Posted: March 24th, 2023

Reasons for Cultural Urbanization in Apartheid South Africa

Societal changes are characterized by various alterations in a society’s social patterns and structure. The changes may encompass the adoption of different behavioral practices and the degeneration of cultural values and norms. Notably, colonization in Africa brought numerous social, political, and economic changes, such as urbanization. Several factors influenced urbanization: demand for cheap unskilled labor in the industries established by colonialists, the spread of the cash economy that led to a need for employment in urban areas, and educational prospects in the towns. The apartheid system in South Africa introduced social changes through the urbanization system expressed differently among various groups, resulting in several social problems (Magubane, 1973). While Mayer utilizes social anthropology to explain the concept of cultural urbanization, O’Toole examines the community’s psychological response that affects the Colored in Cape town. In contrast, Magubane proposes that cultural urbanization was founded on the effects of political and industrial policies instituted by colonialism.

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Mayer’s approach to cultural urbanization is based on the hypothesis that becoming fully urbanized is entirely a personal responsibility that depends on the attitude towards cultural urbanization. Notably, this is showcased through an anthropological study of the Xhosa, whom he categorizes into the schools (progressivists) and the reds (traditionalists). The approach seeks to examine the attitudes of this community towards social change caused by urbanization through a focus on their leisure activities. In his view, the schools exhibited cultural assimilation to urban culture, whereas the reds maintained their cultural norms and practices (Mayer, 1963). Mayer avoids the mention of political and social policies in the country, which significantly impacted urbanization; however, it differs from O’Toole’s approach.

O’Toole conducts a study of the Coloreds in Cape Town, a multiracial group distinct from Mayer’s reflection on the black communities. He postulates that the coloreds face economic, political, and social constraints emanating from the colonial stratification experienced in South Africa. However, some of the blame is apportioned to the group, whose psychological response to the disparities is defeatist, thus seeking cultural assimilation and displaying communal apathy curtailing their independence and rights. Profoundly, the attitude and psychological response of the coloreds towards social changes is the primary reason for their suffering (O’Toole, 1973). Notably, this ideology differs from Mayer’s because, besides personal and communal responsibility, O’Toole mentions the political and social environments as an influential source of the Colored’s experience. Unlike Mayer, whose perspective focuses on the individuals’ attitudes, Magubane focuses on the broader political and social contexts that impact the social structure.

 Magubane’s argument solely attributes the social structure in South Africa to the colonialist regime and the industrial and political policies put in place. The argument views the societal changes in the country from a broader political and social spectrum as opposed to the individual perspective. Therefore, according to Magubane, the cultural response of the Xhosa people and the psychological response of the coloreds is not a result of personal or communal attitude towards social change; instead, it is the aftermath of the oppressive and segregationist apartheid system. He attributes urbanization to the growth of industries during the colonial era that necessitated the transfer of individuals to towns to provide cheap labor. They were treated as immigrants in the towns and segregated from the white and Asian communities (Magubane, 1973). The colored also faced discrimination and disparities due to the Apartheid policies that promoted discriminatory rules and laws. The argument absolves individuals from blame and castigates the colonial regime for the social problems existing in the society.

The apartheid system in South Africa led to numerous social disparities that posed a problem to the government. The issues include gender inequality, inadequate community infrastructure, and lack of cultural integration. Gender inequality was enhanced by urbanization and fewer educational opportunities affecting women. Notably, the government can mitigate the problem by creating opportunities that empower women in social, economic, and political domains. Inadequate infrastructure in the rural areas and ghettos was perpetrated by the segregationist apartheid system that considered rural residents non-citizens, limiting infrastructural development to urban areas. The issue can be addressed through reforms in development policies that aim at increasing the infrastructure in communities. The apartheid regime also set the ground for cultural differences among the racial groupings that persisted and curtailed national integration and cohesion.

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Magubane, B. (1973). The “Xhosa” in Town, revisited urban social Anthropology: A Failure of Method and Theory. American Anthropologist, 75(5), 1701-1715.

Mayer, P. (1963). Townsmen or Tribesmen: Conservatism and the process of urbanization in a South African city. Xhosa in town.

O’Toole, J. (1973). Watts and Woodstock: Identity and culture in the United States and South Africa. Holt McDougal.


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