In Memoirs of a Socialist in South Africa 1903-1947 (nd.) Wilfrid H Harrison reminisces about the white labour struggles of 1922 on the Witwatersrand. He refers to the 50,000 people who followed the Red Flag in the funeral procession of three strikers who were convicted to death (HK Hull, D Lewis and SA Long) and writes:
That is many years ago and we wonder what has become of those 50 000 people who followed those singers of the “Red Flag” to their graves. Obviously they have buried the axe, so to speak, and their indignation against Capitalist machinations. That all happened … in Johannesburg – the city of great storms in labour movement, which generally end in the proverbial teacup (48).
Nineteen Twenty Two was the culmination point of a period of intense struggle by the white working class in South Africa against the state and the capitalists of the time. D. Ivon Jones described 1922 as “the first great armed revolt of the workers on any scale in the British empire” (Hirson 1993:81). Martial law was proclaimed three times on the Witwatersrand in the period between 1913 and 1922 (Walker 1961:91). General Smuts saw Johannesburg as a “volcano that required constant watching” (Urquhart nd.:7). The period itself was described as one of “events of world importance” (Cope 1945:31). The gold mining industry at that time was the “fulcrum of world capital” (Hirson 1993:82). With reference to the strike of 1913 Gitsham wrote that “More or less truthful narratives of this event have appeared in every newspaper in the civilised world” (1926:34).
Despite attempts by Cope, Harrison, Gitsham and others to “rescue” some of this “raw material of history and present it to the workers in readable form” (Cope 1945: preface), a veil1 was drawn over this period. According to Baruch Hirson these events was “removed from historical memory” (1993:74) because these strikes were found to be “racist” and “reactionary” (1993:74) W.H. Andrews on the other hand in the 1940s ascribed this forgetting to the “smooth and comfortable path of class-collaboration” (1941:3) taken by many of the labour leaders. The amnesia, though, also relates to the purges of the Stalinist period that intensely affected the South African communists in the early 1930s. The Russian Revolution oedipalised international socialism. Lenin significantly called one of his books Left Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder (Johns 1995:119). To him the many subject positions outside the Russian centre embodied this infantilism. It intensified struggles against the multiple subject positions within socialism, in order to homogenise every move around the directives from the parent Moscow. It created space for betrayal and persecution. Bernard Sachs describes very interestingly in his autobiography Multitude of Dreams (1949) how he uncontrollably laughed himself out of the Communist Party in these circumstances, while Edward Roux’s in S.P. Bunting: A Political Biography (1993) states that he wrote this book to purge himself of his self-disgust at betraying Bunting, the erstwhile leader of the Communist Party, during these expulsions.
The main focus of my article, though, is on the period in South African labour history before the oedipalisation intensified. The focus will be on the cultural aspects of this history in order to highlight an aspect of colonialism which has not received much attention: namely the role and the various subject positions of the European worker on the gold fields of South Africa in the period 1900-1924. I want to start with a short survey of some of the major strikes of the period by European workers.
1907: A strike developed over a reduction of wages and how many rock drills each white miner should control. The strike developed into violence and the British troops still garrisoned in the country after the Anglo-Boer War were called in to drive the miner’s pickets off mine property and miners back to work. During this strike poor white Afrikaners were encouraged to act as scabs, and in this way Afrikaners for the first time became a large group within the mining labour.
1913: Workers declared a general strike on the Reef after workers at the Kleinfontein mine in Benoni were ordered to work the same hours on a Saturday as on other days. Thousands of people assembled for a mass meeting on the Market Square, Johannesburg, despite a law that prohibited gatherings of more than six people in a public place. Mounted police and squadrons of the Royal Dragoons charged the meeting. The angry crowds reacted by burning down the office of the Star newspaper and the railway station. The Star was controlled by the mine owners. The next day the crowds gathered outside the Rand Club, headquarters of the mine magnates. The Dragoons shot into the crowd killing about twenty people.
1914: South African Railway workers went on strike due to threats of retrenchment. Seventy thousand police officers, soldiers and armed Burghers were mobilised on the Witwatersrand and Martial Law proclaimed with hundreds of trade union leaders imprisoned. The strike leaders were taken out of their prison cells at night “rushed by train with blinds drawn under armed guards to Durban, and bundled aboard the SS Umgeni, which was at once put to sea and made straight for England” (Andrews 1941:25).
1919: The Johannesburg Municipal Mechanics and Tramwaymen call out a strike because of threatened retrenchment. The strikers implemented new methods of struggle suggested by the Internationalist Socialist League. They took possession of the Power Station, the trams and town council themselves: “the power station was at work and the trams were running to the great delight of the humbler citizens of Johannesburg” (Andrews 1941:30). The strike committee, under its chairman, J.T. Bain, formed itself into a board of control, took possession of the Town Hall, and held its meeting in the Council Chamber with Bain in the Mayor’s chair. Everything was running smoothly with the Town Council homeless and helpless (Andrews 1941:30).
1922: The strike or revolt began in the coal mines with an announcement of a reduction of wages. It spread to the gold mines when a plan by the Chamber of Mines to retrench several thousand European workers became known. They were to be replaced by cheaper black workers. On 22 February the strike turned violent when the first skirmishes between workers and police took place. A number of strikers were imprisoned after this. On 28 February, strikers assembled outside the Boksburg prison and sang the Red Flag to their comrades inside. The police then fired on them killing a number. Thousands of people attended the funeral of the victims. The workers all over the Witwatersrand organised themselves into commando’s, while a Council of Action, under the leadership of Percy Fischer, did the planning of the revolt. A number of the trade union leaders were imprisoned in the Fort (where well-known communists educated their more nationalistic inclined Afrikaner fellow prisoners into the principles of the class struggle). In the days that followed workers stormed and burned down police stations, taking captive many police officers. Battles waged in Benoni, Boksburg, Dunswart, Brakpan, Jeppestown, Fordsburg, Booysens, Vrededorp, Newclare and Newlands. Two hundred people died.
2. Carnival and Oratory
Authors often refer to the industrial unrest during the first two decades of the century in terms of literary and biblical metaphors. Andrews speaks of “the story of trade unionism in South Africa” that is “dramatic” (1941:11). Herd states that the “story of 1922 has a classic form” (1966:14). The prelude is the months of unrest with rumbling undertones followed by several weeks of minor skirmishing that climax in “open and bitter fighting with rifles, machine-guns, artillery and armed aircraft” (1966:14). Gitsham sees the history of South African Trade Unionism as “filled with Romance, Tragedy and Comedy” (1926:3). The “story” that he tells in its incompleteness resembles a “flashlight photograph” (1926:7) and “many details will not bear a resemblance to some of the observed facts” (1926:7). The communists are often seen in terms of biblical images. Boydell describes Wilfrid Harrison as a “social and economic evangelist” (Harrison nd.:VIII) and as a “hot-gospeller of the bottom-dog” (Harrison nd.:X). One of the tasks of the newly found Communist Party of South Africa (established in October 1920) was to “establish the widest and closest possible contact with workers of all ranks and races, and to propagate the Communist gospel among them” (Johns 1995:121).
Reading the “story” in its many texts evokes images of spectacle and carnival: a carnival of mass meetings, funeral processions, ritualised marches and mob scenes. Herd, with reference to the street gatherings of strikers, refers to the “hurrying mob” fed on “exhilarating rumours” (1966:32) and to “an inflamed mob and thousands of sightseers” (1966:50). Captain William Urquhart, a senior policeman who wrote about the strike from personal experience, highlighted the carnival and spectacle aspects of the 1922 revolt in his book The Outbreak on the Witwatersrand (1922). He endorses the view of Colonel Mentz, the Minister of Defence, that the mob demand for a general strike was a licence to destruction. Urquhart describes how the strike was transformed into “amok” (1922:89) in Benoni:
Private houses were burned. A gunsmith’s shop was ransacked for arms and destroyed. The Arcade was wrecked. Bottle stores were looted. The houses of loyal citizens had been burned down. An artist at work in his studio had his own chisels driven into his head and back. Drunken men fired indiscriminately on women. Rioters entered a temporary hospital and threatened to kill the patients. Now that all seemed like an evil dream (1922:89-90).
Urquhart refers to the “shocking outrages” (1922:55) of the women commandos, who “drifted into unmentionable barbarities by rapid stages” (1922:55) especially against strike breakers or “scabs”. He describes how workers seized a shift boss at the Krugersdorp railway station and drove away with him out into the veldt where three women attacked him. While he was lying prostate they threatened to gouge out his eyes, and then stripped him, defiling his body, and leaving him naked on the veldt (1922:60). The exchange of identity, characteristic of carnival, also manifested itself when snipers disguised themselves in women’s clothing (Urquhart 1922:83).
The annual May Day processions (the first one was held in 1904) are the most obvious ritual that links the labour movement with carnival. Since 1913, though, marches increasingly became funeral processions or processions in memory of the “martyred dead”. In 1922 the police put the Simonds Street section, where a number of people died during the 1913 strikes, out of bounds of a procession of marchers. The marchers “wished to proceed along the street for sentimental reasons – ‘as shooting took place there in 1913 and 1914’” and they wanted to take off their hats as they pass along (Mickey Dunn in Herd 1966:32). The commando system, adapted from the Anglo-Boer War, and combined with the forms of regimentation learnt during the First World War, gave a military2 character to these processions:
a curious procession headed by a band of youngsters playing Scottish tunes. Behind them came a detachment of mounted police from central Johannesburg, Fordsburg and Denver. They were followed in turn by wagons loaded with women lustily singing the Volkslied, the anthem of the old South African Republic. After the wagon convoy came the cyclists and marching women wearing uniforms with conspicuous red crosses on the sleeves (Herd 1966:40)
The mass meetings addressed by orators is a special feature of the events of this period. It highlights the importance of the physical presence and rhetorical skills of leaders during the rituals, marches, meetings, strike actions, funerals and debating evenings in that period. It was essentially an oral and public culture. They delivered their speeches from platforms on the Market Square or other public places. The texts often refer to the styles of different leaders in addressing crowds. ES Sachs describes Bill Andrews as a “superb orator” who is “able to combine in his speeches cold logic with pathos, simple language with eloquence, dignity and humility” (Andrews 1941:5). J.T. Bain, a colourful labour leader who in 1892 was one of the founders of the first “ambitious attempt” at union organisation in South Africa, namely the Witwatersrand Mine Employees’ and Mechanics’ Union, is described as:
a first-rate platform orator, and could often be seen on a Sunday pouring forth a fiery Glasgow tirade to a crowd in the Market square. His hatred of the capitalists knew no bounds (Copend.:45).
Tom Matthews as a speaker often lost his temper, gesticulated and was “capable of fiery speaking which could rouse the workers to heights of enthusiasm” (Cope 1945: 93). He considered himself a rationalist and on one occasion delivered a complicated lecture on totem worship and the origin of religion. He had volumes of Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’ before him for reference, and elaborate notes. He did not prepare sufficiently, and found himself stuttering until he swept aside his books and notes, and launched into a furious denunciation of the capitalists and the Chamber of Mines (Cope 1945: 94). Another orator was Wilson-Wilson a well-known “Australian ‘spell-binder’…drawn into the strike because it afforded him a ready platform” (Walker and Weinbren 1961:24). Urquhart states that Percy Fisher “was an effective speaker; though he rattled off his message at express speed, he was lucid and indulged in a mordant humour at the expense of the capitalistic class” (nd.:67) and refers also to the “other preachers from strike pulpits” (nd.:67).
In Cape Town socialism was regularly preached from the plinth of Van Riebeeck Statue, Adderley Street. Cape Town also had a lively debating society which was often frequented by Cronwright and Olive Schreiner. Wilfrid Harrison, one of the colourful figures from Cape Town states in his memoirs: “Mass psychology…is funny stuff. They will be as calm and chuckle like cooing doves one minute, and are as ferocious as wild beasts the next, if one knows how to get them like that. There I used my years of experience as a mob orator to put the amusing side of the subject as much as possible, then a little serious talk, till they began to snarl, then think of something funny again. The effect is wonderful” (52)
Harrison describes S.P. Bunting as a long-winded and monotone speaker, with crowds not appreciating his “heights of Communist ideology” (71). Bunting retaliated by referring to the street corner revolutionaries and that “(i)t should NOT be our privilege to stand on a Cape Town dunghill and crow that we know better” (Harrison 101). He did this in the context of Sylvia Pankhurst who according to him was trying to push “‘her own little barrow’ against the colossal and successful Third International machine” (Harrison 90).
The meetings themselves often happened in the streets where the workers were addressed from Trades Hall balconies, or open pieces of land where boxes or the rooftops of cars were used as platforms. In 1922 while the leaders discussed the decision to go on strike, the “commandos remained faithfully at their posts with almost nothing to eat, listening to an unceasing torrent of oratory from the Trades Hall balcony” (Andrews 1941:34). Edward Roux describes how he accompanied his father as a child to a political meeting: “A crowd of a hundred or so gathered in the dark on an empty plot and listened to the speakers who spoke from an empty box lighted with a solitary lantern” (Roux 1993:67). Walker and Weinbren describe another meeting:
At about 3 o’clock a body of strikers from Germiston marched into town taking up a position on the Union ground. Here again a number of speeches were made from the room of the tramway waiting-room, at the corner of the grounds, advising defence of the federation.
Mr W.H. Andrews commenced an opposition meeting, speaking from a cab drawn up in the centre of the ground (1961:40).
Cope describes how a number of strike leaders arrived at night at the Germiston station, not knowing the road to the mine where a meeting was to take place, but
heard a distant but powerful voice roaring at them. It was Jimmy Coward. He kept up his shouts like a ship’s foghorn until the organisers had arrived at the meeting – a distance of more than a mile (79).
The song “The Red Flag” and the banner itself were important symbols at meetings and processions. It attained near religious value. Wilfrid Harrison describes his home in Buitenkant Street as a church where comrades gathered on Sunday evenings. Here he baptised his offspring on the Red Flag with the words “In the name of liberty, equality and fraternity I now dedicate my son to the cause of international Socialism” (Harrison 1947:16). He describes how the British labour leader, Keir Hardie, gave them a few lessons on how to sing the song “The Red Flag” to the more harmonious tune of “The White Cockade” (Harrison 1947:22).
This song “The Red Flag” punctuated every significant event, and was especially used to give courage in situations of distress: The secret arrests of strike leaders in 1914 became known when “some Labour men had heard strains of the Red Flag floating from a ‘Black Maria’” (Cope 1945: 156). In 1922, on “the evening of the 28th February, a number of strikers assembled outside the jail and, to cheer the prisoners up, sang the Red Flag” (Andrews 1941:33). The commandos were referred to as Red Flag commandos and they sang “the Red Flag behind the barricades and sandbags” (Cope 1945: 278). During the arrest of leaders “The prisoners raised a cheer as they were driven away and bystanders took it up. Then some of the crowd removed their hats and sang a verse or two of the Red Flag” (Herd 1966:65). At the hanging of the convicted strikers Long, Hull and Lewis, the prison seemed to be like a church with not a sound to be heard. The “great audience became silent as the three started on the path to death singing:
Then raise the scarlet standard high!
Within its shade we’ll live or die.
Tho’ cowards flinch and traitors sneer
We’ll keep the red flag flying here (Defence Committee 1922:37)
At the end of the founding meeting of the Communist Party in South Africa (October 1920) “the entire assembly of delegates and sympathizers rose to sing The Red Flag” (Johns 1995:125).
Worker newspapers often printed the Red Flag (The Strike Herald, July 2, 1913, The Strike Illustrated with Supplement, July 4, 1913; the Afrikaans version in . The “Eastern Record” , July 4, 1914 and printed in red in English on the back of the same edition) or alluded to in the doggerel. The song “Workers Awake” (The Strike Herald, June 28, 1913:6) refers to it in the context of carnival images:
Now the Red Flag flies from the housetops high;
The streets are all athrong;
And dancing children from the windows cry:
“Help is coming along.”
Then cheer upon cheer to heaven is sent,
And age forgets to frown,
When the men of Van Ryn on battle bent
Came marching to the town.
After the Russian Revolution the Red Flag symbolised the beginning of a new historical period. In the “I.S.L. Marching Song”, that was first published by the International Socialist League of Cape Town, the chorus sings:
So march on, O comrades, march till the day
Red glows the Flag of Revolt in the dawn!
So march on, O comrades, march till the day
Red glows the Flag of Revolt in the dawn!
(The International, June 6, 1919).
In Donald Snowdon’s volume of doggerel verse The Sniper’s Pencil. Red Lines from the Boksburg Gaol (nd.) there are poems such as “The Church and the Red Flag” about a conference of bishops and elders and churches of all denominations to discuss the threat of the Russian Revolution:
But in the crowds the workers gather at their meetings
And cheer them to the echo when they say:
Comrade Lenin, from the Russians, sends you greetings!
Raise the Red Flag and you’ll see the light of day (7).
3. Newspapers and doggerel
Doggerel, inspired by the various events, often appeared in the worker newspapers such as The Strike Herald, The “Eastern Record” and The International. These songs usually appeared under pseudonyms, or anonymous, with some of the songs taken over from American or British newspapers (such as The Machinist Journal). The popular song “St Peter and the Scab” (Strike Herald July 2, 1913) derives from Berton Brailey’s “The Scab” that appeared in the Popular Magazine (see Strike Herald Aug. 2, 1913). The Clarion is one of the labour newspapers that had a great impact since the late nineteenth century. J.T. Bain sold it on the Witwatersrand to the mineworkers. In the August 1894 edition of The Clarion he writes (under the pseudonym of “Snooks”):
In a few months the red van drawn by six oxen, and laden with Labour literature, and accompanied by one who has read the Clarion since its first appearance, will, we hope, be seen trekking the Reef from end to end (Cope 1945:45)
The newspapers were part of the public culture and the doggerel verse was intended to be sung. Although printed, it was used in oral contexts.
Apart from The International very little information exists on the other newspapers. The Strike Herald was a bi-weekly published by the Federation of Trade Unions and the Kleinfontein Strike Committee in 1913. It was edited by Ivon Walker. In his book 2000 Casualties (1961) co-authored with Weinbren, Walker describes a police raid on the newspaper, the arrest of the staff and the breaking up of the type matter already prepared. On July 31 of 1913 it became a daily only to be terminated at the end of the strike two days later. The “Eastern Record” described itself as a “people’s paper”, and was distributed in the East Rand towns of Benoni, Germiston, Boksburg and Springs between February 1914 and July 1915. It was the organ of the East Rand district committee of the South African Labour Party. In its last issue (31 July 1915) it stated “Time (is) not yet right for (a) paper like Eastern Record. But we have sown the seeds of socialism…Our socialist paper has stood its ground”. This newspaper is never mentioned in histories of socialism and communism in South Africa. Only one copy could be traced in the State Library, while the Strange Library in Johannesburg/Gauteng has an incomplete set on microfiche.
The “Eastern Record” was replaced by the more well-known The International. This was a weekly which appeared for the first time in September 1915 as a paper of the War on War League. This League established the International Socialist League of South Africa as its political party. Like the doggerel in The “Eastern Record” many of the verses in The International aimed at educating the workers into international socialism and anti-war policies. The objectives of the League were “To propagate the principles of International socialism and anti-militarism” (Cope 1945: 174) and “industrial unionism ‘on class lines irrespective of race, colour or creed as the most effective means of providing the necessary force for the emancipation of the workers” (Cope 1945: 179). These newspapers often referred to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg who inspired the anti-war activities of the League. It eventually became the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of South Africa. David Ivon Jones was the editor before he left for Russia in 1920. In Russia he became one of the first English translators of Lenin’s works. S.P. Bunting became editor in 1916 for a while during a short absence of Jones. From 1920 onwards Bill Andrews was the editor.
In 1919 the Communist Party bought their own printing press. Jewish families who came to South Africa from Russia at the beginning of the century supplied the money. They looked to The International for news on the Russian Revolution. Bill Andrews who was a skilled engineer and other comrades from the typographical industry installed the press. In 1922, The International was suppressed. The police raided and dismantled the printing office of the Communist Party. When Martial Law was proclaimed many of the regulations focused on newspapers (“No Person shall in a newspaper, pamphlet, or any other publication, or verbally, make use of any language which is calculated to spread false intelligence or to create alarm” (Defence Committee nd.:50) and “No person shall print, publish, or circulate any newspaper, pamphlet, leaflet, or other document containing words or information, or utter any words calculated to promote disaffection or ill-feeling, nor shall any person communicate such words or information” (Defence Committee nd.:50)).
The control of newspapers was an important element in the struggles between workers and capitalists. The power of newspapers goes beyond that of the mass meeting, it reaches many more people, and its visual presence gives it a sense of truth. One of the first trade unions in South Africa was the Printing Trade Union, and they were also one of the first to come out in strike in South Africa in 1889. In 1911 they engaged in an important strike in Cape Town. General Hertzog who would become the leader of the Afrikaner nationalists, suppressed this strike. Nasionale Pers, a big Nationalist publishing house emerged at that time with the development of Afrikaans literature. It is possible that they were strongly affected by the strike. The support of workers in the printing industry was very important in the strikes of 1913 and 1914 and in the production of worker papers such as The Strike Herald.
During the strike of 1922, though, Andrews complains about the non-committal of the S.A. Typographical Union. The Typographical Union continued to produce the Star and the Rand Daily Mail that were “putting out misleading reports and anti-working class propaganda” (Andrews 1941:40). When Andrews criticised them for this, they called on him and informed him that if any further criticism appeared in The International, the union will withdraw its members from the Communist Party’s printing office.
The worker literature of the period, especially the doggerel which appeared in the newspapers, addresses the daily events of importance to the worker struggles. I want to focus on the themes of Empire and civilisation contained in these discourses in order to explore some of the contradictions of worker subjectivity in that period.
4. Empire, Civilisation, Reason
The theme of Empire should be seen against the background of the Anglo-Boer War on the one hand and the First World War on the other. The Anglo-Boer War, a “curtain-raiser” (33) for the First World War, was according to Lord Olivier motivated by the desire to “round off the Empire in Africa before it was too late” (Cope 1945: 55). It was a war of imperialism against Third World nationalism. It brought soldiers to South Africa from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. After the war many of them became workers on the Witwatersrand, bringing with them new ideas of labour and socialist organisation.
In these circumstances the mining magnates lived with the ever-present fear of a “militant and self-confident proletariat”, who, on the model of the Australian example, could “wrest power from their hands” (Cope 1945: :81). Percy Tarbutt, Director of the Consolidated Goldfields Company, stated:
the feeling seems to be one of fear that if a large number of White men are employed on the Rand in the position of labourers, the same troubles will arise as are now prevalent in the Australian colonies, i.e., that the combination of the working classes will become so strong as to be able to more or less dictate not only the question of wages, but also political questions by power of the vote (Cope 1945: 81)
Sir Bartle Frere foresaw a state of anarchy when the “more educated and misguided Boers, dominated and led by better educated foreign adventurers – Germans, Hollanders, Irish Home Rulers, and other European Republicans and Socialists – would become a pest to the whole of South Africa” (Cope 1945: 81).
During this period Afrikaner nationalism combined with communist internationalism. In the manuscript of a play called Nineteen Thirteen (author unknown, although adapted from poems by M Tate and Marie Pitt) a worker procession, singing the nationalist “Die Volkslied” but following socialist red flag, is described. Edward Roux writes about the power of nationalist discourse in the period by referring to the influence of his Dutch teacher, Miss Joubert. She told him as a pupil a good deal about the Anglo-Boer War and her experiences in a concentration camp. He writes: “Had I been living in an Afrikaans speaking environment among my father’s people who had also suffered these things, I might well have become a Afrikaner nationalist” (1970:9)
J.T. Bain, a prominent worker leader in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, fought as an intelligence agent with the Boer commandos He was caught and sent to Ceylon with other Boer prisoners of war. He saw the Anglo-Boer War as an attempt of the mining magnates to gain political power in the Transvaal in order to introduce “industrial slavery” (Cope 1945: 50) through the replacement of the organised white labour by a closely controlled black labour.
In the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Witwatersrand Disturbances, June-July 1913, Minutes of Evidence his name appears on a handbill that was handed in as evidence to the commission after the strike. The handbill ends with the following lines of doggerel:
Come in your thousands, Oh, Workers, Come!
Come and help us in the fight
For Freedom and for Right.
Cannot ye hear it, the roll of Freedom’s drum,
Stand ye by no longer motionless and dumb.
But come in your thousands,
Oh, Workers, Come! (38)
It is not clear whether Bain wrote these lines or whether he is quoting from some generally known song of the period.
S.P. Bunting, the first leader of the Communist Party of South Africa, came from an aristocratic family. His father was knighted in 1908. His conversion to socialism happened in 1913 when he witnessed how some of the mining magnates shot at the demonstrating strikers in the street below from the balcony of the Rand Club. When he came to South Africa he believed in the civilising mission of the British Empire. In 1909 he was the honorary secretary of the “White Expansion Society” whose object was to promote the improvement of conditions and the rapid expansion of a permanent European population in South Africa (Roux 1993:50). He changed to a non-racial position with the First World War and the establishment (in 1915) of the Internationalist Socialist League of South Africa. From this time onwards he committed himself to a Socialist International that is a “frontierless empire” (Roux 1993:22) and he became a pioneer in making the Communist Party non-racial.
With the First World War the theme of Empire came strongly to the fore again. Workers had to choose between fighting for the British Empire or to show solidarity with the international working class. The internationalism on the Witwatersrand was strengthened by the fact that the gold fields attracted people from all over the world. The Labour Representative Council, which operated between 1902 and 1905, consisted amongst others of the German Vorwardts Club, the Italian Socialist Club, the Jewish Socialist Society and the Friends of Russian Freedom. In 1913 the SA Labour Party affiliated with the Internationalist Socialist Bureau and endorsed the anti-war policy of the Bureau. When the war broke out on August 2, 1914, the Administrative Council of the S.A. Labour Party expressed “its protest against the capitalistic governments of Europe in fomenting a war which can only benefit enemies of the working classes, and appealing to the workers of the world to organise and refrain from participating in this unjust war” (Cope 1945: 162). In defiance of the Administrative Council, a section of the Labour Party around the newspaper The Worker “vied with the most arrant Jingoes in swinging the White workers behind the Botha-Smuts Imperialists” (Cope 1945: 162-163). The consequence was that “Branch after branch of the Party passed votes in favour of the war” (Cope 1945: 163). They organised “Labour Legions” which offered their services to the Government” (Cope 1945: 163). The majority of South African White workers supported the war and “(t)hey believed they had an interest in dying for ‘their’ Imperialists” (Cope 1945:163).
In reaction to this a War on War group broke away from the Labour Party with The War on War Gazette as its mouthpiece. This newspaper existed for about two months before being suppressed by the government at the end of November 1914. The “Eastern Record” and later The International, though, promoted the policy of the War on War group, and the International Socialist League.
The International Socialist League was a minority of radicals. Cope describes them as “middle-class professional men, clerks, clergymen and others whose mental honesty and humanitarianism had brought them over to the side of the workers” (163). Internationalism became a serious principle to them. S.P. Bunting in Sept. 17, 1915 addressed a “Message to Europe” “in all humility from this remote corner of the globe” (Johns 1995:51). He pleaded for the establishment of a “well-knit, united, executive International Socialist League” (Johns 1995:51) consisting of the various anti-war sections of socialists in Germany, Austria, Russia, Italy and United States. The organisation was to be under the leadership of Karl Liebknecht.
The principle of internationalism also meant extending the program of the league beyond Race. The spokesmen of the league stated:
an Internationalism which does not concede the fullest right which the native working class is capable of claiming will be a sham. One of the justifications for our withdrawal from the Labour Party is that it gives us untrammelled freedom to deal, regardless of political fortunes, with the great and fascinating problem of the native. If the league deals resolutely in consonance with socialist principles with the native question, it will succeed in shaking South African Capitalism to its foundations. Then and not till then, shall we be able to talk about the South African Proletariat in our international relations (Johns 1995:49).
Many of the verses in The “Eastern Record” and The International formulated the anti-war sentiments of the War on War group and attacked the pro-war policies of the Labour Party. The poem “Sons of Empire”, written by J.T. Bain, refers to the ‘Fat-Men’ and their tricksters” and “the Labour Party’s sergeants” who cry “‘come, come.’ / When the war is over,/ You will live and die in clover,/ ‘Neath the sunny cliffs of Dover” (The “Eastern Record” Oct. 10 1914:5) but the poet hears:
Of ANOTHER kind of music,
From ANOTHER kind of drum.
And it says “When the war is over
‘Twill be ‘Slums’ instead of clover,
‘Twill be ‘Hell’ instead of Dover
In the never-ceasing, still increasing
Slum! Slum! Slum!”
Despite the pitter-patter of the Labour Party’s
M.H.F. parodies, through reference to “The Red Flag”, the Labour Party’s support for the war in “The New Labour Hymn”:
And let the old Red Flag be damned,
The Union Jack is in demand,
Election day is drawing near,
We’ll keep the two flags flying here. (The International Oct. 1, 1915)
Merlyn (pseudonym of a poet who regularly contributed to The “Eastern Record”) writes of the “Drones of the empire, advocates of hell” who should go to the front in the war. He describes them as “THOSE men…/Who live on the strength of the workers’ might: /Those useless nonentities/…Democrats’ octopus, commercial weeds,/Trades union parasites, poisonous seeds” (The “Eastern Record”, Oct. 17, 1914).
The International Socialist League (at its first conference, January 1916, Johannesburg) saw it as their task “to prepare for a probable uprising of the proletariat at the conclusion of the war” (Johns 1995:59). The Russian Revolution in 1917 was seen as the beginning of the universal uprising of the working class. This led to ambiguous and opportunistic support for the uprising in 1922 which, contrary to the principles of the by then established Communist Party of South Africa, utilised the slogan “Workers of the World Unite for a White South Africa”. Urquhart writes:
The reader may justly question the feasibility of sincere co-operation in a revolutionary effort between even these extreme Nationalists and Bolshevists. The only ground they have in common is their hostility to the present form of Government. Moreover the ideal of “A White South Africa” is the very negation of communistic doctrine: it implies anything but “the rule of the proletariat” (nd.: 68)
He refers to the Third International at Moscow in 1920 when a plan to campaign in the British Colonies was discussed. Lenin advocated the exploitation of Nationalist uprisings and Trotsky pointed out that “five men in a room could cause a revolution by exploiting discontent irrespective of its original cause” (Urquhart nd.:68)
The white workers saw their impending retrenchment in 1922 as an attack on “civilisation” and it was often evoked in apocalyptic terms. Madeley, one of the labour leaders referred to “race suicide” (Urquhart nd.:36) and “national annihilation” (Urquhart nd.:36). The word civilisation and civilised is frequently used in the document The story of a crime: Being the vindication of the Defence Committee in connection with the trial by Special Criminal Courts without Juries of 195 men and 6 women arising out of the Strike on the Witwatersrand in 1922 which was produced as justification of the actions of the strikers. It refers to the “danger to free labour and the menace to the maintenance in this country of a Western Civilisation” (37) when the “slave labour system on the mines” (37) is extended.
