The Second World War had a major effect in South Africa, as elsewhere across the British Empire and beyond. It precipitated a change of government and political realignment. It forged a political environment in which the government was unusually open to reform. And it introduced new proposals for reform, primarily through the diffusion of new ideas from abroad. The war thus changed the agenda for and the political possibility of reform. At the same time, opposition to public provision strengthened within the opposition National Party, in part through the influence of neo-Calvinist theology from abroad.
The outbreak of war led to the collapse of the Fusion Government and a split in the United Party. Prime Minister Hertzog advocated neutrality but lost a parliamentary vote. Hertzog resigned, the Anglophile Smuts was appointed as Prime Minister, and Hertzog led some (but not all) of his former National Party MPs to reunite with Malan’s faction of the former National Party already in opposition. The exit of Hertzog and his supporters allowed the United Party, under Smuts, to tilt in a slightly more liberal direction. Its weak “liberal” wing was led by Hofmeyr, who served as Minister of Finance and intermittently as acting prime minister. Reform was also supported by the rump of the Labour Party. Whilst Hofmeyr was undoubtedly liberal, Smuts himself was more complex. During the war, Smuts made encouraging public speeches about the need to build a better society, including “a better life for all sections of the population”, including (explicitly) the “native population”.Footnote 9 At the same time he expressed concerns in his private correspondence: “I don’t like all this preoccupation with the post-war paradise on earth which makes us all concentrate less on the war and more on schemes which confuse and divide us”, he wrote to a close friend in London in early 1943; “it is here [in South Africa] very much as with you [in Britain], where people talk Beveridge instead of war and Hitler”.Footnote 10 Nonetheless, Smuts allowed Hofmeyr the space to proceed with modest reforms, perhaps hoping to defuse the militancy shown by industrial workers—including white, coloured and African workers (Alexander 2000).
The first set of ideas to invigorate debate in South Africa during the war were independent of the war itself. In 1938, New Zealand’s Labour Party government enacted universal old-age pensions and other benefits (McClure 1998). The New Zealand “model” was cited frequently in South Africa in 1941–1942 (see Miles-Cadman 1941; Burrows et al. 1942; Batson 1943). Several MPs visited New Zealand and referred to it in parliamentary debates. Introducing a debate on social welfare reforms in January 1942, a Labour Party MP asked explicitly “Can our government do what New Zealand has done?”Footnote 11
Most reformers did not seek simply to replicate the New Zealand reforms, however. One of the United Party’s more liberal MPs, Leslie Blackwell, had been born in Australia, before his family migrated to South Africa when he was ten years old. In the late 1930s he was fascinated with the New Zealand Labour Party’s “full-blooded policy of ‘Socialism in our time’” (Blackwell 1938). In 1941, Smuts sent him to Australia and New Zealand, charging him (inter alia) with investigating their social security systems. Blackwell returned to South Africa with reservations about the replicability of the New Zealand model:
New Zealand is known throughout the Empire and beyond as the home of social security. It was here that the first full-blooded social security charter was put into operation, and it is here that it is being tested out most thoroughly today, but when I returned to South Africa I told my colleagues that they must be careful not to take it for granted that results arrived at in New Zealand could necessarily be predicted for the Union. New Zealand is a rich pastoral country with a homogeneous population and a high standard of living, without the extremes of wealth which are still to be found in South Africa. It has almost no problem of native or coloured people, and, most important of all, it has operated its social security experiment in times of great agricultural prosperity and commercial expansion. (Blackwell 1946: 125)
In the parliamentary debate on social welfare in January 1942, Blackwell (1946: 156–8) argued that comprehensive reforms were not feasible until African people in South Africa earned more.
In the meantime, pressure was building outside of Parliament, through what became known as the “social security movement”. In September 1942, an economist and Vice Principal of the Durban Technical College, Joseph Sullivan, organised a Social Security Congress in Durban. Sullivan himself had been born in New Zealand. A team of economists from the University of Natal, led by Professor H.R. Burrows, published a detailed set of proposals (Burrows et al. 1942). Under pressure, Smuts established a Social and Economic Planning Committee to examine economic and social reforms, as well as a Commission of Inquiry into a National Health System.
The publication of the Beveridge Report in Britain in December 1942 further invigorated debate in South Africa. Beveridge was discussed in popular pamphlets (e.g. Sullivan 1942; Batson 1943) and in parliamentary debates (by MPs from diverse parties). In January 1943, Smuts appointed a Social Security Committee, including Burrows, to examine and cost options. Parliament dedicated considerable time to debating social security. In the June 1943 parliamentary election, Smuts and the United Party campaigned around the slogan “A better life for all”, holding out a vision of a society in which “there will be no forgotten men” and the spectres of “want, poverty, and unemployment” would be “combated to the best of our ability”. With the apparent blessing of the United Party, Sullivan stood successfully for election as an independent MP. In September 1943, the Social Security Committee recommended massive public expenditure on welfare (together with Keynesian macroeconomic policies). The Committee’s report used Beveridge’s terminology and referred to the new international approach to social security which had the “ultimate aim” of “a comprehensive, unified and socially-adequate security plan under the auspices of the State” (South Africa 1943: 11). Crucially, this would provide for at least some African people. The 1943 report acknowledged that “overcrowding of the Reserves, primitive farming methods and low unskilled wages” made it “increasingly difficult” for African people to support their kin. African men and women might not need the “elaborate cash benefits indispensable for a civilised community”, but “nominal payments” in cash or kind were now “essential” for the elderly and disabled. The Committee therefore recommended that old-age pensions be extended to the African population.
