World War I

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David Ivon Jones

War time and post war inflation

The end of the war was accompanied by rapid inflation and severe shortages in basic commodities. During the war itself the cost of living had increased by more than 15%. It was estimated that retail prices had risen between 31 and 39%. Post-war inflation was one of the most important factors in what historian Albert Grundlingh has described as ‘one of the most sustained periods of worker action in South African labour history’. (Grundlingh: 1987: 150). In the mining industry, strikes had taken place throughout the war years, culminating in February 1920, when 40 000 African miners went on strike. The Native affairs Department commented as follows: The disorganisation of the commercial world..., has thrown the British Dominions on their own resources, and one is amazed at the strides that have been made in local manufacturing during the past four years. In short, the war has put the hand of time forward many years ... and this is perhaps most noticeable in regard to the natives.... They have been awakened by the roar and noise of a universal war... Johannesburg has become the centre in which native thought has developed most during the war, and from which native political movements will radiate It is on the Witwatersrand that the native has had the opportunity of realising what industrial labour strikes mean.(Grundlingh: 1982:19-20)Johannesburg also saw mass protests against the pass laws in 1919. In 1920 in the district of Senekal in the Free State, sixty two women were fined two pounds for refusing to carry passes. The women refused to pay the fines and chose to go to prison. The port city of Durban in Natal (now kwaZulu-Natal) had also experienced some industrial expansion during and after the war. Since the discovery of minerals in the late 1880s, the economic hub of Durban revolved around the harbour. There was very little secondary industrialisation and the city had a relatively low population of 55 700. The growth in war-time shipping encouraged an expansion in the engineering industry, and the war years created the conditions for the growth of secondary industry in Durban. By the end of the war the city’s population had almost doubled in size. As in other parts of the country, the impact of wartime inflation led to unrest and protest amongst the Durban working class. In 1918 alone, workers from diverse occupations such as rickshaw-pullers, coal workers and dock workers went on strike demanding higher wages.

Members of the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) who had returned from service in Europe had been exposed to a society in which there were no pass laws, poll taxes, liquor laws or legalised racial discrimination. Many had met highly educated African men from other parts of Africa. Their sense of the world and their place in it expanded because of their wartime experience. The Union government had also promised many who had enlisted that upon their return they would be exempted from the poll-tax and the carrying of a pass. These promises were not kept and many ex-members of SANLC became politically active in the wave of labour unrest and protests that erupted in the years 1918-1920.

1918 saw the formation of the first African industrial union, the Industrial Workers of Africa (I.W.A.) by members of the International Socialist League, S.P. Bunting and David Ivon Jones. Jones and Bunting had broken with the South African Labour Party on the question of support for the First World War. They also differed from their socialist colleagues in their belief that African workers should be organised in their own right. One of the first strikes by the I.W.A. was the bucket strike in Johannesburg by night soil workers. In Cape Town a strike by dockworkers led to the formation of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) in December 1919. Over the next ten years the ICU would become the dominant trade union and mass political organisation of black workers in South Africa.

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Last updated : 06-Feb-2014

This article was produced for South African History Online on 31-Jan-2014