South Africa: An alternative history (III)

RW Johnson writes on the possible trajectories of the four states, had union never happened

Ex Divertitate Vires*

It may seem from the hypothetical (which is to say, imaginary) history that we have constructed that South Africa would be much the same today even if its four constituent territories had remained separately independent.

This is true, however, only inasmuch as all of them would have individually achieved majority rule simply because nowhere could white minority rule prevail over international pressure and the ever-growing size of the black majority.

This is misleading, however. As we have seen their independence allowed them to develop very different histories and over time those histories gave them different identities.

The Cape

The Cape effectively adopted the franchise policy of the early Progressive Party which meant that from the 1960s on it had a steadily growing Coloured and African section of its electorate. Even in the 1960s this could tip elections there.

Naturally, African and Coloured politicians exercised pressure for the broadening of the qualified franchise and by the time Africans and Coloureds made up 40% of the electorate this pressure became irresistible. By 1978 the Cape had moved to universal suffrage.

This gradualist and non-racial franchise profoundly marked the Cape’s history. Not only did it mean that apartheid or segregationist measures could never become entrenched but the Cape’s atmosphere remained liberal.

The rule of law was respected, there was no political censorship, no detention without trial or any of the other repressive measures seen in the OFS and Transvaal, where apartheid was firmly applied. Similarly, both states continued to ban Indian immigration Indian immigration and operated strict influx control over the African population.

However, the fact that the Cape and KwaNatal were much poorer than the Transvaal tended to encourage African migration towards the Transvaal and to discourage it from moving towards the coastal states. It is possible that this assisted the gradualist political change in both cases.

Certainly, the fact that gradualism was visibly working – the desegregation of schools, housing, higher education and hospitals had brought major gains for the Coloured, Indian and African communities in both states – won considerable popular support for these changes, particularly in the Cape. This meant that revolutionary politics had little appeal in the Cape and all parties took a pragmatic view.

Because the Coloureds were numerically predominant on the Cape until about 2025, and because far more Coloureds than Africans had the educational and property qualifications for the vote, the Coloured community (who outnumbered the whites) gradually became politically dominant there. But at the same time its political cohesion declined. Moreover, there were now frequent mixed marriages so that the white and Coloured communities slowly began to merge. More slowly, black-white and black-Coloured intermarriage also increased.

This Coloured dominance was reflected in the strong position of Afrikaans at every level of education. In particular, Stellenbosch university played a primary role in Afrikaans education and thus in the growth of a Coloured middle class.

Naturally some racial friction and racial sensitivities continued but all races could see that the Cape had decisively rejected the apartheid regime which was in full force in the OFS and Transvaal, a source of relief for all. Visitors to the Cape from the three other territories always remarked upon its more relaxed and liberal atmosphere


Although Natal (now KwaNatal) had moved to a multi-racial and consociational form of government by 1970, abolishing all racial laws, it significantly lagged the Cape. The gap between the majority of Zulus (poor, more rural, less educated) and the Indian and white populations remained very wide, although the abolition of segregation meant that a small but growing African middle class attended what had once been white-only schools and universities. Given the prominent role of the amakosi in the governance structure it was not surprising that the children of chiefly families benefited particularly from these opportunities.

However, the African middle class was dwarfed by the burgeoning Indian middle class and there was an increasing degree of intermarriage between the white and Indian communities. This was also true of the Coloured community but this was a small group in KwaNatal.

However, the comfortable consociational arrangements made by the country’s privileged elites received a rude shock with the 1973 Durban strikes. It was clear that the black trade unions were a major new actor on the scene and they took a decidedly more radical approach, demanding substantial redistribution towards the burgeoning urban black population, not only in wages but in social spending on housing, education, health and other fields. Moreover, the unions demanded straightforward majority rule and the abandonment of consociational veto powers which had entrenched the position of the traditional chiefs and the established white community.

The result was a lengthy struggle which resulted in the removal of several of the consociational veto powers, an enhancement of social spending and programmes to encourage the growth of commercial farming among Africans and Indians. However, a consensus among all groups developed that the only way to preserve the peace and guarantee stability was through high rates of economic growth.

