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Labor Action, 309 December 1946


South Africa – A Hell Hole of Capitalism


From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 49, 9 December 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


We publish here a first-hand report written exclusively for Labor Action by a friend who has just returned from South Africa. This vivid account of the terrible social conditions under which the people of that country live is additional evidence of the worldwide decline of the capitalist system. In line with our policy of presenting information unobtainable elsewhere, as well as socialist analyses, on international events, we are pleased to print this contribution.Ed.)


AFRICA – A ray of light pierces the gloom that has so long surrounded the eight million natives in South Africa. Emaciated, wax-like creatures, with lips framing carious teeth, who feed on the garbage pails of ships at the quays; little children, old-looking, who yell all day begging food and clothing; old hags who hang around the docks hoping to sell the bony bodies they hide under foul cotton dresses worn paper thin at the seats; Transvaal mine coolies bent almost double from hauling ore on their backs; bedraggled dock workers, whose sweat is so much cheaper than the fuel needed to run a locomotive that they have to push freight cars up and down tracks at the docks, and who become so hernia-ridden that they carry their scrotums in their hands as they waddle along – all these are on the march for a better world.

Beaten down by an exploitation so complete that it has reduced them to horrible caricatures of human beings, filthy, ragged, and diseased; these victims of a brutal economy, are now moving into action to improve their conditions.

Indians are conducting passive resistance, natives are burning their degrading “passes” and even a few voices are heard in the lily white South African Parliament demanding a better deal for the natives.

The stake that the industrial capitalists of South Africa have in the improvement of native conditions is a potent force in the movement for the betterment of the African people.

Although little discussed, it is the motivation behind the opportunistic mouthings in Parliament and by certain sections of the South African press, masquerading under the guise of altruistic solicitude for the natives.

Role of South African Capitalists

For in the same manner that the northern industrial capitalists of the United States had a stake in the Civil War and the emancipation of Negro slaves, so do the arising industrialists of South Africa have a stake in the demand for higher wages for natives. Such an increase in wages means greater purchasing power for the native, which would alleviate the recurrent glutting of the consumer goods market in South Africa.

The Africans’ lack of purchasing power stems from the deplorably low wages paid by the mining and agrarian capitalists, many of whom sit far away in England, clipping their coupons. This situation places the industrial capitalists in competition with the mining and agrarian capitalists, and the farmers’ fight for power takes the form of backing up the demands for bettering of native conditions. The industrialists are now seeking political power commensurate with their growing economic power and they therefore advocate broader franchise and more native representation.

They have advocated abolition of the “pass laws” since these iniquitous devices are the clever mechanisms of the mining and agrarian groups for controlling native labor by restricting it to mining and agrarian areas and denying a free labor market for the industrial capitalists to exploit.

All over the Union of South Africa the words on the lips of every exploiting European are, “the bloody natives won’t work anymore.” And that is precisely the situation. The natives haye nothing to lose except restriction of movement under constant surveillance, little or no food, and ragged clothing. Work stoppages have become common, goods pile up in the sheds at the docks and ships glut the harbors.

The native has changed from an individual living a primitive communal life to a dejected victim of capitalist exploitation. He first began to feel the effects of change when the Cape became the stopping off place for the ships of the East India Trading Co. on their way to India. In the 19th century the Boers, who were descendents of Dutch and French Huguenots, began to set up large scale farm enterprises, driving the African deeper into the interior. About the time this seizure of the best lands was complete, gold and diamonds were discovered and the English stopped over at the Cape longer than the usual few days needed to restock ships with provisions. They stopped long enough to wage and win the bloody Boer war and to establish British control of South Africa.

The Enslavement of the Natives

The natives were herded into reserves so that they could never compete for the better lands with the Boer farmers. But this state of affairs was short-lived as British capitalists exported capital to Africa to produce super profits. South Africa then began a period of industrial expansion. People were driven off the land and compelled to seek work in the towns.