Support for the extension of old-age pensions was not limited to liberal reformers. The extent of poverty in rural areas—and the failure of migrant workers in towns to provide and care for all of their rural dependents—was of growing concern to the magistrates responsible for rural administration and the employers who sought to recruit labour in rural areas. In addition, policies of “influx control” could not prevent the growth of the urban African population, including women and children. This fuelled anxiety about the decline of marriage and the rise of juvenile delinquency within the African population. African political leaders—through both the elected but conservative councils in some rural areas and the (at the time) slightly less conservative African National Congress—demanded social citizenship, although they were generally distracted by the more important issue of political citizenship (Sagner 2000; Seekings 2000, 2005; Posel 2005).
Reformers made faltering steps towards extending some social programmes. In 1940, the new Acting Prime Minister Jan Hofmeyr instructed that all applications for grants under the Children’s Act, regardless of race, should be assessed on merit. In practice, only applications for urban African children were entertained, and benefits were paid at a much lower level than for white children, probably because of the cost implications (Du Toit 2018). Old-age pensions were introduced for African men and women in both rural and urban areas in 1944, albeit with much lower benefits than for white pensioners. By 1946, there were almost twice as many African pensioners as white pensioners, although total expenditure on white pensioners was higher (Jones 1948: 42). Residential institutions were also established for a very small number of “non-European” men and women. In 1946, the state subsidised nineteen old-age homes for a total of 753 elderly white men and women, but only two homes for 217 “non-European” men and women (Jones 1948: 425).
In these debates on programmatic reform—in public and in Parliament—three positions predominated. First, there was the pro-reformist position, articulated outside of Parliament by the various strands of the informal “social security movement” and inside Parliament by the more progressive members of the United Party. Reform here entailed partial deracialisation and expansion of existing programmes. This position was informed by “New Liberal” thought: The laissez-faire, small-government approach of the classic liberals had given way to an appreciation of the need for the government to assume responsibility for tackling various problems that affected society as a whole, including poverty among the elderly and children. The war legitimated these arguments in favour of a more active government. Army service may have radicalised some South Africans (Roos 2003), as it did in New Zealand (Fennell 2017). Classic liberal sceptics tended to keep quiet. A second, also pro-reform position was a more social democratic one, articulated by the very small rump of Labour Party MPs (including van der Berg and Miles-Cadman). The third position—the National Party’s—was in flux, as we shall see next. These positions certainly did not exhaust the full range of views within Parliament (or white South African society), but they were the positions articulated publicly. People with other views tended to keep quiet.
The main public opposition to programmatic reforms came from the National Party. The National Party had wavered in its support for an expanding state, especially in the early 1930s, but the modernisers (led by Verwoerd) had prevailed, ensuring that programmes were introduced (and expanded) for white people. The party never accepted, however, that pensions and other programmes should be introduced for African people. Moreover, shifts in the character of Afrikaner nationalism and especially the rise of neo-Calvinist theology within the NGK pushed the National Party to reconsider its support for expanding the welfare state. Until the 1920s, Stellenbosch was the unchallenged base of Dutch Reformed theology, with a strong emphasis on its evangelical mission. Paternalistic charity was integral to this. Whilst the NGK sought to retain a leading role, the National Party itself had embraced an expanded role for the state in tackling the “poor white” question. In the 1930s, however, the hitherto marginal strand of neo-Calvinist theology, based in the small Gereformeerde Dutch Church and its associated university (formerly seminary) in Potchefstroom, gained increasing influence—at the same time as the Transvaal National Party grew in importance relative to the Cape National Party within the (federal) National Party.
The neo-Calvinists were inspired by the thought of the Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper. Many South African theology students studied at Amsterdam’s Free University, founded by Kuyper (with the “Free” meaning free from state control). For Kuyperians, “the fundamental error of European history was a consistent erosion, since the French Revolution, of the sovereignty of God in favour of the autonomy of the individual” (Kinghorn 1997: 143). Kuyper was as critical of liberal individualism as he was of communism. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, some South African neo-Calvinists flirted with national socialism, despite its excessive interest in state power; some assumed leadership positions in the pro-Nazi Ossewa Brandwag, which briefly seemed to offer a more radical alternative to Malan’s National Party (Marx 2008). But it was the National Party itself that served as the vehicle through which neo-Calvinist ideas shaped public policy, including over welfare reform. Kuyperian neo-Calvinism was deeply ambivalent about the welfare state
—as evident in the speeches of some National Party MPs in Parliament. Whilst the systematic racism of apartheid cannot be attributed to neo-Calvinist theology, the concept of “Christian nationalism” was imported into the ideology of the NGK and National Party from the Netherlands, where Kuyper had used the concept with reference to church-run but state-funded schools (Elphick 2012). The NGK and National Party’s evolving approach to social programmes—and what later (in the 1950s) came to be known as the “welfare state”—reveals a clear imprint of neo-Calvinism, perhaps in part because Kuyperian thought accorded with the prior scepticism towards social programmes, which had begun to be evident in the early 1930s. After its electoral victory in 1948, the National Party struggled to reconcile its deep ambivalence over the state’s social programmes with the political pressure to expand them (Seekings 2020).
In private, and in the wider white South African society, conservative (as well as openly racist) views were undoubtedly much more widespread than was evident in Parliament. This conservatism had surfaced publicly in arguments for social work rather than social assistance in the late 1930s, as we saw above, and in the archival records examined by Du Toit (2018). It is unlikely that the war transformed what most white South Africans really thought. But it did delegitimate the public articulation of conservative and racist views outside of the National Party (and Ossewa Brandwag).