Civilisation, reason and ideas of evolution and race were recurrent themes in the worker discourse of the period. Many of the leaders belonged to and participated in Rationalist Societies and described themselves as Rationalists. Edward Roux relates how his father read the publications of the Rationalist Press Association. His father became converted to free thought and atheism when “he was profoundly shocked to see rain falling on the sea, falling uselessly where it was not needed. In church he had been taught that all manifestations of nature were for the service of man” (Roux 1970:2). Roux himself joined The Heretics, a rationalist society established in 1911. At the first Conference of the International Socialist League (9 Jan 1916 in Johannesburg), one of the delegates, Colin Wade, “introduced ‘biological evidence’ which …intimated that the African could not develop intellectually as the white could” (Johns 1995:62). The workers often refer to Darwin. Various poems in the newspapers are allegories of evolutionary theory mixed with ideas of development contained in dialectical materialism. Compare poems “Original Co-operation” (The Strike Herald Aug. 2, 1913) which describes man’s development from cannibalism in allegorical terms. Many poems of Mrs Charlotte Stetson in the pages of The International exploit the theme of evolution. See for instance “You must alter human nature” opening with the words “There was once a Neotholic (sic) man” (Jan 21, 1916) and the poem “Survival of the fittest” (Feb. 4, 1916). To Stetson the world is a product of reason rather than nature: “The world to which man is born today/ Is a constructed, human, man-built world” (“To the single taxer”, The International March 10, 1916)
Socialist Revolution to the workers was the ultimate product of Civilisation and Reason. To be a striker was to “join the Ranks of Progress” (see the poem “Won’t you be a striker” from The Strike Herald July 26, 1913) and the workers are the “Heirs of Time” (The “Eastern Record” Sept 12, 1914). They referred to the anarchy and chaos of the capitalist system. The First World War, the military suppression of strikes and resorting to martial law were regression to barbarism3. Civilisation also meant free labour as against slave labour. Black labour was seen as a threat to the white labour, because it was not free. David Ivon Jones wrote about the black labour of that time as:
the lowest possible form of cheap, unskilled labour drawn from one of the most primitive peoples in the world, politically passive and industrially unorganized, recruited on indenture from the tribal reserves, and housed round the mines in closed compounds under strict police supervision with hardly a vestige of civil rights (Hirson 1993:83)
The Russian Revolution announced to the communists the dawn of the new period “destined to encircle the civilized world” (Bunting in Johns 1995:78). Roux made a map of the world showing in red all the countries that had established soviets – Russia, Hungary, Bavaria, north-west Germany. He put red dots everywhere where revolutionary outbreaks had occurred – Winnipeg, Clydesdale, and Johannesburg itself (Roux 1970:14).
The Russian Revolution, though, meant the end to spontaneous labour movement in that the international struggle from then on was directed by the Comintern, and often had more to do with the interests of the Soviet Union than international labour. Russia became a Counter-Empire which involved itself more and more with nationalist struggles rather than worker movements4. As spontaneity was replaced by control, popular poetry was replaced by dogma in the communist newspapers. Authors competed for the correct interpretations of Marx on the one hand and historic circumstances on the other. This article was an attempt to recover something of a lost and repressed legacy.
1. “the timid and reactionary leaders declared ‘never again’ and spoke of ‘drawing a veil’ over the events of 1922” (Cope 1945: 287)
2. Urquhart describes a commando called the Foreign Legion: “their military appearance was somewhat spoiled by the fact that the men smoked cigarettes as they marched” (46)
3. See the poem “These too were men” by TW Mercer:
How slow we learn! How slowly man out-grows
The traits of beasts that dwell in cave and den
And rises o’er the brutes, his history shows
4. See the Comintern formulation through Jimmy la Guma and Nikolai Bukharin’s of the Native Republic Thesis on the basis of the “revolutionary potential of an anti-imperialist national movement” (Drew 1996:20).
Andrews, W.H.1941. Class Struggles in South Africa. Cape Town: Published Privately.
Cope, R.K.1945. Comrade Bill. Cape Town: Stewart Printing Company.
Defence Committee (nd.) Story of a Crime: Being the Vindication of the Defence Committee in Connection with the Trial by Special Criminal Courts without Juries of 195 Men and 6 Women arising out of the Strike on the Witwatersrand in 1922.Johannesburg: Transvaal Strike Legal Defence Committee.
Drew, A.1996. South Africa’s Radical Tradition. Cape Town: Buchu Books, Mayibuyo Books, UCT Press.
Gitsham, E. and J.F. Trembath.1926. A First Account of Labour Organisation in South Africa. Durban.
Harrison, W.H.(nd.) Memoirs of a Socialist in South Africa 1903-1947. Cape Town: Published by the Author.
Herd, N.1966. 1922 The Revolt on the Rand. Johannesburg: Blue Crane Books.
Hirson, B.1993 “The General Strike of 1922”. Searchlight South Africa. 11, Oct, p. 63-64.
Johns, S.1995. Raising the Red Flag: The Internationalist Socialist League & The Communist Party of South Africa 1914-1932. Bellville: Mayibuye Books.
Mantzaris, E.A.1995. Labour Struggles in South Africa: The Forgotten Pages 1903-1921. Windhoek: Collective Resources.
Roux, E.1993. S.P. Bunting: A Political Biography. Bellville: Mayibuye Books.
Roux, E. and W.1970. Rebel Pity: The Life of Eddie Roux. London: Rex Collings.
Sachs, B.1949. Multitude of Dreams. Johannesburg. Kayor Publishing House.
Snowdon, D.(nd.) The Snipers Pencil. Red Lines from the Boksburg Gaol. Benoni: Published by the author.
Urquhart, Capt. W. (nd.) The Outbreak on the Witwatersrand. Johannesburg: Hortors Ltd.
Walker, I.L. and B. Weinbren.1961. 2000 Casualties. Johannesburg: The South African Trade Union Council.