The years between 1930 and the 1940s were ones of profound change in the structure of South African capitalÂism. Although the primary industries of agriculture and mining dominated the economy, great strides were made in manufacturing industry between 1933 and 1939. The number of manufacturing establishments increased by 32 percent from 6 343 in 1932-33 to 8 614 in 1938 - 39.
The outbreak of the war led to a massive expansion and the number of manufacturing establishments rose by 141 percent between 1940 and 1946 to 9 999. The needs of the war (South Africa contributed to the Allied war effort in ship repair work, manufacture of munitions and the production of armoured cars) and the difficulties of importing, combined with the expansion of the South African market, stimulated economic expansion during these years. The enlarged labour force needed for these industries was recruited from the ranks of the proletarianised who had been forced off the land by economic hardship, government policy and the increasing domination of large capitalist agriculture.
The extent to which wartime expansion was dependent upon increased employment of black labour was seen from the fact that black employment increased by 70 percent compared with 20 percent in the case of white workers. A similar process of proletarianisation of white women took place at this time. The black proletariat began to enter into semi-skilled (and even skilled) positions in industry on a large scale (except in mining) - particularly since many whites were serving in the military. Employment of blacks in secondary industry almost doubled between 1938 and 1943: from 143 069 in 1938 to 248 785 in 1945.
With the increasing collapse of subsistence production in the reserves wage struggles in all urban sectors took place and the scope for trade union organisation increased. By 1945, 45 percent of the 20 percent of blacks urbanised and in industry, were unionised. Cooperation between unions was determined by willingness for militant action, while the question of colour seemed to recede into the background. This was demonstrated by the formation of the Non-European Trade Union Council. This council was formed when the Non-European Trade Union Coordinating Committee and its rival body, the Joint Committee of African Trade Unions combined in 1941. It must be remembered that the former body was African Federation of Trade Unions (1928) which in 1936 took a decision to bar whites from office, a decision that led to Joint Committee of African Trade Unions being formed. The new federation claimed a membership of 158 000 workers affiliated unions. With the swollen reserve army moving cities relatively unhindered by influx control, wages could be depressed during periods of rapidly rising cost of living. Intensification of the economic class struggle was the inevitable concomitant of these social processes. That increased wages were the result of militant action by organised workers concretely proved the correctness of Gomas's perseverance in trying to build trade unionism. Since they were protected by the racist policies of the State, there was little obligation on employers to raise proportion to increased profits. "Indeed South African economic history indicates that all significant wage increases resulted organised worker pressure."
The militant action of unions produced a steady rise in black industrial wages, with the real earnings in the period 1939 rising by almost 50 percent, closing the gap between white black workers slightly for the first time. In the period 1931-1945 wages rose by 9,8 percent compared to the 50,8 percent period 1940-1945. Much of the trade union activity and militancy came from individual members in the CPSA. "Sterling organisational work in the trade union movement was being carried on among the African, Indian and Coloured workers; no account of the unions in this period could fail to pay tribute to the labours of such commuinists as Ray Alexander and John Gomas in the Cape."
Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s Gomas was personally responsible, together with others, especially Ray Alexander for the establishment of a host of trade unions: timber; quarry stevedoring; oil and petrol; railway and harbour; textile tobacco clothing; commercial (shops and stores); paint and polis metal; soap and candle; milling (flour and yeast); engineering food and canning; sweets; fishing; building labourers.
In 1939 Gomas became full-time secretary for the Tin Workers Union as well as for the Chemical Workers' Union. One of the shop stewards for the Chemical Workers' Union was Brevis, a good friend of Ray Alexander's. Probably her friendship with both Cornelia and Johnny Gomas led Ray to assume match-maker when she arranged for Gomas to accompany Cornelia to the Christmas party of the Chemical Workers' Union in 1939. Cornelia wistfully recalled what an impressive picture Gomas cut in one of the suits which not only earned him the reputation best tailor in Stirling Street", but most assuredly, the best tailor in District Six! On 16 February 1942 Gomas married youthful Cornelia, his junior by sixteen years. Despite her involvement in the affairs of a trade union, Gomas never discussed political or for that matter, trade union issues with his wife. Indeed she sadly remembered how isolated and excluded from his life she always felt. Gomas continued his primary interest and pre-occupation with political work, irrespective of any obligations to Cornelia.
