Africans and Industrialization

South Africa Table of Contents

African Enterprise

Africans participated actively in the new industrial economy. Thousands came to Kimberley in the early 1870s, some to obtain diamond claims, the majority to seek jobs in the mines and thereby to acquire the cash that would enable them to rebuild cattle herds depleted by drought, disease, and Boer raids. In the early 1870s, an average of 50,000 men a year migrated to work in the mines, usually for two to three months, returning home with guns purchased in Kimberley, as well as cattle and cash. Many who lived in the area of the diamond finds chose to sell agricultural surpluses, rather than their labor, and to invest their considerable profits in increasing production for the growing urban market. African farmers in British Basutoland (the British protectorate established in Lesotho), the Cape, and Natal also greatly expanded their production of foodstuffs to meet rising demand throughout southern Africa, and out of this development emerged a relatively prosperous peasantry supplying the new towns of the interior as well as the coastal ports. The growth of Kimberley and other towns also provided new economic opportunities for coloureds, many of whom were skilled tradesmen, and for Indians, who, once they had completed their contracts on the sugar plantations, established shops selling goods to African customers.

Extending European Control

Mineowners struggling to make a profit in the early days of the diamond industry sought, however, to undercut the bargaining strength of the Africans on whom they depended for labor. In 1872 Kimberley's white claimsholders persuaded the British colonial administration to introduce a pass law. This law, the foundation of the twentieth-century South African pass laws, required that all "servants" be in possession of passes that stated whether the holders were legally entitled to work in the city, whether or not they had completed their contractual obligations, and whether they could leave the city. The aim of this law, written in "color-blind" language but enforced against blacks only, was to limit the mobility of migrant workers, who frequently changed employers or left the diamond fields in a constant (and usually successful) attempt to bargain wages upward.

Other restrictions followed the pass law. These included the establishment of special courts to process pass law offenders as rapidly as possible (the basis of segregated courts in the twentieth century), the laying out of special "locations" or ghettos in Kimberley where urban blacks had to live (the basis of municipal segregation practices), and, finally, in 1886 the formation of "closed compounds," fenced and guarded institutions in which all black diamond mine workers had to live for the duration of their labor contracts.

The institutionalization of such discriminatory practices produced in Kimberley the highest rate of incarceration and the lowest living standards for urban blacks in the Cape Colony. It also marked a major turnabout in the British administration of law. The previous official policy that all people irrespective of color be treated equally, while still accepted in legal theory, was now largely ignored in judicial practice. South Africa's first industrial city thus developed into a community in which discrimination became entrenched in the economic and social order, not because of racial antipathies formed on the frontier, but because of the desire for cheap labor.

Because blacks would not put up with such conditions if they could maintain an autonomous existence on their own lands, the British embarked on a large-scale program of conquest in the 1870s and the 1880s. Mine owners argued that if they did not get cheap labor their industries would become unprofitable. White farmers, English- and Dutch-speaking alike, interested in expanding their own production for new urban markets, could not compete with the wages paid at the mines and demanded that blacks be forced to work for them. They argued that if blacks had to pay taxes in cash and that if most of their lands were confiscated, then they would have to seek work on the terms that white employers chose to offer. As a result of such pressures, the British fought wars against the Zulu, the Griqua, the Tswana, the Xhosa, the Pedi, and the Sotho, conquering all but the last. By the middle of the 1880s, the majority of the black African population of South Africa that had still been independent in 1870 had been defeated, the bulk of their lands had been confiscated and given to white settlers, and taxes had been imposed on the people, who were now forced to live on rural "locations." In order to acquire food to survive and to earn cash to pay taxes, blacks now had to migrate to work on the farms, in the mines, and in the towns of newly industrialized South Africa.

African Initiatives

The final quarter of the nineteenth century was marked also by the rise of new forms of political and religious organization as blacks struggled to attain some degree of autonomy in a world that was rapidly becoming colonized. Because the right to vote was based on ownership of property rather than on race in the Cape, blacks could participate in electoral politics, and this they did in increasing numbers in the 1870s and the 1880s, especially in the towns. In 1879 Africans in the eastern Cape formed the Native Educational Association (NEA), the purpose of which was to promote "the improvement and elevation of the native races." This was followed by the establishment of the more overtly political Imbumba Yama Nyama (literally, "hard, solid sinew"), formed in 1882 in Port Elizabeth, which sought to fight for "national rights" for Africans.

In 1884 John Tengo Jabavu, a mission-educated teacher and vice president of the NEA, founded his own newspaper, Imvo Zabantsundu (Native Opinion). Jabavu used the newspaper as a forum through which to express African grievances about the pass laws; "location" regulations; the unequal administration of justice; and what were considered "anti-native" laws, such as the one passed in 1887 by the Cape Parliament at Rhodes's behest that raised the property qualification for voters and struck 20,000 Africans off the rolls. Through these organizations and newspapers, and others like them established in the late nineteenth century, Africans protested their unequal treatment, pointing out in particular contradictions between the theory and practice of British colonialism. They called for the eradication of discrimination and for the incorporation of Africans into colonial society on an equal basis with Europeans. By the end of the nineteenth century, after property qualifications had again been raised in 1892, there were only about 8,000 Africans on the Cape's voting roll.

Africans sought to bypass what they considered the discriminatory practices of the established Christian churches (which often preached to segregated audiences and seldom promoted Africans within their ranks) by founding separate organizations of their own. Starting in 1884 with Nehemiah Tile, a Thembu (Tembu) Methodist preacher from the eastern Cape who left the Methodists and established the Tembu National Church, Africans built their own churches throughout South Africa. Many of these churches were termed "Ethiopian" by their founders, on the basis of the biblical prophecy "that Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands to God," and because for centuries an African-run independent Christian church had existed in Ethiopia. A strong influence on these churches in the 1890s and the early 1900s was the United States-based African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), which sent missionaries to South Africa and trained many blacks from South Africa at its own institutions in the United States. Members of these independent churches called not so much for the elimination of racial discrimination and inequality as for an "Africa for the Africans," that is, a country ruled by blacks.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress