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South African History [Segregation] – Part 5
Government policy in the Union of South Africa did not develop in isolation, but against the background of black political initiatives. Segregation and apartheid took their form in part as a white response to the increasing participation of Africans in the economic life of the country and their assertion of political rights.
Despite government efforts to promote traditionalism and retribalize them, blacks became more fully integrated into the urban and industrial society of 20th-century South Africa than elsewhere on the continent. The educated elite of clergy, teachers, businessmen, journalists and professionals became the main force of black politics.
Missionary Christianity and its associated educational institutions had a profound influence on African political life, and separatist churches were early tools for African political advocacy. Study abroad experiences and especially interactions with blacks fighting for their rights elsewhere in Africa, the United States, and the Caribbean also played an important role. The black readership was served by a vigorous black press, associated in its early years with such pioneering editors as JT Jabavu, Pixley Seme, Dr. Abdullah Abdurahman, Sol Plaatje and John Dube.
At the same time, African communal struggles to maintain access to land in rural areas presented a major challenge to the white state.
Traditional authorities often led popular struggles against intrusive and manipulative policies. Government attempts to control and co-opt chiefs often failed.
Steps to create a national political organization of ‘coloureds’ began at the turn of the century with the creation of the African Political Organization (APO) in 1902 by Dr. Abdurahman mainly in the Cape Province. However, the African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1912, became the most important black organization uniting traditional authorities and the educated African elite in common affairs.
In its early years, the ANC was mainly concerned with constitutional protest. Labor militancy emerged after World War I and continued into the 1920s.
It included strikes and an anti-enfranchisement campaign instigated by women, particularly in the Free State, who resisted the extension of the enfranchisement laws to them. The Industrial and Commercial Workers Union, led by Clements Kadalie, was (despite its name) the first populist national organization representing blacks in both rural and urban areas. But it was short-lived.
Formed in 1921 and since then a force for both non-racialism and labor organization, the Communist Party was to prove much longer.
Organized opposition also emerged in other parts of the black population at the turn of the century. Gandhi’s leadership of the protest against discriminatory laws gave impetus to the formation of the Provincial Indian Congresses.
The principles of segregationist thought were set out in the 1905 report of the South African Commission on Native Affairs and continued to evolve in response to these economic, social and political pressures. Acting on its recommendations, the first Union government passed the landmark Native Land Act in 1913. This defined the remnants of their ancestral lands after the conquest for African occupation and declared illegal all land purchases or leases outside these reservations.
The reserves (the “homelands” as they were later called) eventually comprised about 13% of South Africa’s land surface. Administrative and legal dualism reinforced the division between white citizens and black non-citizens, a dispensation embodied by the Governor-General, who, as “supreme chief” over the country’s African majority, was empowered to rule over them by administrative order and decree.
The government also legalized the color bar for jobs, reserved skilled work for whites, and denied African workers the right to organize.
The legislation, which was consolidated in the Natives (Urban Areas) Act of 1923, entrenched urban segregation and managed African mobility through laws. The pass laws were intended to ensnare Africans in a web of coercion to force them to work and keep them there under conditions and wage levels that suited white employers, denying them any bargaining power.
In these and other ways, the foundations of apartheid were laid by successive governments representing the compromises made by the National Assembly of 1908-1909 to bring about the amalgamation of English and Afrikaans speaking whites.
However, divisions within the white community remained significant. Afrikaner nationalism grew as a factor in the years after unification.
The impetus for this in 1914 was the creation of the National Party (NP), a breakaway from the ruling South African Party, and the uprising of Afrikaners who could not accept the decision to enter the First World War against Germany. . In part, the NP spoke for Afrikaners impoverished by the Anglo-Boer/South African War and pushed off the land by the development of capitalist agriculture.
An African underclass emerged in the cities and found itself uncompetitive in the labor market as white workers demanded higher wages than those paid to blacks.
Work problems soon came to the fore. In 1920, some 71,000 black miners went on strike to protest the rising cost of living, but the strike was quickly quelled by the isolation of the facilities where the migrant workers were housed.
Another threat to the government came from white workers. Immigrant white workers with mining experience abroad did much of the skilled and semi-skilled work in the mines. As mine owners tried to cut costs by using lower-wage black labor in semi-skilled jobs, white labor became increasingly militant. These tensions culminated in a bloody and dramatic riot on the goldfields in 1922, which the Smuts government put down with military force. In 1924, the Hertzog-led Pact government, comprising Afrikaner nationalists and immigrant labor representatives, overthrew the Smuts regime.
The Pact was based on a shared suspicion of the dominance of mining capital and a determination to protect the interests of white labor by intensifying discrimination against blacks. The commitment to a white labor policy in government employment such as the railways and postal services was strengthened and the color bar of labor was strengthened with one of its main aims to solve what was known as the “poor white problem”.
In 1934, the major white parties united to fight the local effects of the global depression. This was followed by a new African nationalist secession led by Dr. DF Malan.
In 1936, white supremacy was further consolidated by the United Party by removing Africans from the Cape Province who qualified from the common electoral roll. Meanwhile, Malan’s breakaway NP was greatly strengthened by the Afrikaner cultural revival led by the secret white Afrikaner Broederbond and other cultural organizations during the Voortrekker Centenary Celebrations (1938) as well as anti-war sentiment from 1939.
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