Urbanisation And Change

South African Party election poster

An election poster for the South African Party shows Jan Smuts trying to prevent the Pact alliance plunging the country into chaos. After the Smuts government’s brutal suppression of the mine workers’ strike, the dominant classes were concerned that the new Pact government of Afrikaner nationalists and organised white labour, which had been backed in the 1924 election by elements in the Communist Party and the ANC, would embark on a radical form of populism by cutting ties with the British Empire, heavily taxing the mining corporations, pressing for high wages for white labour, offering unsustainable subsidies for struggling white farmers and cutting back on the limited rights of blacks and coloureds. Except for the latter these fears did not materialise.

Between 1900 and 1930 South Africa had steadily become a more urbanised, integrated, Christianised and Westernised society. In the forefront of cultural change were the English-language missionary societies, which had begun to abandon segregation and were groping towards a common society using English as the linking language. The Afrikaans churches, by contrast, were laying the ideological base for apartheid. The English and the Jewish sections continued to dominate the urban economy, but were forced to abandon their close identification with the Empire and Crown as South Africa made progress towards a sovereign state.

The coloured people saw their hopes of benefiting from the ‘civilised labour’ policy dashed, prompting the educated elite to turn to radical politics. Those bearing the brunt of South Africa’s rapid industrialisation were the poor – black, coloured and white – in the towns and in the rural areas. Missionaries found new fields among impoverished people who had begun their exodus from the reserves and farms. The education they provided to coloured and black children played an increasingly important role in the economy whose base was shifting towards manufacturing where black numbers increased by nearly eight times in the first half of the century. The manufacturing sector increasingly required a stable black and white work force, which lived with their families and became better skilled in order to increase their productivity.

Cape Town in the early 1930s

Cape Town in the early 1930s

While only one-tenth of the black population was urbanised in 1911, this jumped to a third by 1960. By 1946 the black population of Johannesburg stood at 400 000 – double the figure of ten years earlier. The Afrikaners had also urbanised rapidly. By 1890 only some 10 000 lived in towns with a population of more than 2 000. By 1936 some 535 000 Afrikaners, comprising half the ethnic group, were urbanised.

Many of the first generation urbanised Afrikaners were devoid of any suitable labour skills or proper education for the urban economy. Only their skin colour distinguished them from recently urbanised black or coloured people. It was they who were the most visible of the so-called poor whites – a term borrowed from the southern states of the United States. It did not designate a measurable level of poverty but a condition deemed unsuitable for a white person in a white supremacist state. Parliament would consider the poor-white problem the most pressing issue in the early twentieth century.

Selected Population Figures
1904 1930 1950/51
White population 1 117 234 1 801 000 2 641 689
Black population 3 490 291 5 585 000 8 556 390
Total population 5 174 827 8 540 000 12 667 759
Workers in Manufacturing
1916 1930 1959
Whites 39 624 91 024 191 093
Blacks 35 065 90 517 267 070

Comments are closed.