Poverty was not a crisis only for people who were not white. It was part and parcel of a structural crisis that affected every community and made all except artisans and the more prosperous employers despair for the future.
C.W. de Kiewiet, one of South Africa’s most gifted historians, writing in the 1930s, identified three major elements of the structural crisis: the country’s ‘low-grade ore, its lowgrade land, and also its low-grade human beings’. Much of South Africa’s low-grade gold ore, sold at a low, fixed price, could only be mined cost effectively by employing very cheap black labour. Low-grade land was responsible for much of agriculture’s problems, with low-grade human beings the product of low spending on education and the extended distance many rural children had to travel to school. By 1917 one-fifth of white children were not in school.
De Kiewiet highlighted an important social aspect of a stagnant economy and small domestic market:
It was not the natives alone who were depressed in their power to earn. The country could not afford a high standard of living for the entire population with the result that, in addition to the native population, a very large proportion of the white population was also depressed to a low level of income and livelihood.
White artisans, in fact, received better pay than their counterparts in any country of Europe. Real artisan wages were higher only in the United States, Canada and Australia. Ralph Bunche, a distinguished black American on a visit in 1937–1938, observed that the standard of living for whites was ‘much too high for the poor-white group to live under’.
The three white communities – the English speakers of British descent, Jews and Afrikaners – were structurally located in different places in the economy. Jews were mainly in the professions and business; English speakers dominated the upper levels of the civil service, the ranks of skilled labour and business; Afrikaners were farmers, lower level civil servants and semi-skilled and unskilled labourers.
Economic policy and particularly the position of the mining industry was often the topic of bitter political arguments between the South African Party and the National Party, but below the surface there was remarkable consensus between the two white communities to maintain white supremacy. Although Afrikaner nationalists resented the economic ascendancy of the white English speakers, they did not deny the fact that they had played a key role in the economic development of South Africa, (See English speakers and South Africa’s economic advance).
Apart from their conflicts over the economic issues these communities also argued fiercely about status, and more particularly about South Africa’s place in the British Empire, or Commonwealth.
General Barry Hertzog came to power in 1924 as an Afrikaner nationalist determined to establish South Africa’s equal status with Britain and other members of the Commonwealth, each with its own flag, each conducting its own foreign relations. At an Imperial Conference in London Hertzog, with the co-operation of Mackenzie King, the Canadian prime minister, secured an unambiguous statement, issued as the Balfour Declaration of 1926, that Britain and the Dominions were equal in status and in no way subordinateone to another.
But a bitter controversy about a national flag showed how far from resolution the issue still was. Under the Balfour Declaration South Africa was entitled to have its own flag. In 1925 Dr D.F. Malan had proposed a ‘clean flag’ – that is, with no Union Jack or republican flags. The flag, Malan said, had to do ‘with the nation itself . . . with the very existence as a separate entity’. Most English speakers would be satisfied with nothing less than the Union Jack displayed prominently on the new flag. After a bitter fight a compromise was reached in which the country chose two flags, a South African flag of blue, white and orange incorporating both the Union Jack and the flags of the ex-republics, and the traditional Union Jack, to be displayed at certain places to symbolise the country’s Empire membership.
The Balfour Declaration was confirmed by the Statute of Westminster (1931), and by the Status Act, passed in 1934 by the South African Parliament. It affirmed the position of the Union as a sovereign independent state along with Australia, Canada and the other Dominions, tied by a common allegiance to the British crown. For Hertzog and many other Afrikaner nationalists the feelings of subordination and inferiority with respect to Britain had been largely removed.
Much better than almost all other empires, the British Empire appeared to have evolved from a hierarchical structure to one based on equality and consent. As long as no war broke out in which Britain was involved there was no question of the Afrikaners’ acceptance of South Africa’s membership of the Empire, or the Commonwealth, as it was called by 1930.