Introduction: Background to the Strike

The formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 was a development that had vastly different consequences for the various groups in the four former colonies. The union was a victory for the British – especially for the ‘uitlanders’ (foreigners) and mining magnates – who wanted to unite the country; but it was a defeat for Afrikaners such as Paul Kruger who wanted to maintain independent colonies free of British influence. Indeed, the Afrikaners had already been defeated in the Boer War (1899-1902), but the British acted to appease the Boers by granting them responsible government before Union was established.

However, all this this meant that the most severe consequences of Union were visited on the Black people of South Africa, who were dispossessed and disenfranchised to an unprecedented degree. They were proletarianised and used to satisfy the labour demands of the mining and agricultural industries.

More than any other grouping, it was the gold mining companies that benefited from the new arrangement. From the start, those calling for union were men who were steeped in mining and were keen to secure the conditions that would allow for a flourishing mining industry and for the industrialisation of the country. They saw the Transvaal as ruled by a Republican government that ‘represented an essentially rural community incapable of managing capitalist industrialisation’ (Beinart, p64). According to Marks and Trapido:

‘Imperial goals are determined by the interests of imperial ends: in the case of southern Africa, there was no intention to change the property relations already existing in the region, though the (Boer) war and the reconstruction which followed it were intended to transform the nature of the class structure of the territory by hastening the development of a capitalist state, which would be more fully capable of fulfilling the demands of the mining industry.’

Thus the project of industrialising the country, and turning it into a capitalist state, was the primary goal of the new Union government, and this meant protecting the interests of the most lucrative industry, mining. This task first fell to the South African Party that prevailed in the Union’s first general election in September 1910, with Louis Botha as Prime Minister, and Jan Smuts as Minister of Mining. The SAP was essentially an alliance of mining capital, capitalist agriculture and other fractions of capital.

Throughout the next few years, the state set precedents in its management of labour relations, ensuring a steady supply of labour for the mines and agriculture. Strikes became the occasion to develop new tools for management, a lethal mix of coercion and legislation.

The Labour Party, Socialists ferment and White Workers

The Labour Party was a result of socialist ferment in South Africa in the period before and after Union was established, especially in the Cape.  Several socialist parties, linked to parties in Britain, had been formed in the decade before union, and Labour was not the only party of the ‘left’. Other strands of socialism were in competition with the labour party, some eschewing parliamentary politics. A Socialist League, Socialist Party, Socialist Labour Party and the Industrial Workers of the World were already competing for workers’ loyalties.

The Voice of Labour, a ‘Weekly Journal of Socialism, Trade Unionism and Politics’, was started by Archie Crawford, and ran from October 1908 to December 1912. The Labour Party also established a newspaper, the Worker.

Some of these socialist parties merged to form the South African Labour Party in January, 1910. Led by Frederic Creswell, with WH ‘Bill’ Andrews and Sidney Bunting among its senior leaders, the party was the first national party formed to contest elections after Union was established.

The party was a staunch defender of the white working class, most of who relied on a policy of protectionism for white workers and racial segregation. According to Allison Drew, the party ‘called for “socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange, to be controlled by a Democratic state in the interests of the whole community” and “extension of the field of employment for white persons in South Africa”’. Drew points out that the ‘community’ referred to was the White section of the population, and Creswell, in an election speech in 1910, revealed that the party policy was ‘to lead the Natives into a separate line of development in their own reserves’, and that Asiatic immigration had to be halted and the state should fund Asiatic emigration.

African mineworkers were beginning to realise their collective power, and went on strike at Dutoitspan, Voorspoed and Village Deep mines in January 1911. But they were brutally forced back to work by police and white miners. Many were jailed under the Masters and Servants Act. White union members and the Labour Party turned a blind eye.

Instead, one of the party’s main concerns was to avoid discord between English and Afrikaner workers, in the hope of a united, white working class movement. The party also addressed issues such as miners’ phthisis, workmen’s compensation and the establishment of an eight-hour working day. With just four MPs in parliament, the party tried to push through a bill to establish an eight-hour working day, but failed. Crawford predicted that the failure would lead to a miner’s strike.

When the Chamber of Mines began to consider using black labour, the white workers decided to strike.

The 1913 Strike

Tensions were high at the New Kleinfontein mine in June, 1913. Besides having their grievances ignored, managers blacklisted ‘militant’ who presented the workers’ grievances. When a manager ordered five mechanics to work an extra three hours underground until 3.30pm instead of 12.30pm on Saturdays, they revolted, and two mechanics were fired. The workers embarked on a strike to get the management to recognise their union rights, an eight-hour day and the reinstatement of workers who had been fired. Union leaders JT Bain, Andrew Watson and George Mason went from mine to mine trying to mobilise support for a strike. They were joined in their efforts by Archie Crawford, Mary Fitzgerald and George Kendall of the ASE (a group of syndicalists), who wanted to get workers to stage a general strike against capitalism.

Mine owners tried to break the unions, and kept the mines in production by using scab labour – mostly Africans and some whites. Strikers urged the scab workers to join the strike, but police forced the Black miners to work or remain in compounds. Hovering over the entire debacle was the fear that a general ‘Native uprising’ would break out.

By the end of June, about 18,000 workers at 63 mines were out on strike throughout the Witwatersrand. With no army in existence, Smuts called in the police, mounted riflemen and the remaining troops of the British garrison and deployed them to the Rand.

Meanwhile the strike committee called for a meeting in Benoni on Sunday, 29 June. They instructed the strikers to come armed ‘to resist any unlawful force which may be used against you’.

