Dora B. Montefiore, New Age May 1903

Women’s Interests

More truth about South Africa.

Source: New Age, p.347, 28 May 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

In a letter which appeared in the Spectator of May 23, signed Brownlee J. Ross, some interesting facts as regards native labour and polygamy in South Africa are given on the authority of a civil servant who has had twenty-five years’ experience as an administrator in the native territories of the Cape Colony, and who is now recognised as one of the first authorities on the native question. It will be in the remembrance of many that only a short time ago, Mr. Chamberlain, when speaking on the question of coloured labour for the mines and public works in South Africa, insisted (in the cause of morality) on the necessity of legislative coercion being brought to bear on the male native to force him to work for his white fellow citizen, because the native being a polygamist, he at the present moment subsisted in idleness on the labour of his dusky wives. I pointed out at the time that this solicitude for women’s rights, especially for the rights of working-class women, marked a new departure in the sympathies of the Colonial Secretary, though it might be objected that he had gone rather afield in order to root out a woman’s disability when there are so many flagrant ones flourishing nearer home. Still, we who are working for the woman’s cause were grateful for the august sympathy extended to our sister women and fellow-subjects, who appeared to be suffering, as we are at the heart of the Empire, from man-made laws and institutions. The moralists amongst us also counted unto the Right Honourable gentleman for righteousness his stern determination to put a stop to polygamy by making the polygamists work in the white monogamists’ compounds, where the poor benighted native would no doubt learn, through the force of example, and the daily object-lesson of the white man’s superior conduct, how he should order his married life, and how he should treat the sole legal partner of his hearth and home. We all felt at least that Mr. Chamberlain, with his superior information on the subject, meant well; even though some of us may have wished that be had begun his social and moral reforms at home.

The land of lies.

And now we are told by the Spectator (which cannot exactly be accused of being either pro-Boer or anti-Chamberlain) that the whole foundation on which the Colonial Secretary built up his arguments in favour of the enforced labour of the natives is a rotten one, that polygamy virtually does not exist; that native laws and customs safeguard public morals and women’s rights; and that “the ordinary Kaffir wife has less hard work than the ordinary European housewife.” This last-mentioned fact, adduced from the twenty-five years’ experience amongst natives of the civil servant administrator, exactly corroborates what I wrote on this subject at the time of Mr. Chamberlain’s pronouncement. This same civil servant authority gives a list of seven counts concerning native social and industrial conditions which he vouches for as facts. Two or three are so remarkable that I shall quote them at length for the benefit of my women readers, and they can compare them at their leisure with the social and industrial conditions prevailing amongst the alleged “civilisers” of these black races:

  1. In the Transkei (the largest reserve for natives in the Cape) polygamists are 3 per cent. of the native men.
  2. In a district with 3,500 native married women, there have, during the last six years, been under twelve cases of wife-beating.
  3. During an experience of twenty-five years in various districts, this magistrate has had one case of native neglect of children.
  4. The custom of dowry, or paying cattle for a wife, is the greatest safeguard of morals, and women’s rights, and it is effective.

Mr. Brownlee J. Ross, after quoting these facts, remarks: “If these people are well treated — this means little more than being left alone — and protected against men who regard them only as possible consumers of brandy so bad that it cannot find a European market, and other men who regard them as mere beasts of burden, to be kept as near the mere animal, as it is possible to keep men: if thus protected these tribes will make wonderful progress....” If, however, on the other hand, they are to be exploited in the interest of cheap labour for brandy, farms, and mines, it is absolutely certain that sooner or later we shall have on our hands a debased and debauched mass of savages that will constitute one of the most dangerous masses of lapsed humanity under the sun.”

How English women are exploited at the heart of the Empire.

The following assertions are made by Mr. Labouchere in Truth of May 14; and now that Mr. Chamberlain and his colleagues need have no more anxiety as to the fate of the Kaffir working-woman, whom they were prepared so chivalrously to champion, they might advantageously turn their attention to matters nearer home, and make it impossible for English women to be exploited in the cause of the capitalist, whether as private or as municipal employer. The female clerks (about fifty in number) who are employed in the Tramways Department of the Manchester Corporation receive, according to Truth, from 10s. to 16s, a week. “The hours are nominally from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. In practice, however, ever since the Corporation acquired the tramways two years ago, overtime has frequently been worked, and for the last three months it has been almost of daily (or rather nightly) occurrence. Instead of leaving at 5 p.m. the girls have been, night after night, kept at their desks till ten o'clock, even on Saturdays, when they are supposed to finish at 3 p.m. .... . For the 5 hours’ overtime, till 10 p.m., girls under eighteen are paid 1s., and those above eighteen 1s. 6d. Out of these munificent allowances, they have to spend 4d. each for their teas, which, like their dinners, they are compelled to buy on the premises.” Other details are given, such as girls fainting from the effects of the foul air in the office, and of there being eight girls on the sick list at the same time. Will Manchester women ratepayers kindly note these assertions, and make enquiries into the matter? If the count is a true one, no woman voter should at the next Town Council election cast a vote for a man who is responsible for such cowardly exploitation of unenfranchised, and therefore defenceless, women.