Lessons of the 1950s

1. The victory of the Nationalist Party in 1948

The African National Congress (ANC) arose as a mass organisation in the 1950s as the black working class struggled to defend itself against attacks by the ruling class and the Nationalist Party (NP) government, elected in 1948.

The victory of the NP in 1948 was a victory for the most reactionary wing of the capitalist class, mobilising white middle-class and working-class support on the basis of naked racism. The NP government embarked on a determined programme to attack the living standards of black working people, to tighten the chains of the migrant labour system, and to divide and crush trade union and political organisation of the majority. New racial measures were instituted also against the African middle class. and against Indians and coloureds.

The NP policy of apartheid grew out of the policies of national oppression and white domination consciously pursued by the ruling class since before the turn of the century. These policies were necessary to create and maintain the African cheap labour on which South African capitalism has always depended.

South African capitalism developed late, in a world already dominated by big capitalist monopolies. Against their competition, it could make profits only by bleeding the working class dry.

At the same time, NP rule involved the more rigid, ruthless and centralised implementation of these policies by the methods of a police state. This was not simply because Malan, Strijdom, Verwoerd and their henchmen were more racially bigoted than their predecessors. Strengthened racial dictatorship was needed so that the capitalist class could expand its productive base and its wealth - and do so despite the rising strength of the impoverished black working class.

The initial growth of capitalism in South Africa was based on the exploitation of the workers on the mines and on the farms - where they were ruthlessly controlled and enslaved by labour-tenancy, compounds, migrant labour, etc. But from 1933 onwards manufacturing industry began to expand rapidly, overtaking mining as the biggest single contributor to national production during the second world war.

The growth of manufacturing swelled the size of the African working class, in areas far less easy for the bosses to control than mining and farming. Between 1932-3 and 1944-5 the number of African workers in manufacturing more than tripled, from 76,000 to 249,000. Moreover, in the second world war, because of whites being called up, many Africans were moved into semi-skilled work.

Time and again the ruling class made clear that its greatest fear was the potential power of this class force to struggle against racial oppression, poverty, and the repressive state.

In 1936 the government's Native Affairs Commission stated that: "Turning the Native into a lower class of the population must result not only in the engulfing of the ethos of the Bantu race in a black proletariat…but also, and inevitably, it will result in class war." The Board of Trade and Industry, in 1945, warned of the dangers of a "homogeneous native proletariat": "No government can view with equanimity the detribalisation of large numbers of natives congregated in amorphous masses in large industrial centres."

African workers began to sense, and exercise, their increasing industrial muscle during the second world war. In the 14 years prior to the war there had been 197 officially-recorded strikes, mainly of non-African workers. Between 1939 and 1945 there were 304 strikes mainly of African workers, migrant as well as non-migrant.

This period saw the first major development of industrial unions among African workers. By 1945 the Council of Non-European Trade Unions claimed 158,000 members.[1]

The need for uninterrupted production during the war compelled the employers and Smuts' United Party (UP) government to make some temporary concessions to African workers: real wages actually increased. But, as these concessions spurred further demands, and as the tide of war turned in favour of the Allies, the ruling class began to clamp down again on the black working class.

Nevertheless, the pressure from the working class widened divisions in the ruling class. The capitalist coalition which the UP had held together since 1933-4 began to crack, on a number of issues; central among them being what (if any) concessions could be afforded on the migrant labour system.


Among the capitalists, the farming interest swung massively towards the hard-line NP, while representatives of the new manufacturing and commercial interests questioned whether industry could develop on the basis of the pre-war labour system. Did not manufacturing industry require more skilled African labour, and did this not mean stabilised urban labour? Would it not lead to an expansion of the home market for the products of manufacturing industry if workers were paid higher wages?

These arguments, first voiced seriously in the 1940s, continued to be made by sections of the ruling class and by liberal academics in the 1950s - and they are heard again today. What they ignore is that the South African economy is not a self-contained entity, but inseparably integrated in a world capitalist economy.

For its expansion, South African capitalism has continued to de­pend on the import of capital goods (machinery, etc.) from the advanced capitalist countries, producing on a bigger scale and more cheaply than South Africa could hope to match. To pay for such goods, South African capitalism has had to rely first and foremost on raw materials exports - the products of mining and farming.

The expansion of "modern" manufacturing industry under capitalism in South Africa has thus been bound - and re­mains bound - by a thousand threads to the economic forces governing mining and farming.

While gold mining operated within a fixed world price for gold, other mineral and farming products had to com­pete on world markets with other cheap-labour economies in the grip of monopoly capitalism. Thus the primary sec­tor of the South African economy - to maintain profitability, sus­tain its key contribution to state revenues and provide a basis for secondary industry - has always depended acutely on holding down the wages of the workers.

Moreover, manufacturing industry in South Africa has always faced the competitive pressure of the cheaper pro­ducts of more advanced economies, available for import. Even to develop and retain a base in its home market, South African manufacturing industry has had to be protected and subsidised by the state - ultimately from the profits of mining. And even then, against the advanced production methods of the multinationals, it has had to rely on the cost-cutting of cheap labour methods.

Real constraints

These have been - and remain today, in the conditions of economic crisis - the real constraints upon the develop­ment of South African capitalism towards liberal reform. Only the struggle of the working class, and not the pious rhetoric of "progressive" capitalists, has proved able to improve conditions (and even then only for temporary periods) against these constraints.

The "progressives" argued that better wages, permanent urbanisation, trade union rights, etc, could be introduced selectively and gradually from the "upper layers" of African workers downwards. But the problem for the rul­ing class was that, once begun, such concessions would inevitably be demanded by all African workers, with ultimately explosive effects.

To begin along this slippery slope threatened to under­mine the cheap labour system as a whole. It would also create anxiety among the white workers (on whom the ruling class relied for support) that their security as a privileged minority would be undermined.

All these factors paralysed any real reform of the system. For all these reasons, only a strong and resolute movement of the African workers could force the ruling class even temporarily to make concessions. What is, more obviously, the case today was equally the reality of the situation in the 1940s.

Fearing that the existing system of white rule could not adequately contain the rising power of the African work­ing class, sections of the United Party leadership began, during and after the war, to explore policies of limited reform, intended to ease the oppression of upper layers of the African population, including a small section of the urban workers, and give them a "stake" in the stabili­ty of capitalism.

But because of the long-term dangerous implications of such a turn - dangerous for capitalism, that is - these tentative policies carried no real conviction. Instead they conveyed irresolution, deepened divisions among the capitalists, and opened the way to the "hard" men of the Nationalist Party to gather increasing white support.

Limits exposed

Indeed, the limits of UP "reform" - and the real con­straints on South African capitalism - were exposed in August 1946 when 76,000 African migrant mineworkers struck for higher wages. The Smuts government, increasingly paralysed on other issues, moved swiftly and ruthlessly in defence of the Chamber of Mines - pivot of the capitalist economy. Police were sent in to beat workers out of the compounds, and out of the stopes where they were staging sit-in strikes. At least 12 African workers lost their lives, and 1248 were injured.

While the strike ended in defeat within a week, it was a milestone in the history of the class struggle in South Africa. By their vigorous action the migrant mine-workers had plainly signalled the arrival of a new stage in the rise of the black working class - and the capitalist state had no answer but brute force with which to meet it.

The defeat of the strike helped prepare the way for the Nationalist Party victory in 1948. For the Chamber of Mines, the repression of the strike by the United Party government did not lessen their fears of its division and weakness. Along with many other capitalists, some of the mine bosses swung their support in 1948 behind the NP, with its granite counter-reformist apartheid programme. This rightward movement by a significant section of the ruling class drew in its wake sections of the white middle class and workers who had not previously supported the Nationalists.

Whereas a strong forward movement by the black workers, such as existed during the second world war and exists again today, exerts a restraining influence on white reaction, defeats give the reaction greater con­fidence. With the defeat of the 1946 strike, white workers looked for a strong government that would protect their sectional interests. Swings to the NP in a few key mining constituencies were crucial to its victory in 1948.

This victory was not "inevitable" (and, in fact, in 1948, the Nationalist majority in Parliament was gained on the basis still of a minority of the white electorate). Never­theless, in the conditions which developed after the war, the programme of the NP represented at that time the most secure defence of the capitalist system and hence of the interests of the whole of the capitalist class. As this fact was realised, ruling class support and electoral support for the Nationalists grew.

In the 1950s, world capitalist production and trade grew enormously, creating conditions in which the bosses could make concessions to the workers in the advanced capitalist countries. Yet, even in these boom conditions, South African capitalism could allow no relaxation in its relentless enslavement of the African working class.

Dependence on cheap labour has not been unique to South Africa, but in fact common to the whole of the under-developed world under the pressure of the world capitalist market. South Africa's peculiarity lies not in the harsh oppression of its working class for the purpose of exploitation, but in the particular method by which this has been accomplished.


South African capitalism's advantage in relation to the rest of the under-developed world has lain in its mineral wealth (the basis for industrialisation) plus the solidity of its state machine, resting on racial division and the privilege of the substantial white minority.

The task confronting the NP government was to rein­force the cheap labour system - against a movement of the oppressed working class that had suffered defeats, but was still rising. The government's method was, on the one hand, to try to suppress the trade union and political organisation of the black working class, and on the other, by increasing white worker and middle-class privilege, to maintain their loyalty to the enforcement of police rule over the mass of the people.

A persistent myth peddled by liberals is that repression of the African working class in South Africa has been an evil peculiar to the Nationalist government. The reality is different.

Already, after the 1946 mine strike, the UP govern­ment was preparing legislation on the trade unions. African unions, stated Smuts, would "fall under the in­fluence of the wrong people'' unless they were brought under state control "on a basis of apartheid".[2]

The UP government appointed an Industrial Legisla­tion Commission, which was kept in being by the new NP government, and reported in 1951.

"A strong body of responsible opinion," it stated - i.e. the majority of the ruling class - "stressed the serious danger which faced the country if Native trade unions were allowed to continue uncontrolled or unguided as at present." It argued that even to allow African workers access to the existing state regulated collective bargain­ing system would have placed unbearable costs on South African's capitalist economy and system of white minority rule: the "logical result", it stated, would be "solidarity of labour irrespective of race" and in the longer run "complete social and political equality of all races."

If African workers "should become well organized," NP Labour Minister Schoeman explained in 1951, "and - again bearing in mind that there are almost 1,000,000 native workers in industry and commerce today - they can use their trade unions as a political weapon and they can create chaos in South Africa at any time."

Industrial legislation in 1953 and 1956 (entrenching the UP government's "War Measures") denied African workers the right to strike legally, excluded them from established collective bargaining machinery, and essen­tially prohibited multi-racial unionism. "Job reservation" provisions were a statutory protection for white workers, underpinning the conventional colour bar in industry. In the meantime the Suppression of Communism Act, passed in 1950, was basically being used against trade union activists - 56 were driven from their positions by 1956, and this was only the beginning.

All this was accompanied by measures tightening the chains of the passbook and racial laws around the black majority, and by an assault on living standards. New restrictions on the black middle class came as part and parcel of these measures directed essentially against the working class.

Though extremely reactionary, the NP government was not a fascist government. Fascism bases itself on the despair of the middle class driven to a frenzy by condi­tions of economic crisis and turned to the service of the ruling capitalist class when the working-class movement has lost the initiative and shown itself unable to change society.

The South African ruling class in the post-war period secured white middle and working class support, not from their despair, but by its ability to provide them with security and privilege. Instead of the gangster mobilisa­tion of mobs characteristic of the rise of fascism, the capitalists' white supporters became increasingly demobilised and passive as their bellies grew fatter.

What the Nationalist government set out to develop was a bureaucratic-police dictatorship over the black working class.[3]

Though the South African economy grew rapidly between 1947 and 1954, this was on the basis of a decline in African workers' living standards. With the onset of recession after 1954, they were increasingly hard-hit.

Industrial Council agreements ignored the conditions of the African workers, and new government Wage Board agreements (to replace those concluded during the war) were virtually non-existent. Cost-of-living allowances and other meagre social benefits for African workers were slashed by the NP government.

A SACTU survey of four representative industries in 1957 showed that real wage levels had dropped by bet­ween 20% and 40% since 1948. In the same year there were estimates that average African wages nationally were £91 a year.

Liberal "poverty line" surveys stated that in 1952, 69% of African families in Johannesburg were earning less than this virtual starvation level - and that in 1957, the number had grown to 87%!


Throughout the 1950s virtually every industrial strike involving African workers, for the smallest gain, was met with a conspiracy of the bosses, the Labour Department and the police. Mass victimisation, prosecutions, depor­tations were the order of the day. "Lorry loads of police armed with batons, step-guns and tear-gas bombs arrive in great pickup vans and all the strikers are arrested," wrote a trade union leader.

Despite differences in the ruling class, the Nationalist Party and United Party leaders were fundamentally united in support of measures to control and suppress the workers. At times the "Official Opposition" tried to recover lost ground by "out-Nating the Nats". In 1950 Strauss, the new UP leader, demanded that the Suppres­sion of Communism Act be strengthened by introducing the death penalty for "Communists".

Throughout the 1950s employers supported to the hilt the repression by the police of campaigns of resistance by working people - and added their own threats of vic­timisation and dismissal of activists.

Yet, throughout the decade, black working people fought back - in the factories and mines, in the townships, on the farms, in the reserves. The crushing of the 1946 mineworkers' strike had been experienced as a severe setback especially by organised workers. The membership of the CNETU fell, largely as a result of this, from 158,000 in 1945 to less than 40,000 by 1950. Never­theless, because of the worsening conditions of life, because of the new attacks by both employers and the NP government, working people rallied and moved again into struggle.

The recovery of the movement, and the determined mood, was already evident by 1950-1. In different areas of the country, there was a strong response to three one­-day general strike calls in that period.

On May Day in 1950, 80% of the workforce on the Rand struck, demanding higher wages, the vote, and a halt to repression. Police shot and killed at least 20 workers that day. In protest at the shootings, and at the Suppression of Communism Act, a further one-day strike was called for June 26. Though less well supported on the Rand (the CNETU leaders stated that the renewed call was "premature"), this call got a massive response in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, and among Indian workers in Durban. On April 6, 1951 a one-day strike in defence of the coloured vote was well-supported in the Western Cape and Port Elizabeth.

This was only the beginning of a decade of organisa­tion and struggle - of mass demonstrations, boycotts, de­fiance, strikes and near-uprisings - against poverty wages, the pass laws, price and fare rises, Bantu education, "Ban­tu Authorities", "cattle-culling", police repression, and all the other burdens.

The waves of resistance rippled from the city heartlands to the remotest parts of the countryside. By the end of the decade it was drawing in even the weakest and most isolated sections of the masses.

Writing in March 1961, Nelson Mandela described a village delegate to a national conference that year. Wear­ing riding breeches, a khaki shirt, an old jacket, and bare­footed, this delegate related how he "was elected at a secret meeting held in the bushes far away from our kraals - simply because in our village it is now a crime for us to hold meetings. I have listened most carefully to speeches made here and they have given me strength and courage. I now realise that we are not alone."[4]

This great mass movement did not march forward in one straight line. Over the years the focus of struggle shifted from issue to issue; now one area took the lead, now another. As a whole, the movement went forward, halted, and then drove forward again.

From 1950 until the end of 1952 was a period of for­ward movement, followed by a lull until 1955-6, and then again a huge forward movement in 1956-7, the momen­tum of which was still not completely broken in 1961.

The movement grew out of struggles against all man­ner of daily burdens heaped on working people. Increas­ingly the central demand which it raised - as also in our movement today - was for a democratically elected government, for "one man one vote".

For the oppressed working people, majority rule - a government of their "own" - was demanded as the means to secure decent wages, homes, jobs, education, an end to the pass laws, racial oppression and humiliation, and all the other burdens.

Taken up in action by the masses, the demand for ma­jority rule posed a revolutionary challenge in South Africa - not simply to the NP government and its sup­porters, not simply to the existing constitution of "white minority rule", but to the system of capitalism itself.


It was inevitable that any government coming into of­fice on the basis of one-person-one-vote in an undivided South Africa, and therefore under pressure to solve the problems of working people, would come up against the barriers of a capitalist class dependent on the cheap labour system, and a state machine constructed to defend and maintain that system.

This would pose before the aroused working class the necessity of carrying the revolution through to a conclusion - by establishing its own state power and over­throwing capitalism.

By the same logic inherent in the situation in South Africa, the very struggle to achieve a democratic govern­ment would meet the implacable opposition, not simply of the NP government, but ultimately of the whole rul­ing class by all means at its disposal.

Black working people in the 1950s showed their readiness to take up this battle, despite the costs and sacrifices involved. What they were looking for was the way to build the mass force to take this struggle forward effectively.

What this required above all was nationwide trade union and political organisation of the working class, firmly rooted in the strongholds of the factories, the mines, the docks and the big farms.

But the working class, to build its organisations to their full potential and give a clear lead to the whole move­ment, needed to be guided - through its most advanced and conscious element - by a clear understanding of the revolutionary tasks and the class nature of the enemy.

Workers needed a clear programme, linking all the dai­ly issues of the struggle, all the democratic demands, to the need to overthrow the capitalist class, the capitalist state and the profit system it defended. Together with such a programme, workers needed a clear revolutionary strategy - a strategy leading the way to workers' power and the socialist transformation of society.

An understanding of revolutionary strategy and programme are just as vital in periods when conditions do not yet exist for the working class to take power - for without them the movement can never raise itself to its full potential.

The lack of such a programme and strategy, as we shall go on to show, played a major part in holding back the mass movement in the 1950s, and in its eventual defeat.

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[1] This figure exceeded the 100,000 members claimed by the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union at its peak in 1927 - and the ICU was a general union which never organised along industrial lines. The CNETU figure, if correct, would have represented 40% of the 390,000 African workers in commerce and manufacturing at the time. However, in contrast to independent trade unions in South Africa today, these membership claims do not reflect the same degree of organisation, of firmly-rooted factory committees, democratic structures, etc.

[2] Hansard, April 14, 1947, c. 2664.

[3] In common with other police (and military-police) dictatorships, the NP regime did resort increasingly to fascist methods. But this did not involve organisation of private gangs of storm-troopers or "death squads"; rather the use of these methods against the black working class through the state machine itself. Those who greeted each new repressive measure of the NP government in the 1950s with the cry that "Fascism has arrived" were wrong. Before the methods of fascism could be used by the state unchecked, it was first necessary for the working-class movement to be politically defeated. Only from the 1960s, with the systematic use of torture, with mass removals at gunpoint, did these methods flourish unchecked.

[4] Nelson Mandela, No Easy Walk to Freedom, New York, 1965, p. 90.

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