When 10,000 workers held a meeting at Market Square on Friday, 4 July, police on horseback, wielding pickaxes, broke up the gathering. The situation began to resemble a civil war, and the government declared martial law – this on the same day that a general strike was underway following a call by the Federation of Trades. White workers responded to the call, with ‘excited men and women waving red flags’ and many youths appearing on the streets armed with sticks and other weapons.

The editor of the Labour Party’s newspaper, the Worker, wrote that war had been declared and that workers’ demands had to be secured by bringing the public and parliament to its knees. According to Simons and Simons, what the Worker was saying was that: ‘In principle, if not in tactics, an industrial war justified murder, arson, destruction of property and all other forms of armed struggle.’

Mayhem ensued as crowds rioted, stopping trams, forcing staff off the trains, and engaging in destructive behaviour. A wooden ticket office at the main railway station was burnt, the bar was raided and the premises of the Star newspaper were set on fire – the newspaper was seen as the mouthpiece of the mining magnates.

The next day, Saturday 5 July, clashes took place outside the Rand Club, the favourite venue of mine owners. Demonstrators tried to enter the club, but they were fired upon by the armed Dragoons. One bystander, who had served in the war, said he had ‘never seen such a sight as the indiscriminate shooting of men, women and children’. Sidney Bunting said it was ‘the most indescribable scene of cold-blooded brutality ever perpetrated in an industrial conflict’.

More than 20 people were killed. One young miner, Labuschagne, was the first to die. Miners soon distributed a pamphlet commemorating his death:

All civilisation cries Shame! Shame! Shame! On the work of the 1st Royal Dragoons who was backed up and urged by the devil, his government, his press and his pulpit. Labuschagne was Cowardly Murdered while defending the lives of women and little innocent children. When the Chamber of Mines’ dirty work was in full swing and honest working people were being shot down by Bums in soldiers’ uniform in the employ of the Capitalist, a Man stepped off the sidewalk in Commissioner Street nearly opposite the White Kaffirs’ nest Rand Club – he stood and tapping his breast with his hand, he said: ‘Don’t shoot any more women and children – shoot a Man!’ For these heroic words his Manly voice and heart was silenced by a volley of bullets”¦ Let the noble name of Labuschagne ring in every Working Man’s home throughout the world. Labuschagne, the Hero Miner of the Rand goldfields, died as a Man, defending the lives of women and little innocent children.

There were fears that Johannesburg and its mines would be destroyed. Alarmed by the reports of violence and death, Botha and Smuts rushed to Johannesburg from Pretoria to negotiate with the strikers. They met at the Carlton Hotel on 5 July, with throngs of workers gathered outside. The workers promised to return to work if their grievances were looked into, and if all those dismissed were reinstated. Smuts was loath to sign the document, but he had no choice and acceded to their demands. He said: ‘We made peace because the Imperial forces informed us that the mob was beyond their control.’

A week later, on a Sunday, workers held a meeting to analyse the agreement. Bain, the secretary of the Federation, issued a pamphlet before the meeting, declaring that ‘the government has declared war against the working class of the Transvaal by its bloody, brutal and utterly unprovoked attack’.

Some union leaders, such as Bill Andrews, called on the workers to accept the deal, but the radical socialists – Crawford, Mary Fitzgerald and George Kendall and JP Anderson – opposed the settlement. They said the Chamber of Mines had not been a party to the agreement, had not agreed to collective bargaining, and would set up sweetheart unions. Indeed, the chamber did exactly that a few weeks later. The meeting voted for Kendall’s resolution, which called for the strike to continue, but more moderate leaders eventually prevailed, and the workers returned to work.

African workers join the strike

The strike was supported by African mineworkers, with many trying to go on strike, though largely unsuccessfully. They demanded a pay rise of two shillings a day, but police armed with bayonets and rifles drove them down into the shafts.

Some white workers in the Federation began to call for African miners to be admitted into the unions. They argued that with African miners on board, the mines could fall under the control of the Federation.

The African People’s Organisation declared that African workers had every right to withhold their labour, and protested at the brutal manner in which the African miners were forced into the shafts. When African strikers were charged and sentenced to six-month terms in prison, the African National Congress, then just a year old and called the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), expressed its outrage. But at a special conference in July the SANNC refused to pass a motion of sympathy for the white strikers. According to Simons and Simons: ‘Congress declared that the dispute affected only whites, dissociated itself from rumours of “native unrest”, and asked for the protection of African miners in the event of a general strike. The ANC deputation to the Minister of Native Affairs put these issues before him and complained that the convicted strike leaders were being punished for “doing what their white overseers told them to do”.’

The Aftermath of the Strike

The strike changed the nature of politics in South Africa. The brutal reaction of the state was no accident. The state deemed it necessary to ensure that mining production continues at all costs. When railwaymen went on strike a few months later in January 1914, the state crackdown was even more brutal, with Smuts determined not to concede as he had done in 1913.

The Labour Party saw the union of English and Afrikaner workers as its main priority, and was populated by white workers who wanted the state to keep blacks out of positions that they felt should be reserved for whites. But some in the party began to consider a non-racial policy, a development that eventually led to a non-racial Communist Party of South Africa, which would play a crucial role in the struggle against apartheid.

According to Simons and Simons: ‘Years later, communists claimed that the 1913 strike opened the eyes of the militants to the potential of Africans in the labour movement. From that time, declared Ivon Jones, “there has been a growing minority of white workers who realise that the emancipation of the white can be achieved only by solidarity with the native working masses”.’

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