SOCIALISM HAD ITS BEGINNING as a propaganda force from the plinth of Van Riebeeck Statue, Adderley Street, Cape Town, when it stood at the bottom of Dock Road in the latter months of 1903. I had arrived from England in August of that year, after taking my discharge from the Coldstream Guards in London, following our return from the Anglo-Boer War.
Soon after my arrival I was listening to a Labour orator from London named J. L. Page, then employed as a sculptor on the City Hall in Darling Street, now obsolete and waiting its on the new reclaimed land that was once Table Bay. At that time Roggie Bay came right up to the Dock Road, where the fishermen landed their boats. An old wooden jetty bottomed Adderley Street, which we suppose was once Cape Town's docks, but then ' there was a danger sign on it forbidding people to test its wooden trail had it become that it was neither use nor ornament to Cape Town's main entrance. The Labour orator was a good speaker, apparently of Hyde Park fame, and he held forth in true Cockney dialect, which to me, hailing from the precincts of that great town, was very familiar.
He apparently took an interest in local developments besides his political labour problems, and as these developments have materialized, proved him to be something of a prophet. About the first time I heard him speak he delivered himself thus: "What we want is the abolition of this old structure here (pointing to the jetty) and the construction of a proper pier, and the continuation of the foreshore right round to Woodstock; and what we want also is to dispense with a system, which allows people in this and every other country to obtain wealth beyond the greed of avarice, and that such wealth should be distributed in a more equitable manner amongst all the people."
These remarks were made 43 years ago, since when the old jetty has gone, and a new pier was constructed, and the foreshore extended, all of which have again become absolute, but not the Capitalist system. The "greed of avarice" is still with us. As I write one of the Ford family, of motor car fame, has died and left a "personal estate" of over £16,000,000. "And so we sing," continued Page, Rule, Britannia, Britons never shall be slaves.' The British worker ought to know that he has never been anything else"
I spoke to Page after the meeting and found he was not connected with any organisation. I suggested it would be advisable to do so, which he subsequently did with a few others and myself, as secretary Page's conception of the Labour question, as we found out soon afterwards. He wanted to give his support to the Progressive Party-then the name of the existing of Government-the opposition being described as the South African Party.
About that time there was a general election and the candidates for the Peninsula were "ticketed" by each particular party, for- which you were asked, allowed, to vote for the whole ticket," and not to plump" for any particular individual.
There was a report in one of the daily papers soon afterwards saying: "J. L. Page in Parliament." It appears he was a French polisher as well as a sculptor and wood carver, and that he had been "elected" there by a government official to do some renovations, and the press was sarcastic about it. Some said it was a little political compensation for services rendered.
Griffiths, our other most active member, who rode a horse about the town, supervising the distribution of the goods from the Harbour Board Wagons, was told by the authorities that it was his duty to see that it was his duty to see that the harbour workers distributed the goods in proper order and not rebellion in his spare time. Therefore I was soon convinced that there were many obstacles to prevent us telling the workers the Marxism slogan-that "they had nothing to lose but their chains"-and also how indifferent and apathetic they were themselves. However, as Griffiths had to consider his family, and Page a Government job, my resignation was a consequence. That finished our General Workers' Union, but not my enthusiasm. I soon found other more direct methods for propaganda work, more directly associated with the Socialist cause.
The vicinity of the Van Riebeeck Statue at that time was the rostrum for all creeds and sects, who followed each other all through the day of Sunday, reminiscent of the Hyde Park gatherings. There was a meeting one evening of a few to voice some current grievance, and not being capable of giving it sufficient public expression invited those standing round to voice their sympathy.
