White Workers and the Colour Bar

White Workers

In the history of resistance to the mine-owners' control, it is clear that the most important conflict of interests occurred between mine-owners and the ultra-exploited black workers - the story of their resistance follows this chapter. During this period, however, the most successful and most noticeable struggles occurred amongst the white workers.

This was because white workers had more power than the black workers and could challenge the mine-owners directly, through strikes, through political parties and through newspapers.

What actually were these workers resisting? Mainly, they were fighting against the mine-owners' continual attempts to replace 'expensive' white labour with 'cheap' black labour.

We look at the traces and the development of the white labour force in the gold mines and explains why they were placed in a special position by the mine-owners. This special position shaped the forms of white worker resistance in South Africa.


Deep-level mining was new to South Africa and there were few men in South Africa who had experience of mining deep under the ground. Some had experience in the diamond mines in Kimberley but deep-level mining for gold was different from diamond mining. Besides, there were not enough experienced miners from Kimberley for the growing number of mines on the Rand. The mine-owners had to recruit skilled miners from other countries.

Where did these miners come from? Most of the skilled miners came from the mines of Britain - from Cornwall or Northumberland in England, and from the mines of Scotland and Wales. Many others came from the coal mines of Australia.

These new immigrants brought with them not only mining skills they also brought their experience of being workers and we shall see later how important this was. They came to the Rand as full-time workers, with no land to go back to. The skilled miners of the early years had a strong influence on the working conditions of white workers in the years to come.


Skilled miners in South Africa got high wages. In 1897, for example, skilled miners earned 18 pounds to 22 pounds a month. That was good pay in those days.

Unskilled miners were earning only two to three pounds a month.

There were two main reasons why skilled miners got high wages in those early years:

- their skills were in short supply;

- they had strong trade unions.


  1. Shortage of skills -One reason for their high wages was that the mines desperately needed skilled workers, as we have seen. So, from the earliest days, mine-owners offered high wages for skills, and skilled miners were in a strong position.
  2. Strong Unions - Most of these miners saw themselves as members of the working class. They organised themselves into unions soon after they arrived. They had experience of trade unions in the countries that they came from, and they knew how to bargain for higher wages and better working conditions.


In 1881 the carpenters and joiners on the Rand organised themselves into a union. In 1886 the engineering union was started. Other unions followed.

These early unions were all craft unions - only skilled workers qualified in a craft were allowed to join. The most important unions were the Engineering Union, with 3 000 members by 1913, and the Transvaal Miners Association, with 6 000 members in 1913.

These unions became strong. The skilled miners knew how important the gold mines were to South Africa - and how important their skills were to the gold mines. They were in a good bargaining position.

In 1897, for example, the white miners at Randfontein went on strike. The manager had dropped the wage of the black miners and he tried to do the same to the white miners. The strike spread to the other mines, with the support of all the unions. The mining companies then announced that they would not drop the wages of the skilled workers.

This was the first strike on the Rand by the skilled workers, and they won it with very little trouble, that first time. The unions were able to fix skilled wages at more than one pound a day more for skilled workers. Within 15 years the unions had bargained for paid holidays, compensation for accidents and phthisis, overtime rates and shorter working hours.

But things began to change for skilled workers. As the years went by, other workers began to learn the skills of deep-level mining. The mine-owners saw that they did not need the skilled miners as much as before. The skilled workers began to lose their strong position as the mine-owners gradually gave more and more of the skilled work to blacks - at the old rates of 15 to 20 cents a day. Or else they gave jobs to semi-skilled whites with some experience, for lower pay than the skilled whites were getting. Of course the skilled miners were very worried about losing their jobs. They took action to protect themselves against the mine-owners attack on their bargaining power and on their wages.


The skilled miners defended their position in various ways.

The shift from skill to race as a unifying force for workers led to a particular viewpoint in political outlook. The white workers saw these two parties as defending their position of racial superiority in the labour market.

White miners used these two weapons - their unions and their political power - to protect themselves against the mine-owners' attempts to undermine their special position. They found that they were caught in a trap. White miners were a privileged group of workers, commanding good wages for special jobs - but their very privileges it their jobs in danger, for the me-owners preferred to employ the cheap labour of blacks as far possible.

The white miners resisted the in mine-owners' attempts to replace them by calling for job reservation.



What exactly is job reservation? job reservation, or the job colour bar, reserves certain jobs for whites only.

The job colour bar goes back a long way in South Africa. Nearly 300 years ago, slaves were brought to the Cape to do hard labour on the farms, while their white masters supervised them. later years, when there was a struggle for land, many blacks lost their land to the Boers and British. Blacks became farm labourers for white landowners. Once again, the work was divided racially - labourers were mostly lack, bosses were white.

When the diamond and gold fields started in Kimberley and n the Rand, once again blacks id most of the hard, labouring work. The first job colour bar law on the Rand was made in 1893. Although intended as a safety regulation to prevent accidents it made the assumption that blacks would never be skilled workers. The law said that engine drivers had to have certificates to show that they were skilled. It also added that no black person could hold this certificate. In other words, Africans could not become qualified engine drivers.

In the next few years more job colour bars were made. But in those first years in the mines, there were very few skilled blacks.


Then came the Anglo-Boer War, and the gold mines closed down for two years. After the war there was a shortage of cheap labour. This was partly because the mine-owners tried to drop the wages of black workers. Thousands of men stayed away from the mines.

Mine-owners then tried using unskilled white labour, but the skilled miners were against this plan. They were worried that these unskilled whites would not be properly trained and that they would take over the skilled jobs at lower wages. Then the mine-owners could lower the wages of all skilled miners.

In September 1902, about 100 skilled miners went on strike at the Village Main Reef Mine. They struck because they feared they would be replaced by unskilled white workers. The skilled miners union, the Transvaal Miners' association, supported the strike.

(An interesting point to remember about this strike, is that the skilled miners were worried about all unskilled workers who might take their places. Workers of any colour who could work for lower wages could eventually take the place of the skilled workers. So skilled miners were against white cheap labour as well as black cheap labour.)


The Chamber of Mines then decided to import Chinese labour. You will remember that the white miners were against this plan as well. They said that the Chinese were 'devilishly clever' and would learn many of the mining skills just by watching the skilled miners. Soon, they would take over the skilled jobs at 'slave wages', the white miners thought.

There were many meetings and demonstrations to protest against the coming of the Chinese. The newspapers at the time were full of discussions of the 'Chinese Question'. Mine-owners wrote articles in the papers, explaining that white miners did not need to worry. The Chinese would only do the unskilled work on the mines. But the miners did not trust the mine-owners.

'Unskilled.., that is what they ask,' said one skilled miner.

'But how long will they consider certain work as skilled? Only as long as it takes John Chinaman to learn it - say for instance running a rock drill or sharpening drills for these machines. John Chinaman is clever and the best imitator born in this troublous world. '

The skilled miners realised that already they had 'lost' some of their skills to black labourers, and they feared that they would lose even more to the Chinese.

There were many objections to the Chinese from other groups too, as we saw in the last chapter. Eventually the Transvaal government passed the Labour Importation Ordinance for the sake of the skilled white miners. The Chinese were to be employed 'only on such labour as is usually performed in mines in the Witwatersrand district by persons belonging to the aboriginal races or tribes of Africa south of the Equator,' said the Ordinance 2

In -other words, the Chinese were allowed to compete with black labour only, and not with expensive, skilled white labour -for the time being.

Impressions of an Immigrant Mine Worker

His first day at work brought startling revelations with it. The head of the workshop, Jock Davidson, handed out his tools: 'Here's your hammer,' he said, 'and here's your chisel, shifting spanner, pliers . . . and here's a nigger.'

Andrews was taken aback. 'What's he for?' he asked.

' To carry your tools,' Davidson replied tersely, and dismissed the new hand.

A few years later at Randfontein, his helper was a strong young Zulu, who asked him how much he drew in wages.

' A pound a shift,' Andrews replied.

' And how much do I get?' asked the Zulu.

' What's it - two bob a day?'

' Yes. And is that right?' the Zulu wanted to know. 'Who does all the hard work, who lifts the iron into the machine, who carries your tools for you, and hands you your tools? I do.'

As far as he was able in kitchen Zulu, Andrews put forward the argument that he got the pay of his trade because he was trained to do it. Although his 'boy' did all the heavy work, only the trained man could finish the job because of his acquired skill.

But all these arguments were unavailing. The Zulu shook his head vigorously and remained absolutely convinced on the injustice of the position . . . Andrews was deeply impressed by such incidents and turned them over frequently in his mind.

Extracts from Comrade Bill - The Life and Times of W.H. Andrews, Workers' Leader. by R.K. Cope

The 1907 Strike & The 1922 Strike

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Last updated : 15-Nov-2012

This article was produced by South African History Online on 03-Apr-2011