The SADF was periodically and controversially deployed throughout the country’s internal conflicts of the 20th century, and permanently during the political turmoil of the mid-1980s up until the 1994 election. But in the 100 years from Union to democracy, no single internal military operation matches the ferocity of events on the Witwatersrand 90 years ago this month in the 1922 Rand Revolt.
During March 1922, Prime Minister Jan Smuts deployed the SADF’s forerunner, the Union Defence Force (UDF), under martial law. As violent as the 1922 affair was, in the average South African’s historic consciousness it is a long forgotten event.
But 1922 had important consequences – the strikers’ defeat reinforced statutory job reservation based on race, while the state’s victory guaranteed the defeat of Smuts’s South African Party (SAP) in the 1924 general election by the “Pact Government” comprising Afrikaner nationalists allied with the English-speaking Labour Party.
According to white South African demography, social classes and voting patterns during 1922-24, the change of government was a forerunner of the decisive 1948 general election. Thereafter the National Party (NP) held power for 46 years.
White worker consciousness was strong in the 1920s. Both Salt River and Woodstock were once white working-class strongholds in Cape Town and the Labour Party held this parliamentary seat safely. Jeremy Lawrence, son of former SAP politician Harry Lawrence, has described how his father battled to secure the constituency in the 1929 election against railway workers who were still bristling at the former government’s rough handling seven years earlier of their social class kinsmen in Johannesburg.
Finally, 1922 demonstrated the white South African state’s determination to use extreme violence, if necessary, to defend itself from insurrection by its own racial kin, whether Afrikaner or English.
Several competing visions existed in white politics in 1922: a politically dominant middle-class community of white South Africans blended together into a dominion within the British Empire; a return to 1899 and an Afrikaner nationalist-dominated Republic; and, among extreme left-wing leaders like Percy Fischer and Henry Spendiff, a (white) communist state based upon Lenin’s Soviet Union model.
The USSR was just emerging from ruinous civil war and undergoing a temporary ideological reverse in the New Economic Policy, which stood in contrast to the murderous and dictatorial War Communism.
To working men across Europe and its colonial offshoots, indifferent or ignorant to the real vast sufferings of the Russian people, the Soviet Union represented their hopes of ending the exploitation they sensed lay at the core of their difficult lives.
In Johannesburg, white workers burned with antipathy against mine owners and SAP government alike; antagonism which had long bedevilled labour relations in the mining industry.
For today’s middle-class South Africans it would be difficult to appreciate the hatred which the 1922 strikers felt towards Smuts, the SAP government and the Rand Lords. For the workers, the latter epitomised all sins of greed and avarice.
Miners perceived their slaving in highly dangerous and unhealthy conditions as their bosses’ methods of maximising both profits and their own luxurious lifestyles.
The spark of the 1922 explosion occurred in the wake of earlier strikes during 1907, 1913 and 1914 particularly, when two dozen or more workers were killed in clashes with police and military units.
The mine owners remained determined to cut their white workers’ wage costs.
White miners had clung ferociously to their privileged occupational status for decades, being racially entrenched as skilled and semi-skilled workers as distinct from the significantly more numerous black unskilled labourers.
But the mine owners had done their calculations: the white workers accounted for 20 000 of the 200 000-strong labour force while their wage bill was double that of black workers.
The Chamber of Mines announced that, besides reordering underground work by forcing white supervisors to take charge of three rather than two underground drills, the highest paid white workers were to receive wage cuts while some 2 000 faced being laid off.
There was little or no consultation – nine decades ago among the descendants of the white colonists and settlers, employer-employee relations were markedly harsh.
The mine owners’ top priority was the maximisation of profits in a terrain where exploitation of deep low-yield gold ore depended on cheap mass labour.
White workers were hardly without comprehensible grievances: their skills and work ethic had been fundamental since the industry was established. Unlike black workers, they could not retreat to any pastoral life-style, for their survival depended upon their jobs.
The mine owners knew that black miners could and would do the skilled work for less.
But the miners’ difficult lives were no different from those of the police and military whose lives also hung upon frugal salaries.
My own grandfather, Lieutenant Algernon Sparks, a UDF regular officer and World War I veteran, suffered a near fatal gunshot wound while leading his troops towards striker positions in Benoni; he was lucky, for dozens of servicemen were to lose their lives.
One of 1922s many tragedies was the involvement of thousands of men among both strikers and state forces who had served together in the Great War. This military experience of men lately accustomed to the mercilessness of 20th century war exacerbated the 1922 violence and there was a great deal of brutality directed towards real and perceived “scabs”, black miners, mine officials and captured government soldiers or policemen.
The government and its supporters reflected middle-class revulsion and fear of Lenin-style totalitarianism with its nightmarish dispossession and murder of property owners.
Visions of horrific class war becoming a reality impelled Smuts to act with harshness towards men who, although they were exploited, still lived more comfortable lives than their counterparts in Europe.
Afrikaner urbanisation in the wake of the Boer War had ensured that by 1922, at least, one in two white miners was Afrikaans-speaking.
Some of the Afrikaner strike leaders assumed their rural kin would seize the opportunity of forcibly displacing the perceived Anglo-centric SAP government.
During the initial stages of the uprising the state reeled before the rebels with central Johannesburg, Newlands and Benoni virtually falling into striker hands.
Several contingents of police, armed with military rifles and bayonets, had been forced to surrender.
In fact, research has demonstrated that some of the Afrikaner policemen were sympathetic to the Afrikaner miners’ republican goals.
Yet as in the 1914 Afrikaner Rebellion when burger commando reinforcements were called up, they responded dutifully and lawfully, despite a good many of these men being explicit supporters of the NP. The strikers’ expectation of rural Afrikaners’ support was a grave miscalculation and curiously many of the Boer military reservists perceived themselves as “fighting the English ‘uitlanders’ again”.
There is also no doubt that for some Burgers, significant looting opportunities were an added attraction, for many defeated strikers returned to find their homes plundered and damaged by state forces.
With military operations directed by senior UDF officers, utilising the equipment and tactics of World War I, the defence force bombed, shelled and shot the spirit out of the strikers.
The defeated workers attained no work-related gains. Many were dismissed, four were hanged and others imprisoned, while the mining magnates stuck to their decisions ensuring white miners would be employed more cheaply and in lesser numbers.
For all the sacrifice – 200 fatalities and many more injured during the space of a week – the miners’ strike was crushed by the state, but with political repercussions that cut deeply into our political future.
l Dr Warwick is a history teacher in Cape Town.