54 Red Revolution
From Return To South Africa Part 6 of Grey Steel by H.C. Armstrong

South AFRICA'S two biggest industrial centres were Johannesburg and the towns round it, with its gold and coal-miners and its transport workers, engineers, and municipal servants, and thirty miles away Pretoria, where were the central works of the railways. But on these two the whole life of South Africa depended.

Johannesburg had grown into a great and rich city, but it was still no more than a mining camp expanded, and it had the spirit of the mining camp. The city itself stood in the centre of a ridge of hills known as the Reef, which ran east and west, sixty miles long, and which was covered with townships and the heads of shafts leading to the mines beneath. It was an evil place, where mine-magnates, financiers, stockbrokers, jobbers, gamblers, adventurers, and workers all scrambled for quick money: rich to day, broke to-morrow; immense contrasts of riches and poverty; abject poverty staring across narrow streets at blatant wealth; a place without culture or refinement; an ungodly, evil city, with a restless and unstable people.

During the war the workers had prospered, and with prosperity they had become proud and stiff-necked and hostile against the mine-magnates, the financiers, and the capitalists. With peace came a slump. Wages went down. The cost of living went up. There was a shortage of houses. The mine-magnates, to reduce expenses, began to employ an increased proportion of black to white labour. There were many unemployed, and the white workers were angry, and became bitter and resentful.

Between the two the hostility increased. Both organised; the mine-magnates and the capitalists into the Chamber of Mines, and the workers into trade unions, which combined into the Industrial Federation. The workers were on edge, ready for trouble, and would stand for nothing. Many times the Federation called out men in small strikes and got their way, until they believed that the capitalists were afraid of them and that they were the masters. Agitators, trained in Bolshevik propaganda and with money from Russia, were at work amongst the miners, rousing them, telling them that the mines were theirs and for the taking. A clash was inevitable. The trade unions with the Federation were demanding control of the mines. The owners, backed by the Chamber, were preparing to fight. The Government did not interfere.

On New Year's Day, 1922, the owners reduced the pay of the miners in the coal-mines from thirty to twenty-five shillings a day. The miners came out on strike. The Chamber decided that the time had come to make a fight. The coal-owners refused to give way to the strikers.

Ten days later the owners of the gold-mines decided to employ more black men in place of white. Twenty thousand miners came out on strike, and with them the engineers. Again the owners, backed by the Chamber, stood fast and refused to give way. The big battle between Labour and Capital, between the Federation and the Chamber, had begun.

Smuts tried to negotiate between the two. This was work in which he needed Botha, for the workers did not trust him. They hated him bitterly. They had not forgotten the shootings in 1913 or how he had treated them in 1914. In 1913 they had told the Governor-General that they would not have him negotiating: Botha they would have, but not Smuts; and they would not have him now.

Smuts too had changed. In the old days he had disliked socialism, but he had disliked the mine-magnates even more. In England he had learned to fear Bolshevism, and behind all socialism, all movements of the workers, and all innovations, he saw the red hand of Bolshevism and of Russia. He was biased towards the mine-magnates and he did not conceal his bias.

Having failed to negotiate, he drew back. Other members of the Government wished to take action. He would not have it.

"The Government will remain severely impartial," he announced. "We will make a ring round you disputants and let you fight it out," which seemed all fair and sporting, until he showed that he was backing the mine-magnates, for when asked on what terms he advised the men to return to work he replied, "On the terms of the Chamber." And he issued a statement: "The police have instructions.., to protect all miners who return to their employment. . . . I call on the mine-owners to restart the mines." The mine-owners said that they were quite ready if the men came back, but the Federation replied," We accept the challenge of General Smuts to the workers and we recommend all men to stand fast."

The quarrel, bitter before, was made more intense by the politicians, for the Opposition took sides with the men. Hertzog sat quiet. Openly he did not back the strikers any more than he had backed the rebels in 1914, but they knew that they had his sympathy, and very astutely he used to his own 'advantage every mistake that Smuts made. But his supporters were not so quiet. Tielman Roos, his lieutenant in the Transvaal, haphazard and unreliable as ever, went stumping the Transvaal, attacking Smuts as " the agent of the Chamber." Tielman Roos had a bitter and caustic tongue, a shrewd and crafty brain, with a genial manner that made friends with the ordinary man; and he suggested that a republic would run the mines for the workers and not for the financiers, who were mainly Englishmen or foreign-born Jews, and who cared nothing for South Africa and spent their money outside the country. "Down with the financiers and up with the republic! "was his war-cry.

The Federation demanded a round-table conference. The Chamber sent a rough, uncouth reply: "We will waste no more time . .. trying to convince people of your mental calibre and we see no reason why we should discuss our business with representatives of slaughtermen and tramwaymen."

The strikers, convinced that, when the time came, Hertzog would turn out his men with rifles to help them, began to drill. They marched through the streets in detachments led by men with badges to show that they were officers. Some had uniforms and many had rifles. They came to blows with the police. In the village of Boksburg a crowd had collected to hear a speaker and refused to disperse until the police broke up the crowd by force. The next day they collected again and sang the Red Flag, and the police fired on them. Tielman Roos made accusations against the police and demanded an inquiry. Smuts bluntly refused any inquiry.

The Federation declared a general strike and called out ail the trade unions to help the miners. As they did so, the officials of the Federation were roughly pushed on one side by five men, who called themselves the Council of Action. They were capable men, trained in this work, extremists, and they had their plans ready. At once they marched their men out in regular formations, took control of the whole Reef, began to kill and drive out the native labourers, and to murder the officials in the mines.

