35 Plaiskat-Politiek
From Part 4 of Grey Steel by H.C. Armstrong

SMUTS returned to Pretoria resentful and angry. He had been defeated and humiliated; and humiliated by people he despised, by trade union leaders, Socialists, leading a rabble of workers. With Socialism and the workers he had nothing in common and no sympathy. This time he had been taken unawares, caught unprepared, but he would see that it did not happen again. He kept his intentions to himself, and when he wished, Smuts could be exceedingly secretive and silent. He accelerated the organising and training of the Defence Force and prepared his plans.

The Labour leaders also did not mean this to be an end. The workers were still dissatisfied, and the professional agitators worked on their discontent: they told them that they had the whole game in their own hands; that the way the Government had handled this last strike showed that they were feeble and afraid, bluffing one minute and giving way the next, that Hertzog and his Dutchmen were with the workers; that the workers had only to demand, and the Government would give way. They roused them until they became puffed up and boastful. They talked. They organised propaganda but little else, for when it came to concrete organising of the workers, they still only talked. And they had misjudged Smuts, for he went on steadily preparing. His chance came at the end of the year.

As before, the trouble started with a small incident. The Government had taken over the railways and placed them under a Minister for Railways. The Minister for Railways, fox economy, reduced the staff. The Union of Railwaymen and Harbour Servants challenged him. Their leader was a Dutch socialist called Poutsma, a professional Labour leader and an extremist who had been brought up in Europe. Poutsma was aggressive and demanded that all men dismissed should at once be reinstated. The Minister for Railways refused. Smuts' enemies said that he deliberately created the situation, started the trouble, and so struck at his own time in order to deal once and for all with Labour, and also to test the efficiency of his organisation of the Defence Force. As Minister for Finance it was Smuts, they said, who had pressed for railway economy, and it was Smuts who advocated not giving way to Poutsma, or even listening to the demands of the railwaymen.

Poutsma called out the railwaymen. The Government did nothing. Again his enemies suspected Smuts of waiting to get all Labour out at once. Poutsma called on the General Trades Union Council for help, and in the middle of January of 1914 the Council called a general strike.

The Labour leaders had big aims. They meant to overturn the Government and take control themselves. They formed a General Strike Committee, made their men into a rough military organisation under areas, distributed some arms, and threatened the Government with revolution. It was the challenge for which Smuts had waited.

At once he struck. The official report on the last strike had blamed him for being dilatory and undecided. Now he went to the other extreme. He acted at full speed, ruthlessly, and with as little feeling as a machine of steel. He declared martial law; mobiised the Defence Force; called up the Citizen Army, and thirty thousand burghers came riding in ready, and with them a large body of special constables. He picketed all the important points on the railways and made a cordon round the mines. On the Rand he formed a Committee of Public Safety. To the Defence Force he gave orders to stand no nonsense, and to the officer commanding the Rand Light Infantry, which was guarding the main line, he sent an order: "Exercise the greatest severity. Don't hesitate to shoot."

The strikers, staggered by the speed of his actions and frightened by -the show of force, did nothing. Their leaders with two hundred men barricaded themselves into the Trades Hall in Johannesburg. Smuts sent de la Rey with some field-guns andinstructions to blow the strike leaders and the Trades Hall sky-high unless they surrendered, and as soon as de la Rey surrounded the building they surrendered.

Then, without warning, on his own responsibility, without consulting even the Minister of Justice, Smuts instructed the police to take nine of the leaders, including Poutsma, out of the prison and deport them out of South Africa, without warrants, charges, or a trial.

"Don't come near me or communicate with me," he said to the police officer in charge. "You have full discretionary power. Take them to Durban to-night and ship them off."

The police officer ran the prison van into the station, backed it up to a coach, bundled his prisoners into the coach at top speed, and told the engine driver to speed up. The line down to Durban twisted and turned through steep hills. Down it the train raced at breakneck speed, did the journey in a third of the usual time, and ran up as near to the quay as possible.

In the harbour the Umgeni was getting up steam to sail for England. The police officer put the men on board. The captain refused to take them without some written order from the Government. It was illegal, he said, and he and his company would be summoned before the Courts and fined thousands of pounds, probably: he would not take the responsibility; the Government must do that. Smuts gave a letter that covered the shipping company, and the ship sailed with the men on board.

In the morning there was a tremendous uproar. The judges of the Transvaal Courts protested against the illegality. The remaining Labour leaders applied for a writ of habeas corpus and demanded their colleagues back, even sent a tug to chase the Umgeni, but she was gone. Her next port was in England, where she landed the men.

Smuts was attacked from every side, but he took no notice. He brought a Bill into Parliament to indemnify the Government and himself for everything done. The Labour Party accused him of illegality and of striking at the liberty of every individual. He acknowledged the illegality, but shrugged his shoulders and swept their angry protests contemptuously on one side, saying that he had acted for the good of the State.

"A smashing blow," he said, "had to be struck at syndicalism in this country. I gave that blow." And to a friend, "It was a smart and good piece of work." Parliament gave him full indemnity.

In ten days, without a shot being fired, Smuts had smashed this general strike which had been an attempt at revolution. He had avenged his humiliation. The workers, angry and bitter, crept back to work. Hertzog was Smuts' enemy, and so they looked on Hertzog as their friend. They began to work with Hertzog in his opposition to Botha and Smuts.

And from this time many even of Smuts' supporters looked at him sideways. His illegal orders deliberately given, his autocratic action, the manner in which with a quick explanation and a shrug of his shoulders he had passed it over and asked for a general indemnity, made them afraid of him. He was once more looked on as the "Oriental Despot," and his enemies coined a word to explain his outlook—" plaiskat-politiek," or the policy of ruthlessly shooting down all opposition.

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