To facilitate this process and to obtain docile labor, numerous tax levies were imposed. They were imposed on the native in the full knowledge that he would be forced to leave the land and seek work in the cities. The “pass law” came next. Under this act a native cannot leave one place of employment unless his employer (a European) signs his “pass.” To chain him to the land the employer merely withholds his signature. A native caught without a “pass” is arrested, considered surplus labor and shipped to some area where labor supply is inadequate.

These reserves have become mere breeding grounds for labor for mine, industry, and field. In the towns native industrial labor is herded into dirty, vermin-infested compounds that are a menace to public health. Since some natives attained some skill and were used to undercut the wages of European skilled workers, color bar legislation was enacted and a rigid color line drawn in the white unions.

With the use of machinery there has been a gradual increase in consumer goods in excess of the home market. South Africa could find no sizeable foreign market for this surplus.

America’s leap to economic domination with loans ready for those with hat in hand, has attracted many South African capitalists. But despite the prospect of developing trade with the United States, the need for expansion of purchasing power to include the eight million impoverished natives remains.

No less important to the picture is the influx of white entrepreneurs, skilled workers, engineers, advertising men, etc., sent by Britain and America as they compete for the South African market. These new arrivals threaten to depose a large section of the Indian population, which was given carte blanche by Britain to operate all small business as outlets for British goods, particularly since the native was used for cheap heavy labor, and the Europeans for skilled and administrative work.

In the competition with America, Britain must replace her Indians with white men too, because the racial feeling prevalent in South Africa will be exploited for all it is worth by the prejudice-bearing Americans to the detriment of British interests.

The Indians own all the business sites and live in the same or adjacent areas. In order to make room for the invading horde of Americans and Europeans, laws have been passed barring Indians from owning property in the very sections where they already own it. If enforced the laws can only result in bankrupting the Indians.

To gain popular support for this wholesale dislodgement, opprobrium is heaped upon the Indian. He suddenly has become “dirty,” “smelling like garlic,” a “heathen,” “burns incense and howls all night” and “they will become our rulers unless we drive them out.”

The passive resistance movement of the organized Indians has focused attention on the condition of all Africans including the unorganized native. Asiatic and African exploitation has reached a bursting point. So explosive was the Indian question, that in the face of thousands who chose jail rather than fines for their offences of “sitting down” in the newly white areas, not a single Indian politician dared to accept the government’s two $5,000 posts set up in a commission empowered to effect the gradual expulsion of the Indians.

The Africans “Make Strike” on the Cape

Everywhere the Africans band together to “make strike” and refuse to work unless they are guaranteed wage increases that are conditioned upon six months service, but which are circumvented by employers who fire them at the expiration of that period and hire new labor.

So effective were these work stoppages that Port Elizabeth on the Cape became weighted with a backlog of unmoved cargo and American ships spent eight days in the harbor awaiting a berth in this port that used to be an overnight stop. Proposals for using a more northerly port for discharging American goods were met with extension of the work stoppages. Africans have been holding ceremonious rituals dedicated to public burning of their “passes” in defiance of the laws.

Any formula to settle the unrest that is brought forward by the capitalist groups, any order they try to create will be the old order, full of unpalatable, unendurable conditions and the African and Indian people will continue to struggle for full equality. The capitalists are unable to provide full employment at home.

The need for increasing the purchasing power of the impoverished native conflicts with the need for buying his labor power at the cheapest possible rate.

The revolt of the Africans and the Indians, to be successful, must receive the support of the white European proletariat in South Africa. Beguiled by the ideology of white supremacy and enjoying some of the benefits of native exploitation in the form of better jobs, the European worker has thus far assisted in the oppression of the native.

Only if the British and American labor movements take a vigorous stand in favor of equality for all peoples in South Africa, will there be sufficient education of the European proletariat in South Africa to permit the entire working class of that country to go forward to a free and better social order.

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