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Fourth International, June 1940



The South African Native and the War


From Fourth International, Vol. I No. 2, June 1940, pp. 58–60.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE BEGINNING of the second World War raises a number of important questions for revolutionists in South Africa, where the overwhelming majority of the workers are colonial slaves, deprived of civic and political rights. The revolutionary tactics that are suitable for European countries or for North America cannot be applied mechanically to South Africa, but must be modified and adapted to the present level of political consciousness of the masses and the circumstances of their daily lives.

South Africa has, in common with other members of the British Commonwealth of Nations, declared war on Germany, but so far the war has been economic rather than military. The harbours of the Dominion are closed to German shipping and all trade between the two countries has been prohibited, but as yet no military detachments have been sent to the actual theater of war. The main reason for this is to be found in the historic conflict between British finance capital and the semi-feudal Dutch agricultural community, a conflict which, instead of gradually disappearing with the lapse of time, as British liberals hoped it would when they passed the South Africa Act in 1909, has become increasingly bitter as a result of the growing contradictions of capitalism. The outbreak of war therefore found the white population divided into two camps – one in favour of joining in the war on the side of Britain, and the other in favour of neutrality, hostile towards Britain, benevolent towards Germany. It was only by promising that no South African soldiers should be sent abroad that Smuts was able to obtain a parliamentary majority in favour of war.

Superficial thinkers might be tempted to conclude that the revolutionary party need not concern itself with this purely nominal state of war, especially as in any case the Natives are not allowed to join the army. There is absolutely no justification for this conclusion. Even if the present state of affairs continues, the Bantu will be profoundly affected by the war, and it will be the duty of the revolutionaries to explain what is happening to them and show them the true road to freedom. But it is reasonably certain that the present state of affairs will not continue. Just as British imperialism was able to persuade a divided South Africa to declare war, so it will be able to demand more concrete assistance when it begins to be hard pressed. Already there is evidence in support of this view. A Cabinet Minister has been sent to London for the duration of the war (not just to give the British Government moral support, we may be sure), and military preparations are going forward on a scale that is altogether unwarranted by the theory that South Africa will play a purely passive role.

If this expectation is justified, it is probable that recruiting offices will be opened for the enrollment of Colored men (non-Europeans of mixed descent), but it is certain that no natives will be accepted in the army, unless indeed the fortunes of war turn so strongly against Britain that the native policy of South Africa has to be abandoned for the time being. One of the official reasons for excluding the natives from the armed forces is that they are inferior to the Europeans in intelligence and mechanical aptitude, that they could not possibly master the art of shooting with a modern rifle. It has even been claimed that the average Bantu cannot shut one eye, and is therefore unable to take accurate aim. Another reason sometimes given is that the Bantu is very much like a child, impetuous and courageous enough when aroused, but incapable of submitting to the arduous discipline required of the soldier in modern warfare. Such “reasons” are, of course, the sheerest hypocrisy. The alleged lack of “intelligence” is solely due to the fact that the majority of natives receive no education whatsoever, and even the education that is provided for the minority is inferior both in quantity and in quality. As for the lie about mechanical aptitude, we need only point to the fact that hundreds of Europeans daily entrust their lives to native chauffeurs. It can hardly be denied that the automobile is a much more complicated mechanism than the service rifle. Again, the claim that the natives are childish and incapable of submitting to discipline is loudly belied by the facts. In the gold mines of the Transvaall they are subjected to what is virtually military discipline, yet it is never suggested that their “childishness” makes them unsuited for mine work.

The truth is that the Bantu are excluded from the army not because they make poor soldiers but because the ruling class is afraid they might turn their weapons against their oppressors. The exploiters have not yet forgotten the long succession of fierce wars in which the natives, armed only with spears and leather shields, sought to stem the advancing tide of European invasion. They have not forgotten how, in one of the Zulu wars, a British force was surprised by a native army and massacred almost to a man. They have not forgotten how, in what is now Southern Rhodesia, the Matabele took advantage of the confusion created by the Jameson Raid in 1896 and slaughtered the white men who had robbed them of their land. They may console themselves with the reflection that in the course of the reprisals that followed, the natives were so “stupid” that in close range fighting they raised the sights of their rifles in order to make them shoot lower, but they know perfectly well that if the Bantu were properly trained in the use of a rifle he would handle it as well as any other soldier, and would use it to better effect because he would be fighting a real war for liberation, and not a war for some meaningless abstraction such as “democracy.”

