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Conflict in the 1920s

In 1922 the interaction of economic and ethnic factors produced armed conflict among whites. Strikes had been organized by white miners in 1907, 1913, and 1914 over the conditions of labor and the threat of black competition, with the result that mine owners had agreed to reserve some semi-skilled work for whites. In addition, white miners split politically; many of the English-speaking mine workers joined the Labour Party (formed in 1909), while the Afrikaners supported the National Party. Some of the more radical workers left the Labour Party in 1915 to form the International Socialist League of South Africa, which in turn became the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) in 1921.

In the context of postwar depression, the mine owners proposed in 1922 that wages be reduced, that several thousand white semi-skilled and unskilled workers be dismissed, and that the statutory "colour bar" be lifted, thereby enabling the employers to increase the ratio of black workers to white. The white workers, supported by the Labour and National parties, went on strike. With militant Afrikaner nationalists taking a leading role and organizing commandos, the strikers marched through Johannesburg behind banners proclaiming "Workers of the World Unite, and Fight for a White South Africa," occupied fortified positions in the mines, and announced the establishment of a White Workers' Republic. Smuts, prime minister since Botha's death in 1919, struck back with 20,000 troops and with artillery, tanks, and bomber aircraft. In the ensuing conflict, seventy-six strikers were killed, 4,748 were arrested, and eighteen were sentenced to death, of whom only four were hanged.

Smuts won only a temporary victory because in the 1924 general election he was swept out of office by an alliance of the National and Labour parties and was replaced as prime minister by J.B.M. Hertzog. The new government took immediate steps to protect the privileged position of white labor by enacting the Industrial Conciliation Act of 1924 and the Wage Act of 1925. The former law gave legal recognition to white trade unions but not to black; the latter enabled the minister of labor to force employers to give preference to the hiring of white workers. In addition, the Mines and Works Amendment Act of 1926 reinforced the color bar in the mining industry.

Together, these laws became the cornerstone of what Hertzog termed his "civilised labour" policy. Hertzog also introduced measures to provide whites with greater job opportunities by instituting higher protective tariffs to encourage local manufacturing; by opening up new overseas trade relations, especially with Germany; and by establishing the state-owned South African Iron and Steel Corporation (Iscor). He proposed as well a number of "native bills" to restrict the voting rights of Africans, removed the property qualification for all white voters, and enfranchised white women, thereby more than doubling the number of eligible white voters while reducing black voters to a negligible number. He also introduced legislation replacing Dutch with Afrikaans as an official language.

Black opposition to these measures took a variety of forms, the most important of which was the growth of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU). The ICU had been established in 1919 as a trade union for coloured dockworkers in Cape Town by Clements Kadalie, a mission-educated African from Nyasaland (present-day Malawi). Kadalie's organization grew enormously in the 1920s, in rural as well as in urban areas, as it tapped the great discontent that blacks already felt for the segregationist policies of Botha and Smuts and their increased disturbance over Hertzog's "civilised labour" legislation. ICU organizers, often men with links to the independent African churches who had little time for the overly "moderate" policies of the ANC and who were strongly influenced by the back-to-Africa movement of Marcus Garvey, galvanized mass support with calls for an immediate end to discrimination and to colonial rule.

By 1928 the ICU's claimed membership, predominantly rural-based, had grown to between 150,000 and 200,000 Africans, 15,000 coloureds, and 250 whites, making it a far larger political body than the ANC. Yet the organization soon collapsed, brought down by the contradiction between the near-millennial expectations of its followers and the refusal of Hertzog's government to offer any concessions, and by the inability of blacks to force the government to change any of its policies. By the end of the 1920s, only a few regional branches of the ICU remained, and Kadalie was no longer at the head of the organization.

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