This in turn necessitated a trimming of chiefly powers, with the release of substantial areas of African communal land for commercial development. At the end of this period of adjustment the amakosi and the white sugar barons remained at the summit of privilege, but substantial room had been created to accommodate the demands of the urban black population.

The economics of independence

The Transvaal was, of course, overwhelmingly the richest of the four states for it had the lion’s share of the mineral resources of southern Africa. (One must remember that the pre-1994 Transvaal contained the platinum, coal and other mineral deposits now found in the North-West, Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces.) The other three states were all much poorer and more agricultural.

But mineral wealth, like oil wealth, can be a mixed blessing. The fact of this great mineral wealth drew far more people to the Transvaal than could be supported by its water resources and it also led to the over-valuation of the currency and the inflation of wage and salary levels.

In the Union of South Africa this had produced the ironic situation of an ANC government proudly aiming to lead the Third World, declaring themselves to be among the poor and dispossessed – yet in fact facing the grave handicap that wage levels in South Africa were far too high, making it impossible for South Africa to compete with its Third World peers.

However, in our hypothetical four state southern Africa this was a problem for the Transvaal alone: wage levels and the value of their currencies in the other three states were far lower, making them much more competitive internationally. However the two coastal provinces had advantages of their own. All imports and exports to or from the two Boer republics had to pass through their ports and they levied considerable charges for that.

In addition, of course, they were far better watered – a high proportion of all of southern Africa’s rain falls upon its eastern seaboard, on the Western and Eastern Cape, and on KwaNatal. The comparisons are very stark. If you draw a straight line westwards from Richards Bay on the East coast it goes through Port Nolloth on the West coast. But whereas the rainfall on Port Nolloth is 50 mm a year, in Richards Bay it is 1000 mm. Accordingly, both the Cape and (particularly) KwaNatal laboured hard to harvest their water resources, selling water at a handsome profit to the Transvaal.

Similarly, the Cape realised early that it was crazy to let the plentiful rainfall of the Eastern Cape go to waste on subsistence agriculture. Instead it worked hard to establish commercial agriculture there with black farmers granted title to their land.

Agricultural extension officers worked hard to improve agricultural methods and productivity and to conserve the land from soil erosion. Over time this saw the Eastern Cape become as agriculturally productive as the Western Cape. As we have seen, the same happened on a smaller scale in KwaNatal.

Initially, both the Cape and KwaNatal relied heavily on buying their electricity from the Transvaal. This was expensive so both countries made it a priority to develop solar, tidal, wind-driven and hydro-electric power, thus becoming increasingly self-sufficient. Later this was supplemented by oil and gas, though reliable base-load electricity was only really guaranteed when both countries acquired nuclear reactors.

However, it was borne in from the start on both the coastal territories that they simply had to make the best of what they had. Happily, they both had a degree of entrepreneurial talent and gradually broadened their activities from a simple agricultural and mining base to food processing, tourism, shipping, offshore oil and gas and a variety of service industries. The Cape’s diamond mining had been worked out but early on but its manganese and iron ore mines continued fruitfully, though of course nothing like as lucratively as the Transvaal’s gold and platinum mines.

KwaNatal, in particular, derived advantage from the fact that its two great ports were vital to feeding the needs of the Transvaal and that in a dry sub-continent it had plenty of water. As a result both Durban and Richards Bay developed a significant manufacturing base, while similar factors in the Cape assisted the growth of another manufacturing hub in Uitenhage and Port Elizabeth.

Although in the end both the coastal states were economic success stories they could never match the wealth of the Transvaal. On the other hand their citizens congratulated themselves on the fact that by meeting the needs of political change far earlier, they had avoided the turmoil and violence which attended the end of apartheid in the two Afrikaner republics. Even so, it was not all plain sailing: life in a multi-racial society seldom is.

This was rather to the point. Both in the Cape and KwaNatal there was an awareness that both

states, lacking the Transvaal’s mineral riches, were rather fragile and that they had increased this vulnerability by surrendering white control and trying to make a success of non-racial government.