But if the Bantu is excluded from the fighting forces, this does not mean that he will not be affected by the war, that he will not be expected to contribute his share to the defense of “his” country. In the first World War a native labor battalion was sent to France to do all the heavy and dirty work that was beneath the dignity of “civilized” soldiers. (The customary pretence that class distinctions vanish on the field of battle applied, in the case of the South African forces, only to white men.) And the same thing will happen in the present war. Natives will be called upon to risk their lives in defense of the bosses who continue to exploit them in war-time as well.

But it is not only those who are sent to dig trenches, carry ammunition and clean latrines who will suffer in this war. Already a number of employers have reduced the wages of their Bantu workers on the ground that the war has reduced their profits, and that they can no longer afford to pay even the old miserable wages. And this process will go on with increasing momentum as the costs of the war mount higher and higher. As in every other country, it is the workers who will pay for the war.

You will ask: is the Bantu going to accept all this without a struggle? Will he not see through the fraud and thereupon organize his forces to fight for his own rights instead of for the profits of his oppressors? At the present time there are several important factors operating to obstruct the development of the class struggle. The vast majority of the Bantu do not yet comprehend the true nature of their oppression. First, the concept of class is almost inextricably confused with the concept of race. The Bantu does not say: the boss is grinding me under his heel because he is making a profit out of me and wants to go on making a profit, but: the boss is grinding me under his heel because he despises me as a black man. He is so keenly aware of the contempt and brutality with which he is treated that he is unable to see clearly the profit motive behind this treatment. Naturally the bosses have taken good care to foster this confusion of class with race, by political, economic and social discrimination against the Bantu as such, and by bribing the white workers with wages that enable them to live on a far higher standard than that of the natives. The comparative luxury in which the white worker lives helps to blind the Bantu to the fact that both are being exploited. All he sees is that the white worker is much better off than he is himself, and he not unnaturally draws the conclusion that the reason is to be found in the color of his skin.

Secondly, and as a direct consequence of this, the native is easily misled into thinking that anyone with a black skin who claims to speak on his behalf is worthy of his attention and respect. Feeling despised and rejected as a black man, he naturally falls into the error of thinking that the interests of all black men are identical, and fails to see that his so-called leaders have been bribed by the bosses to keep him in ignorance. Conversely, any white man who seeks to bring revolutionary ideas to the Bantu is regarded with the gravest suspicion simply because he is a member of the oppressing race.

And thirdly, the oppression to which the Bantu is subject has been applied so rigorously and systematically, and over such a long period of time, that it has bred an attitude of hopeless resignation. The last serious revolt against the bosses was 33 years ago, the Zulu Rebellion of 1906.

There are various supplementary factors that have contributed to stifling militancy. First among these we may mention the extremely scattered nature of the rural population. As we said in our previous article, the density of the rural population in the Union as a whole is only 14.07 per square mile, and since there are 3 million natives in the Reserves, that means that the population per square mile of European-owned land is not more than 7 or 8. This, together with the extreme poverty of the Bantu and the pass system, makes it very hard to organize the mass movement which is so essential to the development of class consciousness among the natives.

The Government is well aware of the danger of allowing the natives to form their own organizations, and as part of its native policy it has consistently sought to exclude the Bantu from large scale employment in industry. They can be hired as unskilled or casual laborers, but it is well known that these are much more difficult to organize than skilled workers, especially when the situation is complicated by artificially fostered race antagonisms. It is true that in the mines there is large scale employment of natives, and that they are herded into mine compounds where they might have an opportunity to organize. But the compound managers and the police keep a careful watch over subversive activities. And besides, the well-tried principle of “divide and rule” is consistently practised here. Men belonging to tribes which in the past have warred with each other are placed in the same compound, and the hardships from which they all suffer find natural expression in faction fights or miniature tribal warfare. Thus the militancy that should be directed against the class enemy is dissipated in useless quarrels between different sections of the exploited class.

