The Carnegie Commission and the Backlash Against Welfare State-Building in South Africa, 1931-1937

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Journal of Southern African Studies

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Taylor & Francis


University of Cape Town

By the late 1930s, South Africa had developed a welfare state that was remarkable in terms of both the range of risks against which it provided and its coverage of the poor – although only for poor white and coloured people. The Carnegie Commission of Inquiry into the Poor White Problem in South Africa is often credited with the major role in prompting this welfare statebuilding. This is, at most, only partly true. Firstly, key aspects of the welfare state, most notably old-age pensions, predated the Commission. Secondly, as I show in this article, the Commission’s recommendations with regard to most areas of social policy (excepting education) were hostile to programmatic state-building and sought to return discretionary power to the church through indoor (and perhaps also outdoor) poor relief. Some members of the Commission might have employed ‘modern’ social science research methods, and some may have favoured the expansion of professional social work, but its reports generally gave expression to a backlash against the prior, nascent growth of South Africa’s welfare state. In general, the Commission’s recommendations entailed a reversal to the kind of ‘scientific charity’ that characterised the United States in the late nineteenth century, not the more professional social work of the United States in the 1920s and certainly not the social policies of the New Deal. The Commission gave rise to a period of struggle over the appropriate roles of church, state and professional social workers. Although the church-centric ambitions of most of the Carnegie commissioners were ultimately frustrated, their efforts contributed to the making of a somewhat bifurcated welfare state in which the expansion of welfare programmes was retarded.