From the book: Working Life - Factories, Township and Popular Culture 1886 - 1940 by Luli Callinicos


We have seen how altered conditions gave rise to a new kind worker. In turn, these new workers developed new unions.

As the industries grew on the Rand, so did the number of workers. These workers had to find their own accommodation. Usually they tried to live near their place of work to cut the cost of transport. We have shown how the inner city areas became crowded, and how in the early years the housing of the poor was more or less unplanned, and racially mixed. This section will scribe how the state — both the government and the town councils — came to realise the importance of planning the housing of workers, how they did it, and why.

The Urban Areas Act

The first major response by the South African government to the housing of the poor came with the upheaval and protest of both black townspeople and white workers after World War I.

The government could not ignore the militant collective action of that period. The prime minister appointed a commission of enquiry, which resulted in a small increase of wages for unskilled workers in the towns (but not on the mines). The government also appointed the Stallard Commission to look into the position of black workers living in the towns, and consulted black ministers of religion and professional people for their opinions on housing. Then the government passed a law, the Natives (Urban Areas) Act, 1923, spelling out government policy towards blacks in the urban areas.

Significance of the Act

The Natives (Urban Areas). Act was at first simply a guideline for municipalities to follow if they so wished. But it was an important law because in time it came to be adopted by all the towns in South Africa. It played a major part in establishing the policy of urban segregation, which was to be implemented by successive governments. The comments by various government officials quoted below illustrate one aspect of the influence of the Act.

An urban labour supply

The Act recognised the need for African accommodation in the urban areas. In the eyes of the government however, black residents were in the towns for one purpose only: to work. Their lives thus had to be regulated to service the system of racial capitalism was developing in industrialised South Africa. Together with influx control through the pass laws, Native (Urban Areas) Act would help to achieve this aim.

In the words of Colonel Stallard, who headed the government’s Transvaal commission of enquiry, blacks were not welcome in the towns except as workers; a the same time it suited the industries of the Rand to have a settled black population living in the towns to serve as a ready supply of labour. As a ‘location’ superintendent commented:

‘the traditional policy of treating urban native locations and villages as reservoirs of labour to supply the demands of European employers reflects a large volume of European opinion’

A supply of surplus labour would prevent a shortage people looking for work, and thus keep the wages down. The Act therefore recognised that, in addition to working population, a sufficient number of unemployed blacks was necessary to the system of cheap labour in the industrial areas.

The Effects

A Self-made house on the outskirts of the city

The cost

Act made it clear that the responsibility of housing workers lay with the municipalities. The effect of this was that municipalities tried to use the pass system to control the number of Africans entering the towns. The first thing that is necessary to do is to control or restrict the influx of families into the towns’, said the manager of Johannesburg’s Native Affairs Department.

‘ The kraal native who comes to town to work and is required there is no difficulty to us at all, but when the native brings his family there, as he is doing today, you have got an entirely different state of affairs. The native is not in the economic position of being able to house himself and someone else has to do it.’

Clearly, the municipalities were reluctant to foot the bill of housing the poorest-paid workers.

Yet officials could not ignore the thousands of blacks settled permanently in the towns. In 1922 the unemployment Commission reported: ‘

There is now a considerable population of pure bred natives permanently resident in the towns of the Union. These people have no other home and many of their children were born in the town and have grown ignorant of tribal life. Some of these live in locations but in Johannesburg they live scattered through the poorer parts of town side by side with the whites.’

The Act suggested ways in which the municipalities could get black workers to pay for their own housing through rents, beer-hall profits, and fines that would go into the special ‘Native Revenue Account’. It recognised that black workers earned too little to vide for even the simplest accommodation for their families, and recommended that it would be more efficient and cheaper to provide low-cost housing officially and then get the money back in a number of ways from the tenants themselves.


