There has been some fuss recently around the publication of Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray, who co-authored The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life in 1994, has a reputation for annoying left-leaning academics and public policy makers. His description of the Bell Curve was accused of being blind to cultural and social influences on learning and childhood development, and his most recent polemic has been criticised for its rose-tinted view of the American white working class during the mid-twentieth century.
One of the best criticisms of the book which I’ve come across is Nell Irvin Painter’s article for the New York Times, ‘When Poverty was White.’ Painter, whose History of White People (2010) I urge you to read, makes the point that America has a well-hidden and very recent history of white poverty. She accuses Murray of ‘historical blindness’ caused by his
narrow focus on the cultural and policy changes of the 1960s as the root of white America’s decline. The story of white poverty…is much longer and more complex than he and his admirers realise or want to admit.
Her point is that to understand the nature of poverty – why some families seem incapable of escaping it, why certain members of society seem to be particularly susceptible to it – we need to historicise it.
There is a similar argument to be made about white poverty in South Africa. One of the reasons why photographs of poor whites in South Africa draw such attention is because South Africans tend to think of poverty as being black. Poor whites are a strange anomaly in the economic and racial politics of post-1994 South Africa.
But ‘poor whiteism’ as a social and political phenomenon only disappeared during the economic boom of the early 1960s. Since at least the 1920s, South African governments were preoccupied by the ‘poor white problem’ – by the existence of a substantial group of people who, as the popular author Sarah Gertrude Millin wrote in 1926, could not support themselves ‘according to a European standard of civilisation’ and who could not ‘keep clear the line of demarcation between black and white.’
South Africa’s earliest soup kitchens were not for black, but, rather, for white children. The first child welfare organisations aimed their work not at black families, but, rather, at white families who were poor. South Africa’s attempts to introduce compulsory elementary education in the 1910s and 1920s pertained only to white, not to black, children. This isn’t to suggest that black poverty was somehow less acute or widespread than white poverty. Far from it. State concern about poor whiteism was borne out of a eugenicist belief that, as Millin suggested, white poverty signalled a decline in white power.
The first attempts to eradicate white poverty were directed at families and children. Although we tend to associate the poor white problem with the 1920s and 1930s, there had been a large group of impoverished white farmers in the country’s rural interior since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. By the 1880s and 1890s, colonial politicians, and particularly those in the Cape, were increasingly anxious about this class of whites. This was partly because the numbers of impoverished whites – both in rural and urban areas – had increased during the region’s industrialisation after the discovery of diamonds and gold, but it was also the result of decades of poor education which had produced at least two generations of unemployable whites.
Both in South Africa and in the rest of the world, poverty was racialised during the 1880s and 1890s. The existence of unemployed and unemployable poor whites challenged the association of ‘natural’ supremacy and the exercise of power with whiteness. The term ‘poor white’ no longer simply referred to white people who lived in poverty, but, rather, invoked a set of fears around racial mixing and white superiority.
Impoverished white adults were believed to be beyond saving, as one Cape industrialist argued in 1895: ‘the adults are irreclaimable. You must let them die off, and teach the young ones to work.’ The Cape government poured money into schools for poor white children. In 1905, education became compulsory for all white children in the Cape between the ages of seven and fourteen. Politicians also passed legislation to allow these children to be removed from parents deemed to be unable to care for them appropriately. After the declaration of the Union of South Africa in 1910, government spending on education grew from 14 per cent of the national budget to 28 per cent in 1930.
But the problem did not go away. Industrialisation and economic expansion, as well as the effects of the Great War, two depressions, and urbanisation in the 1920s and 1930s increased the numbers of impoverished whites. By the end of the 1920s, it was estimated that out of a total of 1,800,000 whites, 300,000 were ‘very poor’, and nearly all of these were Afrikaans. The Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question (1929-1932) concluded that an inability to adapt to a changing economic climate, outdated farming methods, and poor education were to blame for the existence of such a large population of impoverished whites.
In 1929, the South African government devoted 13 per cent of its budget to the eradication of white poverty. Much of this went to education, social welfare, and housing. The introduction of more stringent segregationist legislation progressively disenfranchised blacks, and reserved skilled work for whites.
There was also a shift in emphasis in how child welfare societies – the numbers of which had mushroomed during the 1920s – dealt with poor white children. No longer did they only work to ensure that white children were sent to school and adequately cared for by their parents, but they began to focus on how these children were fed.
I’m still trying to account for this new concern about the effects of malnutrition on white children. I think that it was due largely to an international scientific debate about the significance of nutrition in raising both physically and intellectually strong children. Louis Leipoldt – Medical Inspector for Schools in the Transvaal, food writer, Buddhist, poet, and Afrikaner culture broker – was particularly aware of this new thinking about childhood development and nutrition, and wrote about it extensively in publications on child health and welfare in South Africa.
In a report of a survey of the health of children in the Cape published in 1922, the province’s Medical Inspector of Schools, Elsie Chubb, argued that malnutrition was widespread in the Cape’s schools for white children. In most schools, around 10% of the pupils were malnourished. In one school in the rural Karoo, 79% of children were found to be severely malnourished.
Chubb recognised that malnutrition was not purely the result of an inadequate supply of food – although it was certainly the case that many poor parents simply couldn’t afford to buy enough food to feed their children – but of poor diet. Some child welfare volunteers wrote of children sent to school on coffee and biltong, and who returned home at the end of the day for a basic supper of maize meal and cheap meat. Chubb wrote that far too many children were fed on a diet heavy in carbohydrates and animal protein. Children did not eat enough fresh fruit and vegetables, and milk. She recommended that feeding schemes be established to supplement children’s diets with these foodstuffs.
