Today in Trade History: Africa’s El Dorado On Strike

The Trade History Series


My co-bloggers are ably using this space to write about contemporary issues. I hope to contribute in a different way – by using history, specifically the history of trade, to talk about the present. International trade has been radically changing the world for thousands of years, and is probably more responsible for the way we all live today than any revolution, any constitution, any war, and any single technological advance. The Columbian Exchange alone is so world-altering it boggles the mind – before trade with the New World opened up Europe had never seen a tomato, and Native Americans had never seen a horse. Yet there isn’t often much public talk about trade as a historical force, a story all its own connecting everyone.

I’ll approach the topic in a way similar to that of other authors who have written about subjects like labor history or World War II; each post will focus on a particular event in history corresponding with the date of the post, and use that to talk about broader context. I am not a trade economist, nor am I a historian. My purpose is to educate myself, and readers are welcome to correct me where I stray into speculation or error. To kick off the series I looked for inspiration in South Africa, my current home base, and I didn’t have to look far.

“The Reef”

For centuries explorers told tales of an El Dorado in Africa. In 1886 the modern motherlode was found in the Witwatersrand, a range of rocky hills in the Transvaal colony (part of present-day South Africa) where prehistoric deposits of gold and other valuable materials ran underground in the Rand, or “Reef,” for miles. Within ten years, the resulting gold rush had made Johannesburg, previously a minor settlement, the biggest in South Africa.

1930 Gold Production Chart from

1930 Gold Production Chart from

Desiring and acquiring gold was not unusual, but this particular gold rush became an international event in short order. Why? Trade. By 1900 the greater Transvaal region was producing a quarter of the world’s gold output, and the gold standard dominated international trade. If you were a major trading nation and you wanted to print more money you needed to either mine the gold to back it, or import the gold to back it, but either way the gold part was necessary. Great Britain, the center of the gold trade, did not control the Transvaal until 1902, when it solved that problem with the help of 500,000 soldiers. By 1920 the region was producing half the world’s annual gold output, and the world was happily absorbing every ounce.

Before long the deposits close to surface-level were exhausted, and companies were sinking shafts miles below the ground. These shafts were expensive to build and operate, and they took a toll on miner health, but the industry was unstoppable. By the 1940s the mining sector was the largest employer of any South African industry, and was 16% of gross national income. The Chamber of Mines was the center of the action:

“… It controlled directly the operations and policies of a train of subsidiary industries – coal, platinum and diamond mining – supply and service industries, engineering, cement, newspapers publishing, breweries and many more. It controlled directly the two organisations with a total monopoly to the legal right to recruit black labour both inside South Africa and abroad – the Native Recruiting Company (NRC) and the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA); and through them it controlled the labour contract system, maintained a closely monitored wage control system, and suppressed all competition for black mining labour. It was said in South Africa – with good reason – that when the Chamber of Mines sneezed, the government caught cold.”

The quote is from the South African Communist Party (SACP), which provides a clue as to how things were about to develop.

August 12, 1946

In 1941 the Transvaal African National Congress set out to unionize black miners. This was like trying to build a fire during a flood. Black miners were recruited from many different regions and tribes, most of them rural, and since they tended to work on year-long contracts, most were gone from the mines long before any stable union structure could be built. They lived on mining compounds cut off from local urban black communities. In 3 years the African Mine Workers’ Union (AMWU) had only recruited a few thousand members out of several hundred thousand miners. But worker unhappiness with conditions in the mines and the camps was bubbling over. In August of 1946, the decision was made to try a general strike.

On August 12 1946, the first mining industry-wide strike in South Africa began, and AMWU organizers had no idea whether it would work. The first day a few fights broke out between strikers and workers attempting to enter the mines. The next day, anywhere from 45,000-75,000 workers were staying home, and unsurprisingly, the police got involved. After five days of the strike at least 9 people had died and 900 had been injured (The numbers were never confirmed, you can read a fascinating reprinted series of reports from the Rand Daily Mail in the SACP’s essay).

The Aftermath

The August 12 strike was one of those historical events that managed to accomplish very little (none of the demands of the strikers were met) and yet be pivotal to much that came after it. For the ANC, it was a bridge to new partnerships with trade unions and the SACP, and ANC membership among the African working-class surged. The event played a heavy role in its eventual growth into the dominant political force in South African politics. The sentiments generated by the strike and by police action against it fueled subsequent strike action. And more:

ANC archive photo of rhetoric in response to the ANC's 1949 Programme of Action, which called for non-cooperation with the government.

ANC archive photo of rhetoric in response to the ANC’s 1949 Programme of Action, which called for non-cooperation with the government.

“The strike transformed African politics overnight. It spelt the end of the compromising, concession-begging tendencies that dominated African politics. The timid opportunism and servile begging for favours disappeared for all practical purposes. The Native Representative Council which, in a sense, embodied that spirit, in its session on Thursday, 15 August, in Pretoria, decided to adjourn as a protest against the Government’s ‘breach of faith towards the African people’. They never met again.”

High foreign demand for gold and a suddenly ready supply in the Reef transformed South African society and politics. The taxes and colonial land policies of the British and Boer governments, set up to facilitate the growth of the mining industry and the creation of a migrant workforce, ensured independent farming as a way of life for Africans became a thing of the past. A new economy emerged, one based on mineral trade and almost entirely controlled by whites. And as every new mining strike and the worries over struggling production in contemporary South Africa demonstrate, commodities trade still lies at the heart of this place and its future.

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