Finally, religion contributes powerfully to prevent the development of class consciousness. Every native school in South Africa is a church school, and this means that it is practically impossible for a black man to receive an elementary education without at the same time being corrupted and corroded by superstitions that serve the purposes of the exploiting class. He is taught that resignation is a duty, and threatened with hell fire if he neglects that duty. And here again the imperial principle of “divide and rule” is fully employed. The natives are encouraged to organize their own churches, and so successful has this policy been that there are no fewer than 900 Bantu Christian sects in South Africa. It must be highly gratifying to the exploiters to see natives refusing to associate with each other because they differ on the interpretation of some phrase in the Bible!

We turn now to the credit side of the ledger. The war will change all this. For the war intensifies, and will, as it becomes more ferocious, intensify to an incalculable extent, the contradictions that have not yet penetrated the consciousness of the African masses. As long as life continues in the same way, as long as nothing interrupts the daily routine of drudgery, suffering and starvation, the unin-structed masses do not readily ask why they should continue to live in this way, and therefore do not discover that they need not live in this way. But war brings rapid and convulsive changes in the routine of life, and as far as the toiling masses are concerned, those changes are invariably for the worse. It is then that questions are asked, and the voice of the revolutionist has a chance of being heard. Already the Government is aware of this danger and is trying to forestall the dreaded development of class consciousness among the natives. Thus Umteteli, one of the bourgeois-owned Bantu newspapers, printed in its issue of October 7 the following “advice to all Africans”:

Umteteli desires to reiterate its recent appeal to all African leaders and their followers to remain calm and on the side of law and order during the present difficult times.

“As we have pointed out in the recent past, in war time rumor-mongers manage to create alarm by spreading false stories among the African people. These are often widely believed.

“Those who have influence with the people are therefore asked to co-operate with all European authorities in making it clear that there is no occasion for any alarm whatever: that, as will appear from our newspaper columns, the war is proceeding 6–7,000 miles away favorably to Britain and France, and that South Africa is absolutely safe under the protection of the British Navy.”

And in similar strain the Secretary for Native Affairs, addressing a gathering of native chiefs and leaders, urged them to remain calm, and told them that the best service the Bantu could render to “his” country was to keep on working steadily in the mines and on the farms.

The object of all this is as plain as daylight. The bosses would likes their slaves to remain in permanent ignorance of the fact that there is a war, but since that is impossible they would like them to know as little as possible and ask as few questions as possible. And in particular they must not listen to any unauthorized explanations of the war, that is, to a Marxist explanation. Otherwise why this insistent urge to remain calm? Is it likely that ignorant and uneducated Africans will get excited about a war that is taking place more than 6000 miles away in which they are told they will not be asked to participate? No, the fear of the ruling class is that the Bantu will discover the real meaning of the war.

And discover it he will. When he asks why Britain and France are fighting Germany, and is told that it is to save democracy, to prevent the “brutal” Germans from seizing “his” country and enslaving him, he will wonder why the “gentle” British and Dutch should choose just this time to rain still more and heavier blows on his back. And with the help of revolutionary instruction he will discover that it is not his war at all, that it is really a war between two equally brutal imperialisms for the right to enslave him. He will be reminded that after the Germans were driven out of South-West Africa, Smuts sent airplanes to slaughter the Bondelswarts tribe, which had revolted against a tax that made it impossible for them to live. Once he begins to open his eyes and look at things for himself, the rapidity of his education will make the slaveowners tremble.

And when his eyes are opened, what is he to do? Is he simply to wait for the end of the conflict in the hope that it will end in the defeat by the workers of both sets of imperialist exploiters? Certainly not. He cannot at the outset turn imperialist war into a civil war, if only because he has no weapons in his hand. But that does not mean that he has no methods of struggle at his disposal, or that he should leave the revolutionary task to those who have the guns at present. It must be carefully explained to him that the struggles of the revolutionists in Europe are very much his concern, and that he can help those struggles by carrying on an independent struggle against his oppressors in South Africa. For every revolt in a colonial country increases the difficulties of imperialism and facilitates the task of the revolutionary proletariat in Europe.

In short, the war creates a magnificent opportunity to teach the Bantu people the meaning of their own lives and sufferings, to assist in the organization of a mass revolt against the imperialist exploiters, and thereby to make a necessary contribution towards the achivement of the ultimate goal of humanity – World Socialism.

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