The Great Depression and the 1930s

South Africa Table of Contents

The onset of the Great Depression brought about considerable political change. Hertzog, whose National Party had won the 1929 election alone, after splitting with the Labour Party, received much of the blame for the devastating economic impact of the depression. Fearing electoral defeat in the next election (1934), he sought a partnership with his former opponent, Jan Smuts, and the latter's South African Party. In 1933 Hertzog and Smuts made an alliance, and in the following year they merged their two parties to form the United South African National Party, also known as the United Party (UP). Hertzog and Smuts then won the general election; Hertzog continued as prime minister and Smuts became his deputy. Many Afrikaners criticized Hertzog's move, especially because they considered Smuts to be an opponent of Afrikaner nationalism who was too closely allied with the English mine owners; under the leadership of D.F. Malan and the Broederbond, they split away to form their own political party, the Purified National Party.

Malan built his political appeal by stressing the particular sufferings of the Afrikaner people. Their economic problems had become especially evident during the depression, when the Carnegie Commission on Poor Whites had concluded in 1931 that nearly one-third of Afrikaners lived as paupers, whereas few English-speaking whites lived below the poverty line. To deal with this problem, Malan and his allies in the Broederbond encouraged the development of an Afrikaner economic movement. The Volkskas (People's Bank) was founded in 1934; and exclusively Afrikaner trade unions, which espoused a Christian-National ethic combining devout Calvinism with ethnic nationalism, were established at the same time. In subsequent years, the Broederbond worked closely with Sanlam/Santam to pool whatever wealth was available and to invest it in new economic opportunities for the volk (people). Malan and his allies also drew attention to the past sufferings of the Afrikaner people by organizing a commemorative reenactment in 1938 of the Great Trek. Ox-wagon parades through the country culminated in a festival held in Pretoria on December 16, the exact day on which, 100 years earlier, the Zulu had been defeated at the Battle of Blood River. A massive Voortrekker Monument, replete with friezes depicting the heroism of the Voortrekkers and the treachery of the Africans, was officially opened while Malan made a speech in which he said that it was the duty of Afrikaners "to make South Africa a white man's land."

Hertzog and Smuts, while rejecting the ethnic nationalism of Malan, hardly differed with him in their policies toward blacks. In the mid-1930s, the United Party government introduced legislation to remove Africans from the common voters' roll in the Cape, to limit them to electing white representatives to Parliament, and to create a Natives Representative Council that had advisory powers only (Representation of Natives Act [No. 12] of 1936). The government increased the amount of land set aside for blacks from 7.5 percent to 13 percent of South Africa, but confirmed the policy that the country should always be segregated unequally by race (the Native Trust and Land Act [No. 18] of 1936) and enforced even stricter regulation of the pass laws (the Native Laws Amendment Act of 1937). In response to growing anti-Semitic sentiments among Afrikaners--usually directed at the mine owners, many of whom were Jewish--the government introduced legislation to prevent the immigration of Jews into South Africa (the Aliens Act [No. 1] of 1937). The same law also prohibited the entry of any immigrant who could not quickly assimilate into the white population.

Organized black responses to these measures were muted. The ANC, under the conservative leadership of Pixley Seme since 1930, concentrated on advising Africans to try to better themselves and to respect their chiefs rather than engaging in an active condemnation of Hertzog's policies. Membership in the congress fell to a few thousand. In December 1935, some ANC members, dissatisfied with this approach, together with representatives of Indian and coloured political organizations, met in Bloemfontein and formed the All-African Convention (AAC) to protest the proposed new laws as well as segregation in general. But even this organization, composed largely of members of the black professional class along with church leaders and students, avoided the confrontational approach of the ICU. The AAC leaders stressed their loyalty to South Africa and to Britain and called yet again for the British Parliament to intervene to ameliorate the condition of blacks.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress