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Johannesburg at war in 1922


Throughout history governments have gone to great lengths to obliterate traces of their conquered enemies: they have destroyed religious temples and buildings, killed men and taken their women and children as their own, imposed new languages and cultures on these people. The South African government of 1922 buried their enemy as paupers and then laid out a nursery over these graves, thus concealing them.

A number of pauper graves in the Braamfontein Cemetery in Johannesburg have just recently been discovered, under the cemetery nursery. It is believed they are the graves of white mineworkers who died in clashes with the army and police in 1922. Now, in 2002, the nursery is to be cleared and grassed and the black Mineworkers’ Union is to erect a memorial to the mineworkers.

It’s hard to imagine that 80 years ago Johannesburg was at war: planes were dropping bombs on Fordsburg, several buildings in Brixton were shelled, commandos of mineworkers were marching through central Johannesburg. Trains lines were dynamited, and civilians were attacking police stations and disarming police officers and taking them prisoner.

This was the 1922 mineworkers strike and it lasted almost three months before it was quelled, but not before martial law was declared.

General Jan Smuts became prime minister in 1919, and many historians believe his most difficult years in his political career faced him in the following four years. Smuts had won by a slim majority of four seats, with his South African Party combining with the Unionist Party and the independents, against the Nationalists.

Gold had been discovered on the Witwatersrand in 1886, and in a very short time Johannesburg had developed from a shanty town to a city. In 1910, several years after the protracted and brutal anti-colonial Anglo Boer War (1899-1902) between the Boers and the British, South Africa’s four provinces united to form a union under British sovereignty.

The Anglo Boer War was largely over gold – the British wanted to annex the Transvaal to get their hands on it. Paul Kruger’s government initially tried to conceal the discovery of the gold but once the main reef was discovered, he couldn’t keep the prospectors away.

Several factors led to the mineworkers strike of 1922. There had been an earlier strike of mineworkers in 1913, over the dismissal of five mineworkers, in which some 19 000 workers downed tools. Before 1913 there had been an escalation of bad relations between the workers and the mine owners, as the latter continued to move blacks into semi-skilled jobs because they could be paid lower wages. Mineworkers were also unhappy that mine owners refused to recognise trade unions.

The government, fearing a drop in its revenue from the mines, had the five workers re-instated. Soon after this they amended the Riotous Assemblies Act to give the government the power to ban meetings which threatened public order. Barely a year later they used the act to crush a strike by railwaymen and had nine union leaders deported.

By the end of the First World War, world wool prices had fallen, as had produce prices, the diamond market had fallen out of bed and secondary industry was depressed. As a result retailers’ trade fell, precipitating a drop in wages and retrenchments. By 1918 the cost of living had risen 23% and rents were being raised, according to John Shorten in The Johannesburg Saga.

Gold price drops

Then towards the end of 1921 the price of gold fell from 102 shillings an ounce to 95 shillings an ounce. Seven of the fifteen smaller mines began showing losses and soon it was clear that these mines might have to close, resulting in some 10 000 whites and thousands of blacks being retrenched.

The Chamber of Mines again announced a re-organisation of the underground systems which boiled down to a dilution of the colour bar, where in the past semi-skilled and skilled jobs had been reserved for whites only. Several years before, as the First World War progressed, white miners had signed up for the War and some of their jobs had been taken by blacks.

Whites were promised their jobs back when they returned but with profits rapidly dropping, it was clear that the more expensive whites would have to go if the marginal mines were to be saved. Smuts stressed that there was to be no further dilution of the colour bar.

The all-white trade union, the South African Industrial Federation, held discussions with the Chamber but before a resolution could be reached, white coal miners were informed of a cut in wages as a result of a drop in export contracts.

The government issued a statement appealing to coal workers to help save the coal industry by accepting the lowered wages. The Federation concluded that the real reason behind the lowering of wages was to introduce cheap black labour.

There was only one way to go: on 1 January 1922, the coal miners came out on strike. By 10 January, 22 000 gold mineworkers, joined the coal miners. The government tried to get the mine owners and mineworkers to hold a conference, but no agreement could be reached. By the end of the month the question of wages became secondary to the issue of replacing white workers with black workers.

Of course the public was fully behind the workers, as many households stood to lose the wages of their breadwinners. A militant and largely British Action Committee now controlled the Federation, which included members of the Communist Party. They distributed leaflets urging the strikers not to attack blacks, but this inevitably happened.

The strike leaders soon instituted a commando system across the rand, from Boksburg in the east right through to Krugersdorp in the west. These commandos spent time in parades and drills and learnt how to make home-made bombs and generally gave the impression of preparing for battle.

There were sporadic attacks on police stations, where policemen were disarmed. These commandos were told to return the weapons, with the strike leaders fearful of the government finding a reason to declare martial law.

More and more displays of strength were being shown by the strikers, culminating in a mass meeting in the Johannesburg Town Hall. Here strikers demanded a “provisional republican government”, according to Shorten, and as a last resort, were willing to “launch a revolution” and appoint a deputation to go to Pretoria to present their case to Transvaal parliamentarians and provincial councillors.

Percy Fisher, a trade unionist and Communist Party militant who had left England during the war to avoid conscription, was happy to go along with the Party’s call for the abolition of capitalism and the nationalisation of industry. Fisher pushed for the establishment of a provisional government to take over the running of the mines, adding that “bloodshed was inevitable”.

On 12 February the government encouraged miners to return to work, offering police protection to those who did return. The next day pickets appeared at every mine on the reef and armed policemen were called in wherever trouble broke out. The Chamber of Mines reported that workers were back at work and that the “end of the strike was in sight”, says Shorten.

Strikers attacked the scabs, a bomb was thrown into the house of a scab and two scabs were dragged off a tram. Smuts said to the Federation: “We shall draw a ring. We shall preserve law and order and allow the disputants to fight it out within that ring.”

On 21 February there were brushes between the police and the strikers across the reef, from Benoni to Fordsburg. The police were instructed to disperse any gatherings, and to now carry arms. On 23 February a “section of railway line near Doornfontein was dynamited” and a pylon at the City Deep mine was also blown up.

Police ordered to fire

In Boksburg, in an effort to disperse a crowd, the police were ordered to fire over the heads of the strikers. Fire was returned, wounding several policemen, whereupon the police were ordered to fire into the crowd, leaving three dead and many wounded.

Public reaction to the deaths showed clear support for the strikers: shops were closed in Boksburg on the day of the funeral, with a two-mile long procession. In Johannesburg more than 5 000 strikers and sympathisers gathered.

Smuts was warned that “the rand was drifting into revolution” but he remained reluctant to conduct an inquiry, and said: “We should let things develop”, a statement that some say he lived to regret for the rest of his life.

The Federation approached the Chamber with a view to having a meeting to review the situation with the possibility of getting the mines up and running again, but the Chamber rejected the idea of any further meetings, saying all they wanted was to get the mines working immediately. The Chamber added that they from now on did not recognise the Federation.

This was it for the Federation – they called for a national strike, and were not against violence being used. Tramwaymen and slaughtermen joined the strike on 5 March, and thousands marched down Rissik Street in downtown Johannesburg. They marched past the Post Office and the Trades Hall, both buildings still standing in the city but now boarded up.

The Communist Party and Federation had their headquarters in the Trades Hall.

Shorten sums it up: “A revolt against the State was now inevitable.”

Trouble spots had developed by the next day: in Fordsburg policemen were threatened and a sergeant was injured; on the East Rand troopers fired over the heads of strikers who were intent on burning down the house of an employee of ERPM; and at Springs a crowd tried to prevent a train from leaving the station.

As soon as the general strike was declared, commandos started arming themselves, even using swords and bayonets and home-made weapons. Assaults on scabs increased and strikers tried to pull clerks out of shops, the Post Office, the Telephone Exchange and Park Station.

On 7 March more deaths occurred in a clash between whites and blacks at the New Primrose Gold Mine, when armed blacks fired at strikers and then rushed at them. The clash ended with the police trying to separate the sides, with two policemen and two blacks being killed, and 20 blacks wounded.

The following day more deaths occurred in Brixton, Ferreirastown and Vrededorp: seven people died, six of them blacks. The strike leaders urged strikers to desist from attacking blacks.

The temperature was rising, with calls on Smuts to declare martial law, but he still hesitated. On 9 March citizen force regiments were called in. In an effort to disperse the crowds, Smuts decided to use military aircraft to fly low over the gatherings and fire red Very lights as a warning. If this didn’t work, machine guns were to be fired above strikers’ heads. A final step was to attack the gatherings.

