fear of dying in a car accident: never dying in a car accident, but never driving anywhere either. In the same way, whites avoided black rule, but achieved nothing of true benefit. Apartheid stifled whites, yes to a wholly different degree to blacks, but stifled them nonetheless, and therefore it nonetheless was an economically irrational policy for whites to follow and retarded white development.
So the next time you’re sitting around a braai and someone pipes up that whites benefitted from Apartheid while blacks suffered, ask them to explain how then whites have done so well in the post-Apartheid world, and show them how whites too were disadvantaged by Apartheid and the evil system it was.
Maybe with this understanding, we’ll be able to think more clearly about our present and our future as well.
UPDATE: Read our follow-up.