Tom Mann in South Africa, 1910 and 1914

British syndicalist Tom Mann, as a previous post [See: “Latest News From South Africa”, Tom Mann, September 1914] has noted, was an important influence on South African radicals in the 1910’s. In his book Tom Mann’s Memoirs (1923, The Labour Publishing Co. Ltd, London), Mann devoted some pages to his February to May 1910 tour, with some sidelights on his 1914 visit . This is reproduced below, from archive.org


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South Africa. (February to May, 1910).

Having left Melbourne during Christmas week, 1909, and having spent a few weeks in Adelaide and Perth, we set out for South Africa, and reached Durban on February 21st, 1910. I proceeded to Johannesburg and was well received by the trade unionists of that city. As soon as I got the hang of affairs I commenced an organising campaign. As far as the white workers were concerned, conditions were analogous to those I had already become familiar with in other places. The miners had about one-third of their number organised. The engine-drivers at the mines were better organised numerically, but were clannish and sectional. Conditions in the deeper mines were very unwholesome, the average life of a white miner being less than seven years. Young men were often carried off by miners’ phthisis in less than three years. The then miners’ secretary, Tom Mathews, a Cornishman, was an exceptionally well-informed man and an ardent worker on behalf of the members of his union. He was fully primed with information on the subjects that directly affected the miners’ welfare. He supplied me with many facts and statistics, particularly in relation to phthisis, and the miners’ executive requested me to diffuse a knowledge of these details in the interests of the men. My advocacy attracted the attention of the Government, and the Minister of Mines dealt with the subject in Parliament. Referring to my statement about the white miner’s life being less than seven years on the Rand, and that the risks

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could be minimised if proper attention were paid to ventilation, he said: “This is a gross exaggeration.”

The charge was, however, pressed home over a period of months, and ultimately a parliamentary commission was appointed to investigate and report upon the subject. The evidence showed that the average duration of life of the white miner on the Witwatersrand was only five years. Improvements in ventilation were made in some of the mines; more attention was given to medical inspection, and to compensation for those declared unfit to remain in the mines. There were large accessions of membership to the miners’ and other unions. Before long, an industrial Federation was formed. Nevertheless, in South Africa as elsewhere, every attempt at an advance of the workers was met by a capitalist counter-offensive.

There was a small group of active Socialists at Johannesburg, carrying on propaganda work by meetings and literature; there was also a parliamentary Labour Party beginning to take shape.

My own efforts took the form of urging the need for economic organisation, and an amalgamation of the unions on the basis of industrial unionism.

I was amazed to find how unconcernedly natives and even whites were buried. The Randfontein Cemetery was the principal one then in use in Johannesburg, and the man in charge was a most interesting character, a member of the engineers’ union, an ex-Leeds man. Under his guidance I was shown some items of interest. He asked:

“Would you care to see the graves we keep in readiness?”

Not being quite clear as to what he meant I said:

“Certainly I should. But what do you mean by ‘ graves in readiness’?”

By this time we were near several rows of

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graves numbering some twenty-five or thirty. My friend informed me:

“We have to keep a lot like this always in readiness in case there is need for them. In this hot climate bodies can’t be kept many hours, and often there are accidents, when a dozen, twenty, or more graves may be required at a few hours’ notice.”

“Do you bury the natives with the whites?”

“Not in this part — come and see.”

A few minutes’ walk and we reached another lot of graves, as many as we had already seen, but here the graves were much larger. My companion said:

“These are for the natives, but natives are not put in coffins. A black blanket or rug is thrown over each body, and five of them are buried in one grave, hence the difference in size. There is no service or ceremony of any kind; the bodies are dropped in, the graves filled up, and the Kaffir’s number is stuck on the grave. There is no name or other means of identification.”

Four years later I revisited Johannesburg, and was taken by one of the Labour Councillors to see the graves of those who had been shot during the Labour troubles in 1914, when the Government deported nine of the most active workers to Britain (Bain, Crawford, Livingstone, McKerrell, Mason, Morgan, Watson, Poutsma, and Waterston).

