Black political leaders saw tensions not as the result of blacks and whites sharing an urban space or working together, but as the product of the systematic discrim ination against blacks. After becoming nearly moribund in the 1930s, the African National Congress (ANC) was revived by the threat that D.D.T. Jabavu’s All-African Convention (AAC) posed as an umbrella organisation for all black movements after spearheading the resistance to the United Party segregation legislation of 1936. The AAC decided to recognise the new Natives Representative Council (NRC), which made provision for sixteen elected black members and six white officials who were to advise the government on issues affecting blacks. It also backed white candidates for three Native’s Representative Seats in Parliament and two in the Cape Provincial Council. Soon the ANC followed suit.
The ANC’s survival started with the Jubilee Conference of 1937 which had been proposed by men like James Calata (an Anglican priest), Selope Thema (NRC member and editor of the Bantu World), and the communists J.B. Marks and Moses Kotane. It gained momentum when some exceptionally fine Native Representatives were elected to Parliament, especially Margaret Ballinger and Donald Molteno, who found they shared the ANC ideals and began to work closely with ANC leaders. The real breakthrough came when Dr Alfred Xuma, a medical doctor, was elected president in 1940.
Often using his own funds, Xuma began to transform the somewhat chaotic organisation into a more efficient body which in 1952 would have a paid-up membership of close to 10 000. He changed the constitution, drew the black intelligentsia into the body and established branches for the masses. The plaintive nationalism of the ANC made way for an aggressive and confident assertion of the rights of all individuals regardless of colour.
Although the revived ANC did not initially reject separate representation, it insisted on black participation at all levels of government, the removal of all restrictions on black land ownership and the phasing out of migrant labour. A range of socio-economic demands was made: a living wage, the eradication of the colour bar, the recognition of black unions, trading rights and the training of blacks for graded positions in the civil service. Underlying it all was the comprehensive repudiation of the notion that this was a white man’s land.
The early war years offered hope after the bleak decades of repression. The victories of the Axis powers had impressed on government the need for black allies. In 1942 Jan Smuts spoke of segregation that had fallen on ‘evil days’, and denounced the National Party leader who spoke of the country as one of a population of only two million ‘while the native was carrying the country on his back’ and was clearly an integral part of the common economic order. The Secretary of Native Affairs called for the eradication of the economic colour bar.
Government social policy was moving in a reformist direction. It gave the moderate black leadership some cause for cautious optimism. Midway through the war the government put provision for old-age pensions, grants for invalids, and unemployment insurance on a firmer footing, and established the principle that blacks had to be included in any social security scheme and in any legislation conferring such benefits. Blacks could be trained as medical doctors, dentists and social scientists and for some other professions at some of the existing white universities. (They normally first went to Fort Hare College, the only tertiary institution for blacks.)
The government also no longer limited government spending on black education to the revenue from direct taxes collected from blacks. It provided free education, free books and free school meals in primary schools and increased its spending on secondary education. By the end of the war, spending for black education was three times higher than ten years before. Despite increased spending, most black children were not at school by 1948.
Nevertheless, all the changes under the Smuts government indicated an enhanced sense of government responsibility towards blacks and a more concrete recognition of their citizenship. Blacks experienced greater freedom during the war years than they had known before. Real black wages in the manufacturing sector were rising sharply.
The ANC pressed for further reforms. It adopted ‘African Claims in South Africa’, which, based on the Atlantic Charter, included a Bill of Rights and rejected all discrimination. It joined in the Anti-Pass Campaign of the SA Communist Party. An anti-pass march in Johannesburg in 1944 drew 20 000 members.
The war years also saw several strikes by black workers, who had become better organised in the late 1930s. Tired of trying to work with white unionists, black labour leaders formed the pro-Africanist Council for Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU) in 1938. Max Gordon, a white Marxist with Trotskyist leanings, who had organised several trade unions, accused the organisers of racism. CNETU Chairman Gana Makabeni, a Marxist who had turned Africanist, replied that whites dominated every institution and then asked: ‘Must we have European leaders even in our own establishments?’
In 1941 two communists, Edwin Mofutsanyana and Gaur Radebe, organised a conference at which the African Mineworkers Union (AMWU) was formed, with J.B. Marks as the first president. Despite harassment by the Chamber of Mines it could claim a membership of 25 000 by 1944. It demanded recognition, regular wage increases, the abolition of the compound system and the tribal divisions of the workforce, and the statutory minimum wage.
The Chamber of Mines argued before the Lansdowne Commission that the basic pay of just over two shillings a shift was adequate because the mines fed and housed the workers in compounds and because the workers had an additional source of income from their plots in the reserves, which fed their families. But after investigating, the commission found that the production in the reserves was a ‘myth’ and ‘cause for grave concern’. The commission recommended a marginal increase of wages, but, taking into account the profitability of the mines, did not see how it could propose the recogni tion of black unions or the abolition of migrant labour. Labour relations on the mines quickly deteriorated.