At the beginning and quite ruthlessly, Smuts had decided to be finished once and for all with these troubles with Labour. He would make an end of "sitting on the edge of a volcano." He would let the workers go to the limit, show them at their worst, reveal their real aims, give South Africa a taste of what real Labour trouble meant, and then smash the workers.

In Pretoria he had left two cabinet ministers to watch events and to keep him informed. This they had failed to do, and suddenly he realised the danger: that a full-blast revolution was on him. He decided to act at once and to act himself, and, when he made a decision to act, he did so at top speed. He made no attempt to negotiate or to compromise. All the changes and hesitations of the last two months disappeared. "There will be no Mexico here," he said, "so long as I am in power. I will preserve order." He ordered troops up to the Reef and told them to hurry. He sent out a general call to the commandos and they came hurrying in. He armed the police with rifles and told them to shoot, and he declared martial law.

Two days later he made a speech at the House of Assembly in Cape Town, and as soon as it was finished went out as if to go to his office, took a car, drove to the station, and got aboard a special train to Johannesburg, a thousand miles away to the north. He had with him the stout-hearted lawyer Esselen, but he told no one else except the necessary officials. Even Mrs. Smuts did not know. But someone had been watching and warned the Council of Action: Smuts their enemy was on the train. The rioters tore up the line eighty miles below Johannesburg near Potchefstroom. A ganger stopped the train in time. Smuts took a car, sent a message in to the police in Johannesburg, and hurried on by road. The chauffeur drove with a revolver in one hand. Smuts took it quietly away from him and told him to bustle.

Close outside Johannesburg they came to a crowd of roughs across the road. Smuts ordered the chauffeur to drive straight at them and get through. Some of the roughs were armed and opened fire on the car. The chaffeur had his hat knocked off by a bullet. The tyres of the car were punctured. Esselen wanted to drive on with the tyres flat. Smuts would have the tyres mended, and while this was done he got out and sat by the side of the road.

Some of the roughs came up. Esselen emptied his revolver at them, so that they hang back. Smuts sat unmoved and asked Esselen not to be so hasty, for, he said, "If we are really attacked you will he unarmed."

Danger never excited Smuts. In danger he did not go berserking, wild, shouting, his blood leaping as a trooper's in a cavalry charge. Danger made him suddenly still, mind and body taut and hard as a steel blade, mind working quickly and clearly, without hurry, body ready for action. He gave an impression of deadly stillness. For anyone who showed fear he had only contempt, and as he sat there by the side of the road, looking at these roughs who dared not come at him, his eyes were full of arrogant contempt: they were poor scum; he despised them.

He drove on into Johannesburg to the Drill Hall in Union Square. On the road he met bodies of armed strikers, but no one stopped him. At the Drill Hall a sentry held him back with a rifle and fixed bayonet, pointed at his stomach. Smuts pushed the bayonet away with a bare hand, and the sentry was so surprised that he let him pass.

The police had sent out a messenger to prevent his coming, but the messenger had missed him. When midnight struck and then a quarter past, they became alarmed. There were reports that Smuts had been murdered on the road. The police could do nothing; they had no men to send out. They were hemmed in by overwhelming numbers. Even the detachment in police headquarters was surrounded. The general in charge of the troops and his staff, worn out by a hard day, had gone to bed. Suddenly Smuts walked in, unworried and unconcerned.

For some time Smuts had been ill with gastric influenza, and the doctors had warned him to go slow and take a month's holiday. He had felt weary and pulled down. All this disappeared, now he was in action: he was ill no more. He listened to the reports at once. The position was bad. The whole of the Reef was controlled by the rioters, who were well armed and organised into detachments under trained leaders. The centre of Johannesburg itself alone was free. Why the rioters had not taken this over was not clear. Had they done so Smuts would have been helpless.

The police split up into small detachments of fifty men each, were scattered all along the Reef guarding the mine shafts and points of importance. Each detachment was isolated. In some cases they were exposed, grouped in a valley with the rioters holding the hills round and able to fire down on them.

The police and the authorities were powerless. The population was in a panic. The rich mine-magnates and stockbrokers had taken cover in the Rand Club, where they waited, armed and ready to fight, but helpless. They had seen industrial troubles before, but not red revolution, wild and fierce, with murder and wanton destruction.

Smuts put out his hands and took firm grip. Here was a problem directly in front of him which needed action: that he understood. The result was remarkable. At once the panic disappeared. The authorities once again took heart. Smuts had taken over control and all would be well. Johannesburg sighed with relief.

Smuts made his plans quickly. He ordered the police detachments to be called in and concentrated into one force, which he would use to attack the rioters at their centre. This left the mines exposed, but he decided to take that risk. Then he sat down, and, quietly until morning, and as if nothing serious was to hand, talked of farming and breeding bulls.

By dawn of the next day troops, were coming in. He was ready. He telephoned to Pretoria to send all aeroplanes, and to bomb. He attacked the key to the rioters' position at the head of the Reef, near the Country Club, and beat them out. Then he fought steadily down the Reef. The rioters fought fiercely back at Benoni, Boksburg, Brixton, and Langlaagte. Smuts brought up guns and armoured cars and shot them down without pity. They made a last stand in a school at Fordsburg. He cleared the village of women and children, gave the rioters a warning, and then with artillery and bombing aeroplanes blew in the school and killed and captured the leaders. He had smashed the attempt at revolution.

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