About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Resistance and Reaction

Class & Colour in South Africa 1850-1950

Jack & Ray Simons

Chapter 24

Trade unionism flourished under conditions of full employment and inflation during the war. Organizers began gathering the results of their stubborn efforts in the preceding decade. Union membership rose from 264,000 in 1939 to 410,000 in 1945, and the number of registered unions from 139 to 203. At the end of 1945 the Non-European Trade Union Council claimed to represent 119 unions and 158,000 organized workers. The movement spread into country districts in the wake of industrial expansion. A food and canning workers' union, organized by Ray Alexander in 1941, spread through small towns and fishing hamlets of the western and eastern Cape. ' Five years ago it was very difficult to form trade unions,' reported H. A. Naidoo, secretary of the Natal sugar workers' union in 1942. 'But today we find workers organizing spontaneously to improve their conditions.'

Africans provided nearly two-thirds of the increase in the labour force during the war. Without them, industry could not have satisfied the demand for goods that were strategically important or vital to the economy: foodstuffs, footwear, clothing, cement, coal, iron, gold, chemicals, explosives and munitions. The number of Africans employed in manufacturing rose by 57 per cent, from 156,500 in 1939 to 245,500 in 1945; and their share of the total so employed rose from 48.6 to 54.6 per cent. At the end of 1948 they accounted for 80.8 per cent of unskilled employees, 34.2 per cent of the semi-skilled, and 5.8 per cent of the skilled in occupations regulated by wage determinations.

A medium-sized African family could not provide for its basic needs with less than £6 10s to £7 12s. 6d. a month in the big towns; yet government and municipal departments, following the standards set on the mines, paid their labourers from £3 to £4. The Non-European Trade Union Council campaigned in 1942 for a minimum wage of 40s. a week, but obtained no more than 25s. rising to 27s. on a sliding scale recommended by the wage board for unskilled labourers in some thirty occupations in the Transvaal.

Organized and unorganized workers responded with a series of strikes on docks, railways, coal mines and sugar estates; in municipal services, dairies, laundries and factories. A record number of 304 strikes, involving 58,000 Africans, Coloured and Indians and 6,000 whites, were reported in 1939-45, as compared with 197 strikes in the fifteen years from 1924 to 1938.

Africans had no statutory right to collective bargaining and were prosecuted if they withheld their labour. This was a major reason for their poverty and discontent, said Dr Xuma, when leading a deputation to the government in March 1942. David Gosani, secretary of the Non-European TUC and a member of the delegation, described in detail how employers and the administration ignored or harassed the unions. He contrasted their position with that of white trade unions before and during the First World War. Like them, he said, Africans were fighting, but under far greater handicaps, for trade union recognition and a living wage.

The African lost on both counts. His poverty was a function of white domination, a contrived inequality that limited his average share of the national income to one tenth of the white man's. Skilled wage rates were from four to five times the unskilled rate in most trades, and from eight to ten times on the mines. Nothing short of a social upheaval could change these proportions. In the exceptionally favourable circumstances of war production, the African's average earnings in private manufacturing rose from 19.8 per cent of white earnings in 1937-8 to 26.6 per cent. This was an interlude. The gap widened again after the war; and the proportion fell to 18.5 per cent by 1957.

Sporadic local strikes might secure small gains; but they canalized the workers' resentments in well-worn grooves and made no lasting impression on wage patterns or opportunities of employment. Committed to a policy of maximizing output during the war, trade union leaders called for restraint. The Communist party pointed out that workers went on strike because they had no other means of obtaining relief from crushing burdens; yet urged them to apply all other forms of pressure 'to obtain a satisfactory settlement, while avoiding any stoppage of work'. The high incidence of strikes indicated a tendency to emphasize immediate demands. There was no intention of turning the strike wave into a revolutionary assault on the bastions of white supremacy.

Police repression and statutory penalties were by far the most effective deterrents. War measure 6 of 1941, published in February with the approval of the trades council, authorized Ivan Walker, the secretary for labour, to fix wages and settle disputes in controlled industries. When African dockers at Durban struck work in August for a wage increase from 4s. to 8s. a day, he made stevedoring a controlled industry, banned the strike and granted an increase of 1s. War measure 9 of 1942 prohibited strikes in industries declared to be essential, and provided for compulsory arbitration. Both measures applied to workers of all races and were especially obnoxious to Africans who, being excluded from industrial councils and conciliation boards, had the least prospect of reaching an agreement with employers.

'Let us realize that we are oppressed, firstly as a race and secondly as workers,' Makabeni told delegates to the Non-European TUC conference in November 1942. 'If this were not the case we would not have to put up so bitter a struggle for recognition of our Trade Unions.' Hopes of finding a liberal solution were then running high. Madeley said he had convinced the cabinet that the level of organization among Africans warranted their inclusion in the system of collective bargaining.Defying racial taboos, he took the unprecedented step of opening the NETUCs conference. 'Don't be too explosive on the question,' he cautioned. ' Recognition of your unions will come about; but you must rely on me.'

Three weeks later he betrayed the confidence for which he had appealed. Unable or unwilling to defy the established order, he set the seal on the African's subordinate status by enacting war measure 145 of 1942. It outlawed strikes by Africans, exposed strikers to the savage maximum penalty of a £500 fine or three years' imprisonment, and imposed compulsory arbitration at his discretion. Repressive action which enabled employers to pay starvation wages would not stop strikes, the Communist party warned, and it called for the repeal of the measure, the recognition of African unions and the extension of collective bargaining. The trades council's annual conference withheld its protest in the interests of national unity.The measure was renewed from time to time long after the war, until the Native Labour (Settlement of Disputes) Act came into force in 1953, when strikes by Africans were made illegal in all circumstances.

No mercy was shown to those who resisted, as on the Northfield colliery near Dundee, Natal, where 400 miners set fire to the company's buildings in September 1942. After making repeated and fruitless complaints to the management, the men had decided on direct action. Some would go to jail, they had said, but the rest might receive better treatment. Their grievances were genuine, Judge Brokensha of the Native High Court acknowledged: assaults by mine policemen and white overseers; overcharging in the company's stores; inadequate rations; bare concrete slabs for beds; and twelve hours underground without food. Yet he sentenced thirty-five miners to terms of imprisonment varying from one year to five years for public violence.

The Johannesburg city council persuaded Madeley to exempt it from a wage determination prescribing a minimum of 24s. a week for unskilled workers, but agreed to pay the new wage after 2,000 African employees struck work in December. Three weeks later, when employees of the Pretoria municipality demonstrated against the council's failure to implement the determination, soldiers were summoned. They fired, killing fourteen Africans and wounding 111. Smuts expressed his deep sorrow and appointed a commission of inquiry. It blamed Madeley, who had illegally exempted the council from the determination; the council, which housed its employees in a slum and fed them badly; and the soldiers who had fired without justification. The recognition of African unions, the commission added, would facilitate the amicable settlement of disputes and avoid strikes more effectively than war measure 145.

British and Afrikaner racists sent up a chorus of protest. It would be very dangerous, said Marwick, leader of Natal's Dominion party, to confer the privileges of trade unionism on 'undisciplined Natives' who were 'devoid of a sense of responsibility and almost barbarian in their outlook '. Heaton Nicholls, chairman of the native affairs commission, denied the validity of the class theory in South Africa, and warned that people ' just emerging from barbarism ' would inevitably succumb to the dangerous promptings of 'some unbalanced semi-educated native' or 'disreputable European' battening on 'Native ignorance and cupidity'.

Reactionary trade unionists said much the same thing at a conference called by Madeley in October 1943. Those present included twenty Africans and thirteen whites representing trade unions, the ANC, the Native Representative Council and the S.A. Institute of Race Relations. They agreed that the Industrial Conciliation Act should be so amended as to give Africans the same rights and responsibilities as other workers. The only dissenting note came from three representatives of the Trades and Labour Council: A. J. Downes, the president; W. J. de Vries, the general secretary; and T. C. Rutherford, secretary of the typographical union.

They took the view that though annual conferences of the TLC had repeatedly asked for the full recognition of African unions, few delegates understood all the implications. Race prejudice could not be stamped out by acts of parliament, Rutherford argued. White trade unionists would refuse to admit Africans as members or sit with them on industrial councils. Africans, said de Vries, 'have not yet reached a stage of mental and cultural development in which they can be entrusted with the rights and duties involved in recognition of their unions'.

His plea for discrimination was transparently false. A significant number of viable African unions had emerged after twenty-five years of painful endeavour. Capable organizers like Makabeni, Koza, Tloome and Marks had proved their ability to cope with police repression, hostile employers and opposition from right wing labour leaders. The immaturity of the rank-and-file was also a myth - Africans were accustomed in their traditional peasant society to democratic procedures and the discipline of majority rule which, the Industrial Legislation Commission of 1951 observed, formed 'an admirable background to their participation in trade unionism'.

The right wing of the labour movement would have it that Africans were unfit to manage their own affairs. The Labour party's parliamentary caucus said as much in February 1911, when it turned down a request from the Cape Federation of Labour Unions to press for the recognition of African unions. The Trades and Labour Council rejected a motion to that effect in April on a card vote, and thereby reversed the stand it had taken on the issue since 1925. The council unanimously agreed, however, to a Workers' Charter, a statement of high ideals in the best traditions of social democracy. The charter proclaimed the virtues of socialism, called for planned production, and listed a series of universal rights, including free trade unionism and collective bargaining. All crucial questions relating to class solidarity, such as the colour bar and the status of African unions, were ignored or submerged in clichés. This rejection of the African's claims proved to be decisive. A conference of 142 delegates from seventy-five unions convened by the Non-European TUC in August 1945 resolved to continue the campaign, but it had lost momentum and never again came so close to victory as in 1943-4.

A number of consequences followed to which employers and the administration took exception. Some left-wing unions evaded the law by admitting Africans to membership and were threatened with deregistration. The Supreme Court uncovered loopholes in the Industrial Conciliation Act by holding that the definition of employee included all African women and some men such as parliamentary voters in the Cape. Uncontrolled unions, said employers, were likely to fall into the hands of communists, extremists and subversive elements. A strike of African miners in August 1946 provoked alarm and spurred the government into action. Smuts told parliament that 100 African unions were functioning and would 'fall under the influence of the wrong people' unless they were recognized 'on a basis of apartheid so that unnecessary difficulties will not arise'.

A bill embodying these ideas appeared in May 1947. It sought to make trade unionism illegal and a criminal offence for Africans in mining, farming, railways, government and domestic service; outlaw all strikes by Africans; isolate them in segregated registered unions; prohibit them from forming unregistered unions; and prevent any non-African or African alien from holding office without the minister's consent. Disputes would be referred to local conciliation committees of employers' and workers' representatives. Failing agreement, a mediation board of government officials and nominees might make an award under compulsory arbitration.

