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The strikes of today by desperate workers are eerily similar to those of 100 years back, writes Hamilton Wende.
Johannesburg - Over A century ago, on July 4, 1913, the Joburg offices of The Star were burnt to the ground by angry striking white mineworkers.
The next day demonstrators trying to enter the Rand Club were shot by British dragoons. Twenty-one people were killed and 52 wounded. Soon the citizens of Joburg were shooting back at the soldiers from windows and doorways of nearby buildings. A few days later black striking mineworkers were driven back into the shafts at bayonet point.
The government was forced to back down from the crisis because, as General Jan Smuts said at the time: “We made peace because the Imperial forces informed us that the mob was beyond their control.”
The 1913 miners strike was the epicentre of a horrifying litany of violence and economic desperation in the early 20th century that began with the dispossession of land and of the freedoms of both Afrikaners and millions of black people with the invasion of the Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free. It only ended with the brutal, highly-militarised crushing of the Rand Revolt in 1922. This included using artillery and fighter planes to bombard the suburb of Fordsburg. Pitched battles between strikers, police and the military lasted for days. By the time the uprising ended about 200 people had been killed – the dead included almost as many soldiers and policemen as strikers.
This chain of revolts started in 1907 when white mineworkers downed tools over the proposal that Chinese and black workers be allowed to do jobs formerly reserved only for whites. It was followed by the 1913 strikes. The end of World War I in 1918 meant a severe worldwide economic depression and inflation. By 1920, inflation had risen to as much as 20 percent. There was a major strike by black mine workers in 1920, which unsettled white workers and indirectly led to the Rand Revolt in 1922. In Port Elizabeth in the same year police shot 19 black municipal workers.
For nearly a quarter of a century South African society was repeatedly torn apart by violent strikes – mostly by mineworkers, but often they were joined too by workers from other industries. Police and soldiers met angry demonstrators time and again with uncompromising force. But the aggressive determination of the government did nothing to stem the misery and rage of the workers, both black and white.
A blow-by-blow account of the racial tensions between white and black workers, mine bosses and the governments of both Botha and Smuts is beyond the scope of this article. The economic and racist absurdity of the white strikers motto “Workers of the World Unite and Fight for a White South Africa” is far removed from our present post-apartheid, post-Mandela era. What is eerily similar today, 100 years later, are the strains of sheer economic desperation and brutal violence that run like a dangerous double helix through the psyche of our nation.
Marikana, Mothutlung, Relela, Boiketlong, Khutsong, Bekkersdal, Bronkhorstspruit, and so the list goes on, growing by the day, our own modern-day litany of horror.
As in 1913 and 1922, the violent reaction of the police – who are shooting protesters dead almost daily now – does nothing to stop the lawlessness and growing destructiveness of the protesters.
The cruelty of both the strikers and the government in 1913 and again in 1922 was rooted in the fact that men on both sides had experience of the bitter warfare of the Anglo-Boer War and of World War I.
The violence of both the police and the protesters today has its origins in the cruelty of apartheid and in the moments when the revolution against it veered out of control, in the necklacings and murders of suspected impimpi, and in the virtual war that grew up in the townships in the 1990s. All this has its centuries-old heredity in our anguished colonial and apartheid history.
The government now says it is conducting an investigation into a suspected “Third Force” that is supposed to be behind the violent service delivery protests sweeping the country.
In 1922, the mine bosses, the government and the colonial power structures in Britain tried to believe that the Rand Revolt was fomented by foreign Bolshevist agitators. The truth was infinitely simpler and more tragic. The desperate conditions of black and white workers, coupled with unprecedented, escalating economic hardship and the deep resentment of Afrikaners after their defeat in the Anglo-Boer War coalesced into ongoing wreckage that lasted for decades.
Today, our government should see too that the terrifying levels of violence are deeply rooted not in political agitation, but in the hard truths of our society as it is today. Poor people across the country are rising up in a headless, anarchic revolution because they are losing hope, because they can see the corruption and incompetence forced upon them by internal ANC power struggles and by the ANC structures handing out contracts and tenders to people who do not have the training or ability to do the job, nor the slightest intention to do what they are contracted to do.
The ANC was once the best government this country had ever had, but now, too often, they have become unable to see, and, more importantly, unable to act on their failures.
Twenty years ago, under Nelson Mandela’s and others’ leadership, they saved this country from civil war. Today, too many in the ANC look into our tortured present and see only their role in the struggle and the clear moral truths of the past mirrored before them.
This is the narcissism of power, and its arrogance and blindness are wrecking our country.
* Hamilton Wende is a commentator based in Joburg.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.