A stranger mounted the platform who, after giving expression to the purpose or the meeting, continued to describe himself as Socialist, which he said means, "the socialization of all the means of production, distribution and exchange to be owned by the people for the people." Loud cries of Stop that rubbish," and other forms of dissent came from the promoters of that meeting. However, Blagburn (that was his name) stuck to the platform to finish his say, and I offered him fraternal greetings when he got down. I found he also hailed from London, in the district of West Ham, where Will Thorne of Cape Town-who happened to be Mayor at the same time-was also an avowed Socialist. Though tamed down by Parliamentary influences he was elected to Parliament in 1906, as was also the William Thorne in England is still a member. (Since this was written Will Thorne has died.) I meet him on the House of Commons terrace in 1911 in company with Keir Hardie, and he admitted knowing Blagburn as a member of the West Ham Social Democratic Federation.
Blagburn and I agreed to hold Socialists meetings every Sunday morning from the Riebeeck Status plinth. Jack Erasmus, then a reporter of the South African news, the organ of the Parliamentary opposition, used to report our speeches and publish them in that paper. In conversation one day I found him also to be an avowed Socialists-in fact the declared he came from New Zealand, his native home, for the purpose of introducing Socialism to South Africa. He agreed, if we could form a movement, to act as secretary.
We subsequently enrolled a few members and met in the dinning room of my boarding house at the corner of Bree and Wale Streets, known then as the England owing to some family matter-hence we were at once rather handicapped without our principal speaker. However, we continued our propaganda with the energetic influence of our secretary and I was deputed to open a discussion at our first indoor meeting, which I did on Co-operation-my father being president of a co-operative society in England. He had sent me some of their literature and I tried to interpret its meaning in Socialist phraseology as far as possible, but even then I found a strong opponent in James Hunter, a Cape Town merchant tailor, a great temperance man, who also claimed to be a Socialist and described the movement as ''dividend mongers." Erasmus not only reported discussions in the South African News, but also obtained reprints of our discussion for distribution. At that time Socialism was rather a strange gospel in South Africa.
Many were curious and joined us for enquiring reasons perhaps, but we subsequently became a fairly strong party, which necessitated our taking more spacious quarters. We took a room on the top floor of Cosay Building, corner of Riebeeck and Adderley Street, where the Colosseum Theatre now stands, and we emblazoned window: "Social Democratic Federation." Here we further increased our forces with such men as Needham, Howard, Levinson, McManus and Martin, the Riebeeck Statue preacher of Free Thought. Needham was an Australian and head of the firm of Needham & Bennett, still going under that name as signwriters of Cape Town. He returned to Australia about 1911. His daughter, Elsie, married the late Prime Minister of Australia, John Curtin. She was a girl when they returned there. I had quite a long letter from her some time ago, full of reminiscences of their days in Cape Town.
We shall have more about our comrade Needham later. With our increasing membership, and also our enthusiasm, we decided to again move to more spacious quarters.
Prior to this we had quite established ourselves as a Socialist propaganda force by our Sunday meetings at the Riebeeck Statue and our Wednesday business meetings, at which we also drew up a programme of our objects and methods, which I read before a big crowd at the Riebeeck Statue in the month of May, 1904. The object read thus:
"The abolition of Capitalism and Landlordism, the socialization of all the means of production, distribution and exchange, i.e., the ownership and control of all the means by the people for the people."
Our object and methods did not get world-wide publication, but a few critical comments I made at the meeting did, which appeared to have been sent to Router's Agency. It was this: "We were told that this war we have just finished against the Boers of this country was a miners' war, brought about to liberate them from the tyranny and oppression of the late Transvaal Republic-yet to-day we find tyranny and oppression more than ever." "Just retribution," commented the correspondent, and they cabled it all over the world.