It was understood by one and all that this made it imperative that both countries should succeed. If they became bogged down by corruption and incompetent management they would not succeed and the chances were high that the various different communities would then turn on one another. So success – and economic growth – were essential. Both states benefited from this strong sense of purpose and the sense of patriotic attachment which it gradually built.

African nationalism

It may be objected “what about the ANC” but of course under this scenario there would have been no ANC. Everywhere in Africa African nationalist parties have accepted colonial boundaries and sought power within the resulting territorial units, even when in some cases, like Malawi or some of the Sahel countries, there was serious doubt as to whether a viable state could ever be built.

Attempts by the colonial authorities to impose federal structures – such as in Central Africa, French West Africa or French Equatorial Africa - were refused by African nationalists who invariably sought power in their local territories instead. This was true in our four state southern Africa too. Each one of the four states saw the growth of its own, home-grown African nationalist party.

The Transvaal faced the nearest thing to an ANC-style party because its greater wealth had drawn a large and multi-tribal African population to the Reef, where it collided head-on with the rigid apartheid system of that republic. The result was repression and growing violence. The same, in a much more minor key, was true of the OFS.

In KwaNatal, there were two major African parties, the entrenched chiefly party with whom the whites had initially made their elite pact, and a more radical urban African party. Both parties were overwhelmingly Zulu, a fact which made coalitions reasonably workable. The whites and Indians mainly supported a variant of the old Progressive Party, though still bolstered by the rules of consociation which allowed these minorities a bargaining power which more nearly reflected their economic weight.

In the Cape many Coloureds and some Africans supported the (then) white-led parties which had finally introduced universal suffrage. However, by the time this occurred the Coloured community was politically well entrenched, with many Coloured MPs and cabinet ministers.

With the arrival of universal suffrage the leading African nationalist party gained a substantial number of seats in the Cape parliament but it seemed clear that an overall majority was beyond it. Accordingly, it could either join the governing coalition or hold out in the hope that demographic change would one day produce an African majority in the Cape. A substantial minority opted to join the governing coalition and enjoy the fruits of patronage that it bestowed. This caused a major split, with the more moderate faction joining the coalition. This set back the cause of an African majority even further.

The result was to further entrench Coloured dominance. The Coloured community outnumbered the whites so it provided the largest part of the governing coalition, but since that coalition enjoyed both substantial white and African support it was effectively unbeatable for many years.

The fact that this ruling coalition thus enjoyed wide multi-racial support was generally recognized

as a healthy facet of Cape life though, as noted above, no one was sure that this coalition would hold together if the Cape did not succeed economically. This resulted in a by no means unhealthy sense of urgency about achieving economic growth.

Were these independent states a success?

For much of the twentieth century the great runaway success seemed to be the Transvaal. Its Afrikaner nationalist government was strong and decisive, it was a magnet for immigration from all over the world and its mineral wealth (which did not have to be redistributed among the other three states, as under Union) made it far richer than any other African country.

Indeed, it was able to give a modicum of aid to the OFS, its dependent poor relation. This was not entirely altruistic: the Free State acted as the Transvaal’s granary and the gold mines of the OFS were owned by Johannesburg companies. However, the Transvaal’s wealth was very unequally distributed and came at the price of mounting African discontent, fierce repression and increasing racial violence, problems which were echoed in a minor key in the OFS.

The Cape and KwaNatal were the mirror opposite. Economically they struggled for much of the century though their situation improved with the development of international tourism and the development of the offshore oil and gas industries, activities vital to both countries. On the other hand their successful transition to multi-racial government was a source of quiet pride (though it drew scorn from then Transvaal and OFS).

As the racial confrontation grew in the two Afrikaner republics the Cape and KwaNatal both benefited from the inward migration of many wealthy Afrikaners from the interior, attracted by a quieter and less tense life by the sea. But there was also considerable nervousness in both the coastal states about the possibility that the racial antagonisms in the Afrikaner states might spread to their own.

