Ninety years ago, the Carnegie Corporation of the United States funded a commission of investigation into the growing problem of poor whites in South Africa. 

In 1927, Frederick Keppel, the president of the Carnegie Corporation, and James Bertram, its secretary, visited South Africa to explore the possibility for handing out grants. By all accounts they were impressed by the country’s natural beauty.

Less to be impressed over though was the rise in the number of destitute white people throughout the South Africa’s four provinces. So moved were Keppel and Bertram by the plight of these people that they decided to fund a commission of investigation into the problem of poor whites – even though infinitely more African people were labouring under the yoke of poverty. 

The interest of the Americans, and their willingness to help, caused much excitement in South Africa, with the Union government and the Dutch Reformed Church each agreeing to match the Carnegie Corporation grant. This cash injection made it possible for five commissioners to be appointed.
Before beginning their investigation, there was one question the commissioners needed to find an answer to: What exactly constituted a poor white?

Eventually, they defined such a person as someone “who had become dependent to such an extent, whether from mental, moral, economic or physical causes, that he is unfit, without help from others, to find proper means of livelihood for himself or to procure it directly or indirectly for his children.”
This done, the commissioners were ready to work.

In 1929, the five set off in two Ford motor vehicles, in search of poor white South Africa. Their travels took them to the isolated trek farmers of the Northern and Western Cape, to the bywoners (tenant farmers) of the Karoo, to the woodcutters of the forests of George and Knysna, to the bush farmers of the then Transvaal, to the diamond diggers of the Northern Cape and the reef miners of the Witwatersrand.

At every place they stopped, they were shocked at what they discovered. Analyzing questionnaires, they had sent to almost half the schools in the Union of South Africa, the commissioners found that 17.5 percent of all the families with children at school were very poor. Very poor people were regarded as those in the city who needed the help of charities to survive. In the rural areas, very poor people were those living in what most people would consider to be unlivable conditions.

This percentage amounted to 300 000 white people, most of whom were Afrikaners, out of a white population in 1931 of 1.8 million. One of the commissioners, Ernie Malherbe, described 27 000 children in the schools as being “retarded”.

He based this description on the fact they were, on average, two years behind the normal standard for their age group. He reported that over half the children in poor white families did not go beyond primary education. The result, he pointed out, was that when their families were finally forced off the land and into the cities, they had no prospect of making a decent living.

In their general conclusions, the commissioners stressed that laziness (as suggested by the Transvaal Indigency Commission in 1906) was not to blame for poor ‘white-ism’.

“Poverty itself exerts a demoralizing influence. It often causes loss of self-respect and a feeling of inferiority. It easily has a detrimental effect on honesty, trustworthiness and morality. If it is long continued the poor white often comes to accept it as inevitable and to bear it with dull and passive resignation. This attitude is further contributed to by the feeling of inferiority that poor whites have.

The commission noted the high birth rate, especially among poor Afrikaners. Pointing out that the white population had more than doubled between 1904 and 1936. This had resulted in overcrowding and insanitary conditions, which in return had led to disease and death.

An interesting part of the study was how difficult Afrikaners who had moved from a rural to an urban setting struggled to adjust to life in the cities.
To begin with, they immediately found themselves having to compete for work. They did not have the skills of uitlanders (foreigners). Neither could they compete with the cheap African labour, much favoured by English-speaking mine-owners and industrialists. But they also had another – psychological – problem in the labour market…

They refused to do any job traditionally reserved for Africans. The commissioners found that “even the most poverty-stricken bywoner considered himself a master and would not stoop to do ‘kaffir work’.”Much of the Carnegie Foundation’s work in the rural areas was done by the Rev Johannes Albertyn, a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church in Kimberley.

His stories of the struggles of poor Afrikaners in the Northern Cape Town of Kakamas painted a fascinating picture of a community in crisis.
His meticulously recorded interviews were later described as a “unique account of Afrikaners in crisis – the lowest ebb hey had ever reached during two centuries of expansion into Southern Africa”.

This is how one resident described his experiences: “I grew up in Prieska. After I was married, I trekked about with my stock, even as far as German (South) West Africa. I got on, bit by bit, until I owned 700 head of small stock, and 90 head of cattle. Then came the drought of 1896 and I was left with 16 head of cattle and 11 goats. For the second time, I improved my position, but it took years.

“For a long time I went about digging wells and making dams. At last I again owned 300 stock and 30 cattle. Then came the drought of 1915, and I lost absolutely everything. So I threw up the sponge and settled here (in Kakamas).  A farmer who lived for 20 years in a wagon said; “My father was a landowner in Vanrhynsdorp, but he lost all his stock, owing to drought. For a time, he took to transport riding. When I grew up he and I took out a licence in Bushmanland and after a while we owned 1 000 small cattle and 91 donkeys and cattle. But once more, we lost nearly everything. I made one more attempt, but the drought of 1913 ruined me completely. So I bought an erf here in Kakamas. For 20 years I had no fixed abode. My wagon was my home. My nine children were born while we were on trek.”

The Carnegie Commission concluded its work with a 5-volume report on economic conditions, the psychology of the poor whites, centred on their education, health and sociological aspects. If conditions for whites were difficult for Afrikaners during the early decades of the 20th century, it was more than doubly difficult for black people.

In 1930, the historian, WM MacMillan described the lives of rural Africans as “dragging along at the very lowest level of bare subsistence’. He added that they lived in ‘poverty, congestion and chaos’ and that they were blighted by ‘ill-health and starvation, endemic typhus and almost chronic scurvy. He wrote that they suffered ‘an often appalling mortality rate among infants’, lived in heavily over-populated; and ‘grossly neglected’ areas where they were ‘utterly dependent on wage-earning outside to relieve ‘a dead level of poverty’ inside.

And yet if this was noticed at all by the governments of the day, they did not care enough to take any action.

It was the plight of the poor whites that they were prepared to act on – especially after 1948, when the phenomenon was successfully tackled. But after 1994 and the advent of democracy, a new story began to emerge….

Dougie Oakes has been a journalist for more than 30 years, specialising here and in the UK in sports writing, politics and features. 

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