Trade unions, the African National Congress, Native Representative Council and Communist party protested vigorously. The bill threatened the rights of all workers, they said; violated the principles of the TLCs Charter and the International Labour Charter of Philadelphia; and was meant to give government officials the power 'to dictate wages and conditions of employment to African workers, whether they like them or not'. On the other hand five Afrikaner unions withdrew from the Trades and Labour Council because it refused to bar the affiliation of African unions. In view of these cross currents, the government decided to refer the bill to an industrial legislation commission. It was actually appointed by the Nationalist government which took office in May 1948. The commission recommended a system of racial segregation for trade unions, and some of its findings were incorporated in the Natives (Settlement of Disputes) Act of 1953. The Act reproduced the worst features of Smuts's bill and deprived African unions of any recognized role. He would leave them to die a natural death, said B. J. Schoeman, the minister of labour.

With a candour characteristic of the regime, the industrial legislation commission of 1948-51 refused to conceal its motives behind false assertions of racial inferiority, and frankly acknowledged that Africans were feared for their vigour and capability. If allowed to secure parity of bargaining power, they 'could not be restricted indefinitely to unskilled or even semi-skilled work, but would get an increasing hold on skilled occupations'. Nothing less than white supremacy was at stake, or so the commission argued. For, it said, the 'logical result' of the proposal to include them in the definition of employee was ' solidarity of labour irrespective of race' and in the long run the 'complete social and political equality of all races'.

White workers fought tenaciously to protect their privileges against all pressure to expand production. The acute housing shortage that developed during the war underlined the inflexibility of the colour bar. Some 130,000 new houses were needed by 1945 for whites and a far greater number for other groups. The scarcity became a national scandal, and the government reacted by passing the Housing (Emergency Powers) Act of 1945. It authorized public authorities to expropriate land and materials, build houses and conscript workers. Artisans registered under the act were guaranteed full employment or eighty per cent of their basic wage for ten years. The building unions reciprocated by undertaking to absorb 5,000 discharged soldiers; and turned down a government proposal to train Africans to build houses for their own people.

The government went ahead, however, and authorized COTT, the Central Organization for Technical Training, to train African ex-servicemen at Milner Park, Johannesburg, as bricklayers, plasterers, painters and carpenters. Building unions blacklisted the scheme, placed pickets outside the centre, and ordered the instructors to withdraw under the threat of losing their union membership. Danie du Plessis, secretary of the Johannesburg branch of the building workers' union and a leading communist, was expelled for publishing a resolution urging that training facilities be made available to men of all races. According to the general secretary, W. Blake, his union was 'inflexibly opposed to the training of Natives as building artisans'.

Building labourers did all the heavy, dirty work for a basic wage of 9.5d. an hour as compared with the artisan's wage of 4s. 5d. In 1947, during an eight weeks' strike of white building workers on the Rand, the labourers were left to starve while the strikers drew £3 a week in strike pay out of funds subscribed by trade unions and the general public. The strikers refused to assist their co-workers or support their demand for a wage of 1s. 5d. an hour. When the strike was settled, the whites received an increase of 10.5d. and the labourers went back to work at the old rate of 9.5d.

After a year of wrangling during which some 200 Africans completed the course of training, the government closed the Milner Park centre in November 1947 and decided to train building artisans at Kingwilliamstown in the eastern Cape. They would be employed at Zwelitsha (New Era), an adjoining African township for employees of a textile factory built with public funds and conducted jointly by state and private enterprise. It was the first 'border' industry established to absorb landless peasants and keep them out of the cities. Here they could be employed as operatives and artisans without the restraint of colour bars, trade unionism or the rule of equal pay for equal work.

All this was grist to the Nationalist party's electoral mill on the eve of the 1948 general election. The government was said to have played into the hands of communists who had abandoned their earlier slogan of a 'white South Africa' for a programme of racial equality. 'Here we have the thin edge of the wedge,' declared J. G. Strydom, a future prime minister. 'Therefore with all the strength that in me lies, I protest against their policy, because it will mean another nail in the coffin of the White man and of European civilization.' Africans, he warned, would compete for skilled work and drive white men out of the trades. Within a fortnight of being installed as minister for labour in the new cabinet, B. J. Schoeman announced that the training of Africans as artisans would be suspended until legislation had been passed to protect the white worker. The safeguards were introduced by the Native Building Workers Act of 1951, which prohibits Africans from performing skilled work on buildings in urban areas except in the segregated townships.

The involvement of Nationalists in trade union politics intensified after 1944, when they formed the Blankewerkersbeskermingsbond (society for the protection of white workers). Any white Christian protestant willing to fight for white civilization was invited to join. The Bond's membership in June 1946 consisted of 1,058 workers drawn from seventy-two occupations; and 1,308 others, listed as professional men, farmers, housewives, pensioners and persons of no stated occupation. Seldom has a reputed labour organization had so variegated and dormant a body or so distinguished a head. Besides four predikants and the ex-teacher D. E. Ellis, later the general secretary of the miners' union, the Bond's executive committee included seven men who were to sit in parliament. Five would hold cabinet rank: Dr Verwoerd as prime minister; Dr Diederichs as minister of commerce; B. J. Schoeman as minister of labour and then of transport; J. de Klerk, also as minister of labour and later of interior; and F. E. Mentz as a deputy minister.

