«STRUCTURE AND EXPERIENCE IN THE MAKING OFAPARTHEID 6-10 February 1990 AUTHOR: Iain Edwards and Tim Nuttall TITLE: Seizing the moment : the January ...»
During the 1940s African workers were effectively confined to unskilled jobs in the bottom rungs of a double colour bar, which remained substantially intact during the rapid industrialization of that decade.3* White workers monopolized skilled posts; white, Indian and coloured workers competed for semi-skilled labour; and Africans joined large segments of the newly settled Indian proletariat in the search for low-pay jobs. The double colour bar was maintained through the defensive tactics of registered unions, to which only white, Indian and coloured workers could legally belong; through the widespread demand of employers for ultra-cheap African labour; and through the migrancy and high job turnover of African workers.
Once the favourable strike conditions of the early war years had passed, African workers fell back on the well-developed tactic of job-hopping.35 This widescale practice reflected the weak bargaining position of Africans as unskilled workers. The high job-turnover rate bedeviled industrial union organization. Prospects of jointly organizing African and Indian workers were further hindered by the growth of a specifically 'African' worker consciousness. This was rooted in racially differential experiences in the labour market and beyond. Competition for jobs joined other social processes which had the potential effect of defining ethnic boundaries between Africans and Indians. A widespread view amongst Africans during the late 1940s was that Indians had far better prospects of moving into higher-paid semi-skilled jobs.36 There was a general cutback in real wage levels in the Durban economy after 1947.37 African workers were the least able to resist the wage cuts. They did not come out on strike, but increased the tempo of job-hopping, and looked to the co-operatives and other ways of supplementing family incomes. One of the ways in which African workers perceived declining wages during the late 1940s was through the worsening of their position relative to Indian workers.38 Prospects of black working class unity were subject to countervailing forces, which caused Africans to perceive themselves exploited in unique ways. Deepening proletarianisation of African workers during the 1940s did not result in a linear development of worker organization and workplace consciousness.
During the late 1940s the identity of African workers was informed more by broader struggles over survival and social reproduction in the city than by organizational advance on the factory floor.
A recurring feature of the violence of January 1949 was the looting and destruction of Indian shops by Africans. In a number of ways during the 1940s the identity of Africans
33. T.A. Nuttall, 'African Workers, Strike Action, and Early Trade Unions in Durban, 1937-1949', unpublished paper, 1989.
34. Nuttall, 'African Workers', pp.4-5.
35. Edwards, 'Mkhumbane', Chapter 4.
36. Riots Commission 1949, evidence, pp.144-150, 169-175, 344.
37. Edwards, 'Mkhumbane', Chapter 4.
38. M. Katzen, Industry in Greater Durban. Part I: its growth and structure (Pietermaritzburg, Natal Town and Regional Planning Commission, 1961), p.25.
10 as consumers was bound up with that of Indians as sellers. In addition, the Indian trading class was seen as a direct competitor by African petty traders and general dealers, and by the thousands of Africans who belonged to co-operatives. At one level the 1949 conflict saw dissatisfied customers and frustrated competitors targeting a source of class oppression and exclusion. But it is not immediately obvious why there should have been such friction between Africans and Indians in the commercial sector. How did white traders fit into the picture? Surely the urban poor, whether African or Indian, must have had similar experiences as customers? A number of the political struggles which developed in the commercial field had the potential to become far more than 'African-Indian' conflict. The failure to achieve this potential was a complex amalgam of historical precedents, organizational weakness amongst the oppressed, state intervention, and the powerful influences of everyday experiences on political choices.
Since the late 19th century, backed by capital imported from India, Indians had dominated 'non-European' trade in Durban. White traders were concentrated in the larger scale commerce of the port, municipality and industry. Apart from a handful of 'general dealers' in the townships of Lamont and Chesterville, and in the Indian quarter, African traders had historically been confined to stalls in the municipal beer halls.
Municipal licensing policy and restrictions on property ownership had effectively strangled the ability of African traders to raise capital and establish themselves in mainstream commerce. Durban's licensing policies had been more lenient on Indian traders, but had consciously restricted them to the Victoria-Grey Streets area of central Durban, and pushed them out to the peri-urban districts that were later to become occupied by both African and Indian shackdwellers. Assisted by the location of the main black commuter termini in Victoria Street, the 'Indian' quarter was a key focal point of black consumer activity. Africans and Indians were effectively excluded from white shops, with their racist shopkeepers and customers, and their relatively high prices.* The historical patterns of trading activity set important parameters for the anti-'black marketeer" campaign of 1946. The late war years and the immediate post-war period saw shortages of food and other essentials. Scarcity drove prices up; traders were tempted to stockpile goods and make high profits on the 'black market'. In 1944 the
local Communist Party of South Africa had established a People's Food Committee:
food shortages provided an opportunity for a single-issue campaign with the potential to unite workers and the urban poor of all races." The demands of Party activists for state rationing were a practical expression of an alternative, socialist way of organizing the distributive economy to the benefit of the poor. The People's Food Committee failed to develop into much. The state refused to implement rationing, while various welfare bodies ran soup kitchens to alleviate the crisis.