I had been sent to South Africa to try and carry on the work of organisation in the absence of the deportees. I visited the Brixton Cemetery, for by this time the Randfontein Cemetery was full. I found at the new cemetery the same conditions that had obtained at the old. There were rows of graves in readiness for whites according to the faith in which they died, and similar rows in another part of the cemetery for the Kaffirs [NOTE: Mann was a fierce critic of South African racism, and did not realise, as a foreigner, that this word was a term of abuse] and other coloured folk. The natives were still being dumped in, five to a grave.

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In 1910, the railway workers were poorly organised, though a good start had been made; but they had exceptional difficulties, for, in addition to the usual sectionalism of the trades or occupations, there was the racial difficulty. The whites, the Kaffirs [NOTE: see earlier note], and other coloured people had divergent standards of life, and this added largely to the difficulties of effective organisation. I visited the diamond mine known as the Premier Mine, at Cullinan, near Pretoria. It has no shafts, being a large open cut, oval in shape, and over a half mile wide. Diamonds are found in almost circular areas, like large natural pipes in the earth. I also visited the Kimberley diamond fields and had some excellent meetings there.

At each of these centres I found a group of Socialists who were keeping in touch with Europe, by literature, when not by correspondence. Everywhere my gospel was in favour of a complete change of society, and of a perfected system of industrial organisation to make this possible.

My last meetings on this South African visit were at Cape Town, from which port we sailed for London on April 13th. After a very pleasant but uneventful voyage, we reached London on May 10th, 1910, having been away eight and a half years. I lost no time in getting to grips with the industrial and social conditions, and my mind was clear as to the line of policy I intended to pursue.

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… Early in 1914 the South African Government deported to England nine men who had been actively connected with the trade-union movement on the Rand in the Transvaal. I was sent to South Africa to endeavour to weld working-class forces together, and was enthusiastically received by the miners, the railwaymen, and others. To my pleasurable surprise the foremost contingent in a procession of ten thousand people who met me at Johannesburg Station, was a couple of hundred young Dutchmen [NOTE: i.e. Afrikaners; today of course the term ‘Dutchmen’ is pejorative] with their trade-union banner. This was a great advance on anything I had seen when I was in the same district in 1910. At that date, very few of the Dutch Africaners were working in the mines, and those few would have no truck with the Britishers. In the interval between my two visits, economic pressure, and fraternisation, had brought the young Dutchmen into the industrial field, and they had learned the necessity for industrial organisation.

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At the present time eighty per cent, of the white workers at the gold mines on the Rand are Dutchmen. The recent labour dispute on the Rand has helped to consolidate working-class feeling yet further. In the 1922 strike, the forces of capitalist and governmental repression were ruthlessly used.

Large numbers of the workers were shot down, and there is ample evidence to show that some of those who were killed had no direct connection with the dispute. Upwards of five thousand arrests were made, and fourteen hundred persons were prosecuted. A number of the strikers have been sentenced to death.

At the date when I pen this concluding chapter of my memoirs I have received an urgent invitation from the trade unionists and communists of South Africa to revisit that country at once. The heavy sentences inflicted upon the strikers have had a depressing effect, and the unions need to be reorganised. I have agreed to put my hand to this work, and am to sail by the next boat on September 15th, 1922.

Thus we see, in the new and the old countries alike, the same domination of the ruling class, and the fight to the death by that class when resistance is shown by the workers. The class struggle is being waged in every country; and, since the great World War, more fiercely than before.

In recent years all my reflections and my experience have led me to recognise more clearly than ever the correctness of the revolutionary attitude. By this I mean that there is no possible hope of establishing a satisfactory condition of society so long as ownership of the means of production and the control of industry remain vested in the capitalist class. There is no possibility of abolishing wage slavery so long as the wages system obtains. There is no hope of abolishing the wages system, and therefore the

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profit-making system, through friendly collaboration with the capitalist class, or through relying upon the institutions of that class. The capitalists are savagely fighting the workers in every country. All the recent inventions and the most perfected methods of warfare are utilised against the workers. They are used without scruple in Western Europe, America, and throughout the British Empire.

Trade unionism is of no value unless the members of the unions are clear as to their objective — the overthrow of the capitalist system — and are prepared to use the unions for that purpose. Political action is of no value unless all political effort is used definitely and avowedly for the same end, the abolition of the profit-making system.


Source: Chapter Seventeen, Tom Mann’s Memoirs (1923, The Labour Publishing Co. Ltd, London)

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