HARDLY had he begun to organise the Defence Force when a new and urgent trouble was on him. The restlessness of Europe had reached the workers in the mines on the Rand. They were dissatisfied; and trained agitators worked on their dissatisfaction. The Rand was full of unemployed, miners and farm hands, for there had been a long drought and men had come swarming in from the countryside looking for work. The miners hated and distrusted the mine-magnates. "Filthy leeches" they called them. Many of the miners suffered from a pernicious lung disease brought on by the dust of the mines: they knew that most of them would die of that disease, and the agitators told them to demand more pay and pensions while they were still alive.
They had asked for these in 1907, opened negotiations to get them, but Smuts had driven them back to work—with troops. They were better organised now and more determined. There was a new spirit amongst them. They did not believe any more in negotiations or appeals to justice. They would use direct action—force. When the mine-magnates began to reduce expenses and to employ cheap black labour to replace white men they prepared to resist.
A mine-manager cut the pay of a few workers. His action was illegal, tough-handed, and he was rough and tactless. The men went on strike. The mine-magnates refused to treat with the men. The Trade Unions backed the strike. The mine magnates shouted for government help, but Smuts, who was in his office some thirty-five miles away in Pretoria, took little notice. He was maintaining" a strict neutrality" in the quarrel. He had had no experience of strikes; he had little sympathy with either side; he left it to them to negotiate between themselves; he hoped it would all blow over. The strikers tried to smash the mine. The police held them off. They armed themselves with pickaxes and dynamite and marched down the Rand, pulling out the workers in the other mines. Wherever possible, the police prevented them.
A deputation saw the Governor-General, Lord Gladstone, demanding that the Government cease to be neutral, but that it should interfere and stop the quarrel. Lord Gladstone replied that Smuts was going down to the Rand. The deputation refused to have him: "an unfortunate selection," they said. Smuts would only make the strikers more angry and obstinate. To Botha they might listen, but not to Smuts.
Lord Gladstone telephoned to the Government that they must act or he would be forced to act himself.
Then Smuts acted half-heartedly, sent to arrest some of the strike leaders at a private meeting in a house, instructed the police to break in on the meeting and lodge the men in jail. His action roused a howl of rage. It was illegal. He had to withdraw hurriedly and release the men.
The strikers became bolder as they realised their strength. The whole Rand was going up in a fury. There were monster meetings demanding a general strike. A mass meeting was arranged for the 4th July in the Market Place in Johannesburg. At the last minute and too late, Smuts forbade it. He instructed the police to move the crowd, but not to use force. The crowd became rougher; they threw stones and bottles and lumps of iron. The police suffered. Man after man was knocked out with a cut face or his horse injured. Still Smuts forbade the police to use force. They reported that they could not hold the crowds or keep the peace any more.
Suddenly Smuts realised that the danger was real and he must act. A little show of force, a little sternness to both sides at the beginning, and all would have been well. That opportunity he had let pass, but now he acted at top speed, and he was strong and determined as he had been weak and shifting before. Without even the permission of the Governor-General, he sent troops to the Rand. The strikers flamed up more fiercely at the troops.
That night the crowds went out smashing windows, throwing bottles and stones, and using weighted clubs. They rioted and looted. They cut off the electric supply, stopped the trains and pulled out the tramway men, and paralysed all transport. They burned the Central Railway Station, the Park Station, and roasted a negro alive inside it. They attacked the newspaper offices which the mine-magnates controlled, bombed in the door of the Star, fired the building, and drove off the fire brigade. They searched for their enemies, the mine-magnates, attacked their offices in the Corner House and their club where they met, the Rand Club. But the mine-magnates had run for it, out of immediate danger, to a suburb, and were sitting safely in the Orange Grove Hotel.
In front of the Rand Club the police and the troops were told to use force. The troops opened fire. The crowd went crazy mad. They broke open the arms-shops and returned the fire and threw dynamite. There was a pitched battle. Twenty-one were killed and fifty-one hurt. Though held up for the minute, the crowds increased. Besides the miners there were large numbers of cosmopolitan adventurers, hooligans, and criminals who lived in Johannesburg and who swarmed into the battle. The police and troops together could not control them and sent word to Smuts.
Smuts decided on personal action and at once. There was nobody in Johannesburg capable of handling the situation. He called Botha and the two drove in a motor-car straight to Johannesburg. They would handle this thing themselves.
They arrived early in the morning. The streets were full of angry, resentful crowds; so they had to drive slowly, and, when they were recognised, they were hooted and cursed. They went to police headquarters, heard the reports, and realised that the police were helpless. They tried to find the mine-magnates, but they were three miles away in Orange Grove, in a panic, and "declined to enter Johannesburg," but left all to the Government to do the best it could for them. Then they drove on to the Carlton Hotel in the centre of the town and close to the Rand Club, and met the Strike Committee, headed by J. T. Bain.
In a small room in the hotel they sat facing the Strike Committee. Round the hotel crowds swarmed like angry bees and as ready for trouble. A few police, useless in case of a definite attack, guarded the hotel door. A couple of strikers covered Botha and Smuts with revolvers. The Strike Committee began to dictate. They threatened and sneered. They hated Smuts. He had humiliated them in 1907. They would humiliate him now. He was their real enemy, and while Botha sat quiet, calm, and unmoved, Smuts looked across at these men, these labour leaders who to him were jackals leading a rabble, looked across at them with an arrogant contempt that made them even more bitter. Neither he nor Botha was troubled by the personal danger, but they knew they were helpless.
The police and troops could do no more. There were few Imperial troops left in South Africa, and those were at distant stations. The commando system was gone and the new Defence Force not yet ready. There was no more force they could call on. The railwaymen threatened to join the miners. If they did, Johannesburg would starve in a week. There were 170,000 natives locked in the compounds and only three days' rations for them. After that they would break out. News came in of more strikers along the Rand, and all were marching in on Johannesburg. If they made a mistake, Johannesburg would that night be burned down, the mines would be smashed in.
Coldly and deliberately, without any show of hurry, as if conferring favours, Botha and Smuts did the only thing they could do. They gave way, accepted the terms of the Strike Committee.
From the Carlton Hotel, unescorted, they drove out through the hostile crowds to the mine-magnates, sitting in the safety of the Orange Grove Hotel in the distant suburb, to tell them the terms. The mine-magnates gladly left everything to them. As they drove back, a crowd held them up and threatened to kill them. The car was an open one, and they were looking down the muzzles of half a dozen revolvers with excited fingers twitching at the triggers,
"Kill 'em," shouted the crowd.
"You can," shouted Botha back. "We are unarmed. But remember. We have come to make peace for you people. If we are killed, that is finished."
The crowd stood back. It was not what Botha had shouted— few could hear that—but the quiet fearlessness of the two men that made them stand back.
As the car drove on, Smuts sat looking straight ahead, his jaw set, his grey-blue eyes blazing. To be held up by this filthy rabble; to be forced to knuckle down to Bain; to have to humiliate himself: it hurt his pride. He took a great grip of himself or he would have blazed out then and there. His whole instinct was to fight and he had to sit quiet.
But he held himself down. He went back with Botha and signed the agreement with Bain, but as he told Parliament later, "This was the hardest thing I have done in my life—to put my signature on that document together with that of Mr. Bain."
And he held himself down because, though beaten now, he was only postponing the final fight, and he was determined to get ready and next time he would take his revenge.
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