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Jerry Kirk

How British ‘Democracy’ Works in South Africa

(22 November 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 47, 22 November 1941, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

If you want to learn something of the real meaning of British “democracy”, get a job in South Africa. I’ve just returned from there. You won’t frighten the South African natives with threats of Hitler. They’ve got a very special Hell of their own, and all of it the creation of British imperialism.

It took six days before the ship I was on could tie up at the docks in Capetown, South Africa. The port was overcrowded with ships because of the tremendous traffic, now detoured around the Cape, which prior to the war went through the Suez Canal.

In Capetown the native longshoremen came aboard the ship, 20 to a hatch. Although, as I later found out, these are the highest paid native workers, they were clothed in the most miserable rags, burlap sacking, shreds of cloth. They begged the crew members for discarded clothing, ragged dungarees or a scrap of shirt. Shoes, no matter how torn and worn, were a treasure.

The longshoremen ate their food on deck in front of us. It was some indescribable mushy mixture which might turn the stomach of a hog.

It was not in Capetown, however, where I saw the worst conditions. What we saw as we proceeded up the East Coast, at Port Elizabeth, East London, Durban, etc., made conditions in Capetown, vile as they are, appear almost decent by comparison.

In East London, for instance, gangs of native children came around. I learned that these children, between the ages of six to eleven, were working in the holds of our ship.

The ravages of tuberculosis were plainly visible in the faces and bodies of the natives. TB is one of the great scourges which “civilization” has brought the African natives; the hunger and filth which is their lot is a perfect breeding ground for this disease of poverty.

The disease is rampant even among the poor whites, whose standard of living is only a few notches above that of the native colored peoples. I read a number of papers in East London, and the various other South African cities I visited, and one thing in these papers struck me forcibly. Every one contained appeals for funds to fight tuberculosis. These funds, of course, are for the whites. We can imagine what the devastation of TB is like among the natives – for whom there are no appeals for funds.

All the heavy physical labor is done by the natives. They work from dawn to dusk for one meal a day – a bowl of mush. In one American-owned mine there are 200,000 natives employed at a wage of 10 cents a day.

Head-Tax System

The means that British imperialism employs to force the natives into these slave jobs is a head-tax. Every native is compelled to pay a tax of a pound a year, about four dollars American.

If a native fails to pay this tax he goes to a hard-labor prison camp. If he is lucky enough to survive this experience, he is unlikely to skip paying the tax again.

In East London, across the river from the docks, I saw one of these slave camps, a quarry, where the prisoners are driven by brutal armed guards at an inhuman pace in the broiling sun. The reports of survivors of these prisons have circulated among the natives, who have thus come to prefer the drawn-out punishment of starvation and “free” toil, to the tortures of the prison camps.

The native peoples are considered and treated as non-humans by the white rulers. There is total segregation and discrimination.

Three Negro mess boys from our ship went ashore at Capetown. They returned in a very bitter mood. They explained to me that the segregation and discrimination are even worse than in any part of our own Bourbon South. They would not go ashore again. The natives of South Africa have never heard of the “four freedoms.”

I attended a showing of the American moving picture Boy’s Town in the lily-white movie theatre in East London. In one scene, a little colored boy was shown sitting with some white boys. When this scene flashed on the screen, there was a loud gasp from the audience. They were horrified at the idea of a colored boy being shown sitting together with whites.

But it remained for the things we witnessed in American and British-owned Portuguese East Africa to show me to what depths of misery and exploitation the African natives are driven by imperialism.

There I saw the natives toiling for six cents a day, living in disease-ridden jungle camps. I saw the native workers laboring on the ore piles in bare feet in Lorenco Marques and Biera, where it is 90 to 100 degrees in the “winter.” The pavements there are so hot they burned through the soles of my shoes.

Starvation is so terrible in this colony that it was not an uncommon sight to see natives arm-deep in the garbage and refuse barrels grubbing for food. I saw more than one native pass out on the street from starvation. I never saw a middle-aged or old native. The work is too gruelling and their conditions of living too appalling. They die like flies in a winter wind.

This was my first trip to Africa, and my first personal glimpse of British imperialism. I saw enough on this one trip to fully understand what the “democracies” are really fighting for. And it’s no different than what Hitler is striving after. It is for the robbery of colonies, and the exploitation of the native peoples.

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