Rand Rebellion 1922

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Union leaders appearing in the Johannesburg Magistrate's Court, supported by mineworkers in the streets outside © Museum Africa

The Rand Rebellion of 1922 was an armed uprising that is also referred to as the Rand Revolt or Red Revolt. It occurred during a period of economic depression following World War I, when mining companies were faced with rising costs and a fall in the price of gold....

Build-up to the rebellion

The Anglo-Boer/South African War of 1899 to 1902 caused extreme disruptions in the mining industry. At some stage mines were closed, which led to considerable loss of capital. In addition a racially hierarchical division of labour had developed in the mining sector, whereby the supervisory and skilled jobs were performed by Whites, while unskilled and hence poorly paid labour became to be associated with African and coloured labourers. The end of the War witnessed the entry of large numbers of unskilled white unemployed men into the urban areas. It was against this background that mine-owners had to formulate a policy of division of labour that would serve their own interests in the first place, without disturbing the racist social order that had evolved in the mining industry. The ensuing balancing act resulted in conflicts of interests between mine-owners and mineworkers as well as political disenchantment in the workforce. Hence in the period 1907 and 1922 there was considerable industrial unrest and action in the mining sector. The favoured form of industrial action was strikes: by downing tools white mineworkers tried pressuring both mining capital and the state to back down from the policy of saving on labour costs by employing Blacks in positions that had been reserved for them. An additional bone of contention was the importation of Chinese indentured labourers to overcome the impasse in the gold industry after the War. In 1904 the first contract workers arrived.

Mining management standpoint

Between February and December 1920, gold nose-dived from 130 shillings an ounce to 95 shillings an ounce. Mining executives estimated that unless costs could be reduced, most producing mines would be running at a loss; consequently, they would have to discharge 10,000 white miners and many thousands of blacks. The Chamber of Mines planned to reduce labour costs by removing the colour bar and increasing the ratio of black workers to white, for although the wages for whites had risen 60 per cent since World War I, wages for blacks had increased only 9 per cent.

Reaction of white miners

The strikers were backed by Afrikaner commandos, like this group manning a roadblock ©Museum Africa

In the early days of mining no Africans possessed the skills necessary for deep level, therefore the division of the work force had been between white miners and white management. The custom that skilled work was done by white men had been reinforced by legislation when Chinese labourers were introduced under the Milner regime after the Second Anglo-Boer War, and during World War I the overall ratio of white to black workers had been maintained. As time passed, however, black miners began to acquire these skills, although their wages remained at very low rates. In September 1918, white mineworkers had succeeded in persuading the Chamber of Mines to agree that no position filled by a white worker should be given to an African or Coloured worker.

When the Chamber of Mines gave notice that it would be abandoning the agreement and would be replacing 2,000 semi-skilled white men with cheap black labour, the white miners reacted strongly. Their jobs and pay packets were threatened by the removal of the colour bar, and they feared the social encroachment on their lives that differences in colour, standards of living, and the cultural background of the coloured races might make. Sporadic strikes were launched in 1921, but these did not become widespread until the end of the year.

The trade unions

Because of the large number of mines and workingmen living in and around Fordsburg, Johannesburg, trade unions had become active in this area. This set the scene for the revolt in Fordsburg. At this time some trade union members were attracted to the spirit of socialism and others became communists, who referred to themselves as 'Reds'. The leader of the Communist Party, W H Andrews, known as 'Comrade Bill', urged a general strike. In the meanwhile, a group of revolutionaries organized commandos under the leadership of people who called themselves the 'Federation of Labour.'

Strikes

The New Year marked a strike on the collieries of the Transvaal. Strikes soon spread to the gold mines of the Reef, especially those in the East Rand, when electrical power workers and those in engineering and foundry occupations followed suit. By January 10, stoppage of work in mining and allied trades was complete. Bob Waterston, Labour Party MP, sponsored a resolution urging that a provisional government declare a South Africa republic. Tielman Roos, leader of the National Party in the Transvaal, submitted this proposal to a conference of MPs convened in Pretoria, but they rejected it outright. Roos himself was emphatic that the National Party would have nothing to do with a revolt.

The revolt

In February 1922, the protracted negotiations with the South African Industrial Federation broke down when the Action Group seized control, armed some white miners, and set up barricades. The Star described how mob violence spread alarmingly with bands of white men shooting and bludgeoning unoffending Africans and coloured men 'as though they were on a rat hunt'. A general strike was proclaimed on Monday, 6 March and on Wednesday, the strike turned into open revolution in a bid to capture the city.

