Letters of Olive Shreiner

Letter read at a Johannesburg Shop Assistants' Demonstration

early, 1905.

Among all the reforms necessary to improve the life of modern civilised nations the first in importance in its bearing on human good is that a just return of the worth of his labour should be made to the worker who benefits the world by his work, whether it be of body or brain; and that not all should go to the man who produces nothing of material use or of spiritual benefit or joy to his fellows, but who expends all his talent in collecting the fruits of others' labours for himself. If we are to reach this improvement three things are necessary:

Firstly, by means of writing and speaking and by all possible means, the general social conscience should be educated to see that the present condition is not healthy, either for the man who lives to accumulate for himself the result of others' ill-paid labours, or [for] the worker the profit of whose work is taken.

Secondly, that the man who lives and grows wealthy on underpaid human labour is as essentially a parasite, feeding on human brain and nerve and muscle, as the insect which fastens itself on another animal organism and saps its life.

Thirdly, there must be organised union among all workers–union among the workers in each branch of labour–a larger union among all the workers in different branches in the same society–and a yet larger union among the workers of all nations and countries, without which our labour problem can never be fully solved. For as long as there is an Italian girl willing to take the work for five shillings which a French girl did for ten, or a Chinaman who will take the miner's work for half that the Englishman or Kaffir demanded, there is always a hole in the bottom of the boat through which the water will ultimately creep in.

I am glad to hear of your meeting in Johannesburg for several reasons. I am glad because it shows that at last we in South Africa are, in part, waking up to take our place among other civilised nations in the great struggle for healthier and sounder conditions of labour. I am glad that in your meeting men and women are combined because men and women are the right and left sides of humanity, capable of moving anywhere together and nowhere alone. I am especially glad that women workers are taking their place in this meeting, because, as the most poorly paid and heavily pressed section of workers–denied in all but a few enlightened societies such as Australia, New Zealand and some States in America, even that small means of making her wants felt which the exercise of the franchise gives to the other tax-paying workers in free countries–is especially necessary that women workers should learn to solidly combine.

I hope your meeting will be large and successful.

I will no longer take up the time because I know that other speakers will be waiting to address you. Remember that it is not for yourself alone that you are working. It may seem a small thing for a little shop-girl in Johannesburg to be asking a few shillings more, or a room with decent air, but what you are each one doing is really a great thing. You are taking a part in the great movement that is going on in countries all over the world to benefit and make more large and healthful woman's condition of life, and in benefiting her to benefit all the race of which she is, as it were, the root and ground-work; and, if you should personally have to live and suffer by the part you play, remember you are not playing it yourself alone. It seems a small part; remember it is really large.