This thesis examines apartheid during the period 1948 to 1983 in light of the longstanding liberal/neo-Marxist debate over the role of capitalism in South Africa. Whilst providing considerable insight into the origins and nature of apartheid, liberal and neo-Marxist interpretations often neglect to consider aspects of apartheid which fall outside the terms of their particular idealist or materialist approach. Regarding apartheid as primarily a political system created by a nationalist elite, liberals have often overlooked the class or economic motives underpinning the system. Having accepted a particular view of capitalism, liberals have tended to pass over the fact that, in the short-term at least, capitalism has proved compatible with racial discrimination and forced labour. Neo-Marxists have virtually dismissed the liberal focus on ideology as "mystifying" the otherwise clear material benefits bestowed upon whites by apartheid. Their argument, with varying degrees of sophistication, presents apartheid as more or less another form of capitalist labour-repression.
These interpretations provide only part of the story. Apartheid was at once an ideology, a political system and an economic system. It is foolish to focus exclusively on one or the other of these forms. Apartheid had to satisfy a number of aims: apartheid was expected to maintain social distance between the races, to protect the white monopoly of power, to provide labour to each of the three major sectors of the economy (agriculture, mining and industry), to protect the white working class from "uncivilized" competition and to defend South Africa's international standing. Apartheid was also confronted with a number of problems inherent in the policy and practice of segregation. The economic collapse of the reserves, accompanied by rapid rural-urban migration, made a common multiracial economy inevitable. Detribalization removed the chief justification for racial segregation. Forced labour on the traditional pattern was impractical for the emerging manufacturing sector (and eventually became unnecessary in even the white fanning areas). As all this suggests, monocausal interpretations of apartheid simplify the complex demands placed upon the National Party (NP) regime.
Consequently, this thesis examines closely the origins of apartheid in the crisis of the 1940s and its postwar evolution from a vague, almost Utopian slogan to an elaborate ideology and political system. The effects of apartheid upon the South African economy are then considered. The final chapters focus on the political and ideological changes of the 1970s and early 1980s, which, in different ways, call into question the liberal and neo-Marxist arguments.
In all, the historical evidence assembled in this thesis contradicts as well as supports elements of the liberal and neo-Marxist arguments. There is little doubt that liberals were correct in arguing that the state could not control African urbanization and integration. Neo-Marxists were clearly right to claim that capital benefited in some ways from apartheid. However, both schools erred by making too much of these propositions. As already suggested, apartheid was more than an attempt to control the growth of the urban African population or to satisfy the demands of capital.