On 8 March, led by semi-skilled Afrikaner miners, white workers attempted to take over the Johannesburg post office and the power station, but they met with stout resistance from the police, and the day ended in fights between white strikers and black miners. The Red commandos made the most of this chaos by encouraging their rebel followers to obtain firearms and other weapons from white miners and their sympathizers under the pretext of trying to protect women and children from attacking blacks. By spreading the alarm, they discovered who had firearms and immediately confiscated them. The following day six units of the Active Citizen Force were called out to prevent further disorder.

On Friday, 10 March, a series of explosions signalled the advance of the Red commandos and an orgy of violence began. To quell this the Union Defence Force was called out, as well as the aircraft of the fledgling SAAF and the artillery. By this time, Brakpan was already in the hands of the rebels, and pitched battles were raging between the strikers and the police for control of Benoni and Springs. Aeroplanes strafed rebels and bombed the Workers' Hall at Benoni. Rebels besieged the Brakpan and Benoni police garrisons. At Brixton 1,500 rebels surrounded 183 policemen and besieged them for 48 hours. From the air, pilots observed the plight of the beleaguered Brixton policemen. Swooping over them, they dropped supplies, and then returned to bomb the rebels. During one of these sorties Colonel Sir Pierre van Ryneveld's observer, Captain Carey Thomas, was shot through the heart.

Martial law was proclaimed and burgher commandos were called up from the surrounding districts. On Saturday, 11 March, the Reds attacked a small detachment of the Imperial Light Horse at Ellis Park in Doornfontein, which sustained serious losses, and, on their way to the East Rand, the Transvaal Scottish marched into an ambush at Dunswart, sustaining heavy losses. The rebels searched citizens passing through Jeppestown and Fordsburg and sniped at those they thought were supporters of the mine management, as well as many policemen on duty in the streets. Prime Minister General Jan Smuts was widely blamed for letting the situation get out of hand. He arrived on the Rand at midnight to take charge of the situation.

The rebellion is crushed

On Sunday, 12 March, military forces and citizens attacked the rebels holding out on the Brixton ridge and took 2,200 prisoners. The next day government troops led by General van Deventer relieved the besieged police garrisons in Brakpan and Benoni. On 15 March, the artillery bombarded the strikers' stronghold at Fordsburg Square and in the afternoon, it fell to the government. Before committing suicide in this building, the two communist leaders, Fisher and Spendiff, left a joint note: 'We died for what we believed in - the Cause'. Samuel Alfred (Taffy) Long, heralded by subsequent labour histories as one of South Africa’s greatest working-class martyrs, was arrested after the defeat of Fordsburg. He was charged with murder and later also with high treason and the possession of loot. (to read about the attack on Fordsburg square click on the accounts tab)

From 15 to 19 March, government troops cleared areas of snipers and did house-to-house searches of premises belonging to the Reds, making many arrests. On March 16, the Union Defence Headquarters issued a press statement that the revolt had been a social revolution organized by Bolshevists, international socialists and communists. The revolt was declared over from midnight on 18 March.

Results

The Rand Revolt was a calamity that inflicted suffering on every section of the community. It cost many lives and millions of pounds. About 200 people were killed - including many policemen, and more than 1,000 people were injured. Fifteen thousand men were put out of work and gold production slumped. In the aftermath, some of the rebels were deported and a few were executed for deeds that amounted to murder. John Garsworthy, leader of the Brakpan commando, was sentenced to death, but he was later reprieved. Four of the leaders were condemned to death and went to the gallows singing their anthem, 'The Red Flag'. Smuts was widely criticized for his severe handling of the revolt. He lost support and was defeated in the 1924 general election. This gave Hertzog's Nationalist Party and the Labour Party, supported by white urban workers, the opportunity to form a pact. The white miners were forced to accept the mine owners' terms unconditionally, and gold production again increased because of the use of a higher proportion of African labour, lower wages for whites, and new labour-saving devices which had come into operation. After this, as South Africa grew increasingly industrialized, the government came under stronger pressure to protect skilled white workers in mining and in the manufacturing industry.

New laws

Three important Acts were passed that gave increasing employment opportunities to whites and introduced a programme of African segregation. The first was the Industrial Conciliation Act of 1924, which set up machinery for consultation between employers' organizations and trade unions. The second was the Wage Act, which set up a board to recommend minimum wages and conditions of employment. The third was the Mines and Works Amendment Act of 1926, which firmly established the principle of the colour bar in certain mining jobs.

To find out more about this important event in South African labour history, see the writing of social historian Luli Callinicos on our site (related).

Last updated : 13-Mar-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 21-Mar-2011