Apartheid and Class Analysis


This article was originally published as an essay comparing the class analysis methods of Weber, Marx and Nattrass and Seekings. This article is useful if you are wanting to learn about different methods that thinkers have used to analyse Apartheid and class structure.

Nattrass and Seekings identified what they called the distributional regime of apartheid, an analytical framework for studying how apartheid disenfranchised, exploited, and stratified portions of the population. This article will be identifying the key findings of the distributional regime, and then analysing the applicability of using the class analysis of Marx and then Weber in engaging with the notion of the distributional regime. Ultimately, this article shall find that Weberian class analysis has some applicability, while Marxian class analysis finds very little, due to both method’s limited attention on the role of state action.

The distributional regime describes how the state intervenes in the economy to shape patterns of growth and inequality, determining class structure.[1] This is not only in blatant forms of distribution such as welfare, but also in indirect ways such as education, labour policy and the overall rate of economic growth (affected by other policies).[2] Succinctly, the notion of a distributional regime is how the state uses its policies and budget to determine privileges and wealth distribution. The core of the apartheid distributional regime was to benefit one section of the population while excluding others.[3] The composition of the privileged has changed over time, however.[4]

Initially, the apartheid distributional regime was formulated to serve the interests of white South Africans.[5] White South Africans received the lion’s share of welfare and benefitted from policies that boosted their wages and ensured full employment.[6] In contrast, black South Africans were stripped of land, denied good education and governed by a strict labour policy framework that attempted to centrally plan employment.[7] The foundations of the apartheid distributional regime were state mandated racial discrimination in order to establish and maintain a racialised hierarchy.[8] Many of these key features were abandoned starting in the 70s and going onwards, however.[9] The basis of exclusion in the regime shifted from race to class, as the white South Africans who gained privileges on previous policies and distributions could now sustain their privileges in the market without further state intervention. The market also opened up to previously disenfranchised black South Africans who had increased opportunities to become insiders to the distributional regime.[10] There were still class divides, but no longer purely based on race, but increasingly more on who had access to opportunities, especially education.

Weber’s class analysis focuses on actor’s relation to exchange and their access to opportunities that benefit their quality of life – called life chances.[11] These life chances include things like access to property, but also employment opportunities and good education. The Weberian class system identifies a variety of classes and is defined by their relation to the market. Rather than just workers and capitalists, in the Marxian sense, Weber identifies a whole multitude of varying classes – from lawyers, the landless, doctors, professionals, merchants, and so on.[12] This diverse array of classes provides a more nuanced approach to analysing class structures and is similar to the “9 or 10” classes that Nattrass and Seekings identify in their distributional regime.[13] Life chances, in the Weberian sense, are also very similar to the concept of opportunities in the distributional regime. Life chances and opportunities are determined by a host of factors and determine class. In this way, the Weberian approach and the distributional regime approach are very similar.

Where they depart will be developed later in this article.

While the Weberian approach is decidedly similar to the distributional regime, the Marxian approach is highly incongruent. Seekings accuses the Marxist approach of lacking nuance, being highly limited and being overly simplistic.[14] Marxism, at its core, is about production and the divide between two distinct classes, with no real nuance between them. As Seekings accuses Callebert of doing in invoking a Marxian approach, the idea of a binary class system is like accusing a rural worker without access to any social capital or education as being the same as a highly paid urban worker with access to great schools and well-paid jobs.[15] The problem is that the Marxian approach is limited by its prerogative of production and exploitation.[16] While exploitation no doubt happened under a few definitions in the apartheid distributional regime, the core of the argument is not about capitalist-worker relations, but about how the state used policy to limit opportunities, giving birth to a class structure. While the Marxian approach can help explain some aspects of labour relations, it struggles woefully  to deal with more complex class arrangements, something at which the Weberian and distributional regime approach is much more adept.

Nattrass and Seekings claim to combine elements of Marxist and liberal analysis, while adding elements neglected by both, but I cannot see any real substantive contribution made by the Marxian approach – at least directly.[17] Both the Weberian and Marxian approach do have commonalities, however, but mostly in their treatment of class as a fundamentally economic phenomenon.[18] The distributional regime departs from this over privileging of only the economic sphere and relation to economic factors. While the Marxian approach believes inequality to be inevitable, Nattrass and Seekings believe that inequality and class are rather the result of state action.[19] The Weberian approach touches on a complex system of political action and power relations in determining class, but not blatantly on the role of state action. The distributional regime’s essential feature is the role of state action in determining class, and functions in such a way that it is a useful analytical system even if one ignores the role of class in the analysis.[20] While it cannot be developed further in this article, a good framework to contrast with the distributional regime going forward should be Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach.[21]

This article has given an overview of Nattrass and Seeking’s study of apartheid’s distributional regime, and then analysed the role of the Marxian and Weberian approach to studying this distributional regime. While the Weberian approach was found to have its similarities and uses due to its increased nuance, the Marxian approach was found to be barely usable. Ultimately, the distributional regime approach stands out as useful even without class analysis, as it provides a framework for studying the role of state action and how it affects the population and social hierarchies.


Multiple Sources of Power – Class, Status, and Party. Tregina.ca.  Accessed March 18, 2019. http://uregina.ca/~gingrich/250f2803.htm.

Nattrass, N. and J. Seekings. Class, Race, and Inequality in South Africa. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Seekings, Jeremy. “Taking disadvantage seriously: the ‘underclass’ in Post-apartheid South Africa.” Africa 84, no. 1 (2014): 135 – 141.

Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University press, 1999.

Wright, Erik Olin. “The continuing relevance of class analysis – Comments.” Theory and Society 25, no. 5 (1996): 693-716.


 [1] N. Nattrass and J. Seekings, Class, Race, and Inequality in South Africa, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 4.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid., 6

[5] Ibid., 34.

[6] Ibid., 34-35.

[7] Ibid., 35.

[8] Ibid., 40.

[9] Ibid., 36.

[10] Ibid., 6.

[11] Multiple Sources of Power – Class, Status, and Party, uregina.ca, accessed March 18, 2019, http://uregina.ca/~gingrich/250f2803.htm. Weber’s system of class analysis, due to its nuance, is quite complex. Too complex to fit into a short essay such as this. Read the link provided for more details on the system.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Jeremy Seekings, “Taking disadvantage seriously: the ‘underclass’ in Post-apartheid South Africa,” Africa 84, no. 1 (2014): 135.

[14] Ibid., 139.

[15] Ibid., 139.

[16] Erik Olin Wright, “The continuing relevance of class analysis – Comments,” Theory and Society 25, no. 5 (1996): 696.

[17] Nattrass and Seekings, Class, Race, and Inequality in South Africa, 33.

[18] Wright, “The continuing relevance of class analysis – Comments,” 693-694.

[19] Nattrass and Seekings, Class, Race, and Inequality in South Africa, 33.

[20] The virtue of the distributional regime approach is that it does not need class analysis. It can be used simply to analyse the effects of policy on population prosperity and growth. This makes it not only more nuanced, but also more useful than class analysis alone.

[21] Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University press, 1999)