Document 114 - (National Liberation League?), How To Work Among Urban Africans

From: South Africa's Radical Tradition, a documentary history, Volume One 1907 - 1950, by Allison Drew

In this statement an attempt is made to indicate the lines on which our work among Africans in urban areas should take. The statement is confined to work among Africans in urban areas because of the following:-

a) Being in touch with modem forms of organisation and having imbibed new ideas they are the basis and potential leaders of the national liberatory movement of Africans in this country; 

b) Methods suggested in it do not suit tribal rural South Africa, and could not therefore be apply there; and

c) As a Party we have no organisational contact or base in the rural areas.

To prevent any misunderstanding regarding the aim and object of the proposed lines of work it is necessary to point out at the outset that: the suggestions are merely intended aid to the building of a solid and broad independent militant national emancipatory movement among Africans and a leadership for such a movement. In no way should the suggestions be taken as the abandonment of the building of that movement.

Of the seven and a half million non-Europeans in the Union, there are three distinct groups; the Coloured, the Indian and the African. The three of them differ in custom, tradition and cultural development. The African, the least developed of the three, is by far the largest. Comprising six and a half millions. It is with this group that we are concerned here.

Because of their backwardness and greatness in number, Africans have come to be looked upon by the ruling class in this country as an economic asset. To the ruling class the Africans' great number means a rich field for exploitation and their backwardness a safeguard against any interruption in this exploitation.

In order to perpetuate their exploitation Africans have been robbed of land, starved of education, paid a miserable wage, heavily taxed; in fact denied every elementary political, economic and social right.

But they must be given a piece of land on which to squat, breed and eke out a meagre existence; hunger and heavy taxation must force them to come out and work on the mines, farms, factories and workshops so that the capitalists may get their profits. Their movements must always be strictly controlled by means of harassing and harsh Pass Laws, and they must not be taught anything or allowed participation in the political life of the country for this would make them dangerous and unexploitable. So "their culture" (backwardness) must be preserved and developed for them.

Because of this policy, one and a half million of the six and a half million Africans in the Union have already left the reserves for the towns. They did not leave their reserves with the intention of altogether breaking away from their tribes. They left them intending merely to go and earn some money to improve their economic positions at home. But things being what they are they never managed to better their conditions.

To-day they have become a part and parcel of the South African urban population, though an unaccepted one. This has happened despite the official policy of preventing the development and urbanisation of Africans.

Though oppressed and exploited, Africans have not yet developed efficient organisations and independent leadership. This is due to the fact that the bulk of them have been accustomed the old .forms of tribal organisation; that they have not yet altogether shaken off tribal ties and instincts, and that modem methods of organisation and struggle are still new to them. Works among them have been conducted on wrong lines, in that in doing work among them no regard was had of their social background and development.

Those of the Left and the African leaders who have been working among them have ignored this. They merely saw before them a mass of oppressed and exploited people who could be roused against social injustices. So they put before them questions of national importance and spoke to them as they would to an advanced and homogeneous group. Forgetting that as yet one could not rightly speak of an African nation; a political and economic group with a common medium of expression.

This does not, however, suggest that Africans have a peculiar mentality. Given a chance they can quickly adjust themselves to a new environment. But they have not had a chance. Only yesterday they were merely tribesmen whose interests were limited to the narrow bounds of their respective tribes. Notwithstanding that fact those who have now settled in towns are being fast detribalised. Common oppression and the experience of working and living together bring about that hitherto lacking social relationship which produces common interest and a national outlook.

It is in urban areas where a Zulu, a mXhosa, a Mosutho or a Motswana ceases thinking in terms of his tribe and tribal interests, when he starts thinking as an African in common with his fellow workers and residents that work among them is made easier. But it is important that we must know what to do and how to do it. That is what questions to take up so as to sustain their interest and to get them to act together.

The failure to know what to do and how to do it to be able to maintain the interest of the semi detribalised African masses was one of the chief things responsible for the fall of the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union of South Africa and the decline of the African National Congress. These once great African organisations lost their influence over the masses because though all agreed with the demands which they put forward: more land, higher wages, better education facilities, abolition of Pass Laws, Poll Tax and the Colour Bar, the actual fight for these was conducted in a general way.

