The Post-War Era The Fagan Report

Henry Fagan

Henry Fagan followed his leader, General J.B.M. Hertzog, into the United Party, and served in his cabinet as Minister for Native Affairs. Fagan won the Stellenbosch seat for the UP in the 1938 election before he left politics for the bench. He was widely respected across party lines for his relatively liberal views on racial policy. With increasing hostility building up among blacks over the restrictions they faced, Jan Smuts asked Fagan to head a commission to report on the pass laws, migrant labour and the position of blacks in industry and the urban areas. The National Party and several academics in Stellenbosch savaged Fagan’s report, published just before the 1948 election, which the UP lost. It is uncertain how much of the more fl exible approach to racial policy the Fagan Commission recommended would have been implemented by a UP government. Fagan went on to become chief justice and subsequently leader of the National Union, a small party that contested the 1961 election in alliance with the UP, on the platform of a racial federation.

In 1946 the government appointed Henry Fagan, a former United Party cabinet minister and now a judge, to head a commission to investigate the question of black urbanisation. The Fagan report, published in February 1948, considered three options: a policy of apartheid, or the comprehensive territorial separation between white and black; a policy of not discriminating between white and black; and the policy which accepted that whites and blacks had to co-exist and adopted laws that took into account the similarities and differences between them.

It rejected the first two options as impractical and opted for the third. It concluded that black urbanisation was inevitable. This trend could be ‘guided and regulated, and may be perhaps also limited . . . but cannot be stopped or turned in the opposite direction’. Any policy based on the proposition that the blacks in the towns were all temporary migrants was ‘a false policy’. The reserves were so overcrowded and overstocked that it was unrealistic to believe they could accommodate urban blacks as well. It favoured a policy that recognised that whites and blacks ‘will continue to exist side by side, economically intertwined . . . and part of the same big machine’. Black workers had to be encouraged to bring their families with them to their places of work. The old slogan ‘send them back’ was outdated.

The report was ambivalent about the pass laws and migrant labour, but in the end accepted them. It nevertheless hoped that the pass laws could be replaced by a system that linked firm employment to identity cards. The main feature of the report was its uneasiness with the idea of a firm blueprint and fixed policy parameters. It wrote that what was needed was ‘the constant adaptation to changing conditions, constant regulation of contacts and smoothing out of difficulties between the races so that all may make their contribution and combine their energies for the progress of South Africa’.

The Fagan report pointed to a road South Africa did not take. It represented a gradualist approach that would allow the forces of economic growth to sweep aside outdated policies and prejudices over time, to a point where a form of political accommodation became possible. It made the kind of recommendations one would expect in a pre-democratic society where some of the most burning issues were put beyond democratic contestation. In post-war South Africa, however, a large part of the electorate would see the accommodation of urban blacks as a process that would lead inexorably to bringing whites and blacks in direct competition with each other. The question was whether Fagan’s approach could work in a society like South Africa where only the members of the dominant group were enfranchised and where the very deep socio-economic inequalities corresponded with the racial divisions.

The NP savaged Fagan’s report. After the 1948 election Fagan wrote that the NP now had a mandate to test its apartheid policy. ‘If the attempt succeeds,’ he continued, ‘well and good. If not, it will nevertheless be a preparatory step to bring the mentality of the public to maturity and to get people to acquiesce in a policy which concedes the impossibility of territorial segregation and . . . to find the best way of adapting ourselves to what is possible.’

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