In 1946, however, the food campaign gained unprecedented new momentum." Popular anger at long queues, scarcity, and the enhanced power of shopkeepers found expression in direct action. A pattern was set when African customers raided an Indian store in the Duffs Road peri-urban area north of Durban. Communist Party and Housewives League activists provided an organizational focus to this new phase in the food campaign. The organizers repeated earlier demands for state rationing, but the target of protest now
39. Riots Commission 1949, evidence, p.234.
40. See correspondence in Natal Archives (NA) 3/DBN 4/1/3/324, 47sj, 1.
41. Edwards, 'Mkhumbane', pp.18-24.
11 became more immediate: the 'black marketeer'. White traders were also no doubt engaging in 'black market' activities, but for three main reasons the campaign focused on Indian traders in the city centre. Firstly, the state was more likely to suppress the campaign if white shopowners were targeted; rampant anti-Indianism amongst Durban's whites meant that suppression was less likely if Indian traders were involved. Secondly, if the campaign was to develop a following it had to relate directly to the experiences of African and Indian customers, who shopped mainly in Indian stores. Thirdly, some of the Communist Party members, who were also leaders of the recently radicalized Natal Indian Congress, had their own agenda of targeting selected wealthy traders who supported reactionary Indian politicians.
Mass rallies were held in various parts of the city. Both Africans and Indians attended, and the crowds ran into thousands. Speaker after speaker was applauded for castigating black marketeering, state neglect of the poor, and the corruption of municipal price inspectors. At one such meeting in Red Square a coffin symbolizing the death of black marketeering was ritually buried." A pattern developed in which anti-profiteering crowds marched in columns into the 'Indian quarter' where they seized stockpiled goods at known "black market' shops. The goods were then sold to the waiting queues at prices set by CPSA activists. For Party members this was an exciting experiment in popular socialism, with all the makings of a "peoples' revolt". ° The crowds were non-racial in character; popular anger was being directed at the worst excesses of capitalism in carefully selected Indian stores; stockpiled goods were being redistributed at controlled prices and in orderly manner.
The generalized looting of Indian stores three years later, in 1949, suggests that many African participants of the 1946 food campaign were drawing different conclusions to those reached by Party activists. For many participants in the campaign the chief benefit was the obtaining of scarce goods, a short-term gain. A key element in the success of direct action had been the threatened use of violence. The marching crowds threatened to smash shop windows, forcing recalcitrant Indian storeowners to release goods for sale.
The most common weapon used for making such threats was the innocuous but sturdy Coca Cola bottle. If many drew the lesson that threats of collective violence were vital to achieving short-term goals, others would have been influenced by the rejection of legality implicit in the food campaign. Direct action by ordinary people went beyond constitutional protest politics and overturned legally entrenched property relations. A further lesson could hardly have been missed: repressive state forces had not intervened because the campaign had targeted Indian rather than white shops. In January 1949 these 'lessons' were, as we shall see, to be applied with uncanny similarity, but on a far greater scale and without the disciplined organizational focus of the 1946 food campaign.
The consequences of the food campaign were, at least indirectly, to have further implications for the 1949 conflict. The popularity of the campaign pushed the municipality into providing food wagons. This response, together with the limited organizational resources of the small CPSA, effectively dissipated the food protests. It was also highly likely that Indian profiteers soon made alternative arrangements to stockpiling goods in their shops, taking away a key focus of the campaign. The municipal food wagons were intent on supplying more than food. The wagons were a form of
42. Interview with Mr B Nair, 27 June 1985.43. Ibid. 12
influx control, issuing food only to employed African men - those who could produce their service contracts. The municipality's intention - that women and unemployed men would leave the city to seek sustenance with country families - was roundly resisted. An increasingly proletarianised African working class and squatter population demanded a living from the city, not the countryside. Under popular pressure, the municipality began distributing food to unemployed men, but still excluded women. It was not surprising then that women became the backbone of the co-operative movement which had been gaining popularity in Durban's shantytowns since about 1945.
Production, marketing and savings co-operatives had long been a force within the rural and to a lesser extent the urban areas of Natal. During the late 1940s a distinctively new and potentially militant co-operative movement burgeoned in Durban, providing an important organizational and ideological thrust.44 Distributive and savings co-operatives caught the popular imagination as a means of appropriating sections of the market and so increasing the material resilience and power of Africans. Historically Durban had forced Africans to the margins of the city's political economy; co-operatives provided a way of resisting this, providing a stake in the city. The geographical locus of the cooperative movement was in the shantytowns, those areas of space being settled by increasing numbers of Africans in defiance of official policies.
Ordinary women and men were attracted by the co-operative training courses run by 'educated' Africans such as William Mseleku of NABANTUKOP, the Natal Bantu Cooperative. Mseleku and his ilk, and the emerging African shack leaders, saw cooperatives as a means of launching themselves on the entrepreneurial road. The mass of shackdwellers saw co-operatives as a means of survival. They enabled the bulk purchase of essentials, which were then distributed or re-sold. They pooled savings for larger projects, such as building, which could not be paid for by single households. The co-operatives offered shackdwellers the prospect of taking control of some aspects of daily life, particularly who they bought essential goods from, and for what price. Cooperatives provided one means of collectively co-ordinating diverse informal sector activities.