The calibre of the leadership denoted the importance attached to the work of the Bond. Its professed aim was to propagate christian nationalism, combat communism, agitate for segregation and generally to promote workers' interests. Functionally it served to detach Afrikaners from the labour movement and secure their allegiance to the Nationalist party. Through the medium of their monthly journal Die Blanke Werker (The White Worker), Diederichs and his fellow crusaders preached the doctrine of organic solidarity between Afrikaner employer, worker and consumer. In an earlier, happier age South Africa, it was said, knew no class divisions except between white and black. The humble share-cropper ate at the table of the farmer's family; men were judged by birth, deeds and character, and not by education, wealth or rank. It was the foreigner, capitalist and trade unionist, who disrupted the idyllic order. Working in collusion, they grew fat on the blood and sweat of the simpleminded Afrikaner, implanted unnational ideas, and divided the Volk into antagonistic classes. The Bond's mission was to restore harmony between members of the Volk who felt as one and belonged together.

The naivety of this ideological folk tale revealed the single-mindedness of the Bond and the narrow range of its design to foster a fervent nationalism which would dispel all traces of class consciousness in the Afrikaner worker. A compact' highly organized community linked by language, religion and race would resist assimilation into the dominant English culture: or the internationalism of the labour movement. Taking their cue from Holland's Christian nationalists, the pedagogic Calvinists who forged the intellectual armoury of the Afrikaner bourgeosie produced a local brand of totalitarianism suited to their hegemonic aspirations. Liberal concepts of free competition, individual liberty and equality before the law were as obnoxious as the communist doctrine of economic determinism, class struggle and socialist equality. Communism and free trade unionism, which alienated Afrikaner workers from the Nationalist party and church, were the greater menace and the Bond's chief target of attack.

The Bond, said its chairman Ben Schoeman, would purify the unions of unnational influences and eradicate the communist leaders who preached atheism and stirred up class war. His party, he told parliament, proposed to introduce 'a new economic order' in which the state would regulate wages and confine the unions to the role of looking after domestic matters and the workers' spiritual welfare. The theme was elaborated in the Nationalist social and economic programme of 1946. It rejected the one-sided aims of capitalism and communism' acknowledged the virtues of private property, and declared that labour was no less necessary than capital to economic welfare, though neither should be applied to selfish ends. The state ought to control key industries; ensure a fair distribution of profits between workers, shareholders and the community; and maintain 'the proper and necessary equilibrium between the respective sectional interests'. In return for these benefits, labour would have to accept state control. The Afrikaner nation was a moral and economic entity in which human values took precedence over financial considerations.

As greedy for profits as their British counterpart, Afrikaner capitalists flourished in later years under the Nationalist regime and ignored banal phrases culled from fascist doctrines of the corporate state. Mussolini at least claimed to speak for Italians of all classes; whereas the Nationalists excluded four-fifths of the population from their vision of the ideal society. Black and brown South Africans appeared in the programme as 'an important and valuable economic factor' whose welfare would be considered only after effective steps had been taken to segregate them. Their destiny was to remain wards under trusteeship, that essential instrument for the protection of the white man's status and civilization. Or so the programme declared.

Its appeal was limited to Afrikaners. They were promised protection and privilege within the warm, familiar embrace of the Volk and under the mantle of bourgeois politicians, predikants, teachers and lawyers whom they had learned to honour and obey. Exposed to a massive propaganda campaign while still in a state of transition from the rural community, many workers found the appeal almost irresistible, the more so because of the alien character of the capitalist class. English-speaking for the most part, unsympathetic to the Afrikaner's language, tradition and religion, employers as a body recognizably conformed to the stereotype of the Bond's propaganda.

The flabby clique that controlled the Labour party never offered a real alternative. Predominantly English, deeply divided and discredited by its long association with Smuts, the party failed to secure the backing of even the right wing in the Trades and Labour Council. 'Labour will not win for many years,' said L. J. van den Berg, secretary of the iron and steel trades association, an Afrikaner union centred in Pretoria, when addressing the council's annual conference in 1946. 'We know that we cannot get our own members to agree on supporting any one party, but they are sick and tired of these divisions.' He moved that the council 'immediately take steps to get direct representation as strong as possible in the House of Parliament'. Conservative and radical delegates rejected his motion, and thereby wrecked any prospect of detaching a significant number of Afrikaners from their allegiance to the Nationalist party.

In the following year van den Berg and George McCormick, secretary of the engine drivers' and firemen's union, moved an amendment to the council's constitution which would bar African unions from membership. Conference defeated the motion by 115 votes to thirty, and the delegates of five Pretoria unions withdrew. The slogan of racial equality, they said, emanated from the communists, resulted in the exploitation of the African, and undermined the position of the white worker.

The dissident unions formed Die ko-ordinerende Raad van Suid-Afrikaanse Vakverenigings in 1948. Its constitution denied affiliation to any union in which Africans, Coloured and Indians had full rights of membership. Afrikaner nationalism had achieved its first major success in the long struggle to penetrate the trade union movement.

The Nationalists made little headway in unions under militant leaders who gave their members political education in addition to material benefits. E. S. Sachs survived twenty years of vilification, physical violence and hooliganism by defending the garment workers' union with skill and courage; and by obtaining substantial benefits: a rise in weekly wages from £1 to £7 for women and from £3 to £15 for men; a reduction in the working week from fifty hours to forty; and an increase in the number of paid holidays from two to twenty-eight a year. The national union of distributive workers and the food workers' union in the western Cape were equally successful in beating back attacks by the Blankewerkersfederasie, an organization formed in 1944 as a parallel movement to the Beskermingsbond.