The segregated ghettoes or ‘locations’ became a means controlling the town-based workers, just as the compound system controlled black miners. It was easier for police and other officials to keep a check on the movements of black workers, on their passes and labour contracts, if they lived in one place — the location. In 1930, the Act was amended to tighten control over the movements of Africans further. For example, they could be removed from one area to another, and the amendment attempted to control the movements of African women into town. As one councillor said:

‘My council is sympathetically disposed towards the natives. We do not want to hinder them at every turn. But we must have absolute control. We have to see that law and order is maintained, and if we don’t we are failing in our duty to those whom we represent.’

In 1937 the Native Laws Amendment Act implemented even stricter controls, partly to help commercial farmers to hold on to their labour — by 1936 nearly half of the black workers in the towns had come directly from the white farms.

Gradual results

The application of the Natives (Urban Areas) Act was gradual and uneven. Most towns did not carry out the terms of the Act for many years — the law was, as we have said, a guideline at first, and each municipality could decide whether it wanted to proclaim itself a ‘whites only’ area, according to the Act.

Johannesburg, for example, asked to be proclaimed a white area in 1924, whereas Port Elizabeth followed suit only in 1935. It was only in 1937, with the amendment to the Act, that all towns outside the reserves automatically became restricted areas.
There were other reasons, too, for the slow application of the Act.

  • For one thing, there was the high cost of change. In 1926, after Johannesburg began a ‘drive’ to remove all Africans without permits from the ‘yards’ in the inner city area, a Doornfontein resident contested the removals in court. The magistrate then ruled that the municipality could not evict people from their homes unless there was alternative accommodation for them. The town council then had to start building houses and compounds to house the people removed from the town, which delayed the planned removals by two years.
  • The municipalities also ran into resistance from slum landlords and traders (such as the owners of black ‘eating houses’) who wanted their black customers to remain in town. A government commission exposed several cases in Johannesburg alone of town councillors who were bribed to postpone slum clearance.
  • The cost of housing created division in the white ruling group. While industrialists wanted a ‘reserve army’ of labour living in the towns, the white workers were threatened by the constant presence of cheap black labour. Through the Labour and the Nationalist parties, they tried to discourage the establishment of a black urban working class. Furthermore, as ratepayers, many white working-class home owners resented paying for ‘the cost housing . . . that helps the employer to have native labour at a cheaper rate

The municipality was forced to rely on its ratepayers— that is, the owners of property, mostly homes, in city — to foot the bill for black housing. This was because the mining companies were powerful enough to evade paying municipal rates for the vast tracts o land that they owned in the city — one third of Johannesburg’s land, including some suburbs. The mine owners, unlike the industrialists, did not require resident working class, since they relied on migrant labour housed in hostels. In addition, the central government collected all the pass fees from employers and African workers, but did not pass this revenue to the municipalities.

These divisions, together with different forms of resistance from the black population, delayed the implementation of the housing policy in Johannesburg for many years.

Black resistanceResistance came from the blacks themselves. Black home-owners in Sophiatown, Newclare and Martindale had formed the Non-European Ratepayers’ Association in Johannesburg in 1926. In 1932 the Johannesburg Council applied for the whole city to become a restricted area. This meant blacks who had their own homes in the freehold townships would no longer be allowed licences to keep tenants. As most black home-owners had borrowed money to buy their property earned very little, they relied on their tenants to help them to pay back the mortgages on their properties.

The residents of these townships also foresaw the step-up of pass raids and police harassment.

The result was a storm of protest from the Non-European Ratepayers’ Association, which gave the wing evidence to the Native Economic Commission:

‘The historical records of this country abound with the evidence of the inevitable reactionary consequences of laws . . . for the purpose of keeping wages at the lowest possible level. The Industrial Conciliation Act and the Wage Act seek to entrench the policy of ‘white-ism’ and to disregard the interests of non-white workers; while the pass laws, Masters and Servants Act, Native Regulation Act and the Natives (Urban Areas) Act all seek to perpetuate a policy of top-doggism to entrench a system of cheap labour.’

