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The Union of South Africa in the 1920s

The Union of South Africa was an independent nation within Britain's Commonwealth of nations. Its parliamentary capital was at Cape Town. South Africa had fought with Britain against Germany in the world war, and during the war its industries had profited as had those in Japan and the United States. According to 1910 figures, 67 percent of South Africa's population was black; 9 percent were mixed black and white, called coloreds; 21.5 percent of the population was white; and 2.5 percent were Asian, largely Indians and some Chinese. The whites were divided between a British minority who lived largely in cities and an Afrikaner (Dutch) majority of farmers in rural areas. White influences, including missionary work, had already broken down some of the tribalism among the blacks. Some blacks were living in cities. Some were living in villages and working on white-owned farms or elsewhere in the countryside. Some were squatters on white farms, and many were still living on reservations – about one-fourteenth the area of South Africa. All blacks were subject to "pass" laws, which restricted their movement off of the reservations. And blacks working as servants were subject to a law that made breach of contract a criminal offense.

South Africa's political leader of Afrikaner (Dutch) heritage, Jan Christian Smuts, had advocated cooperation between whites and blacks, with whites maintaining power and blacks available to whites as a pool of labor. But in 1917, Smuts and his colleague in the governing political party, Louis Botha, applied a limitation to the cooperation between blacks and whites. By law there were to be no more mixed marriages or extramarital sexual relations between the races.

By 1918, blacks in South Africa were struggling for a modicum of freedom and power. They organized their first mass action: a grievance concerning public utilities. Then in 1919, black workers organized a labor union. They conducted a strike at loading docks against the railroads. In 1921, Prime Minister Smuts' government took one more step in separating the races: it created the Natives Land Act, preventing Africans from holding land except in specially designated reserves.

Later that same year, Smuts faced a rebellion by white workers. The gold mining industry in South Africa was facing a drop in the price of gold and rising costs in production, and owners decided to save money by hiring blacks for semi-skilled work. White workers responded with violence, and against them Smuts sent troops, resulting in bloodshed and the deaths of white workers. South Africa's white Labour Party responded by aligning itself with the Nationalist Party of Afrikaners – a party traditionally in favor of removing British influence in South Africa. Smuts' tried to counter the alliance by wooing South Rhodesia's electorate into merging with the Union of South Africa. Whites from South Africa had been migrating to Southern Rhodesia, joined by migrants from Britain, but there was to be no merger. Smuts lost in the elections in 1924 and he was replaced as Prime Minister by J M B Herzog, leader of the Nationalist Party. Herzog was a strong supporter of the separation of the races – the policy to be known as Apartheid. He was opposed to mine owners employing skilled blacks. And in alliance with South Africa's Labour Party, in 1926 he introduced the Mines and Works Amendment Act, which excluded blacks and Asians from all skilled and some semi-skilled mining jobs.

Sources

A History of Africa, by JD Fage, 1996

Africa, by Sanford J Ungar, Simon & Schuster Inc., 1986

Opposition to the Mines and Works Amendment Act of 1926, by JC McBean

Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.