J. W. van Staden, the moving spirit behind the federation, was a former organizer of the Nationalist party who resigned the position so that he could devote himself, he said, to the mission of rescuing Afrikaners from foreign communists, Jewish trade unionists, class war and racial intermingling. The practical advantages of trade unionism, he argued, did not compensate for the spiritual injury it inflicted on Afrikaners, whose true home was the Nationalist party. Not surprisingly, van Staden never produced a viable union. He was allowed to register five unions for white workers only, and they disintegrated after the manoeuvre had served its purpose. 'The necessity for such an organization [as the Federasie] disappeared when the National party came to power, 'the latter's official historian recorded, ' and Mr van Staden was taken into the party's administration.' He became its assistant secretary and was elected to the provincial council in 1949 and to parliament in 1958.

The disruptive strategy of the Nationalists scored its only success in the mine workers' union, largely because of the executive's bad management and compromising relations with the mine owners. Starting with a wage demand in 1943 and the rejection of strike action by a majority of members in a ballot, the executive followed the precedent set by Crawford and Forrester Brown in the First World War and agreed in September 1944 to waive all claims to a general increase of wages 'until existing conditions underwent a very material change'. In return, the Chamber would pay £100,000 a year for five years into a fund to be used for housing loans to miners, the financing of cooperative stores, and the purchase of farms managed by the union. The scheme led to the undoing of the general secretary, B. B. Brodrick, and his committee. Without experience or ability in commercial enterprise, they incurred heavy losses, made improper loans to officials and organizers, falsified the minutes and exposed themselves to a charge of corruption.

The Blankewerkersbeskermingsbond exploited these failings to its great advantage. Ellis and Hertzog revived the rank-and-file opposition movement under the name of the action committee, later styled the united mine workers' committee; urged miners to withhold their subscriptions to the union; and in 1946 called a strike in protest against the dismissal of one Hattingh who, having refused to pay membership fees, was expelled from the union and consequently lost his job. Dr Malan moved the adjournment of the House on a matter of urgent public importance in order to discuss the strike; the union's general council terminated Brodrick's employment in April; and Smuts appointed a commission to inquire into the union's affairs. 'The strikers,' jubilated the Nationalists, 'had won with the help of the Nationalist party and our great national newspaper Die Transvaler.'

The commission made a scapegoat of Brodrick and his committee but concealed the role of the Nationalists and their disruptive agencies. They organized another strike in January 1947 which received financial aid from Nationalist party members of parliament, branches, trade unions and churches. 'The mine workers of the Reef,' said Dr Albert Hertzog, 'refused to work as long as the existing management of the Mine Workers' union remained in office.' Three successful court actions brought by the united mine workers' committee between August 1946 and May 1948 led to the annulment of elections in which the committee's nominees had suffered defeat. Success came to them in November 1948, five months after the Nationalists had taken office and in elections supervised by the government. Ellis was appointed general secretary of the union in the same month. Like his predecessor, he enforced a closed shop and told the miners to 'pay up or get out'; but sugared the threat by claiming that they had gained a million pounds in higher wages and other benefits under his leadership.

Yet another commission, proposed by Smuts and actually appointed by Schoeman, reported in September 1949 that miners were worse off than in 1938, both absolutely and in comparison with workers in secondary industry. Three days later, the government devalued the £ by thirty per cent in terms of dollars. The price of gold rose from 172s. 6d. an ounce to 248s. 3d.; the mining of low-grade ores became profitable; and the Chamber agreed to an increase of twelve or fifteen per cent in wages with improvements in pensions and other benefits. The change of government, the capture of the union by Ellis's faction, the commission's report and devaluation had averted a deadlock such as the one that resulted in the great miners' strike of 1922.

Ellis claimed the credit for the increases; and continued his predecessor's bad habits. Ruling the union with a firm hand, 'he was very much in the position of a dictator'. Under his guidance and using the money contributed by the Chamber in terms of the 1944 agreement, the union paid £176,000 for a building constructed at a cost of £108,000 and which the owners were willing to sell for £140,000. At the same time the owners offered Ellis a one-third interest in a liquor store valued at £6,100. Other members of his executive might have been negligent, reported a government commission; only Ellis was corrupt. He was sentenced to eighteen months' hard labour for falsitas in a private prosecution instituted by P. J. Visser, the union's president, but the Supreme Court set the conviction aside on the ground that Visser had no title to prosecute. Ellis was reinstated as secretary of the union and retained the position until his death in 1963.

Untainted by corruption and doomed to failure under the combined onslaught of government, owners and white miners, the struggle of the African miners for a living wage had the epic quality of a mass movement of industrial serfs who risked life and liberty for elementary justice. The basic cash wage per shift of an underground worker was 2s. in 1942, as compared with 1s. 8d. in 1936 and 2s. 6d. in 1890. Yet the government specifically excluded mine labourers from the compulsory cost of living allowance paid by employers in terms of war measure 28 of 1941.

The excuse given was that men housed in compounds received free quarters and food as part of their wage. Yet, as the African Mine Workers' Union told Smuts by letter on 12 September 1941, miners were paying inflated prices for boots, blankets, cigarettes and food purchased to supplement the compound rations. Moreover, and this was a major complaint, the rise in prices had seriously affected the peasant families of migrant workers. By removing the discrimination against African miners, the union argued, the government would give the people some reason to believe its claim that the war was being fought 'for a better world, for democracy, for a secure and better living for every human being'.

