White-on-white violence: The 1922 Rand Revolution

Rodney Warwick writes on another significant anniversary, ignored by the ANC


No single internal military operation within this country's history, matches the ferocity of the events on the Witwatersrand, now Gauteng, ninety years ago this week. But this important event in South African history - like the centenary of the Union of South Africa two years ago and of the SA Defence Force this year - is being ignored by the ANC government.

Presumably this is because the party's "historical advisors", whoever they might be, consider these events "white colonial and settler history" not worthy by ANC government logic of any official remembrance. The same ANC government reasoning probably also applies to the 1922 Rand Revolution (also referred to as the 1922 Miners Strike or Rand Uprising) when militant white mine workers clashed with the police and the South African military.

In the average contemporary South African's historical consciousness the strike is a long forgotten affair; but it had important consequences, as well as forewarnings for this country today.

Background to the strike

The Union Defence Force (UDF), only eight years old in 1922 formed the state's decisive cohesive capacity against its own citizens, if so called upon in an emergency by the government of the day. Besides a permanent force core of five South African Mounted Rifles regiments and an artillery battery, for "boots on the ground" the UDF depended on its traditional "English" citizen force regiments like the Transvaal Scottish, Imperial Light Horse or Royal Durban Light Infantry, while other UDF reservist capacity was drawn from the part-time burger commando system, many of whose older members had served in the Boer armies during 1899-1902.

In the weeks before the state and strikers were to clash so violently, Afrikaner military traditions began to assert amongst the miners who formed in commandos, drilling with arms in an ad hoc synthesis of British and Boer military cultures. By mid-March 1922, the East Rand and in particular Germiston, Brakpan, Boksburg and Benoni turned out thousands of working men under arms, estimates of which ranged from 10 000 to 15 000 men, belonging  to different commandos ranging from the east to west Rand. On the state forces side, the permanent force of the UDF contained both English and Afrikaner members, while the traditional citizen force units were predominantly English.

The military reinforcement potential available to the state could never be matched by the strikers, in terms of the manpower numbers and war equipment, especially once the burger commandos were called up. Most decisively the UDF was backed by artillery, machine guns and bomb carrying aircraft. It was the devastating capacity of aerial bombing against urban insurrectionists without any realistic defence that finally crushed the 1922 strikers.

The miners' difficult lives as exploited workers were matched by the men who served in the state's forces arrayed against them. For the servicemen in the police and military, their lives and families also hung upon their adherence to their duty and their frugal salaries. My maternal grandfather in 1922 was Lieutenant Algernon Sparks of the South African Mounted Rifles Artillery battery, a seasoned veteran of the World War One German East Africa campaign and permanent force officer.

Sparks suffered a near fatal gunshot wound while leading his troops towards striker positions in Benoni. One of the many tragedies of 1922 was that it involved thousands of men - amongst both strikers and state forces - who had served together within South African and British units on every battlefield of the Great War, from German South West and East Africa to Gallipoli to the trenches of France and Belgium.

This experience of men on both sides being accustomed to the mercilessness of conventional industrial war certainly exacerbated the violence of 1922. As on the Western Front there was a great deal of brutality during the Witwatersrand violence, directed towards real and perceived ‘scabs', black miners, mine officials and captured government soldiers or policemen.

What was the 1922 strike about and why did it become so violent? The white mine workers perceived that their work in highly dangerous and unhealthy conditions was the means by which their employers maximized profits and their own luxurious lifestyles. At the same time the mining magnates were working closely with Smuts's government, who provided political support for the industry.

Political and consequently military decisions emanated from an Afrikaner Prime Minister Jan Smuts, working in conjunction with his South African Party (SAP) cabinet. This cabinet included men like Colonel Denys Reitz, a Boer bittereinder in 1902 who later followed Smuts and Louis Botha along the road of white "South Africanism" intended to merge Boer and South African Briton into one nation.

Reitz was a well travelled and hardened World War One veteran who had not only served in the German West and East Africa campaigns, but had commanded the first battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Western Front till the end of the war. Perhaps it is instructive that within his iconic autobiographical trilogy (Commando, Trekking On and No Outspan) he only briefly discusses the Rand Revolution, despite being a member of Smuts's cabinet in 1922. This fact perhaps underscores how far the government was from appreciating the grievances of organized white labour during this period.

1922 demonstrated the white South African state's determination to defend itself from insurrection - with extreme violence if necessary - against its own racial kin, whether Afrikaner or British South African. This is a precedent which the post-1994 ANC government has shown itself prepared to emulate with state forces already utilized against black squatter uprisings; SANDF rebels and significantly ANC detractors.

The Rand Revolution highlights the deep fissures once existent within South African white society over the country's future. Several competing visions existed: A politically dominant middle-class community of white English and Afrikaner South Africans were being blended together into a dominion within the British Empire; unreconstructed Boers looked to a return to 1899 and an Afrikaner nationalist dominated Republic; and on the extreme left-wing, leaders like Percy Fischer and Henry Spendiff, who claimed to represent white workers, envisaged a (white) communist state, based upon the model of Lenin's Soviet Union. Today it is black South Africans who display social cracks and competing aspirations for the future. Not least because of the increasingly widening class lines between those who are the party-favored through BEE, party members and deployed civil servants versus the workers, unemployed and various alienated factions within and without the ANC structures.   

It is important to see 1922 in the global context of radicalized workers in the capitalist economies of the West, awakening to the belief that violent revolution constituted a plausible path to creating a socialist state, as had apparently occurred in Lenin's actually chaotic Soviet Union of the same period. Smuts employed the UDF against Afrikaner and English strikers alike utilizing the legal precedent of martial law.

Ironically at that time, the USSR under Lenin's New Economic Policy was just emerging from a ruinous civil war to undergo temporary ideological reversal, allowing limited private enterprise as opposed to the murderous and dictatorial War Communism. But to working men across Europe and her colonial offshoots, indifferent or ignorant to the real vast sufferings of the Russian people, Lenin's illegitimate regime represented their hopes of gaining control over their lives.

It was assumed that a socialist state would end the exploitation of workers, which the Witwatersrand strikers experienced as resulting from the grossly unequal relationship between themselves and their employers within the capitalist South African economy. This tension was particularly marked in Johannesburg where white workers burned with antipathy and grievances against mine owners and SAP government alike.

Antagonisms across class lines had long bedeviled labour relations in the South African mining industry. Today's middle-class South Africans might find it difficult to appreciate the extent of hatred which the Witwatersrand strikers felt towards Smuts, the SAP government and above all the Rand Lords, who for the workers epitomized all the sins associated with greed and avarice.

To this extent we today might empathize with the 1922 white workers considering the global economic woes during recent years. One hardly need be a blue-collar worker to rail with fury and disgust against the recklessness of financial moguls and the obscene salaries corporate bosses entitle themselves to. Or even for that matter, the extent to which Black Economic Empowerment and the close association between the ANC and politically favored businessmen in the granting of tenders, along with the arms deal saga, has corrupted and contaminated the ANC government and its nomenklatura.

The grim circumstances of 1922 might not be so far removed from our current politics as some might assume. By 1922 Afrikaners easily comprised more than half the mining industry's skilled and semi-skilled labour component. Considering their rural past, with its ordering of hierarchical social relations between black and white, Afrikaner workers just like their English worker counterparts, would be unbending supporters of the colour bar through job reservation. And it was the threat of losing their work to blacks - their racial and social inferiors, as blacks were unanimously perceived by white workers, which underlay the insurrection and violence which occurred on the Witwatersrand.

The spark to the 1922 upheaval occurred in the wake of earlier strikes during 1907, 1913 and 1914, particularly because bitter memories would have persisted regarding the two dozen or more workers killed in these clashes with police and military units.

The mine owners were determined to cut their white worker wage costs. White workers with their "skilled worker" status had for decades clung ferociously to their privileged positions and progressively entrenched their favored position at various hard bargaining occasions with the mining magnates.

The white workers were secured as the skilled and semi-skilled artisans of the mining industry, as opposed to the significantly more numerous unskilled black labourers. But by the end of 1921 the mine owners had done their calculations. The white workers were 20 000 of the 200 000 strong labour force yet their wage bill was double that of the blacks. The Chamber of Mines announced that besides reordering underground work by forcing white supervisors to take charge of three rather than two underground drills, the highest paid white workers were to have their wages cut and some 2000 of them were to be laid off anyway. There was little or no consultation.

Nine decades ago amongst the descendents of the white colonists, settlers and Boers; employer-employee relations were markedly harsh and disrespectful. The mine owners' priority was the maximization of profits where deep low-yield gold ore depended entirely upon massive numbers of inexpensive labour; easily supplied by scores of still virtually tribalised black migrants, who wanted to earn cash for hut taxes and "western" consumer goods.

The white workers were hardly without comprehendible grievances; their skills and work ethic had been fundamental since the industry was established some three decades earlier. But unlike the black workers, whites could not retreat to a pastoral life-style. Their families' survival depended upon their jobs and the mine owners knew that black miners could and would do the skilled work for less.

The government and its supporters unsurprisingly reflected middle-class Western revulsion and fear of Lenin-style totalitarianism with its nightmarish dispossession and murder of property owners. Visions of horrific class war becoming a reality, as had threatened in 1918-1919 Germany before that communist uprising was crushed by the right-wing Freikorps, impelled Smuts to act with harshness towards men, whom although they were exploited by Johannesburg's capitalist class, still lived more comfortable lives than their equivalents in Europe.

One central weakness amongst the strike leaders was that they were so divided on ultimate goals. As was mentioned earlier, some of the British born socialist leaders sought an ultimately communist (white state); hence their famous slogan: "Workers of the World Unite for a White South Africa". Because many Afrikaners miners foresaw the possibility of the strike's success leading to a return to an Afrikaner republic, most of the Afrikaner strike leaders incorrectly assumed that their rural kin across the country would seize the opportunity of forcibly displacing the allegedly Anglo-centric SAP government.

During the initial stages of the violence, when the state reeled before the rebels, police stations and large sections of central Johannesburg, including Newlands and Benoni fell into striker hands. Several contingents of police, pre-armed with military rifles and bayonets, had been forced to surrender and in fact, research has demonstrated that some of the Afrikaner policemen were sympathetic to the Afrikaner miners' demands and their republican goals. Yet as in the 1914 Afrikaner Rebellion, when burger commando reinforcements were called up by the SAP government, they responded dutifully and lawfully, despite a good many of these men being loyal supporters of Hertzog's NP.

This expectation of rural Afrikaners support was a grave miscalculation and curiously many of the Boers troops arriving on the Rand to do battle against the strikers, perceived themselves fighting (again as in pre-Boer War times) the "English" "uitlanders". There is also no doubt that for some state-supporting Afrikaner commando members, the significant looting opportunities were an attraction. Many of defeated strikers returned home after the fighting to find their houses plundered and damaged by state forces. With military operations directed by senior UDF officers, utilizing the equipments and tactics of the First World War, the defence force bombed, shelled and shot the spirit out the strikers.

In the short term the defeated workers attained no work related gains from their putative insurrection. Many were dismissed; four were hanged and others imprisoned; while the mining magnates stuck to their original decisions ensuring white miners would be employed more cheaply and in lesser numbers. But the strikers, though defeated, ended up reinforcing statutory patterns regarding job reservation based upon race. And the state's crushing of the rebellion resulted in Smuts' SAP losing the 1924 general election to a party political pact comprising Afrikaner nationalists allied with the English-speaking socialist Labour Party.

If we examine the 1924 voting patterns according to white South African demography and social classes of the period, they heralded the even more decisive 1948 general election, after which the National Party (NP) were to hold power for 46 years.

White worker consciousness was strong in the 1920s. For example in Cape Town, both Salt River and Woodstock were white working class strongholds and the Labour Party safely held the parliamentary seat. Jeremy Lawrence who was the son of former SAP politician Harry Lawrence, has described how his father battled to secure the constituency in the 1929 election - as white railway workers still bristled at the former government's rough handling of their social class kinsmen in Johannesburg, seven years earlier.  

The enduring significance of the revolt

For two hundred dead and many injured, over the space of a week in mid March, the 1922 Strike was thoroughly crushed. But the political repercussions cut deep into the future as Afrikaner nationalism added to its list of martyrs. Fairly recently, President Zuma was recently accused of violating constitutional provisions regarding usage of the SANDF in dealing with civil unrest; hardly the first time such employment of the defence force has occurred in our history.

Not least, the old SADF was periodically and controversially deployed throughout the internal South African conflicts of the twentieth century and virtually permanently during the political turmoil from the mid-1980s, until the 1994 election and subsequently still, in various anti-crime operations. The tension between the state and powerful organized labour continues, even though white South Africans tend to be mostly spectators now rather than the central actors amongst government forces and workers. But the temptation remains for the current government; acting upon so many historical precedents, to use the army and police to resolve problems requiring a political solution.

Senior ANC government members should put aside their well thumbed official party-line versions of "South African liberation history" and read about 1922, while asking themselves some important questions about this country's future and where their fissured, imploding ANC "broad church" is taking us.

Dr Rodney Warwick  

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