Document 134 - The Impending Strike of African Miners: A statement by the African Mineworkers’ Union, 7 August 1946

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

Rosenberg Arcade,

58, Market Street,

Johannesburg.

1.At a conference of the African Mine Workers' Union held on the Newtown Square, Johannesburg, on Sunday August 4, 1946, and attended by over one thousand delegates, representing all Witwatersrand Gold Mines, the following resolution was unanimously carried:-

"Because of the intransigent attitude of the Transvaal Chamber of Mines towards the legitimate demands of the workers for a minimum wage of ten shillings per day and better conditions of work, this meeting of African miners resolves: - to embark upon a General Strike of all Africans employed on the Gold Mines, as from the 12th August, 1946." 

2. On August 7, 1946, my Union wrote to the Secretary of the Transvaal Chamber of Mines, conveying the text of the above resolution, and stating "My Union regrets that your Chamber has not deemed it fit to accede to the demands of the workers or to open up negotiations; nevertheless my Union feels that it is not yet too late."

3. Frankly, we hardly expect even a reply to this letter, as to practically every communication we have addressed to the employers over the six years of its existence; my Union has received neither reply nor acknowledgment.

4. It should not be thought that the decision to take strike action has been lightly taken, without provocation, or without due care and effort to find some alternative to action so grave and far-reaching. On the contrary, as the brief case-history below demonstrates, the African Mine Workers have been waiting a long time, in patience and humility, for a sign from the Chamber of Mines or from the Government that their plea for fair treatment, for a living wage and decent conditions of employment will be heeded. This Union has repeatedly, year after year, made representations on behalf of its members, the African Mine Workers. But unfortunately, on every occasion, our modest proposals have been to no avail, and our representations rejected or ignored.

5.In considering the many steps towards effecting peaceful settlement of the workers grievances, made by our Union, it should be borne in mind that the pay and conditions of employment of the Africans on the mines can only be described as a notorious national scandal. It is not within the scope of this statement to detail the very many hardships and injustices suffered by our members. But we cannot refrain from pointing out that while the wages of almost every other group of workers in the country have advanced. the African miner receives the same £3 monthly paid by the mines in 1900, despite the very greatly reduced buying power of the pound, the enormous profits accumulated out of this great industry, the long hours of work and the physically exhausting character of the labour performed, dangerous to life and health. Against such a background, and bearing in mind the intolerable conditions of life in the compounds, and the inadequate rations, the remarkable thing is not that the African Mine Workers have decided to strike, but that they have so long preserved in other efforts to secure redress of grievances, although our efforts have all along met with nothing but frustration and contempt on the part of the Chamber of Mines and the Government.

6.It is instructive to review briefly here some of the more important of the many approaches made by the African Mine Workers' Union, over a number of years, and taken in chronological order:

 

1941:

In September of this year the Prime Minister was approached with a request

 

for the extension of cost of living allowances to African Mine Workers.

 

This request was supported by the S. A. Trades & Labour Council, and by

 

numerous other organisations throughout the country. The Government,

 

however, not only completely ignored our request, but, in the same year,

 

steps were taken to haul our officials before the C.I.D., as if they were

 

common criminals and not trade unionists engaged in legitimate trade union

 

work.

1942:

The African Mine Workers' Union put forward a request to the Minister of

 

Labour to use his powers under Section 4 (a) of the Wage Act (No. 44 of 1937) to order the Wage Board to investigate the conditions of the African

Mine employees. The Minister refused this request without giving any reasons.

1943:It was in this year that the Government raised the expectations of our members by the appointment of the "Native Mine Wages Commission," and the Union made suitable representations to this Commission. Our hopes were, however, dashed by the open announcement of the Commission in its Report, that the report was based upon the "necessity" acknowledged by the Commission, for the maintenance of the "cheap labour" system. We wish here, as trade unionists, to express our most emphatic rejection of this system, which is injurious alike to the welfare of the workers and the progress of the country, and our consequent rejection of the report of the Commission, based upon such an unacceptable principle. Nevertheless, we must point out that certain minor improvements in the conditions of African Mine Workers were recommended in the Report. Apart from a negligible and completely inadequate increase, subsidised by the Government, the majority of the improvements recommended by the Commission have been ignored by the employers.

