Before the Revolution

King Solomon’s Mines Revisited: Western Interests and the Burdened History of South Africa

by William Minter
Basic Books, 401 pp., $21.95

South Africa: Time of Agony, Time of Destiny

by Martin Murray
Verso, 496 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The Politics of Economic Power in Southern Africa

by Ronald T. Libby
Princeton University Press, 384 pp., $14.50 (paper)

Who is responsible for apartheid? That is the central question in the most challenging of recent books on southern Africa—King Solomon’s Mines Revisited by William Minter. Minter, a scholar and journalist who has lived and worked in Tanzania and Mozambique, harks back in his title to Rider Haggard’s immensely popular novel of 1885, a story of the white man’s search for wealth in the region, which went through thirteen American editions in the first year, sold more than 650,000 copies before Haggard died in 1925, and had an enduring influence on Western perceptions of Africa. King Solomon’s Mines Revisited is a well-written, readable, sustained examination of the past and present roles of Great Britain, the United States, and international capitalism in southern Africa. As an effort to broaden our understanding of racism in southern Africa it warrants careful consideration.

Apartheid, Minter says, is not “a unique creation” of the Afrikaners—the people whose ancestors settled in South Africa under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The British government, British capitalists, and South Africans of British descent bore the main responsibility for creating “the system that has reserved political power and economic privilege for whites for over a century” in South Africa. Since the Second World War, the American government and American capitalists have been largely responsible for maintaining it, in collaboration with European capitalists and white South Africans.

According to Minter, the history of southern Africa began to be significant in 1870, with the discovery of diamonds in the interior, soon to be followed by gold. The mineowners created the basic elements in the class system that has survived in South Africa to the present day: a privileged white bourgeoisie and an exploited black working class. In 1899, the British went to war against the Boer Republics, the result of a convergence of interests among the major mineowners, industrialists, financiers, and politicians, who had the common aim of bringing all of South Africa and its riches into the British Empire. The creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 was a “British-initiated” achievement. In the national convention that hammered out the constitution, the position of black Africans and Coloureds (people of mixed descent), whom it excluded from the Union parliament, was not a significant point of contention.

Between 1910 and 1948, British capitalists “retained the dominant role” throughout all of southern Africa and all South African governments applied a segregation policy that elaborated the “basic structural features of South African society—division of the land, the whites-only franchise, and coercive mobilization of cheap black labor.” South African liberals were not serious opponents of segregation. “In liberal circles, concern for African conditions faded imperceptibly into a focus on management and preservation of the existing order…. The gap between them and even black-elite opinion was clearly visible.”

In Minter’s perspective, “Apartheid,” the policy of the Afrikaner National party that has been in power since 1948, “was …

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