African Studies Quarterly

Workers, War and the Origins of Apartheid: Labour and Politics in South Africa, 1939-48. Peter Alexander. Ohio University Press, 2000. 214 pp.


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In his book, Workers, War and the Origins of Apartheid, Peter Alexander illustrates the connection between race, organized labor and politics in South Africa. He explains how capitalism produced competition between workers, and thereby encouraged racial division, but at the same time forced workers to cooperate with each other. This work masterfully presents an alternative explanation of the link among labor, race, the political economy of South Africa, and the origins of apartheid.

The author begins by tracing the pre-war labor conditions, which established the basis of racial division of workers and excluded black workers from certain skills and positions. The racial division of the working class was reflected in, and probably boosted by, early industrial conflicts in 1913, 1914, and 1922. The war, however, and its impact on the economic growth, spurred the development of a new working class and heightened industrial conflict. The trust of Alexander’s argument is that structural and demographic changes in wage labor gave rise to a high level of wartime industrial militancy characterized by strike actions. At the same time, the nature of trade union movement was shaped by the wartime economic growth, increase in membership and interracial cooperation. While fundamental changes occurred in the scale and demographics of trade unions, the low level of mechanization, Alexander suggests imposed limits on the extent to which racism was undermined. The relationship between labor and industry was also shaped by the rift between factory owners—some who having introduced modern machinery wanted a “settled African population,” and others who operated with “large amounts of migrant labor” (p. 3). The agricultural sector was impacted as massive growth in the urban workforce ripped white farmers of adequate labor. These developments led to two important events: Many white farmers disillusioned with General Smut’s economic, policy switched their support to the National Party. In response to the emergence of a strong multiracial union movement in this period, General Smut suppressed African unions and attacked all workers, thereby alienating part of his white constituency.

Alexander traces the attempt by the Smuts government to manage the opposing forces (those that either favored neutrality or supported Germany and those who supported the war on the side of the British) that emerged in his government as a result of the war. In response to the high level of opposition to the war, Smuts collaborated with pro-war parties including labor unions, but he also used coercion, including internment of individuals regarded as “subversive” and suppression of militant strikes. The author persuasively questions the overwhelming view that the World War II was responsible for the rapid mechanization that provided employment for large numbers of blacks and semi-skilled workers and threatened white workers, forcing many to vote for the National Party in the 1948 elections. In contrast to the mechanization thesis, Alexander argues that the uneven character of capital formation and relatively slow rate of mechanization characterized the period—because growth in the sector was achieved through greater use of wage labor. He provides examples of the attempts, which were not very successful in checking labor militancy, made by the government to ameliorate the condition of poor workers.

Alexander proceeds with an analysis of the upsurge of labor militancy in 1942, focusing particularly upon interracial cooperation between African workers and others in Johannesburg and Durban; and the significant black challenge to white authority since the 1920s. The author shows that there was far more strike action during World War II than has been officially acknowledged. A new working class, sometimes organized into multiracial unions, won improved wages and softened racial prejudice among white workers. He argues that labor militancy in this period provoked the promulgation of War Measure 145, which, while providing avenue for some form of negotiation for black workers, inevitably made them subject to the “whims of officialdom (p. 53-54).

The book addresses the racial and industrial policy of Smuts, particularly the dilemma his government faced on whether to recognize African trade unions. Both blacks and the mining interest had different ideas of how to proceed, but Smuts’ recognition of African workers and their designation as “employees” marked steps through which Alexander analyzed the attitude of labor and capital in relation to African demands. He argues that the position of white labor in this question was complex, because neither white labor nor white capital was homogenous since both were subject to contradictory pressure, accounting for the greater sympathy which white labor showed for African workers. He argues that labor militancy continued as a result of the imposition of War Measure 145, resulting in more strikes than the previous year. Continuing African militancy, the effects of a strike by Durban engineers on South Africa’s war effort, and the perception that the war had turned in favor of the allied forces led to a high level of industrial actions, weakened the case against strikes and hardened the attitude of employers.

Workers’ actions in this period were defined not only by both race and gender. He argues that African union victories led to increases in membership, but membership could not be sustained as a result of unsuccessful strike actions and the difficulty of securing higher wages, causing the movement to enter into a decline. Nevertheless, the war years, Alexander argues, witnessed increases in racial toleration and equity and the challenge to white supremacy. The author traces the emergence of post war economic and social problems, a restless African workforce and the treatment of militant trade unionism on South Africa’s economy. The government’s response to mounting social and economic issues created further discontent that culminated in the electoral victory of the National Party in 1948. The institutionalization of apartheid, he argues, was a tragic defeat for all workers, white as well as black, and ended multiracial unionism.

Contradicting earlier accounts, Alexander concludes that wartime mechanization and black advancement into semi-skilled positions were limited and cannot explain subsequent support for apartheid. In his view, underdevelopment was a precondition both for apartheid’s victory and for its initial success; at the same time it led to modernization and growth of a stronger, more homogenous proletariat which brought about its demise. Unlike previous studies of the labor movement in South Africa, this book attempts to treat labor in its totality, emphasizing the cooperation and interracial mixing that existed between different unions and centralized the importance of strikes. With extensive use of secondary and oral sources, this book is a significant revision of South African labor history and should be useful to those interested in labor and economic development in South Africa during and after the World War II.

Chima J. Korieh
Central Michigan University