1944: Until this year, the continual appeals by our Union for justice and fair treatment had been met by the Government with the weapon of silence. But in 1944, the Government used its emergency war powers to prohibit meetings on gold-proclaimed land under Proclamation No. 1425 We have no hesitation in declaring that was and remains the purpose of this measure to prevent and retard the effective trade union organisation of African Mine Workers. The measure has repeatedly been invoked against our Union organisers, but never, to our knowledge, against any pro-Nazi or subversive organisation. Protests against the use of this Proclamation to restrain trade union activity have repeatedly been made, not only by our Union, but also by a number of other progressive and labour bodies, but it remains in operation against us to this day. The same year, our Union made a number of efforts to secure a hearing from both the Government and the Chamber of Mines, but were consistently treated with contempt. It came to our attention that the Chamber of Mines had issued a circular to all Compound Managers and other officials that on no account were they to meet or negotiate with Union officials. 1945: In May, 1945, we endeavoured to arrange for interviews with the Acting Prime Minister and the Ministers of Justice and Labour; In a statement submitted at the time, we pointed out that considerable dissatisfaction existed among African mine workers, and suggested steps to remedy the position. However the Ministers concerned refused to meet us. A protracted hunger strike took place among workers on the Crown Mines, in protest against cuts in their rations, and only ended after a number of men collapsed. We wrote to the Chamber of Mines, urgently requesting an audience, but were again ignored.

1946: The annual Conference of our Union, held on 14.4.1946, resolved to demand adequate food for the workers and "in accordance with the new world principles for an improved standard of living" subscribed to by our Government at U.N.O., a minimum wage of lo/-. per day. The text of this resolution was sent to the Chamber of Mines, and in reply we received the first official acknowledgment we have ever received from the Chamber, in the shape of a printed post-card from the Secretary, Mr. A. J. Limebeer, stating that our resolutions were "receiving attention." That was dated 6th May 1946, and since then we have received no further communication.

7.Following our Conference, and during April of this year, African workers on a number of shafts all over the Witwatersrand, not acting on the advice of the leadership of the Union, struck work in support of the Union demands of 10/-, a day minimum and better food. Despite the difficulties placed in our way by both employers and Government, our organisers succeeded in contacting these workers and impressing upon them the need for discipline and restraint.

8. All the above circumstances should be taken into account in assessing the motives which prompted our members into taking their historic decision of last Sunday, August 4. They are conscious that the decision was a weighty one, and that the task they have undertaken is no easy one to perform; nevertheless they believe their cause is just and that justice shall prevail. As for ourselves, their Executive, we know that we have taken every step humanly possible to prevail upon the Chamber and the Government to appreciate the seriousness of the situation. As responsible men we could not advise the workers to take any other step than that upon which they have decided the historic ultimate weapon of the trade union movement, the withholding of the workers' labour power.

9. We believe that we are fully justified in asking all sections of and all well-wishers of the labour movement for their fullest moral and financial support for the just cause of the African mine labourers, upon whose broad shoulders so much of the wealth of South Africa has been built, and in their most moderate demands upon those who have amassed fabulous fortunes from their labour over many years.

10. In view of the record of the employers and the Government as briefly outlined above, we ask in particular that every fellow-worker and fellow-democrat should demonstrate his most active protest in the event of any attempt by the Chamber or the authorities to force the workers into submission by violence or by starvation.

11. In conclusion, may we add that we make this appeal for support in the profound and sincere belief that the cause of the African mine workers is the cause of every worker and democrat throughout South Africa?

PRESIDENT: J. B.Marks

SECRETARY:James Majoro AFRICAN MINE WORKERS' UNION.