Helen Murray, the headmistress of a girls’ school in Graaff Reinet and active member of the town’s child welfare society explained the contemporary understanding of the link between malnutrition and poor whiteism particularly well in 1925:
In the winter of 1918 our schools had regular medical inspection for the first time. The doctor who inspected told some of us that he had found some fifty children in our poor school suffering from malnutrition and spoke strongly of the results of such a condition. The children were not in danger of dying of starvation, they had dry bread and black coffee enough to prevent that, but they were in danger of growing up to be ‘poor whites’ of the most hopeless type. The body insufficiently nourished during the years of growth would develop physically weak, and the brain as a result would be unfit for real mental effort. The child suffering from years of wrong feeding could not be expected to grow into the strong, healthy, clearheaded man or woman our country needs today, and will need ten and twenty years hence. To see that the underfed child is well fed is not a matter of charity, but must be undertaken in self-defence.
As a result of the inspection, the child welfare society found a room in the town where between fifty and ninety children could be provided with ‘a good, hot meal’ on every school day:
We had been told that these children could be saved from growing up weaklings if they could have one good meal of fat meat, vegetables or fruit, on every school day of the year….
We have the satisfaction of knowing that there has been a marked improvement in the health of the children and of hearing from a Medical Inspector that she has found the condition of the children here better than in many other schools of the same class.
Murray’s experience in Graaff Reinet was not unique. As child welfare societies were established in the towns and villages of South Africa’s vast interior, their first work was usually to establish soup kitchens, either in schools or in a central locations where schoolchildren could be sent before the school day – for porridge and milk – and at lunchtime, for soup or a more substantial meal, depending on the resources of the local society.
In Pietersburg (now Polokwane), to eliminate the stigma of free meals for poor children, all white children were provided with a mug of soup at lunchtime. Better-off parents paid for the soup, thus subsidising those children whose parents could not contribute. In Reitz, local farmers, butchers, and grocers donated meat and vegetables to the soup kitchen, and in Oudtshoorn children were encouraged to bring a contribution – onions, carrots, or cabbage – to their daily meal.
The National Council for Child Welfare, the umbrella body established in 1924 which oversaw the activities of local child welfare societies, liked to emphasise the fact that it was concerned for the welfare of all children, regardless of class or race. Some welfare societies, and particularly those in areas which had large ‘locations’ for black residents, did establish clinics and crèches for black children. But most of the NCCW’s work was aimed at white children in the 1920s and 1930s, and the same was true of the South African state. By the 1920s, most municipalities in towns and cities made free milk available to poor white mothers with babies and very young children.
Increasing state involvement in child welfare, alongside the work of independent societies, had a significant impact on the health of white children in South Africa during the early twentieth century. But it was only because of the growing prosperity and better education of the majority of white South Africans after World War II that white poverty and malnutrition were gradually eradicated in the 1950s and 1960s.
By historicising poverty – by understanding that white prosperity in South Africa is a relatively recent phenomenon – we can understand it as a phenomenon which is not only eradicable, but which is also the product of a range of social, economic, and political forces. As South African governments and welfare organisations were able to reduce white poverty and malnutrition dramatically during the early twentieth century, so it is possible for contemporary governments to do the same.
But charity and soup kitchens were not the sole cause of the disappearance of white poverty and malnutrition. Jobs, education, and better living conditions were as – if not more – significant in ensuring that white children no longer went hungry.
Texts cited here:
SE Duff, ‘“Education for Every Son and Daughter of South Africa”: Race, Class, and the Compulsory Education Debate in the Cape Colony,’ in Citizenship, Modernisation, and Nationhood: The Cultural Role of Mass Education, 1870-1930, eds. Lawrence Brockliss and Nicola Sheldon (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
E.G. Malherbe, Education in South Africa, vol. I (Cape Town: Juta, 1925).
E.G. Malherbe, Education in South Africa, vol. II (Cape Town: Juta, 1977).
E.G. Malherbe, Report of the Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question in South Africa, vol. III (Stellenbosch: Pro Ecclesia-Drukkery, 1932).
Sarah Gertrude Millin, The South Africans (London: Constable, 1926).
Jennifer Muirhead, ‘“The children of today make the nation of tomorrow”: A Social History of Child Welfare in Twentieth Century South Africa’ (MA thesis, Stellenbosch University, 2012).
Vivian Bickford-Smith, Ethnic Pride and Racial Prejudice in Victorian Cape Town (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 1995).
Colin Bundy, ‘Vagabond Hollanders and Runaway Englishmen: White Poverty in the Cape Before Poor Whitesim,’ in Putting a Plough to the Ground: Accumulation and Dispossession in Rural South Africa 1880-1930, eds. William Beinart, Peter Delius, and Stanley Trapido (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1986).
J.M. Coetzee, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
Saul Dubow, A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility and White South Africa 1820-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
Marijke du Toit, ‘Women, Welfare and the Nurturing of Afrikaner Nationalism: A Social History of the Afrikaanse Christelike Vroue Vereniging, c.1870-1939’ (D.Phil. thesis, University of Cape Town, 1996).
Hermann Giliomee, The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2003).
Isabel Hofmeyr, ‘Building a Nation from Words: Afrikaans Language, Literature and Ethnic Identity, 1902-1924,’ in The Politics of Race, Class and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century South Africa, eds. Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido (London: Longman, 1987).
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.