It was Gomas, the political activist, who fought for the rights of workers in the trade union movement. Quite conscious of the fact that trade unions were dialectically both inimical to capital accumulation as well as being a component of the capitalist system, Gomas, in a letter to the South African Worker, stressed the important task of political training for trade unionists. He asserted that pure economistic trade unionism was not possible and unions must be overtly political. He listed the limitations in the existing trade union movement to be: lack of class consciousness; the little political knowledge that workers possessed; lack of politics in unions; and tie inevitable lamentation, no working class leadership.
Instead of fighting for improved living conditions, we follow a trade on leadership which is often strongly influenced by the ruling class, by the bosses and the government. We are satisfied with the policy of our official leaders, whose policy is 'no politics in the unions, no fight against the government's oppressive legislation' ... there can be no fight for better living and working conditions without fighting for political rights, for equality ... and for the unity of all workers, European and non-European.
As secretary of the Tin Workers Union (Cape) as well as the Chemical (later and Allied (1943)) Workers Union, he was always in the forefront of the fight for higher wages and improved working conditions; while at the same time fighting against national oppression.
At a meeting of the Tin Workers Union on March 24,1943, the 'Tin Workers were up in Arms' over the establishment of the Cape Coloured Permanent Commission (CCPC) and the proposed Coloured Affairs Department. The CCPC was an advisory body consisting of coloured representatives from all four provinces of South Africa. It was clearly an attempt by the government to placate demands by coloureds for political rights and economic advancement, without threatening the policy of white domination. The CCPC evoked much opposition. In a letter to the editor of the Cape Standard , Gomas reiterated the stance of the Union, expressing their strong resentment of "the dictatorial manner the CCPC was foisted on the people, without their approval as if they were children not knowing what is good for them". And further: "That this is an attempt on the part of the government to appease the pro-fascist and racialist elements in the country by effecting complete industrial, residential, social and political segregation of the Coloured people ... We pledge therefore, not only to strive to attain victory over the brute forces of Fascism abroad, but for victory over similar evil forces at home." It was his persistence with the political (ideological) struggle of workers in the unions, and the attendant implications, that finally led to the estrangement between himself and his Party. The People's Front Line adopted after 1935 led the CPSA to look for support among the petty bourgeois elements of whites and blacks. We have seen how Gomas, Kotane and others opposed this line, an opposition which led to Kotane's suspension. The outbreak of the war confirmed the CPSA's conviction that a fascist victory in Europe posed the most important danger. "How can we be interested in fighting Nazism thousands of miles away, while in reality we have a similar monster devouring us here daily?" Gomas queried his party's stance, in an article in Freedom.
By the end of 1940, Gomas was out of the Party hierarchy apparently having incurred the wrath of the majority of the leadership because of his "obsession with black leadership instead of class leadership". The accusation seems out of order; given the CPSA's own position. Indeed, it was moving, in a very real sense, to becoming a part of the 'establishment'. So seriously did it view its war support effort (especially after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union) that it urged workers to apply all other forms of pressure" to obtain a satisfactory settlement while avoiding any stoppage of work" at a time when South Africa was hit by a wave of strikes by militant black workers. Between September and December 1942 no fewer than 19 strikes were recorded. Between 1940 and 1945, 52 394 black strikers accounted for the loss of 220 205 person days (or 4,2 per striker) as compared to 26 254 accounting for a loss of 71 078 person days (or 2,7 per striker) in the 1930s. With the increase in militancy, dwindling support for the CPSA was inevitable. By 1945 it had very few black members. But it persisted in the belief that the SALP and itself were the only two organisations representing the working class and it demonstrated this by voting Labourite Bill Andrews, chairperson of the CPSA in 1945. For Gomas it remained organisation (trade union and political), boycotts and strikes which were needed in the fight for political rights and equality.
The struggles on the labour front were supplemented by an intensification of class struggle in many areas. The upsurge against imperialism in the colonial world during the war, led to the revival of Pan-Africanism in Africa, Europe and the U.S.A. These events were to have a profound effect on the liberation movement, as well as on Gomas's perceptions. By 1945 political alignments had become more defined: groups and organisations had clarified their attitude' and leaders had assumed their roles and taken up their positions. At one end of the political spectrum were the ANC and its allies-