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Labor Action, 5 September 1949


Sam Feliks

Plunder in South Africa Hit
by WDL Slave-Labor Hearing


From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 36, 5 September 1949, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


NEW YORK, Aug. 24 – In a continuation of its investigation into forced! and slave labor, the Commission of Inquiry Into Forced Labor today held a hearing on the condition of labor in the Union of South Africa, at Freedom House. The Commission of Inquiry was initiated by the Workers Defense League as part of its work of defending the legal and social rights of labor and socialist groups.

The Commission of Inquiry, while looking toward the UN, that debating society of imperialist politicians, for an investigation into forced labor, has been forced to carry out the work by itself. In the UN, an investigation was outrightly blocked by Russia and the Union of South Africa; it was demagogically supported by the United States for the sake of exposing its imperialist rival, Russia.

Great Britain, recognizing the responsibility it bears for the semislavery that exists in South Africa, refused support unless Russia agreed also. Britain was not going to expose its dirty linen unless Russia did the same. And so the imperialists sit in their comfortable chairs at the UN and continue to hurl charges and counter-charges at one another.

Capitalism Indicted

The witness before the commission was the Rev. Michael Scott, who is appearing before the UN in behalf of the Herero tribe in South Africa. It is one of the more pathetic ironies to witness the faith with which these colonial people look toward the UN and to see the cynical disregard with which they are received.

The story and documents unfolded by the Rev. Mr. Scott in the course of his testimony serve to illustrate the inability of capitalist imperialism to solve the problems of catastrophic backwardness and poverty, and to develop the tremendous human and industrial resources of a country.

South Africa is an example of a backward capitalist country caught in the stranglehold of a declining capitalism, unable to compete with the advanced capitalist countries for markets and unable to develop a domestic market. For with the raising of the standard of living of the nonEuropean section of the population would come the development of a modern urban proletariat to challenge the ruling class.

The picture of South Africa is to be seen against the background of the virtual dispossession of the nonEuropean population from the land. Non-Europeans. constituting 80 per cent of the population, own only, about 13 per cent of the land. This “concentration of the native population into limited and inadequate reserves has brought about overpopulation and overstocking and rapid degeneration of the soil. So that over the years increasing numbers of African laborers are forced out of the reserves to look for work in the white man’s mines, industries and farms.”

Recruiting Slaves

This forced migration of the native peoples arises from the various laws designed to provide a large permanent body of labor available for exploitation and. at the same time, to prevent their transformation into a stable urban proletariat class or peasantry.

Against this background developed the legislation imposing racial segregation in the skilled trades, the Pass Laws limiting the movements of the natives and channelizing labor to the farms and mines, and the excessive penalties for breach of contract.

The Pass Laws, one of the ingeniously vicious pieces of legislation, tie the Africa native in a mass of legal red tape from which there is virtually no hope of escape. From the time that the native is forced off the reserve, he is forced to carry one or more of twelve pieces of paper, which he may be unable to read. The passes regulate his work, housing, education and mobility from one place to another. And then, above all, a pass is necessary to show that he is not required to hold a pass.

Failure to be sufficiently or correctly documented results in arrests and fine and imprisonment. This, because of the extreme poverty of the natives, results, more than likely, in the offender being sent to a farm to work off the conviction. And when there is a shortage of labor, ’’pick-up vans” tour the urban area to pick up “offenders.” This means a conviction, for “any competent prosecutor will have no difficulty whatever in finding some offense with which he could be charged.”

The gold mines, the largest and most important section of industry, obtain their labor predominantly through recruiting agents who sign the natives to a contract for a period of about a year. They then go to work in the mines 6,000 feet below the surface at the miserable pittance of about 50 cents a day and are forced to live in compounds under guard. A South African native representative described the 350,000 gold mine workers as “prisoners in the same legal sense as if they are going to jail for the next nine or twelve months.”

One Step from Slavery

The conditions under which the natives live, whether it be on the farm or in the mine compounds, the rural reserves or the squatters’ areas outside of the white towns, rival each other in poverty, squalor, congestion, disease and degradation. (The infant mortality rate in any native area never goes below 150 per 1,000, and goes as high as 600 per 1,000.)

The exploitation of the laborer is so “ruthless ... that his health is permanently impaired.” The natives live in shantytowns outside of the cities, forbidden to buy or lease land, even if they could afford to, by the Urban Areas Act. Entire families live in a single room, and the streets are used as latrines. Education and technical training are denied them so as to maintain the Cheap source of migratory labor.

In an evaluation of the farm compounds, the Rev. Mr. Scott concluded (and all quotes are from his statement):

“This compound system has undoubtedly led to abuses which can only be compared to the early days of the industrial revolution, when labor was unprotected by unions and was only one stage removed from slavery, if it was not actually in a worse condition than under the slave system.”

The African natives are virtually politically dispossessed. In a parliament of 150 representatives, there are three white delegates for the non-European population. Recently the Malan government has threatened to abolish this in the face of increased agitation for greater native rights.

This setup, in turn, excluded parliamentary reforms.

Old Roman Custom

The Industrial Conciliation Act virtually prohibits any non-European from joining a white trade union. On the other hand, administrative measures preventing gatherings of natives have the practical effect of restricting native trade unions from developing. However, illegal trade unions’ have been formed.

During the hearing, there was shown an excellent documentary film, Civilization on Trial in South Africa. Aside from the portrayal of squalor in which the non-Europeans live, it was notable for its scenes of gladiatorial combat among the nonEuropeans at Pretoria. This throwback to ancient slave society indicates the full brutality and violence committed against these people. They were forced to fight not only for the enjoyment of the whites, but for a much more important reason. The justification given is: If we do not let them fight among themselves, they will fight against us, or rape our women.

Following World War I, with the rapid growth of industry, a growing competition began between the urban and rural areas over the available source of cheap native labor. Rather than revolutionize agricultural technique, the farmers continued to look forward cheap African labor. Aided by the government in the past ten years, there has been increasing restriction against the movement of the African population. But this has not helped; the urban migration continues. Increasingly the government has been aiding the farmers in obtaining indentured labor beyond the borders of the Union from British protectorate areas.

Thus these employment relationships and conditions of labor are being extended to “the whole southern half of the African continent.”

“This migratory labor system uproots millions of Africans from the land and transforms them into a perpetually shifting mass of landless, voiceless people trekking from country to town and town to country.”

The role that South Africa plays in the British sterling area is well known. South African gold is needed increasingly to help in the Sisyphean effort to close the dollar gap in the sterling area. American capital looks longingly at South Africa as a rich potential field for investment. Already millions of dollars have been entering as exploratory investments, and strategic minerals like chrome are available. Truman’s Point Four plan looks toward considerable investment in South Africa.

These developments, encouraged by the Malan government, mean increasing antagonism between the towns and the farms for labor. It means the continuation of the South African system that breaks up the native tribal society to create vast pools of cheap migratory labor “with no alternative to their present culture and institutions being provided.”

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