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

Themes to Think About

This Feature has shown how working life changed for the millions of people who came to live on the Rand between 1886 and 1940. It was a dramatic change, for in only sixty years the Rand witnessed an industrialisation so rapid that it revolutionised the economy, the society and the very way of life of the working people of the Rand.

Sixty years is a short period of time in history — it is not easy to analyse accurately in that space of time the unfolding of events, or the significance of issues, which are not yet settled. Nevertheless, this Feature has offered the following themes for the reader to consider.

The changing nature of work

Firstly, for millions of blacks and whites, the nature of production changed dramatically. Production based on the land, from which the family mainly benefited, changed to paid labour for the profit of others in industry.

This change was a revolutionary event for society in general, and for people’s lives in particular; for the nature of production is very significant. Men and women have always had to produce in order to live — we have always had to produce food, clothing and shelter for survival and protection, and the way this is done helps to shape the kind of society we live in.

On the Rand, the nature of production affected the kinds of work done by different people. For example, changes in production in the factories altered the composition of the workers — in the earlier years, craftsmen, with control over their own tools, were the most productive workers. In later years, through new labour processes in the factories, goods were produced by semi-skilled women and men at much lower wages.

The changing nature of production affected many other aspects of life, too. As we saw in The Early Years at The Rand, industrial society separated work and home. In fact, the Rand mine owners developed this separation to an extreme degree by establishing the migrant labour system, which separated workers from their families for long periods of time.

On the other hand, the requirements of other industries demanded different living conditions for workers — factories, for example, needed a stable supply of workers who could live cheaply with their families in town. 'Locations' of Labour shows how ‘locations’ were eventually developed for a black urban working class. So the nature of production on the Rand — whether it was for the mines, for the factories or in the homes of whites, often influenced important factors such as where people worked, where and how they and their families lived, how they worked, for whom — and of course for what wages.

The changing composition of the working class

We have seen how some people arrived on the Rand as experienced workers. These were mostly skilled artisans, or craftsmen from already industrialised countries such as Britain. Most people, however, both black and white, had come straight from the land, with little or no experience of working for cash wages.

But even among inexperienced workers, there were differences. There were those who managed to avoid wage labour at first, and made an independent living. A few of these made enough money to enable their enterprises to grow; but in the end most self-employed workers succumbed to more powerful competition. If they were black, the state often combined with capital to destroy the independent working life they had made — the case of the Amawasha laundrymen.

We have also seen how different people entered the labour market at different times — if the land was more prosperous in one region, for example, those people would tend to prefer short migrant labour contracts to bringing their families to town. Not all people came to town at the same time, therefore. The timing of their arrival also affected to some extent their living and working situations.

We have already noted that in the early years on the mines, the few skilled workers were white and the mass of unskilled workers were black. But as trade, construction and manufacturing began to develop, new and different kinds of workers were required by the employers. In New Factories, New Workers we saw how employers were able to break the craft workers’ power over production by changing the labour process through deskilling. Employers introduced new ways of producing, which cut down the need for skilled artisans, and increased the use of semi-skilled workers.

At first, this semi-skilled cheaper labour was drawn from the ranks of white women, mostly young Afrikaners fresh from the land. But gradually, as this Feature has shown, more and more black men were employed in factories (while most semi-skilled white men enjoyed the protection of the railways or other government industries, or the mines). By 1940, new changes were taking place. By then, more black men had entered the factories and would do so increasingly in the years of World War II, when many white men left to join the army. It was only in the 1950s that black women joined the industrial workforce in large numbers. By the 1960s, the bulk of the productive workers in South Africa were black.

A divided working class

While industrialisation created a class of workers, these workers came to be divided. We saw in New Factories, New Workers and New Workers, New Unions that divisions developed amongst workers according to how much control they had over production. The balance of power between employers and workers’ organisations varied from sector to sector of the economy, and the size of workers’ wages varied accordingly. This Feature has shown how division emerged:

  • between the skilled and the unskilled (including the low-paid apprentices);
  • between men and women;
  • between black and white.

