At War with the Pass Laws? Administrative Reform and the Policing of White Supremacy in 1940s South Africa

Monday, 16 July, 2012 - 15:00

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This article offers a fresh analysis of a key reformist gesture by General Smuts’s Second
World War South African government – the May 1942 order suspending police enforcement
of the pass laws in many of the country’s major cities. Hated by Africans for the curbs they
placed on freedom of movement, employment opportunities and urban residence rights, the
pass laws were a fundamental instrument of white supremacist control. What then did the
suspension of their enforcement signify? Reconstructing debates and divisions within and
beyond the state bureaucracy, I trace the steps leading to the suspension order and discuss
the responses to its implementation resulting in its withdrawal in March 1946. The account
considers the available evidence for the three commonest explanations of the suspension
order – the labour needs of secondary industry, the reduced policing capability of the
wartime state, and official anxieties about Africans’ loyalty when the country was most
vulnerable to invasion – and concludes that only the third of these has clear merit. The real
puzzle is the relaxation’s continuance beyond the emergency situation of 1942. For this the
credit belongs to the momentum of liberal organisation and opinion in encouraging
advocates of reform within the state to hold their nerve. Only gradually was the opposition
National Party able to mobilise whites’ hostility to black urban population growth in ways
that enhanced the influence of those restorationist elements within the state bureaucracy,
notably the police, who were calling for renewed coercion.


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