With the exception of one or two instances there were no trade unions or other local bodies set up which could have localised and concretised these demands. So no practical experience was gained and to a great mass of African the whole thing seemed good but unrealisable.

This brings us to our point. And that is, in every industrial centre of the Union there is a big permanent African population. Johannesburg has over 230,000; Durban 70,000; Pretoria 45,000; Bloemfontein 30,000; Port Elizabeth 28,000; East London 24,000; Pietermaritzburg 16,000; Cape Town has only between 15 and 16,000 and Vereeniging about 14,000. The Reef, Johannesburg included, has over 677,000. Practically all these people earn their livelihood by working for an employer. As wage earners they have similar interests and their grievances are more or less the similar.

It is our duty therefore to see to it that they are organised into trade unions so that they can collectively fight for the redress of their grievances and the betterment of their general conditions. Common grievances of African workers are generally: low wages, long working hours, no compensation or if any the scale being ridiculously low, no paid holidays, bad treatment in factories and workshops; and then the Pass and the Colour Bar.

By taking up these points and their other day to day complaints, Africans can be organised into trade unions as has already been done at Johannesburg. At Johannesburg there are a number of African trade unions already in existence. But a majority of them is run inefficiently because of lack of experience and technical backwardness on the part of their leaders. Help given them in this regard by European Party members should be appreciated by these trade union leaders.

The help will be very much appreciated if given in a straightforward manner, without giving the impression of some ulterior political motive. Those who help should really do the helping. They should assist these inexperienced and technically backward African trade unionists to get the necessary experience and overcome their technical backwardness without seeking publicity for assisting. Their main concern should be the building of an independent African trade union leadership. Facts and figures are essential for a well drawn memorandum. The Party has or knows persons capable of compiling facts and figures of production, profit, etc, of any given industry. These persons should be got to help in that connection. But first of all a comradely approach must be made to the trade union leaders and the offer to assist made to them. Let there be no self imposition on them.

Besides being workers, however, these Africans are also residents with social needs to be satisfied. But as segregated beings they are made to live apart from others in areas specially set aside for them outside towns, locations. Here members of different tribes live cheek by jowl with one another, a factor in detribalising them and developing their national consciousness So, although location policy is bad for political and social reasons, still there is that factor to be said for it. It detribalises and de-inpidualises the inpiduals. This is especially so in Municipal locations.

In Municipal locations several thousands of people live together under similar housing and other conditions. More often than not the deficiency in all things which make for comfort, good health and beauty is throughout. So the grievances of Mkize are also those of Mokoena and others. And as the residents are all tenants of one landlord it facilitates united stand and representation. It is an advantage over the system of different landlords, as is usually the case in towns.

But though conditions in locations are favourable for organisation this is still lacking in many locations. This could be remedied if sufficient work were to be done on the lines of: better housing, water, refuse, rent and street politics. This could be done by local bodies such as the residents associations or vigilance associations allied with blockmen wherever they exist. While propaganda and organisation on national lines must not be relaxed, special attention should be paid to these popular local organisations. Experience has shown that these are easily understood by Africans and that they freely and eagerly take part in them. Because they deal with their day to day complaints and demands, and concentrate on local politics.

In this statement by "local politics" is meant questions involving or relating to the following: housing conditions, sanitation, rents and evictions, water supply, lodgers' fees, the permit system, schools, clinics and crèches, lighting and road-lighting and roadmaking, recreation facilities, transport and cheaper fares, police raids and pick-up vans and the right to trade.

Another point which should be remembered is that through these bodies residents are able to control the Advisory Boards by getting elected to these boards men of their own choice.

It would be in the interest of the national liberatory movement were our African Party members to work for the election of good elements to leading positions in the residents' associations and as blockmen. There can be no doubt that with Party influence and guidance these could develop into militant and independent bodies. And experience gained in their every day struggle against city and town councils would be experience gained for the general fight for national freedom.