The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

100 Years Ago:
The Origin of South African Apartheid

Jun 24, 2013

Apartheid, that system of racial segregation, was set up by the Nationalist Party following World War II, after the country gained its independence from Britain.

But in reality, the promoters of apartheid didn’t invent anything. They only constitutionalized the segregationist policy British colonialism had carried out ever since the beginning of the 20th century. This policy was the direct and brutal expression of the greed of the British mining companies.

British Pillage in South Africa

Everything began with the discovery in 1870 of diamond deposits and in 1886 of gold in the Transvaal, the area surrounding Johannesburg. The British state, which up to then had only a limited presence in the most fertile regions (the Cape and Natal), undertook to extend its hold over the whole of the territory. First it eliminated the Zulu kingdom, then it crushed the republics formed by the Dutch settlers called Boers at the end of one of the bloodiest wars of the 19th century. British capital then had a free hand to pillage the country’s mining resources. In the following years, there were at least 299 new mine companies listed on the London Stock Exchange.

But they had to extract the minerals. To bring up enough gold to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the stockholders, they had to put their hands on labor. But the black population didn’t want to leave the countryside, where they were able to live on the basis of farming and raising livestock. The working conditions in the mines and the associated camps where the miners lived were so terrible that the Chamber of Mines itself recognized an annual death rate of 8 to 10% among the miners!

So the mining companies used every subterfuge. They imported condemned criminals from England and indentured slaves from other British colonies and China. The colonial authorities tried to impose heavy taxes on the black peasants, hoping that, as in other African colonies where money practically didn’t circulate in the countryside, this would force the black peasants to go work in the mines. They even set up a system of internal passports, using a metal bracelet soldered around the arm, designed to facilitate the arrest of deserters.

But it didn’t work. The colonial apparatus, centered on the cities, wasn’t able to police the countryside and prevent the black miners from fleeing back there.

The Expropriation of the Black Population

Finally, beginning in 1910, the British state established a radical solution for the lack of manpower in the mines.

First, the South African British territories were unified into the South African Union, a British “protectorate” controlled by the colonial army. Then came a series of laws designed to put the black population in a repressive straightjacket, depriving it of any possibility of escaping from the mines.

The so-called “Native Land” Act of June 1913 prohibited the black population from farming any land for themselves on 88% of the South African territory. Of the remaining 12%, a third was uninhabitable, and the rest was very poor land. It was divided into “reserves” in which the entire black rural population was crammed. From then on, the only way to escape famine was to send able-bodied men to work where the whites offered a wage. The black population found itself incorporated by force into the working class, transformed into seasonal workers going between the mines and the reserves where their families were confined.

Other laws were then introduced, prohibiting black workers from access to skilled jobs or to apprenticeships, and limiting their movements strictly to the places they were employed.

Right after these measures were introduced, the wages of black miners were cut by 30%. But they weren’t the only ones to pay a bitter price. The bosses took advantage of the abundance of black manpower to lower the wages of all workers, including whites. What’s more, half of the country’s workers were deprived of South African citizenship and found themselves severely restricted in where they could go.

The Emergence of a New Working Class

By expelling the rural black population from the countryside, the British state ended up creating a new working class. Submitted to a ferocious exploitation, this working class quickly learned the methods of class struggle.

Up to then, the South African workers’ movement had been centered on a not very big white working class. It was led by militants who came from England, who brought with them the traditions and the prejudices of the English workers’ movement. Although militant, this workers’ movement always remained weak, paralyzed by its hesitation to seek alliances with black workers.

But it didn’t take black workers long before they put themselves forward. In 1918, there was a very big gold mine strike. In the preceding wave of strikes in 1913, the white miners had succeeded in mobilizing only 18,000 miners without really affecting production. In 1918, 71,000 black miners joined them on strike, forcing the closure of two thirds of the gold mines in the Witwatersrand region. The repression was terrible. Eleven strikers were killed and 120 wounded in clashes with the army. But despite this, the strikers won an 11% wage increase.

The president of the Chamber of Mines, Sir Evelyn Walters, expressed the disappointment of British colonialism in these words: “This strike was well prepared and disciplined, and not at all an ‘instinctive revolt.’ It showed that thousands of men of very different regional origins and belonging to many rural communities could unite their forces in an effective fashion. This is a new phenomenon, the first true strike ever led by colonial workers.”

Yes, a new working class was born. And, afterwards, it was going to cause the South African bourgeoisie and the international corporations enormous difficulties.