My father in England, one of the many Liberal Party pro-Boers, wrote to me his congratulations. There are few dissenters of the Government war policies these days. Patriotism and empire building seem to have become a habit with the big powers. However, I am digressing. We subsequently found suitable premises at the corner of Plein and Barrack Streets now known, I think, as Chames Building. We rented the two upstairs floors of that building and sub-let part of one floors of various trade unions, who then had no home of their own in Cape Town. We also ran a refreshment bar, owned our own printing press and printed our own paper, The Cape Socialist, with Comrade Percy McKillop as compositor. McKillop was also "Father of the Chapel of the South African News printing works, but there was a strike there about that time and McKillop, being a Socialist, of course "fathered" that also, which resulted in him being able to give all his time and much more enthusiasm to our paper and the Socialist cause. McKillop had all the wit and brogue of those hailing from the Emerald Isle AND he was quick at repartee. He was a big burly man, which induced and undersized interjector at one of our Riebeeck Statue meetings to yell out, "Big barrels make a lot of sound." "Yes," said McKillop, "and there's another one-small barrels have always got a big bunghole."
While I'm on this subject I am reminded of another of our frequent speakers, Dr. Haggar. Although a member of the Labour Party and a member of Parliament, as its representative he often spoke at our meetings. He wore a heard of Father Christmas proportions. Questions were asked for after his address one evening. There was the usual silence for a little while, when somebody shouted from the back of the crowd- "What about whiskers?" "A very good question," retorted Haggar. My beard and your brains would make a good goat".
If I may go back a little further into South African political history I have still another one on very reliable authority, though there is nobody alive to-day to verify it. There was once a Prime Minister in the old Cape Parliament named Saul Solomon. Everybody who is anybody knows also that he was of very small stature-hardly five feet high-but he lacked in size he made up in intelligence, it may be supposed, or he wouldn't have reached that high office. A burly farmer member, who found himself in difficulties in discussion, thought he would raise a laugh against him by telling him that he would put him in his pocket. "If that were possible," retorted Saul Solomon, "you would have more brains in your pocket than you have in your head".
SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC FEDERATION AND TRADE UNION DELEGATION TO HOUSE OF PARLIAMENT, followed by a mass demonstration marshalled by the author
There was a rush to South Africa immediately following the Anglo-Boer war from Europe, with the promise of a boom in trade and general building lacking during the conflict. The supply, however, in a couple of years exceeded the demand once a depression set in, which meant the exodus, chiefly of the artisan class, to other lands, especially to Australia, and later they flocked to San Francisco, which had been laid flat by an earthquake. This emptied the houses and shops, which reduced the rents and the living to a very low scale, showing more clearly the ebb and flow of the Capitalist system, with so-called prosperity and depression according to the law of supply and demand.
As a result of the depression we were able to rent the two floors larger building cheaply and to get a very attentive hearing from the increasing unemployed, whose cause we championed by holding mass meetings, renting on one occasion a big circus tent that was pitched on the Parade. A strong deputation representing the S.D.F. and trade union leaders interviewed the Minister of the Government. The writer, being an ex-guardsman, was deputed to assemble and march them up Parliament Street to show the House their numbers, and I addressed them during the interview of the deputation, as much to give something to think about other than the thoughts which usually occupy such motley crowds with perhaps many irresponsible people in their ranks.
I know some of the comrades will smile when I claim to be a diplomat on such occasions. Suffice it to say that the whole demonstration on that occasion was quite orderly, and the deputation brought out the news that relief works were to be started on the railways at Klapmuts and Kalabas Kraal. The remuneration offered by our "benevolent" Government such productive services of the pick and shovel order was 3s. 6d.per day and the use of a tent to sleep in, after having wielded those implements of excavation all day in the broiling sun. Many, however, were in such dire circumstances that they accepted-others, more used to lighter forms of occupation, refused to be so burdened for such a pittance.
The unemployed demonstrations at that time were not without incident of a riotous character, though not the fault of the S.D.F. participation in them. Others, irresponsible, also addressed them, and a crowd of hooligans in Hanover Street seemed to think that window smashing of the struggling shopkeepers in that area was a means either of providing employment or getting their own back with the Capitalist system. Such are the vagaries of mass psychology. Of course the authorities saw in that an opportunity to show the public the Socialist way of doing things-hence they immediately arrested two of our most prominent members in the persons of A. Needham and H.B. Levinson, and to impress the public with the enormity of their "crime" they refused bail to allow them liberty till the day of the trial.
