Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand 1886-1914. Vol. I: New Babylon, Vol. II:New Nineveh 
by Charles van Onselen.
Longman, 213 pp., £4.95, December 1982, 9780582643833
Show More
Show More

Charles van Onselen is a South African historian teaching at the University of Witwatersrand who, from his earliest years, has been immersed in the realities of South Africa’s past and its present-day social and political problems. He was born in 1944, the son of a police detective and an Afrikaner mother of working-class stock. He grew up in Johannesburg and its adjoining townships and, from a young age, lived face to face with the barrack-like buildings that once housed the black mineworkers. Miners came to dominate both his early life and his historical perspectives. One of the first jobs he took was in the Free State gold fields, where he worked as an ore-setter. He studied for his first degrees at Rhodes University, Grahamstown and the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and then went on to St Antony’s College, Oxford in 1974 to do a PhD on the theme of ‘African Mine Labour in Southern Rhodesia, 1900-1933’.

His university teaching career began soon after: first, as a junior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London; and, subsequently, as a research officer in the International Labour Office at Geneva and a Ford Foundation research fellow at the Centre for International and Area Studies at the University of London between 1976 and 1978. He went to Yale as a Visiting Fellow in the autumn of 1978; and it was at Yale that, following another short stay in London, he was invited to become Director of the African Studies Institute at Witwatersrand.

The Institute became the centre of his life and, from then on, helped to shape both his teaching and writing. Its members formed a remarkable team of European, Afrikaner and black African scholars, devoted not only to their teaching and writing but to political activity in support of social justice and equality between the races. Within the Institute their purpose has been a dual one: to teach and to promote their own scholarship and also to help to realise the Institute’s central research project by collecting large numbers of oral recordings from South Africans in every walk of life, but particularly trade-unionists, community leaders, share-croppers and teachers. It is a remarkable experiment in oral history. When I was there in the early winter of 1980, two hundred interviews (many of them illustrated) had already been collected.

Under van Onselen’s direction, the Institute has also become a centre for promoting a type of history – history ‘from below’ – which is new to South Africa, though it originated, in Europe, some thirty years ago. Curiously, this way of studying the past was already mooted, if not yet practised, in South Africa as long ago as 1919, when Professor W.H. Macmillan of Witwatersrand is reputed to have said: ‘The South African history which is really significant is that which tells about the everyday life of the people, how they lived, what they thought, and what they worked at ... what they produced and what and where they marketed, and the whole of their social organisation. Such a history of South Africa remains to be written.’ Now, 64 years later, such a history, focused not only on the sufferings but on the activities and protests of the black population, is beginning to take shape. What made it possible was the advent of a group of radical young historians, already roused by the Sharpeville crisis of 1960, who went abroad to sharpen their wits and came back to experience the militant actions of Coloureds and Indians in Cape Town and Natal and of the black workers at Soweto. Van Onselen, who is probably the most significant historian in this group, is called a Marxist by his South African contemporaries, both critics and colleagues, but he prefers to see himself as a historian whose work is ‘informed by historical materialist perspectives’.

Van Onselen’s main work to date is contained in these two volumes of essays. Several of the essays were originally given as lectures, read as scholarly papers or published as articles in historical journals, but they form a recognisable whole, and share the same theme: the reaction of the common people of South Africa to the political and economic changes that transformed their country in the period between the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand and the outbreak of the First World War.

The tone of the two volumes is struck by an epigraph from Pratt’s The Real South Africa (1913), which also helps to explain the two subtitles:

Ancient Nineveh and Babylon have been revived. Johannesburg is their 20th-century prototype. It is a city of unbridled squander and unfathomable squalor. Living is more costly than one’s wildest dreams. All the necessaries of life are impudently dear. Miners of England and Australia, however poor may be your lot, however dark your present prospects, let no man tempt you to South Africa with tales of the wages that are paid upon the Rand! The wages are high indeed, but the price the workers pay for them is paid in suffering and blood.

Van Onselen, being a product of the period following the Second World War, is respectful of Macmillan’s and Pratt’s opinions, but does not model himself on either of them entirely. Where Pratt’s picture of Johannesburg is uniformly gloomy, van Onselen shows from which directions the challenge to the mine-owners will come and how their world will eventually be overthrown. Nor is he satisfied to tell the whole of his story ‘from below’ or ‘from the bottom up’: there must also be a history ‘from above’ to which those making their history ‘from below’ will react. So he begins with the mine-owners and, in the opening chapter, describes ‘the world they made’.

