We are urged not to lose faith in the future of South Africa.   Tim Cohen  takes us back to events that happened more that 100 years ago and reminds us of the struggle and civil insurrection by white miners who were led by the SACP.

Tim Cohen is a contributing editor for Business Day and his article Have faith in ourselves and in our future was first published in Business Day and BDlive today.   Read the entire article by clicking on the link [free registration required].   These are only some random extracts.

IT WASN’T a great moment for the South African Communist Party (SACP).

In 1922, under pressure from declining gold prices, mine owners tried to deracialise job categories to reduce costs by hiring cheaper black workers.   This act of grubby capitalism and high morality led to one of the most violent miners’ strike in South African history, of which there have been plenty.

White miners, led by the SACP under the slogan, “Workers of the world fight and unite for a white South Africa”, began three months of civil insurrection.   The mainly English-speaking communists were inspired by a form of violent Bolshevism, and organised themselves into “strike commandos”.   They began to engage in violent threats against “scabs”, as labour movements do.

The prime minister at the time, Jan Smuts, at first tried to take a nonaligned position, saying if there was a strike, the “government would draw a ring round both parties, do its best to maintain law and order, and let the two parties fight it out”.   His “unaligned” position was typical of his legalistic, eminently “proper” way of conducting government business.   He was presumably also influenced by the desire to retain the political support of the miners, on the one hand, but maintain the enormous income generated for the state by the mines on the other.

As it happened, events overtook him.   The workers interpreted this neutral position as support for the mine owners, since he wasn’t putting pressure on mine owners to enforce the colour bar.   The result was mayhem; on March 7, the entire reef went on strike and there was blatant sabotage and vandalism.   Railway lines were blown up and telephone lines cut.   Black miners were arbitrarily attacked because of fears of a black backlash.   On March 10, Smuts declared martial law.

Also typical of Smuts, once he decided to go to war, was that he was absolutely ruthless.   He used tanks, artillery and air support.   The Benoni strikers’ position was machine-gunned from the air and the mine hall was bombed, says the NewHistory website.   On March 17, the trade unions called off the strike.

This all happened a century ago, yet some of the basic parameters remain.   The first is the truism that SA’s history is demarcated by its geology.   The mines, deep and expensive, struggled then as they do now.   The link between mining and politics is strong, too.   Smuts lost the 1924 election, as the strike had radicalised the population along racial lines.   It hardened attitudes and provided the first inklings of the creation of apartheid a few decades later.