They tackled this situation by making all-race agreements in their own states on a policy of strict neutrality: nobody should give any assistance to members of their own racial group in either the Transvaal or the OFS and both states prevented the transit of would-be guerrilla fighters seeking to infiltrate the Transvaal and OFS.

This was a difficult arrangement to police – and indeed it was widely disregarded - for inevitably all groups felt sympathy with their own kith and kin across the border. But the fact that neutrality was formal state policy placated both the Afrikaner republics and African radicals to some degree and there was general agreement that the last thing that either the Cape or KwaNatal wanted was to replicate the repression and violence that they saw with horror in their Highveld neighbour.

There was, accordingly, enormous relief in both the Cape and KwaNatal when the Transvaal and the OFS did finally reach a negotiated solution in 2005-6. The problem was, however, that their bittereinder resistance meant that they now made an abrupt transition from Afrikaner rule to black majority rule.

As in the rest of Africa the suddenness of this transition led to many problems, with a wholly inexperienced and inept new government quickly indulging in runaway corruption and grossly incompetent policy blunders, phenomena which had been much less prominent in the Cape and KwaNatal thanks to the gradualism of their own transitions.

While this led to a degree of self-congratulation in the two coastal states, a considerable nervousness remained as they watched the looting and increasing dilapidation of the Transvaal and

OFS. There seemed a real possibility that the two republics might self-destruct and it was far from clear that the two coastal states could avoid the fall-out from that. After all, the Transvaal was by far their biggest export market.

Both the Cape and KwaNatal sought to insure themselves by seeking strenuously to lessen their dependence on the two states of the interior by growing their international trade and investment. But the worry remains.


As may be seen, to some extent this scenario draws upon the ideas about “asymmetrical federalism” which were floated in the twilight days of apartheid, though my suggestion is that if the two coastal states had existed separately they would have resorted to such solutions much earlier – and that would have given them a much better chance of working.

Thus, for example, by the time the Natal Indaba proposed its solution in 1986 it was probably already too late for it to work because by then the UDF/ANC forces were already too strong. If, however, Natal had always been separate, and if such a solution had been sought before 1970 it might have had a good chance of working. Something of the same applies to the Cape as well.

The fact that both the Cape and what I have called KwaNatal (the Indaba designation) come fairly well out of this hypothetical history should not be read as an endorsement of their separate independence now.

For a start, such an independence would have meant that they would have to have settled to be decidedly poorer for most of the twentieth century. In fact they have now both grown considerably better off over time but that was assisted for much of the time by a degree of redistribution which, in this scenario, would have been lacking.

Nonetheless, we have suggested, the two coastal states would have had no alternative but to go all out for economic growth. This is not just wishful. When Czechoslovakia subdivided fears were expressed because Slovakia was so much poorer than the Czech Republic.

In fact Slovakia has grown much faster than its neighbour and has now almost drawn level with it. Similarly, when Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan it was, in Kissinger’s term, “a Third World basket case”. Today, thanks to consistently higher growth rates, Bangladesh has a higher per capita income than Pakistan and is rapidly catching up with India.

Suggesting that the Cape and KwaNatal might have achieved their own “economic miracles” may seem far-fetched. But one should not forget that apartheid and the black homelands policy were both immensely wasteful. By abandoning such policies the two coastal states could have used all the talents of its population and diverted considerable extra resources to investment.

Secondly, many of the benefits which accrued to the Cape and KwaNatal in this scenario derived from the fact that they were able to make the change towards multi-racial government far earlier than actually occurred, thus allowing them a long period of gradual adjustment. By definition those advantages now no longer exist.

Finally, there is the caveat in the last paragraph of our scenario. To talk of the Western Cape or KwaZulu-Natal becoming independent today and thus managing to leave behind a South Africa that “is going to hell” is rather wishful because whatever happens in the economic heartland of Gauteng will inevitably have consequences for the coastal provinces (or states), whatever the political or constitutional structures.

R.W. Johnson

* From Diversity, Strength. The motto of the Union of South Africa was Ex Unitate Vires, From Unity, Strength.