Home / General / This Day in Labor History: December 28, 1921

This Day in Labor History: December 28, 1921

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On December 28, 1921, the Rand Rebellion in South Africa began with a strike of white miners. Soon, it would develop into a general rebellion of workers against the state, with the Communist Party playing a major role. Alas, the strike was strictly racialized and aimed directly agaisnt the use of African workers in the mines, despite some attempts by the Communists to bring the races together.

Witwatersrand is an area of northeastern South Africa with heavy gold deposits. This made it a center of the South African economy. Most of the miners were white and the work in the mines was heavily racialized. The white miners already had a history of rebellion, as they did throughout much of the world. In 1913, gold miners in the Transvaal had struck in one of South Africa’s first major strikes, but their strike was strictly by whites and for whites and so they chose their racial interests over their class interests. The response of the South African government to that strike was to police the mines even more to ensure that strikes would not interfere with production.

With the end of World War I, commodity prices plummeted around the globe. That included silver. Beginning in 1919, gold prices went into the toilet. That year, gold was selling for up to 130 shillings per troy ounce. But by 1921, that had plummeted to 95 shillings per troy ounce. The mineowners weren’t making much money anymore. Plus they hated the unions in their factories. So they decided to fire a bunch of white miners and hire African miners they could employ for less. Since World War I, wages for white miners had increased by 60 percent, but only by 9 percent for Black miners. Thus, by breaking down the job classifications that separated workers by race and bringing in more Black miners, the companies could make up for the loss of profits by effectively reducing wages.

On this break of the racial compact with the South African white working class, the miners walked off the job. Soon, this spread across the mining regions and became a race and class based attack on the state. Radicals called for a general strike. The collieries of the Transvaal walked off the job at the beginning of 1922 and it soon spread to the gold mines in the East Rand. By January 10, there were nearly no mines open in South Africa.

By this time, the Communist Party was in full development and pushing the Soviet line of anti-racism. The CP opposed the white supremacist side of the strike, but supported the strike generally due to the class based nature of it. But the workers, well they understood Marx well enough and they also understood that what they wanted was a white supremacist working class nation. So they twisted Marx and came up with the slogan “Workers of the world, unite and fight for a white South Africa!” Ugh. Moreover, the white miners attacked Black workers, who naturally defended themselves, only making the racist strike even worse.

Well, the racist nature of this strike certainly didn’t hurt it with the overall white working class of South Africa. This became a serious rebellion by early 1922. They took over several cities, including multiple suburbs of Johannesburg. Jan Smuts, South African’s prime minister, was in no mood to compromise. There were talks but they totally broke down by February and the workers started arming themselves. Smuts raised a force of 20,000 troops under the Union Defence Force to put it down. And put it down they did, beginning on March 10. It was shoot first and never ask questions later. Smuts declared martial law. Several leading South African leftists were killed during the strike, including leading communists and syndicalists who had tried to moderate the white supremacist nature of the strike. The military also used airpower to bomb the workers, even though it was more effective at destroying nearby churches than the workers who had dug trenches. By March 19 it was over. The military blamed it all on the Bolsheviks, but of course that was not really the issue here. The Communists had played an important role in the strike, but the core of it was racism. Officially, 153 people died in the strike–43 soldiers, 29 cops, 39 miners, and 42 “civilians,” though I’m not quite sure what that means in this context.

Smuts put the hell down out of the Rand Rebellion, but he also faced political consequences for his brutality. In 1924, working class parties took power in the nation from Smuts’ South African Party. This wasn’t a real stable political coalition but they recognized white trade unions and reinforced the color line so that white workers would be a protected class. Skilled white workers were brought into the state as never before. At this time, the USSR, realizing what the reality was in South Africa, told the Communist Party in that nation to stop opposing white supremacy and instead support the class-based all-white unions. You know, from a moral perspective that’s wrong, but it’s also hard to know what other options there were given that white workers in South Africa so radically promoted white supremacy as their central ideology. Otherwise, basically no whites in South Africa would ever listen to the Communists.

Of course, in the end it was the Black working class that were the real committed socialists but that would take the rise of Global South Socialism after the Chinese Revolution to make such questions that important in the socialist world. Like in many of the British colonial states, white workers would hold on to white supremacy to their dying day. Mine owners were not going to be able to replace white workers with Black workers, but those white workers would also never make common cause with Black workers for a real class-based revolt in South Africa.

There is an interesting project to locate the graves of the dead of the Rand Revolt.

This is the 464th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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