The coloured community was a diverse one with, at the one end, farm labourers, domestic servants and unskilled labourers in the towns, who were generally poorly paid. At the other end were a very small stratum of skilled labourers and a small smattering of professionals, who were mostly teachers. Those who managed to urbanise after the emancipation of the slaves saw education as the major escape route from poverty.
Church and mission schools carried almost all the responsibility for coloured education. Although it had a non-racial constitution, the Cape Colony comprehensively discriminated against people on class grounds. In 1865 the government established non-denominational schools, funding them on a pound-for-pound basis. As a result these schools were financially much better off. Due to the poverty of the coloured people very few could afford them. The non-denominational schools became predominantly white, while almost all coloured and black children went to mission schools, which were free or asked only low fees. By 1885 only 2% of mission school children were in standards higher than Standard Four. Since the schools were free or demanded only low fees and received little state funding, the quality of education suffered. Nevertheless, by the 1890s coloured and black children outpaced whites in the drive to get education. Segregated education continued, and by the time of Union there were only three non-denominational schools for coloured students in the Cape Town area.
For coloured people the demand was not so much integrated schools but equal state spending on white and coloured schools and compulsory education for all. In both respects they were rebuffed. In 1905 the Progressives under Leander Starr Jameson in the Cape Colony introduced compulsory and free education only for whites. Despairing of attaining equality, in 1922 a body of coloured teachers asked for a state subsidy of at least half the sum white children received. The South African Party government rejected the appeal, stating that it first had to attend to whites and that coloured people would have to wait their turn.
Other heavy blows fell in the first ten years of Union. The economic status of the coloured community was undermined by a number of laws designed to favour whites over blacks in the competition for employment. One of the most blatantly discriminatory laws was the 1911 Mines and Works Act that reserved a wide range of skilled and semi-skilled categories of labour in mining and industry for whites.
The 1921 Juvenile Affairs Act set up mechanisms for the placement of white youths into suitable employment while the Apprenticeship Act of 1922 put apprenticeships beyond the reach of the vast majority of coloured youths by stipulating a Standard Six pass as a minimum qualification for entry as an apprentice in 41 trades. It was an educational entry level that only a handful of coloured schools met, but that fell within the minimum educational standard set for white schools. The 1925 Wage Act, a pillar of the ‘civilised labour’ policy, subverted the ability of coloured labour to undercut white wage demands by setting high minimum-wage levels in key industries.
By the early 1930s the coloured community was marked by deepening poverty and growing political despondency. Because by far the greater part of this social group consisted of farm workers and a downtrodden urban proletariat, the Great Depression took a disproportionate toll in economic hardship. Additionally, coloured people, including the educated strata, suffered severe disadvantage in the workplace as a result of the Pact government’s ‘civilised labour’ policy – despite promises that they would benefit from it by being included in the definition of ‘civilised’ and be protected from black competition along with whites.
A white skin became a better recommendation for a job than ability. Poor whites began displacing significant numbers of skilled and semi-skilled workers who were not white, especially in the public sector. Better-qualified coloured school-leavers found it progressively difficult to obtain suitable employment. The politicised coloured elite that aspired to acceptance within the dominant society was dealt a body blow in 1930 when only white women were enfranchised.
The immediate effect of this legislation was to reduce the coloured vote from 12.3% of the electorate to 6.7%. The Women’s Enfranchisement Act of 1930 represented an about-face on the part of Prime Minister J.B.M. Hertzog. Throughout the latter half of the 1920s he had tried to entice coloured voters into supporting the National Party with the prospect of a ‘New Deal’ that would give them economic and political, but not social, equality with whites. This act was but the latest development in a decades long trend of the erosion of coloured civil rights.