These divisions were exploited by the employers and the state to prevent workers from becoming too strong, expensive and disruptive of the production process.

But the story of exploitation is not always simple and straightforward. Deskilling, which eventually broke the influence of the craft worker, was to give a new kind of power to the new industrial workers — the power of numbers, and the possibility of strength through collective solidarity. The more the industries grew, the more workers were needed. But the greater the number of workers, the more workers were able to combine, to organise, and to unite in struggle against the exploitation of their labour. In the 1930s, the militant traditions of the craft unions and some industrial unions were still strong. While both white women and black men earned low wages doing similar jobs in the same factories, the possibility of united, non-racial worker resistance was real. It was only when the Nationalist Party government placed further restrictions on the trade union movement in the early 1950s that this possibility was finally sabotaged.

The colonial background

The features of the industrial revolution in South Africa can be seen in the histories of many other industrialised countries; how people lost the land for various reasons; how they had to turn to wage labour in order to survive; how badly the new workers were exploited, particularly the weakest (women and children in Britain, blacks and immigrants in the USA); and how, in time, the workers combined to develop their own organisations in order to strengthen their resistance to exploitation.

But the economic forces, which triggered off the industrial revolution in this country, must be seen against the background of colonialism. And to this day it remains an important debate as to what extent the history of colonialism deformed the development of capitalism in this country. To what extent did capitalists benefit from the colonial heritage of racism? Would racism have disappeared if it had interfered with production in the new capitalist society? These are questions, which a study of past events can help us to answer.

South Africa’s colonial past has also had a bearing on the role of the state. After the shock of the 1922 strike, the state began to co-opt white workers by giving them protection through labour regulations, and also by providing welfare for the white poor. These racially defined privileges reinforced the racial divisions of work, which had been established in parts of the country in the colonial, pre-industrial era, and developed with the gold and manufacturing industries. The state supported the system by allowing migrant labour to develop and by expanding the pass laws and other labour restrictions on blacks.

A racial form of capitalismDuring the period up to 1940, it is possible to trace the growth of a System based on the ultra-exploitation of black labour. Over the years, a system was developed which enabled both the State and most employers to control this labour and keep it cheap.

  • We have observed that the rural areas supplemented wages in the towns by supporting the aged and the sick and raising the children. All this was made possible by the migrant labour system, which kept down the wages and reduced for a while the number of black families settling in town.
  • We have observed how the cost of reproduction of black workers in the towns was cut down by segregating black from white workers and providing very few services in the black living quarters. 'Locations' of Labour has shown how cheap housing built by the municipalities was actually financed by black workers themselves through the beer halls. In these ways, both the state and employers saved on costs — cheap housing and the low standard of living meant that wages could be kept down to a minimum.
  • But an organised system of control was needed to make sure that black townspeople would accept these harsh conditions. The ‘locations’ were supervised. Influx control was enforced to stem the labour flow to towns and direct it to areas of ‘labour shortage’, including the commercial farms. Political rights were denied, so that the state was not directly accountable to blacks for their policies.
  • White workers, on the other hand, did have some political influence through the vote, and the Afrikaner nationalist movement did much to further the short-term interests of white workers. Furthermore, after the struggles of the 1920s and 1930s, their unions were recognised by employers, with the help of the state, as described in New Workers, New Unions. Their unions benefited from the experience of craft unions, and immigrants from industrial countries. For white workers, conditions began to improve after the economy recovered from the Depression. The state also embarked on welfare programmes for whites.

Community responses

We have noted the importance of production in human society. Through production, human beings maintain themselves. Through reproduction, human beings renew themselves — they have children, raise them and train them until they are old enough to take care of themselves and perhaps their parents in their old age. Reproduction is as necessary for the survival of the human race as is production.

In industrial society, production takes place at the workplace, while the community is the sphere of reproduction. It is in the community that people live their daily lives, raise their children and develop a culture — that is, a way of life, which will make sense of their day-to-day experiences.

The Rand towns were hostile to black settlers, as we have seen. But people had ways of coping with harsh and hostile conditions, and were constantly alert for ways of surviving:

  • New Workers, New Unions and The World The Workers Made the development of collective resistance through unions, political parties and community action such as stayaways and boycotts. We have also seen how collective self-help through stokvels also became an important means of survival. For white workers, it was the collective struggle through the unions that achieved important concessions: for example, safety legislation was improved only after the militant Mineworkers Union went on strike in 1913.
  • We have also seen how the informal sector activities of brewing, hawking and small trading — and in more desperate circumstances, prostitution and crime — earned people extra money.

The World The Workers Made described how, out of all these experiences, an urban popular culture emerged; urban traditions began to form. And although these continued to change, slowly a way of life began to take shape.

Nationalism and class

During the period covered by this Feature two strong nationalist movements developed. 1912 saw the founding of the African National Congress, followed shortly afterwards by the Afrikaner National Party. At that time, both Africans and Afrikaners were conquered peoples dispossessed of land, most of them poorly paid because they had had little training for industrial life. While many Afrikaners were resisting the control of British imperialism over the wealth and the political power of South Africa, black leaders wanted to restore the land to blacks, and to unite them against the crude racial oppression that industrial life was continuing to impose on them. Slowly, industrialisation shifted the sites of struggle for blacks. In this period on the Rand, we see black resistance beginning to move from a struggle over land (see for example the policy of the ICU; the 1913 Land Act was also an important cause of the formation of the ANC) to a struggle for survival in the towns, for better wages, for housing, indeed for the right to remain in the city.

As industries developed, new groups emerged. The experiences of exploitation drew workers together, and we saw in New Workers, New Unions many examples of class struggle through trade union organisation. We saw, too, how at times class cut across national aspirations — how Afrikaner nationalists were very threatened by the unions of the women workers in the factories. They felt that people should regard themselves as Afrikaners first, workers second. There followed a battle for the hearts and minds of the Afrikaner workers that was to come to a head in 1948, when the Nationalist Party won the general election and was able to draw the bulk of Afrikaners under its sway.

For blacks, nationalism was in its early stages of organisation during the period up to 1940. Nevertheless, the rapid spread of the popular ICU movement which alarmed so many white employers was also a foretaste of the excitement and the challenge of the mass movements of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress in the 1950s.

Never entirely absent from black national resistance was a consciousness of exploitation in the workplace. Although black industrial workers were too few and too easily replaced in those years, many were slowly establishing the trade union traditions which were to be developed in the l950s by the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and were to become a powerful force in the 1970s and 1980s. The precise relationship between national liberation and the trade union movement continues to remain an issue. How successfully the protagonists of class struggle and Black Nationalism will be able to combine their organisations remains to be seen.

The making of a working class

We have witnessed the creation of black townspeople, whose lives changed vastly in both their working and living places. We have seen how this was an on-going process — that is, it did not end at any particular point, for it still continues in its formation. This process expressed itself in different political, social and economic movements, according to the experiences of different groups of people, the precise nature of their work, their position in society and the region in which they found themselves.

We have witnessed the birth of a working class on the Rand. During the past century the class of productive workers — that is to say the workers who produced the commodities that could be sold for profit — has changed. It changed from a small, immigrant group of skilled artisans who controlled their knowledge of production, to a much larger class of semi-skilled workers. This class included some white workers, many of whom were women as we have seen, but was increasingly made up of black men and women.

The story has not ended — it continues to unfold. To this day, the working class in South Africa — its needs, its aims, its hopes and its political expression — is still in the making. A study of history will enrich our understanding of a process and a struggle in which each of us has a part to play.