Note: This took place in 1935, when Dr Abdurahman was participating in a commission on the future of the coloured or ‘brown’ community. Dr Verwoerd outlined what became – after the victory of the National Party in 1948 – the system of apartheid. He claimed it would lead to ‘development side by side, without clashing’ but also accepted it would result in inequality.

This photograph shows Dr Abdurahman at this period, with the party he led – the APO

Two Doctors reflecting on  the same problem

 By Professor Hermann Giliomee

In 1935 the government appointed a commission of inquiry into the state of the brown community. It was meant to be chaired by Professor Johannes du Plessis of Stellenbosch, but he passed away and the task fell upon another Stellenbosch academic, R.W. Wilcocks, a professor in psychology and a co-author of the Carnegie report. All the members, except for A. Abdurahman, were white.

In Paarl, Pretoria, Bloemfontein and other places the APO sent a deputation to present evidence before the commission, while in George, Beaufort West, Bredasdorp and Calvinia brown deputations without any specific organisational connection appeared at the hearings. It is not known why in Stellenbosch no brown people, either in private capacity or as members of an organisation, testified to the commission. It is possible that during the mid-1930s there were no leading figures or spokesmen or strong organisations in the town, but this raises the question why not.

The formidable Dr Abdullah Abdurahman, who championed equal political rights and equal pay for equal work, served on the commission. He wanted the divisions between white and brown to disappear. Opposed to him were three Afrikaner members of the commission and three Stellenbosch professors (Hendrik Verwoerd, Gawie Cillié and H.P. Cruse) who testified before the commission: they wanted to define the brown community as a separate group between whites and blacks.

In 1935 Verwoerd, then 34 and a professor in social work and sociology, testified before the Wilcocks commission. Abdurahman was 63 years old. He had to endure mounting criticism from younger black intellectuals because he was not radical enough and tried to improve brown people’s social position in a pragmatic way. During the time the commission sat Abdurahman impressed everyone with the sharp and penetrating questions he asked.

The exchange between Doctors Abdurahman and Verwoerd is a fascinating discussion about a policy which was still taking shape and which would later become known as apartheid. The word was used in Parliament  for the first time in 1943.

The exchange between Dr. Verwoerd and Dr. Abdurahman is cited below:

Dr Abdurahman: You have been speaking as if we ought to develop in groups. Would it be in the interests of South Africa to develop in three different groups? What will be the ultimate effect?

Dr Verwoerd: That is difficult to answer. I think you can’t evade it.

Dr A: What would be the ultimate relationship between the different classes?

Dr V: Development side by side without clashing I think is possible.

Dr A: Would it be possible to have that understanding in three different groups as you would have in any one group?

Dr V: You would not. A certain amount of clash you will have. In the United States they try to look upon themselves as one group. In the  Southern states the division is as strong as here.

Dr A: I was thinking more of our political customs. You have three different groups, three different outlooks; are they not bound to clash?

Dr V: They will clash.

Dr A: You will in the end have a privileged and an unprivileged class. Would that be in the interests of South Africa, if we develop along those lines?

Dr V: The full answer would be a mixture of races and I think that would be worse. Take Switzerland. You have three groups who are closer together and who do not mix than the groups in this country.

Dr A: Where you have groups, is it not natural that you will have a superior and an inferior group?

Dr V: The tendency will be so.[1]

Verwoerd’s approach to the solution of poverty was anticipated in a lecture he gave a year earlier during a conference on poor whites in Kimberley. It reflects his desire to find a more purposeful and systematic way in which to tackle poverty. In his testimony before the Wilcocks Commission he placed an emphasis especially on brown poverty in Cape Town and Stellenbosch. Today he is seen as someone interested in relieving white poverty, but in this testimony one gets the impression of a researcher who saw white and brown poverty as a single problem to be solved in a coordinated way by the state.

He informed the commission that, together with his colleague Dr Wagner, he had undertaken a comprehensive investigation of poverty, dependency on state support, and juvenile crime among the white and brown people of Stellenbosch. He presented himself as qualified to speak with authority about the brown communities in these two towns.

Verwoerd declared that the conditions of the brown people in Stellenbosch were “definitely” better than in Cape Town, even though there were also slum neighbourhoods in the former. Research in his department showed that the brown people of Stellenbosch were far better off as far as housing and school attendance were concerned. Compared to Cape Town, there were hardly any juvenile offenders. Only now and then did young boys appear before the courts. Like the poor whites, the brown people in the town were quite willing to help one another.

According to figures presented by Verwoerd, the income of brown people in Stellenbosch was lower than that in Cape Town.

      Income (per month) in Cape Town and Stellenbosch

                                                    Under £3         £3–£5               £5 plus

Stellenbosch (brown people)        35%                  25%                  40%

Cape Town (brown people)          22.5%               29%                  48.5%

Cape Town (Malay)                      14%                  19%                  67%

Verwoerd recommended a single department of state welfare to deal with white and brown poverty in a way that saw the two as interwoven. Before something could be done for one group, one must first look at how it would influence the other. The man who became known for his chilly insistence on principled policies sang a different tune when asked if the policy had to be one of segregation or equal opportunity for white and brown. His answer was: “I believe you can’t lay down a concrete principle. Sometimes you must differentiate because you cannot always provide the same thing for both.”

Verwoerd argued that cheap black labour was busy pushing out brown labour in the building sector and other industries. Brown workers, in turn, were doing the same to half-educated whites. He wanted black labourers to be kept out of the Western Cape. They had to find work in the reserves or on the mines. He added that the Transkei would be able to carry its current population and their descendants for the next fifty years if the necessary improvements in agriculture were brought about. Here we have the policy of apartheid starting to take shape (though the word “apartheid” would only be in Parliament for the first time in 1944. D.F. Malan, leader of the National PArty was the member that used the term that would become so loaded first.


[1] This is an edited version of the exchange. For the full text see US Library, R.W. Wilcocks collection, MS 77/17/3(3/806 to 3/817), Commission of Enquiry re the Cape Coloured Population of the Union, Evidence, vol. 3: Professor Hendrik Verwoerd, Stellenbosch, interviewed at Cape Town, 23 August 1935, pp. 2941–2952.