Violence swept across the rand, engulfing the mines, railway property, and police stations, including a brutal attack at the Brakpan mine in which four mine officials and three policemen were killed. Police stations across the reef were attacked and seven stations – from Krugersdorp in the west to Edenvale in the east - taken over by strikers. At the police station at Hamburg on the west rand, a solitary sergeant demanded a receipt when handing over the station.

This day, Friday, 9 March, became known as “Black Friday” – Johannesburg was at war.

Martial law

On 10 March Smuts finally gave in and proclaimed martial law. Twenty-six burgher commandos were called out, in addition to nine regiments, to reinforce the citizen force regiments.

Trades Hall was raided and the strike and Communist Party leaders arrested and taken to the Fort. Fisher and his militant colleague, Henry Spendiff managed to escape the police net and Fisher took command of the revolt in the southern and western suburbs of Johannesburg.

According to Shorten, the strike leaders’ plan was “to seize the central area of Johannesburg, the southern suburbs and the Reef centres. Then, while the rest of the country was paralysed by the general strike, they would hold out until the government was forced to resign and the employers accepted whatever terms were offered them”.

But the leaders were now in custody, the countrywide strike had not happened, and the Afrikaans commando leaders would not accept Fisher’s leadership. As a compromise Fisher appointed a commander-in-chief, but he hesitated, asking for time to think it over.

But time was running out for the strikers. Government units were stationed at Benoni and Brakpan in the east, others were in position in the west, and still others were put in place in the north. In Benoni the Mine Workers Hall was bombed with 20 pound bombs. Fierce fighting occurred at Dunswart (12 soldiers died) and Ellis Park (8 soldiers died).

The battle was eventually focused around Fordsburg’s market square, where Fisher had his headquarters. The strikers had dug themselves in around the square. As the net closed in Fisher was encouraged to raise the white flag, but he refused. On 14 March government forces battered down the doors of Market buildings on the square, freeing 50 policemen who had been held captive for three days.

Upstairs they found the bodies of Fisher and Spendiff – they had shot themselves rather than face arrest.

Remnants of this battle are still visible – the old Cottlesloe School at the top of the hill in 7th Avenue in Mayfair (now the New Nation School) was bombarded by 34 shells from two guns positioned in Empire Road and Jan Smuts Avenue. Marks are still visible on the walls of the building. From here the strikers retreated into Fordsburg.

The present post office in Central Road in Fordsburg used to be the police station – it was reduced to a shell after the battle around the square.

In Putney Road in neighbouring Brixton, the double-storey house of Pieter Marais is now a guest house called Under the Stairs.

This name refers to the fact that Marais, a shopkeeper, hid his family under the stairs of his house when the fighting became particularly fierce. Marais was believed to be hiding policemen in his house and was caught by the strikers and sentenced to death. On 11 March he was taken to a back street and shot.

Samuel “Taffy” Long was sentenced to death for Marais’ killing. He was hanged together with three other men, and while it seems that the three were definitely guilty, many believed that Long was innocent. The other men were Carel Stassen who murdered two blacks; Herbert Hull and David Lewis who shot Lieutenant Twentyman Taylor of Military Intelligence.

Strike called off

On 18 March the strike was declared over and on 12 April the Martial Law Inquiry Commission was set up. It concluded that the strike leadership “was closely connected with the Communist Party of South Africa . . . and that the real object of the communists was to bring about an armed uprising to establish a system which would lead to the complete abolition of the colour bar . . .”

This was not to be. Jan Smuts lost the 1924 election to Barry Hertzog, with the Nationalist Party and the Labour Party combining to give them a majority. Hertzog’s government and subsequent governments progressively entrenched the colour bar, which after 1948 when the National Party came into power, became apartheid, with a host of laws clearly demarcating the differences between blacks and whites.

According to Shorten, there were 4 692 arrests during the three months of the battle; 853 people were brought to court; 46 were charged with high treason and murder; and 18 were convicted and sentenced to death. Fourteen of these were reprieved and four hangings took place.

According to the Inquiry Commission, total deaths over the period were 153, broken down into 43 soldiers, 29 police, 39 strikers and suspected strikers, 18 whites and 24 others. Total wounded were 534.

Within two years the affected mines had recovered sufficiently to have doubled and, in some cases, trebled their profits.

Source: joburg.org.za

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