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


Towns People

Between 1886 and 1914 people continued to arrive in a steady stream. From 1914, the population of newcomers to the Rand increased even more rapidly. With their different backgrounds and experiences, many of the settlers on the Rand had one thing in common —as their first experience of urban life. As described in Where Working People Lived, the poor, the unemployed and west-paid workers suffered the greatest hardships, yet they got very little help or understanding from those who controlled the town councils, or from the government itself.

Now lets look at how the workers and the urban poor fought back, and how those in power responded to them. While some challenged their condition of life through organised labour resistance others expressed their grievances in less obvious ways.

Clash between strikers and police, 1913.

Clash between strikers and police, 1913

Newcomers from the land

The rapid development of the Rand brought regular waves of newcomers. One such ‘wave’ came from the rural areas after a series of droughts, diseases and locusts attacked the land. The years 1912, 1913, 1914 and 1916 ruined many small farmers and eventually pushed more rural people, including whites, into the towns.

Growing agricultural capitalism (bigger farms, more investments in machines, etc.) was also steadily removing the independent small farmers. The 1913 Land Act accelerated the change from sharecropping to labour tenancy. White-owned land used for commercial farming almost doubled in the 1920s. By 1930, the Institute of Race Relations was pointing out that:

‘The white farmer is making more use than he did originally of his farm and the farm is becoming too small for himself, his children and the natives.

As land became more profitable and scarce, more and more sharecroppers were evicted, or else turned into labour tenants. Unlike sharecroppers, labour tenants could not work the land for themselves and share their crops with the landlord. They had to work directly for the landowner in return for being allowed to live on the land, usually without wages. Labour tenancy was often half-yearly labour, during the summer months. The rest of the year, many labour tenants went to find work in the towns, and formed a ‘floating population’ in the industrial areas. Some capitalist farmers, like the fruit, tobacco and cotton farmers around White River, Nelspruit and Barberton, went so far as to expel their labour tenants because it was more profitable to hire migrant labour. The result was that from about 1918 onwards, many people left the farms permanently and moved into the towns.

Settled townspeople

For whatever reasons they left the land, people continued to come to the Rand because of the job opportunities there. Many people avoided the mines and clustered in the towns. Between 1911 and 1921, the town population nearly doubled. During that same period, the population of African townswomen grew by 30 000. Between 1918 and 1920, the number of Africans not working in the mines grew from 67 111 to 92 597. The numbers of African women grew even more rapidly, from 98 000 to 147 000.

The beginning of the migration of black women to the towns is significant because their arrival began to change the pattern of black urban living. With women came children and families, and a steadier way of life. Once men had their families with them in the towns, they were even more concerned to keep permanent jobs. At the same time, more and more jobs outside of mining were becoming available — the towns and the municipalities were growing, and more industries were set up, as we shall see in the next section. The table on this page showing the number of labourers red every day in Johannesburg gives an idea of kind of jobs available to black workers — as well opportunities open to self-employed blacks in 1923.

Economic effects of the World War

In the period we are examining, a world event was having an important effect on the economy of the Rand. In 1914, Britain went to war against Germany, power in trade and colonies. Britain’s large including South Africa was drawn into the war, too.

British manufacturing was now geared to supplying war needs — tanks, guns, bombs and other weapons, as well as uniforms, boots, helmets and food supplies for the soldiers. The seas became battlefields too, and few trading ships were allowed to cross the oceans. One effect on South Africa was that the war cut off imported goods from Britain. Only urgent goods were supplied — the rest would have to be produced inside the country.

The result was a rapid development of the small factories that had been started on the Rand since the South African War. In the long term, this was a very important development because factories were to provide many new jobs for unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the years to come.

There was also a great jump in the cost of living. The value of money dropped. For the lowest paid town workers, this was particularly hard. According to government statistics, the average value of the wages of Africans working in factories dropped by just over 13 percent between 1916 and 1917. In other words, a wage of R8 per month in 1916 could have been worth only R7 in 1917.

Wages of Black Workers on the Rand, July 1918
%Non-mining population
Average wage

House boys
50 % R4-6 per month With food and accommodation
Store boys 230% R7-8 per month Without accommodation
Stable boys 90% R5-6 With food and accommodation
Industrial workers 150% R1, 50-R2, 20 per week
No food or accommodation

Source: Director of native labour

Hardship and control

A Scene showing hundreds of anti-pass demonstrators.

