“The height of apartheid coincided with a long economic boom in South Africa that, bringing about rapid growth in the 1960s, came to a halt around 1973. A time of rapidly increased mechanisation and automation, the 1960s also saw the spread of computerisation. What did mechanisation and automation mean during this time—to apartheid thinkers, and to workers subject to the strictures of the apartheid labour market? How did South African writers contribute to an elaboration of the meaning of mechanisation and automation during this period—through their narrative scenarios, as well as their use of new technologies to produce their art?”
These were some of the issues highlighted by STIAS fellow Mark Sanders of the Department of Comparative Literature at New York University who presented a seminar on Automation and Apartheid which specifically looked at the ‘Office Literature’ of Miriam Tlali and J.M. Coetzee. The work forms part of a broader study that explores the reciprocal relationship between technology, politics and the arts.
STIAS fellow Mark Sanders during his seminar on 15 August 2019
“Although economic decline is widely understood to have been a factor, there has been little critical reflection on the effect of technological change on the fall of apartheid,” he said.
“One of the ways I’m hoping to understand the bigger picture is by turning to some of the unique South African fiction of the period,” he continued. “Fiction can reveal much about the underlying economics of the age.”
He pointed out that Miriam Tlali, in particular, offered an alternative perspective – that of the black office worker in the 1960s. Coetzee also used some of his early career experience as a programmer at IBM in his fictionalised memoir Youth. At this time he also experimented with computer-generated poetry.
“The growing use of computers from the 1950s meant both increased automation and mechanisation of the workplace,” said Sanders. “The demands on workers changed. This period of technological innovation also coincided with the larger-scale entry of women into the workforce – particular into office work.”
“Women were in completely new positions, not just positions previously held by men.”
However, because the South African labour market was distorted by racial job reservation – such automation and computerisation in apartheid South Africa had somewhat different consequences compared to other places in the world.
“In his famous 1955 speech Verwoerd clearly said that there was no place for skilled blacks in the workplace in white communities,” said Sanders. “The pattern in South Africa was different from the rest of the world – the political incentive was to keep office work white despite the economic reality of labour costs.”
Sanders pointed out that although the law did not specifically prevent black people from doing more skilled work in the office setting most would not have had access to educational and training opportunities to undertake such work. At the time the Black Technikons that existed were really only interested in training black people for jobs within the homeland system.
“Although the apartheid government wanted to keep certain types of clerical work for whites it was facing economic bottlenecks due to the shortage of skilled manpower,” he continued. “They turned to what they saw as a surplus of underutilised white womanpower and also encouraged white immigration.”
“Office automation was, in terms of state policy, therefore mostly with the intention of keeping the office white, barring blacks from participating.”
However, pointed out Sanders, this brought problems because white workers were protected by Wage Councils and Trade Unions, and therefore could negotiate higher wages. Despite legal restrictions and social attitudes, the employment of black clerical workers rose significantly by the late 1960s.
“There was also a reluctance to pay for mechanisation when human beings were seen as cheaper. The idea of cheap black labour therefore slowed down the automation and mechanisation processes. But eventually demand rose and the existing skilled labour couldn’t meet it.”
Barring black workers was in conflict with economic growth. The cheap labour idea turned out to be wrong and manufactured goods ceased to be globally competitive. Decreased productivity from 1973 led to economic decline.
“However, I believe that by the late 1970s acute labour shortages and the fact that Black African labour became more valuable may have helped in the process to break down the apartheid orthodoxy.”
“As one example, during this period big corporations like IBM started to train systems analysts and programmers based on aptitude tests not colour,” he said. “Some of these graduates later became leaders in the IT industry in South Africa.”
“Economic growth and the socio-technological trends that accompanied it eventually assisted in creating the conditions for renewed black self-assertion and the fall of grand apartheid.”
Asked about the potential role of race, automation and technological advances in facilitating liberation today, Sanders pointed to the hashtag movements which harnessed a massive automated system – social media – to encourage more progressive policies in South Africa and elsewhere. “It’s a huge question,” he said, “but that might be an interesting place to start”.
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw