On the western outskirts of Johannesburg lies the “shanty-town" of Newclare—an ugly sprawl of wooden shacks, patched up with canvas and corrugated iron, dirty and horribly overcrowded. Buried deep in the misery and squalor of Newclare and other places like it, live the Native workers of Johannesburg and the gold-mines of the Rand.
On February 13th this year, two armoured carloads of police drove into Newclare. Their object was to make a surprise check-up on passes, the documents which the law compels all adult male Africans to carry to show they are in work (and which, incidentally, most of them are unable to read).
These “pass laws” have never been completely effective. They are even less effective now when the Natives have been flocking into the towns in such large numbers that the authorities have found it quite impossible to keep up with them. And so, to remind them that the law still exists even though it cannot be administered properly, the police have taken to making surprise raids (often in the middle of the night), in which they make a sudden swoop on an area, quickly round-up likely suspects, arrest those found without passes, and carry them off to gaol. Sometimes the arrests run into hundreds, and the raid looks more like a minor military exercise.
Perhaps because it was only a small raid, the one on February 13th did not pass off quite so smoothly as usual. When the police tried to make an arrest on this occasion they were immediately attacked by a large crowd of Natives who eventually forced them to retire under a hail of stones and other missiles. Having driven off the police, the crowd then proceeded to throw barricades across the streets and began stoning every vehicle they found carrying Europeans, at the same time setting fire to shops and looting the contents.
The rioting continued unchecked until the following day, when heavy reinforcements of armed police and firemen were drafted to the scene, and to other places where disturbances had also broken out in sympathy. Covering the firemen with rifle and machine-gun fire to enable them to fix the hoses and at the same time prevent the crowd from cutting them, the police began to occupy the area. The crowd resisted fiercely, attacking both the police and the bands of armed Europeans who were now also roaming the district, bent on taking matters into their own hands. (The presence of these gangs was one of the most significant aspects of the riot, and is a disturbing indication of the level to which racial feeling has now risen inside South Africa.) Finally, after several hours of pitched battles, the police cleared the streets, and the disturbances came to an uneasy end.
The incident itself has since been referred to the Riots Commission, which is already sitting to consider five other cases of rioting. All of them have occurred within the last six months.
What has brought South Africa to this perilous pass? What has brought about this situation, in which certain elements in the White group are already expressing their intention of suppressing all future trouble, whatever the cost and whatever the consequences? Where some of the politicians are already talking about the dangers of civil war? South Africa has always had a racial problem. What has happened in the past few years to bring it to such a terrible state?
To answer these questions, we must first make a brief review of the events that have taken place since 1948.
The Past Two Years
There are two main political parties in South Africa, the Nationalist Party under Malan, and the United Party under Smuts. In addition, there are two smaller organisations, the Afrikaner Party led by Havenga, and a Labour Party.
At the last General Election, held in May, 1948, the Nationalists and Afrikaners combined had a slight majority over the United Party and the Labour Party. This enabled them to form a Coalition Government with Malan as Prime Minister, and Havenga in the key position of Minister of Finance.
Backed largely by the Boer farming vote, the Nationalist Party has always taken an extreme line on the racial question, and, indeed, they fought the election on this issue. Malan himself, in a speech at Praal on the 20th April, 1948, said about the election that it was
“dominated by the question of whether the European race would be able to maintain its rule, its purity, and its civilisation or float along until it vanishes for ever in the black sea of South Africa’s non-European population.”
Once in power, there is no doubt that Malan would have been prepared to go the whole way with his extreme racial policies if it had not been for the reluctance of Havenga to go the whole way with him. As his Government depends upon the support of Havenga and the Afrikaner Party, he has had to give way—at least for the present. This, however, has not prevented him from pressing on with all kinds of other repressive legislation, with or without the support of Havenga. Prominent in this legislation has been: —
(a) The pushing forward of the general ideal of "complete separation” of all the racial groups of South Africa, “socially, residentiary, industrially, and politically.” This means that, the four groups of South Africa—the Whites, the Coloureds (people of mixed blood), the Indians, and the Africans, will be for ever kept strictly apart. In line with this, legislation has already been introduced forbidding inter-marriage between Europeans and Coloureds (laws already exist forbidding marriage between Whites and Indians, and Whites and Africans).
(b) The intention to keep the Natives on the Reserves, and away from the towns—in Malan's own words, “the Native reserves must become the true fatherland of the Native." In the towns they must henceforth be regarded as “visitors.”
(c) Repeal of the previous Government’s law allowing the Indians three representatives in Parliament.
(d) Abolition of present Coloured vote, and in its place a similar system to that now operating for the Natives in which they are allowed three separate representatives (who must be Europeans).
(e) Repeal of the previous Government’s Bill recognising Native Trade Unions.
(f) All training of Native skilled workers to cease.
(g) All voting rights to be taken away from the Indians, and from all Natives living away from the Reserves.
As the culmination to all these repressive activities Malan is now about to introduce an identity-card system by means of which every person in the Union will eventually be registered according to “race.” Its effect will be to put every individual, once and for all, into a racial classification from which there will never be a chance of escape. To the darker-skinned African it will be just another document to add to the others he has to carry already, but for the Coloured group its effects will be profound. It will put an end, in fact, to all possibility of a white-skinned Coloured person “passing over” into the White group.
Finally, the Nationalists have extended the racial laws to cover the Cape Province, formerly the least subject to prejudice. In the post offices, non-Whites are now directed to separate counters; there are separate exits and entrances at the railway stations; “Jim Crow” travels the trains; and rides shamelessly on the buses, where Europeans now sit in the front and members of the other groups sit at the back.
All these things show clearly that the Malan Government is determined to put the clock back in South Africa. But what of the United Party and Smuts? Are they any different? Only to this extent— that whilst they do not wish to put the clock back, they neither wish to put in very far forward. Their alternative boils down to a few reforms here and there which they hope will take the sting out of the Natives' rebelliousness, relieve the pressure on the Indians and Coloureds where it hurts them most, and leave them all once more contented with their inferior position.
The same applies to the Labour Party. Only recently there was a split in their ranks when their Leader and Deputy Leader in Parliament voted against the Indians being allowed the vote. One member abstained and the others voted in favour of the Bill, which was in any case a milk-and-water effort that only allowed them representation by Europeans.
What it comes to is this, irrespective of Party, irrespective of class, almost the whole of the White group are united in refusing to allow the non-Whites anything like a position comparable with their own. They may differ here and there amongst themselves as to which particular rung of the ladder each of the other groups should occupy, but one thing they are agreed upon—that they, the Whites, belong near the top of the ladder and the others a long way further down.
They continue to deceive themselves that they can maintain this situation, that for ever and ever 2½ million Europeans can keep the other 9 millions in subjection. There never was a more forlorn and fantastic hope, nor one with graver possibilities of terrible consequences for themselves. Speaking in the South African Parliament three days after the riot. Smuts said: —
“Something new is coming into the life of this country. We are accustomed to the orderly conduct of our Natives and on the whole our Natives are well behaved, but some change is coming about
“Unless this new development is stopped and stopped at once and unless firm measures are taken no one can be sure of the future of South Africa.” (Johannesburg Star, 15/2/50.)
Unfortunately for Smuts, for Malan, for all the vast majority of Europeans in the Union who think like them on the Native question, there is a change taking place in the Natives, not only in South Africa, but throughout the whole of the continent. Smuts has sensed the change and would like to explain it by the recent activity of Malan and the Nationalist Party. What he fails to recognise is that whatever the Nationalists have done to provoke matters, they have only helped to bring more quickly what is bound to have come in any case. What all the Whites of South Africa fail to face up to is that the Natives are on the move, and will not stop until they have gained the same position as the Whites.
On this question we can do no better than quote from our pamphlet. “The Racial Problem.” What it said three years ago is even more relevant now than it was then:—
“As industry develops, they (the Natives) will learn more, and want more, and then the same position will face the South African White worker as faces the American White worker at the present time. Then will the South African workers, White, Native. Coloured, and Indian, be at their own cross-roads. What their decision will be we do not know nor do we intend to guess. What we say to the South African workers we have already said to the American workers. They must realise that their interests as workers lie together: until they do so they will remain divided and weakened, wide open to the attacks and encroachments of the capitalist class. Much worse may result; the logical end of the road which the South African White worker is treading can only be bloody violence and destruction. No group can permanently hold down another many more times more numerous than itself, and sooner or later the working class, particularly the White section, will have to face up to the situation and make their decision.”
Recent events in South Africa have served only to underline the warning contained in this statement. The White workers in the Union will ignore it at their peril.