Dora B. Montefiore Justice August 1912

A Parliamentary Election in South Africa

Source: Justice, p.2, 3 August 1912;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Durban is a seaport town of some 60,000 inhabitants in Natal, one of the Provinces of the Union of South Africa. Rather more than 30,000 of these inhabitants are white and the balance (being black and coloured) is made up of natives, coolies, half-castes, and folk from Mauritius and St. Helena. None of the natives or coolies have votes, but an almost negligible number of coloured people are able to qualify under the Natal property qualification, which consists in the possession of an income of 98 a year. In Greyville, the Parliamentary division of Durban, which has just sent a Labour member to the Union Parliament, on an electoral roll of 1,984 voters, there were four coloured voters. Sixty-eight per cent. of the enfranchised inhabitants of Greyville recorded their vote, and the result of the polling was. Boydell, 671 (Labour); Greenacre, 642 (Unionist); Norrie, 43 (Socialist). As this was the first election run since the inauguration of the. United Socialist Party of South Africa, which has at present but little organisation and less funds, and as we looked upon it as an excellent opportunity for the propaganda of revolutionary Socialism, and the stressing of our attitude in opposition to reactionary and reformist political “Labour” propaganda, we are not dissatisfied with the result. International Socialists all over the world know now that 43 class-conscious-workers in Greyville are prepared to keep the red flag flying, and, even at the cost of “traitors’ sneers,” to continue to educate for revolution.

I arrived on the scene of the fight rather more than a week before polling day, and was able to help in outdoor and indoor propaganda, and in the work at the committee rooms. That unemployment out here is not what it is in England was soon clear to me by the small number of workers who were free during the day to give their services to committee-room work. Neither have we organised yet a band of women workers; but that that will come in time was evidenced by the excellent individual work carried on during election time by some of our women comrades. The local platform was also restricted by the fact that Government railway servants, who form a large portion of the constituency of Greyville, are prevented, since the issuing of Government Circular No. 7, from taking active and public part in political meetings, or in the distribution of political literature. Take notice, you English wage-slaves, and do not be in too much of a hurry to help Mr. Snowden and Mr. Lloyd George in their “business proposition” of nationalising the railways under the existing capitalist bourgeois State, which is not an administration of things, but a government of men!

Comrade Green, of the Maritzburg U.S.P., gave us a week-end of valuable platform work; and comrade C. Webber, of Johannesburg U.S.P., gave many a stirring speech, helping to keep before the electors the necessity of working on both industrial and political fields. Our principal business has been, of course, to point out and prove from their literature and speeches that as far as the workers were concerned both the Labour and Unionist candidates stood on the same narrow reformist platform. Take the two following statements, and you will see that this was not difficult. On the eve almost of polling day, the Labour candidate issued a leaflet to the railwaymen, in which he stated that one reason why he should be returned to Parliament was “Because the Labour Party voted for a clause which makes it impossible for any reactionary Dutch Minister to sack the English-speaking porters at Durban; and fill their places with poor Dutch, who can speak little or no English.” The Unionist candidate, at the same time, issued a leaflet, in which he made a statement that one of the reasons he claimed the vote of the Greyville electors was “Because he will do his utmost to prevent our porters, signalmen ticket-collectors, and platform inspectors being ousted by Dutchmen!” Both Labour and Unionist candidates believe evidently in the good old axiom of the governing classes, “Divide and govern.” Set one race against another, one language against another, one colour against another, and you will keep the workers quarrelling among themselves, instead of combining against capitalism. That is the work, in South Africa as elsewhere, of the Labour Party, as well as of the capitalist parties.

Again, when Mr. Andrews, a Labour member of Parliament, spoke – in one of his orations at the railway gates, Durban, in support of the Labour candidate he qualified the members of the U.S.P. as “Anarchists” and “tools of the capitalist class.” He was, of course, only showing the usual political Labour ignorance of social and economic questions; otherwise he would have known that Anarchists are men and women who are opposed to any form of organisation or government, and who deny the use of political action. When, therefore, he joined the ignorant capitalist outcry against organised Socialists, which outcry invariably takes the form of denouncing us as “Anarchists,” he was proving himself traitor to the working class, for whom “Socialism is the only hope.” The accusation of our being “the tools of the capitalist class” was a delicate “Labour” way of repeating the accusation they started and kept up during the whole election that we were run on Unionist money in order to split the working-class vote.

Another “Labour” method of hitting below the belt was to spread industriously the report that the Socialist candidate was standing down; and this was done so systematically and with such quite accomplished proficiency, throughout the railway shops on polling day, that many of our own supporters felt shaken in their faith till they saw the three names on the ballot-papers.

The scene outside the old Public Library, where the polling for the town voters took place, baffles description from an English point of view, and verged closely on an electoral scandal. Money certainly “talks” at the South African polling booth. A small green space in front of the library was (though public ground) surrounded by the calico posters of the Unionist candidate; the “Labour” crowd hoisted their appeals to the voters on to the window-spaces of the building, and lined its walls with their electioneering bills. As soon as a voter set his foot inside this public reserve, as he walked up to the polling-booth, excited ladies rushed at him from the Unionist side, and attempted to pin on him the green and white colours of Mr. Greenacre, while equally excited ladies from the “Labour” side attempted to do the same with the red colours of Mr. Boydell. Political touts from either side seized him by the arm, and asked him for his polling number; while from time to time these paid touts in order to keep up the excitement, raised cheers for alternately the “Labour” or the Unionist candidate. All this went on actually on the premises of the polling-booth; for Durban, having in winter a record climate of sunshine and clear blue skies, the ladies were able to set out, their rosette tables in the actual enclosure of the polling-booth, and the political touts carried on their business in the same way. An inspector certainly stood on the steps of the library, but he made no effort to protect the voters, or even to keep a gang-way to the polling-booth.

The polling which began at 8 a.m., closed at 4 p.m., and at 4.30 comrade Webber and I, who were. scrutineers representing our comrade Norrie, went over to the Council Chamber of the Town Hall, watched the opening of the sealed ballot-boxes, the counting of the ballot papers into heaps of 50, and finally checked on our papers the counting by the mayor of the votes obtained by each candidate. Then the doubtful and spoiled ballot papers having been dealt with, the result, a majority of 29 for the Labour candidate, was declared, and a rush was made to follow the mayor on to the wide balcony of the Town Hall, which overlooked the public gardens, from which balcony the result was to be communicated to the awaiting crowds.

There, an extraordinary scene broke upon the senses of this English “Socialist agitator.” Only an hour and a-half had elapsed since we entered the Council Chamber, but during the interval night had fallen, the soft, sensuous, blue-black night of South Africa. Stars and electric light lit up the square, where tall palms and spreading trees marked the lines of the gardens. Tram-cars thundered along the side streets, and the tiny lights of rickshaws, drawn by half-clothed Zulus, flashed and flickered on the outskirts of the crowd, whose upturned faces sought the recording numbers. The usual cheering, the usual speeches from the successful and unsuccessful candidates, and then, as we came down the steps of the Town Hall, our little group of Socialists found and congratulated each other that though the workers had not yet exhausted every way of being fooled, yet they were slowly but surely awakening; and that the Socialist vote of 43 proved all the people could not be fooled all the time.

Dora B. Montefiore.