It is not an edifying picture. Whether they were dealing with the agricultural interest of the Boer Republic headed by President Kruger or with the mineworkers, or would-be mine-workers, black or white, the mine-owners showed few scruples. When deep-level mining began to be lucrative in the early 1890s and the Boers resisted it, the ‘Randlords’ (as van Onselen calls them) provoked the Jameson Raid to bring them to heel. A few years later, they co-operated with British Imperial interests to destroy the Boer Republic and to substitute a government under direct British control which could be expected to be more sympathetic to the mining interest. In the meantime, however, they had also, and on more than one occasion, made common cause with the Kruger Government when it suited both their interests for them to do so. For example, it was in their common interest to promote a liquor monopoly with Boer investment in 1892: the Boers made money and the mine-owners used liquor as a form of social control among their miners. But when the miners drank too much and arrived late for work and the Kruger Government was faced with problems of law and order, it suited them both equally well to begin a campaign for ‘total prohibition’, as they did in 1896. (Similarly, it had suited both in 1894 to bring in pass regulations – a far more effective way of controlling the black miners.) When the British, with Milner as their representative, took over, the owners came up against new problems: they were not allowed to run the mines as they wished, and only grudgingly accepted such improvements for the city and its suburbs as the electric tramway in 1906 and the state-promoted building of new houses for white immigrant workers soon after. But with the black miners safely housed in their compounds and the wages of both black and white miners kept reasonably low, the mine-owners, for all their ups and downs, could hardly fail to prosper.

This opening chapter is an important one, as it sets the stage for all that follows: but it is hard to avoid the impression that van Onselen considered it a painful duty to have to write it. The chapters that follow are mainly concerned with the non-capitalist human elements within or on the fringes of the world the mine-owners made. Van Onselen writes of the black and white miners whom the mine-owners drew to Johannesburg to work in their mines, but even more space is devoted to other social groups, petty-bourgeois and ‘proletarian’, who quite deliberately, as van Onselen argues, remained on the edge of the mine-owners’ world. These were the transport drivers and brickmakers of the earliest days following the discovery of gold, the cab-drivers, washermen, ‘house-boys’ and domestic servants, the prostitutes and liquor-sellers, and the gangs of black lumpenproletarians who took to the hills and to whom van Onselen devotes his last, and perhaps most exciting, chapter. In writing of these groups, whom he skilfully relates to the growth of the mining community, he vividly illustrates the survival of pre-industrial elements on the fringe of this rapidly industrialising world. All these groups, save the last, played some part in serving the needs of one section or another of the developing population. Some, like the ‘house-boys’ and other domestic servants, sold their labour directly to their employers: others, like the cabbies and washermen, were smalltime independent entrepreneurs who catered to the needs of their customers in return for what was more properly a fee than a wage. The ability these entrepreneurs to serve and to find a public was bound to be comparatively ephemeral as the society in which they lived was in a continual state of flux – besides, there were always rival interests lurking in the background. The cabbies, for example, who drove their small, hooded ‘Cape carts’ through the streets of Johannesburg, operated successfully for little more than a dozen years. They began around 1891, when the first Cab-owners’ Association was formed. But it was not long before they began to suffer from the competition of alternative, cheaper forms of transportation, such as the bicycle and the horse-drawn tram. By the late 1890s the cabbies were on the wane: where 1200 cabbies had been registered in 1896 only 700 remained on the books in 1898. But the cabbies showed spirit in fighting for their survival; and in their battle with the city’s council they displayed a degree of solidarity that is rarely seen in South Africa today, for they counted among their ranks not only English and Afrikaners, but black Africans and Coloureds as well.

The history, and experience, of the Zulu washermen from Natal who came to the Transvaal around 1890 and formed themselves into a guild known as Ama Washa was very similar. Like the cabbies, they reached their peak in 1896, when over twelve hundred of them paid the obligatory shilling licence fee at eight or more washing sites on the outskirts of the city. Like the cabbies again, they were constantly up against obstruction from the council and pressure from their rivals. The first threat came from the steam laundries, capitalist enterprises which established themselves near the Ama Washa’s own washing sites: but fortunately for the Ama Washa the new laundries were unable to reduce their prices to a competitive level. Far more serious was the centralising policy of the Milner administration after the Boer War, as a result of which constant pressure began to be applied to compel the washermen to move to a single municipal laundry 15 miles out of town. Several guildsmen resisted; some set up a short-lived rival concern; but most complied with the regulations, and in 1906 moved out.

Like the washermen and the cabbies, the black ‘house-boys’ deliberately chose to do service in white families rather than go to work in the mines. And in spite of the long hours they worked, their choice appeared to be a good one when their wages soared, as they often did, above those of the black miners. In 1899, for example, when a Johannesburg domestic servant could expect a monthly wage of 80 shillings, the black miner earned an average wage of no more than 49s 6d. So it is not surprising that the ‘house-boys’ were able to hold their own in the years leading up to the South African War despite the mine-owners’ efforts to enrol further black miners. The war brought a temporary halt to the ‘house-boys’ boom as many were enrolled in the Army or found jobs as housekeepers and cooks while on military service. After the war, more strenuous efforts were made to drive black labour out of the home and into the compounds, and increasing numbers of white women, African girls and even cheaper ‘piccanins’ were hired in their place. Cash wages for ‘house-boys’ fell from a monthly average of 90 shillings in 1905 to 60 shillings in 1907, and 50 shillings in 1908. Things were made more difficult for them by the periodic ‘black peril’ scares raised against them by their white employers, and eventually they began to organise in secret societies, or izigebengus, in self-defence.