The absurdity of their arrest was of course subsequently manifested, as those two of all our members were the most diplomatic and philosophical in all their utterances in our propaganda work.
Some of the comrades then started soup kitchens to feed the hungry in District Six. This, however, was considered by most of us to be outside the curriculum of our propaganda work. Charity in its many forms was the backbone of the Capitalist system, and while we could appreciate well-meaning people who sacrificed much to alleviate the miseries of the downtrodden, it was not the purpose of Socialism, which dealt with the cause of the evils and not the effects of it. However, the more moderate and perhaps more humanitarian section insisted. There was no split though wing went their own way, meaning that while some of our members were ladling out the soup others were on the soap-box or distributing our literature round it.
There was also some controversy about the first issue of The Cape Socialist. Jack Erasmus, our secretary, a journalist by profession, was to be its editor.
The Cape Socialist
During the discussion about the title of the paper was that it be The Cape Socialist. Erasmus moved an amendment that the title be The Cape Vanguard. This, however, was defeated and The Cape Socialist remained the resolution. As this was before we purchased our own press Erasmus had the first issue printed at the South African News, where he was employed.
At our next meeting the bundle of copies were on the table with The Cape Vanguard printed boldly on the front page. This, however, was the first and last issue of The Cape Vanguard and of its editor. When he was asked why the paper was not The Cape Socialist according to our resolution he replied, "That's what it is going- to be if I have anything to do with it." By reason of this reverse Erasmus found other avenues for his always-strenuous activities. A. Needham was appointed editor of The Cape Socialist which ran for a considerable period.
The"Lock Out " and "Knock Out" Cigarettes
Over some dispute on the wages a cigarette factory in Plein Street had locked out its employees, to which Erasmus converted his immediate attention and they subsequently started a workers' co-operative cigarette factory of their own, producing packets of what they called the "Knock Out" and "Lock Out" cigarettes, and I remember Levinson went to Johannesburg, either to gather funds or extend the business there. We allowed them to open their works on our extended premises and supplied them with some furniture, but, like most sectional efforts which have taken over the control of industry, it subsequently faded out.
Erasmus, however, disappeared with them and subsequently went to Johannesburg as a sub-editor on the Rand Daily Mail, and later to Durban where he indulged, I was told, in property speculation and made a lot of money. We are all entitled to do that while the present system lasts. Yet I have often been told myself that even my moderate condition of affluence is inconsistent with being a Socialist, but that is from people who haven't got any farther than assuming Socialism to be a system of organised charity. One must be either a master or a slave in the industrial world of the Capitalist system in which I found myself and when the opportunity came after a long struggle I chose the position of master-not that that ended my struggle. I found out also that it anyone wanted to know anything about the intricacies of the law of supply and demand the Socialist movement is one of the best schools to teach them, and perhaps, explains the reason why so many of our adherents became of the middle rather than the working class.
However, we multiplied in numbers and enthusiasm, and became quite a religious institution, working for a grand ideal. As I have indicated, we were opposed to dealing with the petty grievances of the Capitalist system therefore we didn't welcome some of the people who came with a grievance and expected us to find a speedy remedy for it. Whole families joined us on many occasions and our hall was their meeting place on Sunday evenings, at which we invited public men to lecture, not so much because we wanted to hear what they had to say, but to show that the only hope of saving the world was the Social Revolution, and the multiplying brutalities of the Capitalist system have since shown the justification for our assertion.
The Debating Society
We established in addition to our general propaganda work an "International Debating Society," of which I was the secretary and to which we invited every institution we could to join us in debate. Many of our members joined the Cape Parliamentary Debating Society for same reason. One, I remember, created roars of laughter when he said here to educate this House." As most of their members were university students and budding politicians of the professional classes this induced ironical laughter. Yet what our comrade said was true-they were, on matters of our social and economic life, quite ignorant people.