They also sent their lawyer to put their case to the Minister of Native Affairs. After months of negotiations, the minister agreed that the Johannesburg municipality could not provide enough accommodation black workers. Finally, in 1933, the municipality of Johannesburg was proclaimed a restricted area except the freehold areas of Sophiatown. Martindale and Newclare. These townships were proclaimed separately allowed to apply for licences to keep black tenants. Many black workers were thus able to avoid the municipal hostels and locations for many years by ling homes in the freehold areas of Johannesburg. (see Alexandra Township, and Sophiatown)

The Problem

The influx continues

Meanwhile, the Rand towns continued to grow steadily. Between 1921 and 1936 the number of urban Africans eased from about half a million to just over one a half million — that is, it trebled in the short space of fifteen years.

After 1933, with the rise in the price of gold, the industrial economy picked up and manufacturers and businesses called for more labour. Large numbers of young people left the commercial farms, where they were often expected to work ‘vir kos en slaapplek’ rather than for wages, and went to join the cash economy in the towns.

By this time many of the reserves were becoming more crowded and less able to support their populations. For example, the Native Economic Commission reported on the Ciskei in 1932:

"These two areas [the Herschel and Glen Grey districts, with fertile valleys containing great depth of soil, show some of the worst donga erosions in the Union. The difference between these and other areas is one of degree only . . . Actual desert conditions have in twenty years been created where once good grazing existed.”

The same commission heard Dr Xuma, a leader of the ANC, say:

'Young men are coming of age every year but there is no land allotted to them. Most of these landless youths marry and have to squat on their fathers’ four morgen plots and under the present conditions of agriculture with repeated droughts, these plots hardly yield the needs of one family. These people are poverty-stricken and destitute. What must they do? Where must they go? Naturally to the industrial centres.’

Not only men, but women too started to look for a living in the towns. In 1927, there had been only one African woman to every six men in Johannesburg. By 1939 the proportion was one to three — in twelve years, the number of urban women had more than doubled. This made for a more settled population, more families and the need for more homes.

So, in spite of the building programmes in the new locations, the Rand towns could not keep up with the needs of the fast-growing black working class. And as fast as people were removed from the yards and other inner city areas, as fast did more people move into them. Despite the pass system, people continued to enter the towns because the industries needed them. After the depression had ended, more jobs were available for newcomers. In Johannesburg the manager of the Native Affairs Department reported in 1937:

‘It is pleasing to record once again that there is virtually no unemployment amongst able-bodied natives willing to work.”

In the same report he also noted that as the industries grew, so did the black working population; and that this had slowed down the programme of slum clearance and segregation into municipal locations.

Locations for industry’s labour needs

Nevertheless, separate black locations were developed, slowly and irregularly, according to the labour needs of industry. Once Johannesburg established a Native Affairs Department in 1927, it began to extend Klipspruit, Western Native Township and Eastern Native Township. A total of 2 625 houses had been built by 1930.

In 1930, too, the council bought a further portion of the Klipspruit farm and began to build houses there.

The new township was named Orlando, after one of the councillors. Orlando, the ‘future great city of Bantudom’ and birthplace of Soweto, might be seer the blueprint for a black workers’ location in a modern industrial city. It became an example of cheap housing to other growing industrial towns in future years.

In 1933, the Johannesburg City Engineer set out basic aims in establishing black townships. What he said is interesting because it clearly illustrates the use of the location in the eyes of the ruling class.

‘ The location’, he said, ‘is practically a satellite to and is best planned as such.” In other words, it could not ever become an independent town, but existed only for the convenience of industry and the white population.

About the site of the township, the City Engineer went on to say:

‘The area selected should not be such that the natural development of the European area of the town is interfered with in any way . . .. The site should be near as possible to the industrial area, to where the majority of natives are employed.’

The cost of transport should be reduced by having workers’ housing as near as possible to the place of work. The function of a location, therefore, was to maintain an orderly labour supply — at the cheapest possible rate.

Cutting costs

For management, the most important purpose of the location was to provide a place where labour could be maintained cheaply — a place where workers could be and sheltered, so that they could present themselves productive work at the start of the next working or shift.