Most newcomers found themselves squeezed into freehold areas such as Sophiatown, Martindale or Newclare, or forced to live in the squalid housing conditions of the slums. Their arrival aggravated the growing shortage of housing on the Rand, and pushed up the rents.

Added to these hardships, the pass system made the life of every African town worker a misery. The harsh manner in which passes were checked by the police became a bitterly sore point. Even the Native Affairs Inspector for Krugersdorp commented:

‘The Pass Laws as applied in the Labour Districts appear to be based on the assumption that every native is a criminal from whom the rest of the community has to be protected.’

The pass system was being used to control the rapid movement of black labour to the towns, and to help employers to hold African workers to their contracts. As every pass-bearer also had his wages written on his pass, every new job tended to be pegged to the wage of the first job. The pass system therefore delivered a low-paid work-force into the hands of the employers. In 1919, two Transvaal Congress leaders, H.L. Bud Mbelle and C. Mabaso, announced:

‘At our meeting at Vrededorp on 30 March 1919 we came to the conclusion that passes prevented money.

Passes did in fact ‘prevent money’. They were related to the Masters and Servants Act, which tied a worker to a contract at a fixed wage, regardless of growing inflation. A clerk, Benjamin Phooko, representing 5 000 municipal labourers, put it this way:

‘Allowing prices to rise alarms us because we have entered into contracts that cannot be broken, so to demand a higher price for our labour.

The miserable wages and living conditions of black workers reached a crisis point in 1918 to 1919. Not fit enough to resist sickness, 127 745 black people died during the influenza epidemic. In the towns, 11 out a every 1 000 Africans died that year, while over 400 01 of every 1 000 black babies in the towns lost their lives.


Clearly, the wages and living conditions of black workers were insufficient to maintain them in good health. A groundswell of anger began to grow, and the years after the war saw a series of militant campaigns In Nancefield (Klipspruit) numerous petitions were ignored until eventually there was a violent outburst and a stay away.

On the East Rand, boycotts against high prices in the mine stores were a protest against the rising cost living. There was also the 1918 ‘shilling-a-day’ campaign for higher wages, as described in Collective Resistance and for a time there was unite black action, drawn from all classes, against the hated pass system. Added to these protests, there was the ion of strikes. This period of unrest shows that there was a growing awareness of the strength of organised resistance. It also shows that thousands of blacks were beginning to sues in the towns, and see themselves as part of the towns. Even one of the more cautious Congress Saul Msane, pointed out:

The masses in the native population are beginning realise that they are an indispensable factor in natural and social fabric of South Africa. They beginning to see that the whole industrial tern in this land is based and must be based on their willing cooperation.’

This town-based consciousness was growing more rapidly on the Rand, where a huge black population was massed together in one industrial centre. It is ant that the leadership of the ANC shifted 1917 to the Rand, when John Dube and R Selope Thema were replaced by Johannesburgers SM Makgato as president and Saul Msane as secretary-general. Johannesburg also published the congress newspaper, Abantu-Batho, which was controlled by the Transvaal branch of Congress and the growing numbers of literate townspeople Rand.

For thousands of blacks, the Rand was their only home. They were dispossessed of land, yet not accepted in the white-controlled towns. In one sense ere worse off than migrant workers because their had to support their families in full, yet these were based on the ultra-low wages fixed by the mines, with the excuse that all black workers were supported by a rural economy.

Yet, as the wave of strikes by municipal workers showed during 1918 and 1919, even migrant workers living in the compounds were unable to come out on their low wages.

In the ten years after the 1920 strike, organised resistance developed in the form of theIndustrial and Commercial Workers Union (the ICU). There we see that the activities of the ICU were far-ranging and country-wide, starting in Cape Town, then moving rapidly towards the industrial centre of the Rand, but serving also the needs of rural workers and poor peasants, who as we have seen were struggling against the encroachment of capitalist farming. At that stage many still hoped to get their land back.

The ICU reflected the in-between position of millions of blacks in those years as people of two worlds — as workers in the industrial centres or on white-owned farms, and as cultivators of the land for the survival of their families. It was able to express different grievances, hopes and dreams for different people, whether they were workers settled in the towns, migrants, farm workers or poor peasants struggling to make ends meet in the reserves.

The staff of Bantu World, about 1920, in Westdane,Jhb.

Capitalism in crisis

The period after World War I was also a time of crisis for capitalism. Throughout the world there was a depression. At the same time, South Africa was feeling the pinch of inflation.

On the mines, inflation pushed up production costs, yet the price of gold remained fixed. The mine owners were looking for ways to save money so that they could prevent their profits from dropping so low that some of the less profitable mines would have to close down. So they would not allow black miners’ wages to go up. Their tight profit squeeze helps to explain the brutal way in which the black miners’ strike was crushed in 1920. (See Gold and Workers for further discussion of this strike.)

The crisis of profits also affected other sectors of capital — trade and industry — so that workers throughout South Africa were not getting the rises they were asking for.

Militant action

The result of this refusal to raise wages was that workers turned to militant collective action. White as well as black workers were going on strike throughout South Africa during this period. On the Rand, there had been a struggle over union recognition ever since the Transvaal Mine Workers Union was formed in 1902. There was a series of bitter campaigns against the mining companies. The 1907 strike was followed by the Transvaal Industrial Disputes Prevention Act of 1909, which tried to outlaw strikes. The 1913 strike over union recognition spread to the railway and power station workers, and led in 1914 to a general strike. The government responded with the Act of Indemnity and the Riotous Assemblies Act, designed to make strikes in public services illegal and to outlaw peaceful picketing.

But the industrial development of World War I brought more power to the unions. From 1915 to 1918 union membership increased from 10 538 to 77 819. Militant action included the strike of the ironmoulders for paid annual leave in 1918, followed by the Johannesburg engineers’ strike and the builders’ strike of 1919. And at least twice before 1922, white unions took a vote on whether to go on general strike or no.

The years after the war were also a time of excitement and hope for many workers. They were inspired by the Russian socialist revolution of October 1917. In South Africa, the International Workers of the World and the short-lived Industrial Workers of Africa were organisations that hoped to create a society where the mines and factories would owned by those who produced the wealth — the workers.” Even those workers who did not support socialism became more critical of the capitalist system

The 1922 Strike

The combination of the dwindling profits of the mining companies and the growing militancy of the unions came to a head in the general strike of white workers in 1922. As described in Gold and Workers, Section: WHITE WORKERS AND THE COLOUR BAR, the mining companies sought to cut costs by re-organising the work in the mines — they introduced the new, labour-saving machinery, which would be operated by black miners at the same ultra-low wages.

In addition, hundreds of white workers would be made redundant. The struggle for union recognition became increasingly tied to the job insecurity of white miners. Once again, the ultra-exploitation of black workers led insecurity of white workers, and a further racial on amongst workers.

Bomber aircraft flying over the working-class suburb of Fordsburg,1922. The strike brought South Africa close to a civil war: thousands of white workers were on one side, the mineowners and the state on the other.

As workers, most of the white miners wanted a share of the profits they helped to create at considerable risk to their health and even their lives as whites in a racially divided society, they wanted to deny this share to blacks because they feared that the blacks’ low wages would undercut them. The white workers thus found themselves in a contradiction — a situation creating opposite effects. This contradiction was expressed in the socialist yet racist, slogan of the strike:

‘Workers of the World Unite for a White South Africa.’

In January 1922, 25 000 white workers went on Black workers were prevented from working the mines stopped production. The strikers took and up arms, the Smuts government called in the army, and hundreds of people were killed. The strike raged on for two months.

In the end the workers lost the strike. Over five thousand strikers were arrested and found guilty of sedition. Four men were hanged. The white miners had to accept lower pay. Hundreds were laid off, while black workers took over more of the productive work— at the same wages as before.

Soldiers versus strikers in Bramfontein, Jhb,1922.

A new government


The white workers lost the strike. However, they had another weapon — the political power of the vote. In the elections of 1924, the white workers turned against Smuts, and his government was swept from power.

The Labour Party, which represented most of the English-speaking craft workers, and the National Party, which had the support of Afrikaner workers, formed an alliance and together they won the elections.

They called the new government the Pact Government and the new Prime Minister was J.M.B. Hertzog, leader of the National Party.

In the years that followed, the new government developed a definite labour and economic policy. It aimed to co-opt the white working class — that is, to create a white working class willing to ally itself with capital. More importantly, it did all in its power to encourage the growth of South African capitalism and South African industry, as the next section will show.