The union was then being revitalized by an organizing committee appointed at a conference held on 3 August 1941 in Johannesburg on the initiative of the Transvaal African National Congress, and attended by eighty-one delegates from thirty-nine trade unions, Communist party branches, the Non-European United Front and the S.A. Institute of Race Relations. The moving spirits were S. P. Matseke, the Transvaal chairman of the ANC; Gauer Radebe, a member of the congress executive and of the Communist party; and James Majoro, a clerk. on the Nourse mines and leading member of the African Mine Clerks' Association. The Chamber had refused to pay the statutory cost of living allowance to the clerks and other employees who were not housed in compounds. Bitterly aggrieved, many clerks supported the union and influenced the ' boss boys', and through them the working miners, to follow its lead; but the organization had to be built slowly and under great difficulties by means of direct individual contacts.

The formation in 1942 of the African Gas and Power Workers' Union, representing men employed by the Victoria Falls Power Company which supplied electricity to mines along the Reef, introduced an important factor. Excluded from a wage determination in November for unskilled labourers, the union's members submitted a demand for £1 15s. a week and, when this was refused, struck work in December at the Rouxville power station. The company then agreed to negotiate but would not make any concession. allegedly because it would spark off similar demands by the miners. Both unions thereupon urged Madeley to refer the dispute to an arbitrator or the wage board.

In response to this pressure, the government announced in February 1943 that it had appointed the Witwatersrand Mine Natives' Wages Commission under the chairmanship of Justice Lansdowne to investigate wages and conditions of Africans employed on gold mines. Its terms of reference were extended in July to include employees of the V.F.P. company. The commission began its inquiries in May and reported to the government in December. J. B. Marks, who had taken over the presidency of the miners' union early in the year, launched a vigorous recruiting drive with the assistance of Majoro, the union's secretary. Organizers were appointed and meetings were held along the Reef. In 1944 the union claimed to have more than 25,000 registered members, each paying 1s. enrolment fee and a monthly subscription of 6d.

A strike of 2,600 power station employees in January revealed their mood of resentful impatience. They had tried for twelve months to reach a peaceful settlement, the union declared, and were not prepared to wait any longer. 'Our strike is now the responsibility of the Company and the government. The V.F.P. Company made £1,250,000 profit last year. We are expected to live on 16s. a week!' Members of the Native Military Corps were used to break the strike; and the strikers went back to work with a promise that improvements resulting from the Lansdowne commission would be made retrospective to 1 January.

The commission rejected the company's argument that its African employees should receive the same wage as the miners because the mines were its largest customers. The V.F.P. workers, the commission recommended, should be brought under the wage determination for unskilled labourers and receive 25s. a week and two weeks' annual leave on full pay. As for the miners, the commission proposed an increase of 5d. a shift, a cost of living allowance of 3d. a shift, a boot allowance of 3s. per thirty completed shifts, and overtime pay at the rate of time and a half. Permanent employees should receive a cost of living allowance of 5d. a shift and two weeks' paid leave a year. The cost of these improvements to the mine owners was estimated at £2,642,000 a year.

The government and Chamber of Mines accepted the commission's recommendation on overtime pay; rejected the proposed cost of living allowance, boot allowance and paid annual leave; and granted increases of 4d. and 5d. per shift for surface and underground workers respectively. This would mean an increase of £1,850,000, or 7d. per ton milled in working costs. The commission had pointed out that the industry, which distributed £17,000,000 a year to its shareholders and contributed £27,500,000 in direct payment to the state, could well afford an additional £2,600,000 in wages to its lowest paid employees. Smuts disagreed, and told parliament that the government would assist the mines by refunding the proceeds of the gold realization charge of 32s. per ounce of fine gold. Taxpayers and not mine owners were to bear the cost of the wage increase.

Employees of the Victoria Falls Power Company would receive no more than the increase of 4d. a day awarded to surface workers on the mines. That, said the union, meant a miserable weekly wage of 14s. plus 4s. cost of living allowance. The union threatened strike action. Smuts told the Trades and Labour Council that any further increase would 'create uncontrollable consequences and lead to great dissatisfaction among the mine workers'. The African miners' union called a conference in August 1944 which was attended by 700 delegates and 1,300 members from every mine along the Reef. Marks told them that 'the whole system of colour discrimination, segregation and oppression directed against the African people was powerfully supported by the Chamber of Mines'. Backed by Dr Xuma, the ANC president. Victor Poto, paramount chief of Pondoland Lekhotla la Bafo and other leaders, the conference declared that the government's proposals were ' hopelessly inadequate'; demanded a wage board inquiry; and undertook to continue the struggle for the union's recognition.

Though generally in favour of African unions, the Lansdowne commission deplored the influence of communists and considered that miners ' had not yet reached the stage of development which would enable them safely and usefully to employ trade unionism'. This, the union told the commission, was a ' complete misconception' and contrary to its own experiences. Whereas the Chamber maintained that compound managers dealt adequately with individual grievances, the union cited cases of 'barbaric treatment' meted out to workers by managers or their subordinates; and asked for the abolition of the compound system. It tended to cause overcrowding, unbalanced diets, the neglect of sick and injured workers, and ill treatment by the mine police. The Guardian published extracts from the union's memorandum and was sued for libel by four companies. They claimed £10,000 damages each and were awarded £750 with costs, which the paper paid out of donations from readers and supporters at home and abroad.

The Chamber refused to negotiate with the union, instructed officials to ignore its letters, planted a spy in its council and victimized its members. The government struck a more serious blow in August, soon after the conference, by enacting war measure 1425 which prohibited gatherings of more than twenty persons on proclaimed mining ground. Forced back into a state of doubtful legality, the union held clandestine meetings at night under mine dumps. The ban' observed Marks, was 'the beginning of the undoing of the union'. The collection of subs and the registration of new members became almost a physical impossibility. Arrests and assaults of organizers and union leaders were the order of the day. An all-out attempt was made to drive the union out of existence. A deputation from the ANC, Labour party and Non-European TUC interviewed Colin Steyn, the minister of justice, in November 1945 and asked him to withdraw the measure. He was sympathetic, he said, and assured them that the position would be reviewed; yet the ban was renewed, and expired only on 30 June 1956, more than ten years after the end of the war.

Added to these troubles was a food shortage in 1945 that led to the reduction of rations in the compound and the substitution of limited quantities of canned beef for fresh meat. The Chamber of Mines paid a tribute to the men for 'their reasonable and peaceful acceptance' of the cuts; but patience wore thin towards the end of the year as peasant families, sorely stricken by famine, appealed to husbands and sons for an increased remittance. Miners complained of not being able to supplement their reduced rations' and went on deputations to compound managers. Police attacked a group of protesting miners outside the compound kitchen of Modderfontein East mine in March 1946, killed one man and injured forty. More than 2,000 delegates from shafts and compounds attended a conference called by the miners' union in April and resolved to demand a minimum wage of 10s. a day, adequate food and the withdrawal of war measure 1425.

One-day protest strikes broke out when miners presenting these demands met with a blank refusal. Commenting on the disturbances, the native affairs department issued a denial in May of rumours that the government intended to ask the Chamber to grant an increase of pay. As in 1922, Smuts decided to 'let things develop' and ignored all warnings and appeals for his intervention. The climax carne in August. On Sunday the 4th, some 1,000 delegates from the Rand mines attended an open air conference and decided to call a strike on the 12th. The proceedings were widely publicized, but mine owners and government refused to credit Africans with the capacity to organize concerted action on a large scale in defiance of the elaborate system of surveillance, intimidation and espionage that operated in the compounds.

The Chamber took precautions. On 10 August it agreed with representatives of the white mining unions and the Trades and Labour Council on measures to prevent flooding and a breakdown of power in the event of a strike.59 Encouraged by the willingness of white workers to scab, the Chamber refused to negotiate with the African miners' union. Migratory, tribal, peasant miners, the gold producers' committee argued in November, were 'not yet sufficiently advanced for trade unionism'. They did not want a trade union, 'had fallen an easy prey to control by alien interests', and showed 'a serious element of irresponsibility' in demanding 10s. a day.

In reality, the mine owners crushed every attempt by the men to think for themselves, follow leaders of their own choosing, and act collectively for the achievement of aims freely adopted. The Chamber, said the committee, pursued the national policy of European trusteeship and the preservation of tribal society. ' Conflict between the allegiance demanded by a trade union and those owed to the tribe would tend to disrupt tribal life, a result diametrically opposed to the basic principle of national policy.' This was an astounding and impudent distortion of the actual policy adopted by a gigantic organization that over the years had sucked millions of men, at the height of their manhood, into the degrading life of compounds situated in the midst of the most urbanized, sophisticated and depraved society in Africa.

The Chamber devoted six lines of print in its annual report to the strike which, it said, had led to a stoppage of work by 76,000 men for a wage of 10s. a day. 'There were instances of violence on the part of some of the strikers which necessitated police intervention. The strike was spasmodic and within four days all the Natives had returned to work. The mines involved suffered serious loss owing to the full or partial cessation of mining operations.' 61 The austerity of the comment masked the fact that this was the biggest strike and one of the most shameful episodes in South Africa's long record of repression.

A huge army of peasant workers had sacrificed health and life in the bowels of the earth for sixty years. On the owners' own showing, the miner's wage was not sufficient to keep himself and his family alive. The mines were being subsidized by peasant families throughout the sub-continent, who produced from forty-five to sixty per cent of their household income and depended for the rest on money earned by the working miner. The owners, shareholders, industrialists, merchants and farmers of South Africa owed much of their wealth to this gross exploitation. For it was a proud claim of the mining interests that gold made a major contribution to the country's economic growth and prosperity.

The African miners had not shared in the prosperity. When they struck for a wage that fell far short of the value of their contribution to the national income and the shareholders' dividends, they were forced back to work by police and compound officials who drove them out of their rooms, beat them with clubs and rifles, and fired on them when they gathered outside the compounds or marched in procession to claim their passes with a view to returning home. Their leaders were arrested and charged with breach of contract, or public violence, or violation of the Riotous Assemblies Act or war measure 145.

Clinging obstinately to the stand taken up during the years of organization and pressure for a peaceful settlement, mine owners and government used force to break the strike. It demonstrated the miners' will and capacity to organize and the importance of their role in the industry. In 1922, when all white miners stopped work, the mines maintained a measure of production. The Africans' strike in contrast brought twelve mines, where the stoppage was complete, to a standstill and partially paralysed nine others.

Most of the stoppages began on Monday the 12th; the last of the strikers to return to work did so on Saturday the 17th; and the strike was broken on the 15th, when the police went into action with rifles and clubs. Nine Africans were reported to have died and 1,248 injured in the clashes, but the actual number of casualties was never made known. No policeman or civilian was attacked, and no property was damaged. All the violence came from the police. The government refused to appoint a commission of inquiry, the Chamber never reported fully on the strike, and the African miners' union was nearly destroyed by the arrests and prosecutions that followed.

Our account of the actual course of the strike must be confined to a few of the significant events described in the press and by the prosecution's witnesses at trials of members of the Communist party's central committee. 62 The police arrived at Sub Nigel mine on 12 August at 8 a.m. to find 1,500 strikers sitting in their dormitories in the compound. The manager called for the arrest of five ringleaders; but the police advised against the action and sent for reinforcements. When these came, the native commissioner was addressing the men, who shouted him down and returned to their rooms where they remained until the next day. The police were called in again, arrived at 8.30 a.m. and found the strikers sitting, standing, talking, dancing or waving sticks on an embankment outside the compound. The police began to encircle them, whereupon they advanced and threw sticks. Unarmed police recruits and African constables took to their heels, while the police with arms fired on the strikers. They turned and fled to the compound in such panic that many were jammed in the gates. Four Africans died from being trampled on, one man was shot dead, and ten or twelve were wounded by bullets.

The men went down the Nigel mine on the 15th; while 1,000 staged a sit-down strike in the stopes. Favoured by the cramped space, policemen attacked the strikers, broke them up into small groups, and drove them up stope by stope, level by level, until they reached the surface, where they were confronted by a large reinforcement of police. A similar sit-down strike took place on the same day in the City Deep mine after the men had been shepherded to the shaft heads. Once underground they refused to work. The police then drove them back to the compound, using their batons freely in a general stampede and injuring some fifty strikers.

Police armed with fixed bayonets attacked groups of demonstrators and hunted strikers who fled into the veld rather than go down the mine. A large body of some 4,000 men set out from West Springs towards Johannesburg on Tuesday the 13th. The police intercepted them, fired on them and, fanning out, herded them back to the compounds. The incident figured prominently in the trials as alleged evidence of a plot to attack. the city, though the prosecution could establish no motive other than an intention to recover passes from the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association and for a return home to the villages.

There were many reasons for the failure of the strike: insufficient preparation, tactical weaknesses, the early arrest of the union's leaders, poor communications between the union and the strikers, their virtual isolation in the cornpounds which were turned into armed fortresses, and the violence of the police. It was no small achievement' however, for the men to have lifted a corner of the veil of professed benevolence and parental care that the Chamber had drawn over conditions on the mines. The attacks on unarmed men, the employment of some 2,000 policemen to drive strikers back to work, and the refusal to allow men to return to their villages - all this went to show that the mines employed forced labour on a vast scale. Neither the Chamber nor the government could afford to let it be known that the miners had real and substantial grievances. It was necessary to find a scapegoat.

Smuts 'was not unduly concerned', he told the Transvaal head committee of the United party on the third day of the strike, because, he said, it 'was not caused by legitimate grievances but by agitators' who were 'trying to Iead the natives and the country to destruction'. Africans had to be 'protected from these people'; and he would 'take steps to see that these matters were put right'. He had in mind the usual dreary round of police harassment, raids, arrests and prosecutions. Marks, the chairman of the miners' union, was arrested on the second day, together with other union officials, distributors of leaflets, and strikers. The arrest of James Philips, chairman of a general strike committee, and members of the Non-European Trade Union Council, followed. By Friday the 16th, eighty-eight persons had appeared in the Johannesburg magistrates court for alleged breaches of the Riotous Assemblies Act or of the Native Labour Regulation Act

The decision to call a general strike was taken on the 13th at a meeting over which Marks was presiding when the police burst in and arrested him. The strike committee issued leaflets which the police confiscated; called meetings which the magistrate banned; and met with a positive response only from Coloured workers at two tobacco factories, who were beaten up and dispersed by the police.' Miners were told that the general strike was coming to their aid but 'the courage was ebbing out', a participant noted, and with it the confidence that had inspired the moving spirits. Daniel Koza and Gana Makabeni urged the committee to dissolve when it met at Orlando on the 17Th; and withdrew after it had rejected their proposal. The rump adjourned in a mood of despondency and could not be brought together again.

The parallels with the 1922 strike come irresistibly to mind. On both occasions communists were in the vanguard, directing operations, writing, printing and distributing leaflets, exhorting the masses to stand fast and to extend the strike. In 1946, as in 1922, a proposed general strike fizzled out, and the miners were left to battle on their own. The white miners fought harder, with greater violence and more skill, but they, too, went down to defeat before the state's armed force, in spite of material and moral backing from the whole labour movement and the Nationalist party. In 1946 the Labour party's national council, local committees of the Trades and Labour Council, and a group of prominent white liberals denounced the police terror and called for negotiations between miners and mine owners.The national executive of the TLC, or those who spoke in its name, responded to a request for information from the World Federation of Trade Unions with a cable reading: 'Appears natives were misled by irresponsible people. Police methods controlling strike drastic but warranted. Such action was necessary to maintain law and order and prevent chaos.'

Both strikes had repercussions that tended to deflect currents of class struggle into channels of nationalism. The strike of 1922 led to an alliance between white labour and Afrikaner nationalism; that of 1946 to an alliance between communists and African nationalism. By means of political power, the white miners achieved their aim of sheltered employment behind statutory colour bars under the Nationalist-Labour pact government. African miners suffered a lasting defeat. Their strike was followed by the dissolution of the Native Representative Council the prosecution of communists and the suppression of their party by statute; the formation of the Congress Alliance; and the emergence under a Nationalist party government of a police state using fascist techniques to entrench white supremacy and extend a colonial empire.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.