This aim of maintaining the worker had to be eyed, but at the same time the worker and his or family had to survive on the lowest possible wages. Housing and services, therefore, had to be as cheap as possible.

The City Engineer warned that an increase in rent transport ‘will put up [the black worker’s] cost of living and ultimately his wages. It should be realised an increase in wages or a loss of energy will result in putting up production costs and react to the detriment the industries and commercial activities in that area.

So, for the sake of productivity, profits, and industrial development, the black worker had to be provided with housing and services — but at a minimum level, because he was being paid a minimum wage.

In the new location of Orlando, the system of ling large numbers of low-cost — or ‘sub-economic’ — houses enabled the municipality to save. The houses had a simple plan: two rooms, one entrance door (no back door), no door between rooms, no floors, and no ceilings. As the City Engineer pointed out:

Ceilings were omitted on account of the extra expense entailed’ — as well as, to give additional air space in the buildings’.

Building houses on a large scale reduced costs.

‘ A great reduction has been made in the capital cost in connection with housing native families as far as Orlando is concerned compared with the Western and Eastern Native Townships’, reported the Manager of the Non-European Housing and Native Affairs Department.

He went on to give the following figures: the average three-roomed house in Western Township cost R270; the average three-roomed house in Eastern Township cost R240; and the average house in Orlando cost only R226, though it was larger and of a better quality.

The neglect of services

To keep the costs low, few services were provided. As the Johannesburg Engineer recommended:

‘The most suitable method of water supply is by means of public standpipes in the street.’

But this was false economy. The basic needs — such as warm and dry shelter, fresh water, sewerage and rubbish disposal — were essential to health and life, otherwise disease could take hold of impoverished people and spread through the whole town. The cost of disease could be crippling to the community as a whole.

Housing alone was therefore not enough to maintain people in the city. Water supplies, disposal of refuse, transport, health services, education, and recreation facilities could not be provided by individuals alone but needed to be provided collectively. The municipalities and industry ducked this responsibility. To some extent, the churches tried bravely to supply some clinics, schools and feeding schemes for the poor, but their resources did not begin to meet the need. Inadequate basic facilities in the townships remain an issue in the struggle of black workers right up to the present day.

Customers at the new municipal beerhall in Orlando, 1939

In the meantime, as private industry refused to pay the costs of housing their workers, or to raise their wages, the municipalities had to find ways of raising money for the building of cheap houses. The 1923 Urban Areas Act suggested one way: it encouraged municipalities to give themselves the monopoly of selling traditionally brewed beer in the locations.

Brewing and drinking liquor were illegal activities for Africans in most towns. Ministers of religion were concerned about the effects of drunkenness, which they felt led to violence and wasted lives. Medical officers worried about the health of drinkers. Employers, including mine managers, complained that drunkenness resulted in fewer working days and loss of production. The police had therefore made constant raids on the yards and the townships for hidden liquor.

While the Johannesburg Town Council debated whether it should introduce beer halls for profit, the government took the initiative. In its 1937 amendment to the Urban Areas Act it insisted that municipalities either introduce beer monopolies or allow licensed brewers to supply beer. Johannesburg then declared a municipal monopoly for itself, and the manager of the Native Affairs Department announced:

‘With effect from 1 January 1938, the City Council has exercised a municipal monopoly from the sale of beer. The municipal monopoly promises to be lucrative and it may be remarked that any profits accruing from the sale of kaffir beer must be paid into the Native Revenue Account.'

The profits were indeed great. In the year after beer halls were opened, the Johannesburg City Council made a profit of over R65 000, and in the following year the profit amounted to R127 502, as compared with the R84 000 received from rents in Orlando.’ City Council built more beer halls. Often they were largest and most solid buildings in the locations.

Moral objections to drinking were overlooked as long as the drinking took place in the beer halls and the beverage consumed was the traditional brew. Doctors began to allow that beer was

'good for the consumer from a dietetic point of view and contains a high food value.’

Supporters of the system argued that municipal beer halls provided men (but not women) with a legal place to relax and enjoy their beer without fear of raids, a that the customers were protected from the poisonous’ brews often found in the shebeens. At the same time the more drinking took place in the beer halls, the less the municipalities would have to pay for the cost of locations, and the more the poorest section of the population financed their own housing.

The beer hall profits, rents, licences, and fines paid for the housing schemes of the municipalities. In this way they were able to finance the programme of removing black workers from the inner city to the segregated locations.


For political reasons, too, ‘slum’ removals became necessary. The central government embarked on a drive to provide sub-economic housing for the white working class.

Meanwhile, as the municipal programme speeded up, more people were removed from the yards, which then demolished. In spite of the advantages of the locations, they were usually the last place where people would choose to live. They had the example of Nancefield and other locations before them, and were unaware of the ‘grand plan’ of segregation that unfolding. In the words of ANC President John Dube:

“ it seems to us Natives that you want our labour, but as soon as you have finished with us you want us removed so far away from you that you do not want to see us until certain hours when you again want our labour. We are just so many horses that have to be stabled after they have been working —Just as though we were not human beings’.

Others noted that the locations were intended to control workers living in them. Union leaders Henry Tyamzashe and Thomas Mbeki asked:

Why is it necessary to deliberately herd something like 13 000 people into a location with only two gates, one of which is usually kept closed?’

So while the new Orlando houses had more space he slum yards, with fresh air and gardens for the children to play in, many houses remained empty at the time of the removals. Thousands preferred to move to the freehold areas such as Sophiatown and Alexandra to escape the controls of the locations.

In her study of ‘Rooiyard’ in 1935 (see Doornfontein ‘s Yards ) Dr E Hellman noted how much people disliked the locations. Brewers worried that their trade would drop, because the ‘locations’ were so far from the mine and municipal compounds where most of their customers lived. Everyone realised that the cost of living would go up because of transport expenses. They would be under the controlling eye of the superintendent, who would note their doings and movements and subject people to the regulations. If they failed to pay their rents on time, their furniture and household possessions might be seized — a common event, as described in Potchefstroom‘s Story of Resistance. An unmarried woman could d only get a location house if she could produce the pass of a male relative. In short, people had a strong ‘dislike of living inside a fence’

Sophiatown, Martindale, Newclare and Alexandra thus became swollen with new tenants. But as more and more people came to the city, Orlando began to fill up. By 1937, the manager of the Native Affairs Department was pleased to report:

‘The resistance of the natives to the slum clearance process has almost disappeared. Four years ago not more than twelve percent of those evacuated from the slum areas actually took up residence in locations and hostels. This figure is now over ninety percent, and in the present abnormal conditions obtaining [the desperate housing shortage], the demand is so keen that all sorts of subterfuge is employed by natives from other areas to secure municipal accommodation.’

Future struggles

However, this moment of official satisfaction was not to last, for the problems of trying to house black workers at the lowest possible cost were to be multiplied many times over in the future.

The Johannesburg municipality had made very slow, small gains in trying to provide urban workers with minimum living standards, financed by the people themselves, in order to spare industry the cost of higher wages to pay for higher rents.

But soon after the start of World War II came the rapid development of the economy and a demand for more labour. There followed a dramatic rise in the population of the Rand in the l940s. Desperate housing shortages followed, with large squatter camps sprawling on the outskirts of Johannesburg, and the existing townships packed to bursting point. Volume 3 of A People’s History of South Africa will take up this story. We have seen how closely related the housing of workers is to the labour needs of capital. In the urban areas, black housing took three forms:

  • compounds for the larger monopoly industries employing migrant workers — the mines, the municipalities and state industries;
  • backyard shacks for the thousands of domestic workers, called on to service white homes of all classes;
  • closely settled townships to house the workers, the families of workers, in the manufacturing industry and commerce.

It is these townships the ‘squatter camps’ the ‘slums’ and ‘locations’ — that were to witness in future years the major struggles for freedom from oppressive restrictions, for basic living conditions, and higher wages.