Plus ça change…

Three bloody months when Jo’burg went to war

THROUGHOUT history, governments have gone to great lengths to obliterate traces of their conquered enemies: they have destroyed religious temples and buildings, killed men and taken their women and children as their own, imposed new languages and cultures on these people. The South African government of 1922 buried their enemy as paupers and then laid out a nursery over these graves, thus concealing them.

The enemy in 1922 were striking white miners, who clashed with the government of General Jan Smuts in a terrifying confrontation that brought bombs and shells raining down on Johannesburg, killing about 150 people.

…It’s hard to imagine that 80 years ago Johannesburg was at war: planes were dropping bombs on Fordsburg, several buildings in Brixton were shelled, commandos of mineworkers were marching through central Johannesburg. Trains lines were dynamited, and civilians were attacking police stations and disarming police officers and taking them prisoner.

This was the 1922 mineworkers strike and it lasted almost three months before it was quelled, but not before martial law was declared.

General Smuts became prime minister in 1919, and many historians believe the most difficult period in his political career faced him in the following four years. World wool prices had fallen, as had produce prices, the diamond market had fallen and secondary industry was depressed. Retail trade fell, precipitating a drop in wages and retrenchments. The cost of living had risen 23% and rents were being raised, according to an account by historian John Shorten inThe Johannesburg Saga.

…Towards the end of 1921 the price of gold fell from 102 shillings an ounce to 95 shillings an ounce. Seven of the fifteen smaller mines began showing losses and soon it was clear that these mines might have to close, with some 10 000 whites and thousands of blacks retrenched.

The Chamber of Mines announced a re-organisation of the underground systems, diluting the “colour bar”, whereby semi-skilled and skilled jobs were reserved for whites only. Several years before, during the First World War, white miners had signed up as soldiers and some of their jobs had been taken by black miners.

Whites were promised their jobs back when they returned, but with profits rapidly dropping, it was clear that the more expensive whites would have to go if the marginal mines were to be saved. Smuts stressed that there was to be no further dilution of the colour bar.

The all-white trade union, the South African Industrial Federation, held discussions with the Chamber but before a resolution could be reached, white coal miners were informed of a cut in wages as a result of a drop in export contracts.

The government issued a statement appealing to coal workers to help save the coal industry by accepting the lowered wages. The Federation concluded that the real reason behind the lowering of wages was to introduce cheap black labour, and on 1 January 1922, the coal miners came out on strike.

By 10 January, 22 000 gold mineworkers had joined the coal miners. The government tried to get the mine owners and mineworkers to hold a conference, but no agreement could be reached. By the end of the month the question of wages became secondary to the issue of replacing white workers with black workers.

The white Johannesburg public was fully behind the workers, as many households stood to lose the wages of their breadwinners. A militant and largely English-speaking Action Committee now controlled the Federation, which included members of the Communist Party. They distributed leaflets urging the strikers not to attack blacks, but this inevitably happened.

The strike leaders soon instituted a commando system across the Rand, from Boksburg in the east right through to Krugersdorp in the west. These commandos spent time in parades and drills, learnt how to make home-made bombs, and generally gave the impression of preparing for battle.

There were sporadic attacks on police stations, where policemen were disarmed. These commandos were told to return the weapons, with the strike leaders fearful of the government finding a reason to declare martial law.

More and more displays of strength by the strikers, culminated in a mass meeting in the Johannesburg Town Hall. Here strikers demanded a “provisional republican government”, according to Shorten, and as a last resort, were willing to “launch a revolution” and appoint a deputation to go to Pretoria to present their case to Transvaal parliamentarians and provincial councillors.

…On 21 February there were clashes between police and the strikers across the reef, from Benoni to Fordsburg. Police were instructed to disperse any gatherings, and to carry arms. On 23 February a “section of railway line near Doornfontein was dynamited” and a pylon at the City Deep mine was also blown up.

In Boksburg, police attempting to disperse a crowd fired over the heads of strikers. Fire was returned, wounding several policemen. Police were ordered to fire into the crowd, leaving three dead and many wounded.

Public reaction to the deaths showed clear support for the strikers: shops were closed in Boksburg on the day of the funeral, with a two-mile long procession. In Johannesburg more than 5 000 strikers and sympathisers gathered.

Smuts was warned that “the Rand was drifting into revolution” but he remained reluctant to conduct an inquiry, and said: “We should let things develop”, a statement that some say he lived to regret for the rest of his life.

The Federation approached the Chamber for a meeting to review the situation with the possibility of getting the mines running again, but the Chamber rejected any further meetings. The Chamber added that they from now on did not recognise the Federation.

This was it for the Federation – they called a national strike, and were not against violence being used. Tramwaymen and slaughtermen joined the strike on 5 March, and thousands marched down Rissik Street in downtown Johannesburg. They marched past the Post Office and the Trades Hall, where both the Communist Party and Federation had their headquarters.

Shorten sums it up: “A revolt against the State was now inevitable.”

Commandos started arming themselves, even using swords and bayonets and home-made weapons. Assaults on scabs increased and strikers tried to pull clerks out of shops, the Post Office, the Telephone Exchange and Park Station.

On 7 March more deaths occurred in a clash between whites and blacks at the New Primrose Gold Mine, when armed black miners fired at strikers and then rushed at them. The clash ended with the police trying to separate the sides, with two policemen and two blacks killed, and 20 blacks wounded.

The following day more deaths occurred in Brixton, Ferreirastown and Vrededorp: seven people died, six of them blacks. The strike leaders urged strikers to desist from attacking blacks.

The temperature was rising, with calls on Smuts to declare martial law, but he still hesitated. On 9 March citizen force regiments were called in. In an effort to disperse the crowds, Smuts decided to use military aircraft to fly low over the gatherings and fire red warning flares. If this didn’t work, machine guns were to be fired above strikers’ heads. A final step was to attack the gatherings.

Violence swept across the Rand, engulfing the mines, railway property, and police stations, including a brutal attack at the Brakpan mine in which four mine officials and three policemen were killed. Police stations across the reef were attacked and seven stations – from Krugersdorp in the west to Edenvale in the east – taken over by strikers. At the police station at Hamburg on the west Rand, a solitary sergeant demanded a receipt when handing over the station.

This day, Friday, 9 March, became known as “Black Friday” – Johannesburg was at war.