In the aftermath of World War I the young South African state entered its most perilous phase. The state’s security services were still weak and divided and the economy was stagnating. Between 1920 and 1932 the gross domestic product declined in monetary terms, with almost no increase in industrial output. The industrial sector and the railways shed jobs. At the same time, largely as a result of the post-South African War baby boom, the number of white youths entering the job market jumped by 50% between 1921 and 1926, compared to the first two decades of the century. White unemployment rose sharply. In Johannesburg alone an estimated 3 000 families lived on the point of starvation. To compound matters, rampant inflation pushed prices up by 50% between 1917 and 1920.
The mines were the flashpoint. Large numbers of immigrant miners had left to return to Europe to fight in World War I, removing an ageing, more conservative element from the labour force. By 1918 Afrikaners formed the majority of white miners in the dangerous underground jobs. They would soon prove to be the most radical force the mines had ever employed. The distance between the workers and the government of the day widened after 1920 when the South African Party (SAP) absorbed the Unionist Party with its strong support of the mining houses. General Jan Smuts, who became prime minister in 1919 after General Louis Botha died in office, struggled to find his feet after a prolonged absence abroad fighting in World War I. He resorted to such tough methods that J.B.M. (Barry) Hertzog said his footsteps ‘dripped with blood’ after he put down the 1922 strike on the Witwatersrand.