Tom Mann’s Memoirs, 1923

Book two: Southern skies

XVII. South Africa

First published: 1923
Publisher: The Labour Publishing Company Limited, 38 Great Ormond Street, London WC I
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter


Having left Melbourne during Christmas week, 1909, and having spent a few weeks in Adelaide and Perth, we set out for South Africa and reached Durban on February 21, 1910. I proceeded to Johannesburg and was well received by the trade unionists of that city. As soon as I got the hang of affairs I commenced an organising campaign. As far as the white workers were concerned, conditions were analogous to those I had already become familiar with in other places. The miners had about one-third of their number organised. The engine-drivers at the mines were better organised numerically, but were clannish and sectional. Conditions in the deeper mines were very unwholesome, the average life of a white miner being less than seven years. Young men were often carried off by miners’ phthisis in less than three years. The then miners’ secretary, Tom Mathews, a Cornishman, was an exceptionally well-informed man and an ardent worker on behalf of the members of his union. He was fully primed with information on the subjects that directly affected the miners’ welfare. He supplied me with many facts and statistics, particularly in relation to phthisis, and the miners’ executive requested me to diffuse a knowledge of these details in the interests of the men. My advocacy attracted the attention of the government, and the minister of mines dealt with the subject in parliament. Referring to my statement about the white miner’s life being less than seven years on the Rand, and that the risks could be minimised if proper attention were paid to ventilation, he said: “This is a gross exaggeration.”

The charge was, however, pressed home over a period of months, and ultimately a parliamentary commission was appointed to investigate and report upon the subject. The evidence showed that the average duration of life of the white miner on the Witwatersrand was only five years.

Improvements in ventilation were made in some of the mines; more attention was given to medical inspection, and to compensation for those declared unfit to remain in the mines. There were large accessions of membership to the miners’ and other unions. Before long, an industrial federation was formed. Nevertheless, in South Africa as elsewhere, every attempt at an advance of the workers was met by a capitalist counter-offensive.

There was a small group of active socialists at Johannesburg, carrying on propaganda work by meetings and literature; there was also a parliamentary Labour Party beginning to take shape.

My own efforts took the form of urging the need for economic organisation, and an amalgamation of the unions on the basis of industrial unionism.

I was amazed to find how unconcernedly natives and even whites were buried. The Randfontein Cemetery was the principal one then in use in Johannesburg, and the man in charge was a most interesting character, a member of the engineers’ union, an ex-Leeds man. Under his guidance I was shown some items of interest. He asked: “Would you care to see the graves we keep in readiness?”

Not being quite clear as to what he meant I said: “Certainly I should. But what do you mean by graves in readiness?”

By this time we were near several rows of graves numbering some twenty-five or thirty.

My friend informed me: “We have to keep a lot like this always in readiness in case there is need for them. In this hot climate bodies can’t be kept many hours, and often there are accidents, when a dozen, twenty or more graves may be required at a few hours notice.”

“Do you bury the natives with the whites?”

“Not in this part — come and see.”

A few minutes walk and we reached another lot of graves, as many as we had already seen, but here the graves were much larger. My companion said: “These are for the natives, but natives are not put in coffins. A black blanket or rug is thrown over each body, and five of them are buried in one grave, hence the difference in size. There is no service or ceremony of any kind; the bodies are dropped in, the graves filled up, and the Kaffir’s number is stuck on the grave. There is no name or other means of identification.”

Four years later I revisited Johannesburg, and was taken by one of the Labour councilors to see the graves of those who had been shot during the labour troubles in 1914, when the government deported nine of the most active workers to Britain (Bain, Crawford, Livingstone, McKerrell, Mason, Morgan, Watson, Poutsma and Waterston).

I had been sent to South Africa to try and carry on the work of organisation in the absence of the deportees. I visited the Brixton Cemetery, for by this time the Randfontein Cemetery was full.

I found at the new cemetery the same conditions that had obtained at the old. There were rows of graves in readiness for whites according to the faith in which they died, and similar rows in another part of the cemetery for the Kaffirs and other coloured folk. The natives were still being dumped in, five to a grave.

In 1910, the railway workers were poorly organised, though a good start had been made; but they had exceptional difficulties, for, in addition to the usual sectionalism of the trades or occupations, there was the racial difficulty.

The whites, the Kaffirs, and other coloured people had divergent standards of life, and this added largely to the difficulties of effective organisation.

I visited the diamond mine known as the Premier Mine, at Cullinan, near Pretoria. It has no shafts, being a large open-cut, oval in shape, and over a half mile wide. Diamonds are found in almost circular areas, like large natural pipes in the earth. I also visited the Kimberley diamond fields and had some excellent meetings there.

At each of these centres I found a group of Socialists who were keeping in touch with Europe by literature, when not by correspondence. Everywhere my gospel was in favour of a complete change of society, and of a perfected system of industrial organisation to make this possible.

My last meetings on this South African visit were at Cape Town, from which port we sailed for London on April 13. After a very pleasant but uneventful voyage, we reached London on May 10, 1910, having been away eight and a half years. I lost no time in getting to grips with the industrial and social conditions, and my mind was clear as to the line of policy I intended to pursue.