The services performed by prostitutes and liquor-vendors were, of course, of a quite different order. Initially both prostitution and liquor were promoted in the interests of the employers rather than the workers: like the liquor-vendors, the prostitutes who flocked in considerable numbers into the Witwatersrand in the late 1880s (there were 95 brothels in central Johannesburg alone in February 1895) played a ‘controlling’ role. Both occupations grew out of the social realities of the time, which included a miserable lack of housing for both blacks and whites. In order to keep their black workers under their control, the mine-owners had housed them from the earliest days in those dark forbidding compounds whose outlines are still visible today. Subsequently, the immigrant workers – English, Australian, Afrikaner and Dutch – who came to the Transvaal to seek employment in the mines, having left their wives and families behind, also settled in makeshift accommodation, in their case sparsely-furnished rooms in boarding-houses in the city. Neither whites nor blacks had any opportunities for a normal family life and found ready outlets for their exclusively masculine interests in the tarts and liquor so generously provided. However, it soon proved to be in no one’s interest to allow this state of affairs to last too long; and it is of some interest to read that Smuts himself played a major part in closing the brothels and driving out the foreign pimps and liquor-sellers. The white workers, at any rate, received adequate compensation: brick houses were built for them in the more salubrious suburbs where they could then settle with their families.

Van Onselen argues that what all these groups had in common was that they were products of the mine-owners’ industrial world and at the same time, in one way or another, obstructed the more rapid growth of a reserve army of proletarians to provide fodder for the mines. A more obvious form of resistance to capitalist development on the Rand was offered by the Umkosi Wezintaba, the army of black African peasants who, faced with a choice between prison or the mining compound, took to the hills from which they sent out foraging gangs into the townships and homesteads round about, to raise money and supplies and enrol new recruits. Composed at first of irregular bands, the ‘Regiment of the Hills’ underwent a radical alteration when a young Zulu, Jim Note, arrived on the scene and began to give them organisation and leadership and something of an ideology. For twenty years, which included the years of the South African War, Note was the ‘King’ of an army of a thousand ‘Ninevites’ who extended their operations far beyond the original foothills on the fringe of the city, reaching into the city’s streets, and even into the prisons and mining compounds. Note’s programme was to fight the white man and struggle for justice for blacks: but this considerable element of ‘social banditry’ became obscured by a growing number of attacks on the small groups of migrant workers who offered a tempting target as they moved, unarmed, through the countryside. After 1913 Note directed his operations from prison and left the field clear for more obviously criminal violence. Yet, van Onselen concludes, for all their lack of clear purpose, these lumpenproletarians served an important historical role: ‘At the height of its development before the First World War, the Ninevite Army ... succeeded in seriousrly challenging the black collaborating arm of a white-dominated state.’

What van Onselen calls ‘the main reef road into the working class’ was not the road taken by the Regiment of the Hills, however: far more important was the proletarianisation of Johannesburg’s poor Afrikaner whites. Earlier historians, he tells us, traced the proletarianisation to the changes brought about in the countryside of the Transvaal in the 1890s, but then left a gap in their account, resuming their story when the poor whites entered the mining industry as ‘scab’ labour during the miners’ strike of 1907, the presumption being that, in between, they were dependent for their survival on beggary and casual jobs. Van Onselen sees this transformation as a three-stage process. First, the Afrikaners avoided the labour market for several years by engaging for the most part in self-employing occupations like those of the transport drivers and cab-drivers whom I described earlier. When developing capitalism destroyed these outlets, many of the unemployed Afrikaners settled in the newly-opened township of Vrededorp and, by protest marches to Pretoria and the like, compelled the Randlords and the municipal council to provide charity and public relief work. At the third stage, around 1907, class-consciousness began to develop among the Afrikaners, as they organised, with the help of the Independent Labour Party, for the higher aim of jobs at a living wage. Three years later, they showed their political acumen by refusing to be enrolled in a nationalist labour movement. This caused the government in Pretoria some concern: but the rulers had not yet played their trump card, which was to devise employment policies that would drive a fatal wedge between black and white workers. This was to happen later: ‘That in the succeeding decades the same workers should have fallen prey to the nets of a narrow nationalism,’ as van Onselen puts it, ‘is one of the many tragedies of modern South Africa.’

It is useful to take stock of the growth, problems and achievements of a capitalist-industrial state at an important turning-point such as the beginning of the First World War provides. But if one is taking account, as van Onselen does, of the stage reached by the various social groups who are relating or reacting to the capitalist employers, this seems a very unsatisfactory stopping point, leaving a host of loose ends to be considered in ‘the succeeding decades’. It is to be hoped that these two powerful and moving volumes are the first part of a trilogy that will take the story on to the 1960s or even the 1970s.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences