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The New International, September 1947


Robert Stone

The Plunder of South Africa – I

A First-Hand Study of British Imperialism



From The New International, Vol. XIII No. 7, August 1947, pp. 172–174.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


(We are certain that all our readers will find the following study of South Africa to be informative and of immense interest. The importance of this vast country in the scheme of British imperialism has only just been highlighted by the “courtesy” visit of the British king and his family. But the friendly gesture of His Maiesty can in no way cover up the picture of the reactionary. barbarous role of imperialism. as is so graphically portrayed by Comrade Stone’s first-hand reportEditor)


South Africa was discovered in the ferocious drive of the rising European capitalist class to eat up the world. But its dark interior was at first passed by with disinterest by a bourgeoisie freshly born into historic activity, whose role in the next decades and centuries was a triumphant sweeping away of the stagnation and parochialism of feudalism, who broke ancient barriers, who vitalized new productive forces. They thrust broader layers of their own peoples into political activity, caused vast disturbances and disruptions in the ancient and passive East. The blood and filth which, as Marx said, capitalism oozed from everyone of its pores when it came into the world arena, was, at least in the period of its rise, the means whereby it opened up the world, threw backward peoples into the world market which it created, and initiated them into the path of feverish and intense development.

But when capitalism did turn its rapacious eyes on South Africa for extensive penetration, its progressive onrush was spent. It had reached its last cycle of development, that of finance monopoly capitalism, which, in its brutal and reactionary guise of imperialism grasped South Africa in its stranglehold, historically unable to fulfill its former role as a liberating, barrier-breaking force, and able instead only to repress, retard and throw an iron blanket over the development of the country. The non-European peoples of South Africa are on one of the lowest rungs of the ladder of world backwardness and repression.

The Cape was discovered en route to the richer treasures of India, and capitalism had no use for it except as a sea-inn and port of call, until the unknown interior unsheathed its own treasures of diamonds and gold and plentiful and cheap black labor.

In a series of some ten “Kaffir wars,” stretching over the nineteenth century, British capitalism conquered and subjugated the independent African people.

As a result of these wars the Bantu tribes were systematically herded together into smaller and smaller areas and robbed of their lands. The history of this period, which can be termed the period of the complete conquest of the African people by white capitalism, is written in blood and iron. Bantu resistance, fierce and desperate, was unable to halt the onslaught of the superior military might of the nineteenth century capitalist power. But the military conquest was only the precursor of the total economic and political enslavement of the whole African people.

To conclusively establish their untrammeled domination and to validate their sole rule over the golden treasure chest of the Rand, the British imperialists, through treachery, trickery and finally a three-year devastating “Boer War,” established themselves over the independent Boer Republics.

The Dominion status granted to South Africa’s white population by British imperialism in the Act of Union in 1910 has been cited as the finest example of British liberation and British magnanimity toward its defeated foes. But this magnanimity was so framed as to secure for her absentee imperialist owners of South Africa’s mineral resources, local agents and managers. Every government since 1910, Unionist, SAP, Nationalist, United Party, Pact or coalition, have all acted as Britain’s business managers. But the burden of this constitution and the economic arrangements were thrown on the backs of the non-European majority.

“... The South African possessions of Great Britain form a dominion only from the point of view of the white minority. From the point of view of the black majority, South Africa is a slave colony.” (Trotsky: Letter on South Africa)

A “benevolent” imperialism granted its vanquished opponents freedom and democratic rights and even junior partnership in the British Commonwealth, but this “benevolence” rests on the perpetuation of the most vile and savage forms of racial arrogance and unfathomable slavery and oppression for the non-European people and the continued economic and political strangulation and domination of South Africa by British imperialism.

The Imperialist Stake in South Africa

The modern economic and political history of South Africa begins wi th the discovery of diamonds and gold. From merely a strategic port, South Africa became an important pivot for swiftly developing imperialism. The grappling-iron of world economy clawed South Africa into its net. The discovery provided the perfect stimulus for opening up the country. Railways, always an important indicator of imperialist penetration, were built from all important mines to the ports. When diamonds were discovered, for example, there were only some 65 miles of railway in the whole of South Africa. But between 1874 and 1886 1,730 miles of railway were constructed. Mushroom towns sprang up and subsidiary industries began to be developed.

But it was the discovery of gold which was responsible for the transformation of South Africa from a mere outpost of imperialism to an important area for capital investment and for quick profits. The discovery of gold in 1886 definitely entrenched imperialist domination, created the industrialized Rand, ushered in the complete dissolution of African independence and built up the whole complex structure of reserves, cheap migratory, super-exploited black labor, and legally enforced segregation in every sphere of life, leveling out the Bantu tribes into an oppressed, disfranchised and police regimented African nation of toilers.

The exploitation of the mineral resources in South Africa has literally been the geese that laid golden eggs worth billions for their imperialist masters of the land. Up to the end of 1944, the Union has produced gold value at 2,331,627,089 pounds sterling, which is 80.4 per cent of all minerals produced; diamonds valued at 341,302,941 pounds (11.3 per cent) [1], coal valued at 153,194,446 pounds (5.3 per cent), copper valued at 35,425,093 pounds (1.2 per cent) and. other minerals constituting 1.4 per cent. South Africa contributes some 45 per cent of the world’s production of gold. In the period 1868-1932, 241,000,000 pounds were invested in the gold mining industry. Of this sum, 148,000,000 pounds were invested from abroad, the overwhelming bulk from Britain. Up to the end of 1944, 440,886,703 pounds were paid out in dividends. From 75 per cent to 50 per cent in 1944 poured back into the coffers of the London mining houses. British absentee capital dominates and controls the primary mining industry – gold – and also the production of diamonds, coal and copper. South Africa is tied to British imperialism by chains of gold.

The nature of the total British capital investment is shown in the following estimates: For the whole period 1870–1936, Professor Frankel, leading Chamber of Mines economist, estimated the amount of listed capital invested in the Union from abroad at 475,470,000 pounds. Of this sum, less than half, viz., 224,000,000 pounds, was public listed capital, i.e., capital borrowed by the government and municipalities, of which a large part was used for railway and harbor development. Roughly, two-thirds of the 251,000,000 pounds private listed capital went into mining, while two-fifths of the balance was invested in commerce, agriculture and industry and the remaining three-fifths in land-owning, finance (including banking and insurance and investment companies). Out of the national income in 1937, of about 360,000,000 pounds at least 30,000,000 pounds was earned by absent British shareholders. British finance further controls South Africa through its gold-buying monopoly. During the war years, the South African Reserve Bank entered into an agreement with the Bank of England under which the former sold all its gold exclusively to the latter. Two imperial banks (Barclay’s and Standard) control the whole commercial banking system.

These huge sums explain the magnetic hold of imperialism and its local agents on South Africa. In fact, the whole British Empire has an enormous stake in South African gold. Rand bullion is a major factor in the economy of the entire sterling area. It is a great flywheel of empire, and consequently a very important factor in maintaining the flickering life of the British Empire.

Gold Mines – Nerve Center of South Africa

The above figures of imperialist investment and profits can only emphasize the important role that gold plays in the economic, social and political setup of South Africa. The production and exploitation of the gold mines is the primary motive determining the policies and the whole government structure of South Africa. The conquest and subjection of the African people in the pre-gold era only prepared the ground for their callous and planned regimentation to slave-labor in the gold mines.

The gold mining industry is the biggest single employer of African urban labor and its methods of labor control and treatment determine the pattern of conditions for the whole African laboring force of the whole country. The gold mining industry expresses its dominance in the state by contributing about 50 per cent of state revenues. In 1942 it paid over 27,700,000 pounds to the government.

Gold is the principal and primary export article, comprising over 75 per cent of all. the Union’s exports. About half of the Union’s population obtain their livelihood directly or indirectly from the gold mining industry. Without gold the whole of the Union’s economy would crumble to the ground. The gold mining industry is the most powerful single economic force in the whole country. The industry has formed itself into a huge monopolistic octopus whose tentacles have in their grasp the whole state and economic structure. The industry is controlled by seven financial houses or groups. To show the extent of their operations, the most powerful of these groups, the Anglo-American Corporation (“American” in name only) – capital divided equally between England and South Africa – controls besides gold, 95 per cent of the world’s production of diamonds, plus extensive coal, copper, chemical, steel works (in co-operation with the government), real estate, railways, zinc interests, etc.

The majority of these groups have their head offices in London and serve merely as caretakers for the British owners. The seven giant monopolies co-operate through the Chamber of Mines and represent a solid and combined front controlling the whole government press, the government United Party, the internal and external politics of the Union and the character of economic development. (Although controlled overwhelmingly by British capital, American investments cover an extensive field. The introduction of American capital on a considerable scale into the South African mining and industrial field was heralded by the formation of an American Anglo-Transvaal Corporation with an authorized capital of 5,000,000 pounds in 1946. Among the big American corporations already carrying on production are Goodyear Rubber, General Motors, Firestone, Ford and Studebaker.)

South Africa – Britain’s Defense Line

The development of gold mining and the opening up of industrial development has also opened new channels for profit-making for imperialism. The Union is one of the most important and principal markets for British industry and Britain is the best customer for South African products.

For the four years 1935–38, the average annual imports of the Union were valued at 96,000,000 pounds. Of this total Britain supplied South Africa with 45 per cent.

“For the four year period for which imports have just been shown, the Union was the best customer in the world for United Kingdom goods, actually taking just under one-twelfth by value of all exports from the United Kingdom.” (Review of Commercial Conditions in South Africa: H.M. Trade Commissioner, p. 14.)

Clearly, Britain has the lion’s share of the Union’s market.

Today, when British imperialism is desperately fighting for its very existence, when pressed against the wall by its American imperialist “ally” and chief competitor in South Africa as elsewhere, South Africa still offers a ready, profitable and preferential field for British exports.

The immediate and loyal response and participation of the South African Chamber of Mines ruling class in support of the two imperialist world wars waged by imperial Britain is a steadfast indication of their subservience and dependence on the British ruling class and the indissoluble knot that binds South Africa to the British imperialist chain.

South Africa has been from its first days of conquest by British imperialism, and increasingly so in the shrinking world of the present, an important strategic point in guarding the key possession of Britain, India and, linked with the other dark cesspools of colonialism in the interior of Africa (especially Kenya, etc.), South Africa is today becoming the last and vital outpost of imperial defense.

Especially in the face of Britain’s strategic retreat before the threatening and storming Egyptian masses, and her harassed position in face of terroristic explosions and Arab hatred in Palestine, British imperialist strategists are reorienting imperial defense lines to their as yet unstormed colony of Kenya, and this maneuvering is increasing the strategic importance of South Africa in imperial defense. As a Reuter’s correspondent reported from London:

“It is believed that Kenya has already been decided on as British military headquarters for the Middle East.” (Star, October 1946.)

Simonstown, near Cape Town, is a British naval base. By the Smuts-Churchill agreement of 1922, the imperial government gave the Union government the title to their property in Simonstown, but reserved the task of staffing the base to itself.

Not only the need for more cheap black labor for the gold mines is behind the drive for the openly imperialist annexation of Southwest Africa. The continued war preparations of the British labor imperialist government for World War III and the safeguarding of her interests in the Middle East and India, and her reliance on her South African dependents to aid her defense is behind General Smuts’ need for Southwest Africa.

General Smuts had made this naked imperialist policy open to the whole world when he declared, in New York, in answer to his critics of the UN on Southwest Africa, that:

“The immense development of the air arm would in future render the Mediterranean–Suez Canal route between the East and West more liable to attack and probably close it altogether. The obvious consequences would be to increase the importance in war of the Cape–Indian route which was thousands of miles further away from a possible air attack. This and also other considerations of a political nature must in future increase the already great strategic importance of South Africa.” (Reuters, November 15, 1946)

The strategic importance is only in the interests of serving the British Empire; for Smuts merely emphasized what Air Marshal Charles Medhurst, Middle East Air Commander in Chief, and other imperialist officers have said:

... If it happened that Britain had to get out of the Mediterranean the Union would be the mainstay of empire air defense.” (Rand Daily Mail, Sept. 21, 1946)

The South African ruling class has pledged South Africa, its resources and its super-exploited, super-oppressed non-European peoples to the defense of the imperialist war machine, slaughter offerings to all the criminal war preparations of British imperialism rocking in its death agony.

South Africa and the British colonies of the African interior are the last safe footholds of imperial defense. It rests only with the non-European masses, by their independent national and class action, to convert this foothold of safety into a quicksand of destruction in their struggle for freedom from imperialism.

The Anatomy of Segregation

Equal in importance for imperialism to the rich mineral resources of South Africa are the eight million non-European toilers, forced by imperialist conquest into the permanent shackles of cheap unskilled labor.

Rhodes, imperialist pioneer, laid down the irrevocable conditions of existence for the non-European people under imperialism. He said:

“... It must be brought home to them that in the future nine-tenths of them would have to spend their lives in manual labor.”

That was a statement of policy which is the only condition for imperialist existence in South Africa and is the constant criterion for all imperialist policies toward the non-European people; it is the axis around which the holy ideal of Trusteeship revolves.

The crystallized policy of imperialism in its rule in South Africa is the segregation of the non-European toilers on the land, in industry and in employment in town and country, politically and socially. This is the means whereby they carry out their policy of cheap black labor.

In so doing the whole ruling class have deprived the non-European people of even the crumbs of bread-line existence. The tremendous and striking contrast to the power and wealth of the ruling class is the immense death-gripping poverty and degradation and enslavement of the non-European masses. The mine-laborers, the farm-laborers, the industrial laborers, the teachers, the reserve semi-peasants, the houseboy, the clerk, from one end of the sprawling country to the other are all leveled out in one mass of brutalized, agonized and unremitting toil. All are chained, both as workers and as men of color, in a rigid segregation system which daily subordinates and humiliates them as slave laborers for white imperialist masters. Imperialism has decreed their fate to be one shackled and riddled with poverty and the whole complex of repressions and restrictions as the only safeguard for white supremacy. The completely reactionary and predatory character of imperialist rule in South Africa will be irrefutably demonstrated by the following analysis of conditions, as they exist in all the brutalized centres of life for the non-European masses. The structural limbs which form the anatomy of segregation are made up of the following elements:

The Land Problem

Like every other problem facing the non-European people, the land problem was created by imperialism. Imperialist conquest of South Africa would have been meaningless if it had not succeeded in creating conditions which assured imperialism of a permanent supply of abundant and readily available cheap black labor. This fundamental aim of imperialism was and still is, the mainspring of their land policy.

The land problem is the conscious and deliberate creation of the imperialist state. The agrarian struggle is directly a struggle against the imperialist state. This analysis is directly verified in an elaboration of the conditions prepared by imperialism and its local capitalist agents which systematically has expropriated the African masses of their land, and herded them into tiny reserves, rich labor reservoirs of wretched and starving humanity.

Reserves are the boundaries within which imperialism breeds poverty, famine and the preparation of every form of barbarism, i.e., tribalism and, in increasing the tortured numbers, hundreds of thousands of uprooted, disinherited, landless and vulnerable men whose only hope of life is to be sucked into the jaws of the mines, farms and industries for super-exploitation.

The land policy of an imperialism whose main need is for cheap black labor was initiated by Rhodes in his Glen Grey Act of 1894. Under this Act, lands in reserved areas were divided into allotments of about five morgen [2] on the basis of one man one lot. In addition to this deliberate curtailment of any progressive, paying, or even merely subsistence agriculture, Rhodes introduced a labor tax payable in cash, which was to serve as a “gentle stimulant to go forth and find out something of the dignity of labor.” No gentle stimulant, these laws, but in reality the violent whips that lashed the African people into the centres of industry and agriculture.

Pressed by further labor needs, the Land Act of 1913 and its subsequent amendments finally determined the segregated areas put aside for African occupation in the then already overcrowded reserves. Only here could Africans buy land. They were henceforth expressly forbidden from “squatting or renting land on European farms.” At one blow, this created the “stimulus” for tens of thousands of additional families to leave their lands and be driven to slave-labor.

The acuteness of the land problem created by imperialism is shown by the distribution of the land which deliberately created the abysmal land hunger of the African masses. This land hunger, on paper solved by the Native Bills of 1936, still remains in all its grim potency. The position is, briefly as follows (outlined by Suiderstem, a government paper):

The surface area of South Africa is 141,000,000 morgen. Of that the African reserve dwellers will have only 16,800,000 morgen when all the Africans have been segregated and occupy all the areas which have been demarcated, by the Native Bills of 1936,’ i.e., they will then have one-eighth or twelve per cent of the total land area of the Union, which will leave 124,200,000 over for the Europeans. As against that, the European rural population of the Union is about 700,000, while the African population, when segregation is complete, will be 6,500,000, i.e., the European rural population is approximately one-tenth of the Union’s population and the Africans nine-tenths. The position thus obtains that at the conclusion of segregation, ten per cent of the rural population, which is European, will inhabit eighty-eight per cent of the surface area, while ninety per cent will inhabit only one-eighth of the area. While, therefore, there will be 177 morgen for every European person, man, woman or child, there will be approximately two and one-half morgen per African.

But this is not yet the position. Seven and one-quarter million morgen of the 16,730,000 morgen promised the African people is yet to be bought under the Hertzog Bills of i936. This promise has been cynically forgotten by the ruling class, so that the true position is that the African people are cramped into even less land than outlined above.

The land hunger of the African people is cavernous in its needs. In seven surveyed districts of the Transkei, for example:

“... one-third of the families domiciled therein are landless. In the case of the Ciskei, I have heard a chief native commissioner of the area speaking in the Native Representative Council, estimate landlessness at sixty per cent of the population. This rural proletariat simply possess huts and small gardens where the heads of families leave their dependents while employed in the European areas ...” (E. Molteno, M.P. Freedom, March 1944)

But the predatory imperialist vultures are not satisfied with merely redistributing the land in the princely favor of the white land companies and parasitic landowners and farmers, they have to fully enclose the African tribalist in an unbreakable crust of poverty, to ensure his complete bondage to imperialist needs. A picture of life in the reserves is a sombre picture of deprivation and immense hopelessness. Taking as an example the largest reserve area in the country, the Transkei, it has been estimated that the Transkeian territories needed as a bare minimum 3,575,000 bags of maize every year to feed itself. In 1943 the yield was only 1,750,000 bags. As against the 2.75 bags per head per annum needed for a bare minimum mealie-line existence, only 1.6 bags per head per annum was produced. The reserves as a whole suffer from a shortage of 8,000,000 bags of maize per annum.

The Fruits of Exploitation

A modern balanced farming is impossible because of the primitive ploughing methods. The tiny, poor and congested allotments, the lack of fertilizers, the unraked garbage of primitive beliefs, the continued use of the same strip of land, are leading to soil erosion, the depletion and wearing away of the soil and the return to desert conditionr of all reserve lands. Experts give only a few more years to the life of the soil of the reserve areas, before the land returns to irrecoverable desert. Not only is the land inadequate, but the labor force to work the land is made up of the old men, the women and the children. Over sixty per cent of the men are away at a time on labor-duty in the gold mines and on the European farms. The rural communities of South Africa are bled white of their man power.

A recent article in the South African Medical Journal describing the Glen Grey District, sums up the position all over South Africa.

“... It is erroneous to regard a Native reserve as an agricultural area. It would be more accurate to speak of it as a well-spread residential area where the average family unit makes no more out of his land than the average city dweller puttering in his backyard garden. As an agricultural venture this native reserve must be regarded as a total failure. Not only are the production figures negligible, but the methods employed by the residents in their efforts to squeeze a livelihood off the land are destructive ...”

This state of affairs perfectly suits the imperialists and the European farmer. For the rooting of a peasantry in the reserves would throw out of gear the whole mechanism of migrant and cheap black labor and would lose them their beasts of burden. As the minister of Native Affairs, Van der Byl said outright in Parliament: “... We would not buy the land for the natives to settle down and become peasants ...” This would be intolerable for imperialism. The land is not meant for use by the African people, but the reserves are merely labor depots for the white masters’ convenience.

As though the terrible landlessness and poverty of the African people were not enough to lash them to labor for the mines, farms and industries, the ruling class cuts off all remnants of security with a special hut tax of 10/– [3] and a poll tax of one pound per male head, payable in cash, which acts as the final incentive for the creation of the indispensable labor force for imperialist industry.

These are the conditions that imperialism has created for the 2,962,297 Africans who, according to the 1936 census returns, were living in the reserved areas, and it is these conditions which throw up the backward millions to oil the wheels of imperialist industry, to dig for gold, to be cart-oxen for European farmers, and whole cheap slave labor forms the foundation of the South African economic and political structure.

The African Farm Laborer

The plight of the 2¾ million non-Europeans on European farms, of whose number 2¼ million are Africans is a further example of the permanent degradation of the non-European people. Debarred from owning land elsewhere, uprooted from the reserves, they constitute a permanent agricultural laboring class in the merciless hands of the white landowners.

Regarded by European landowners as a sub-human beast of burden the African laborer and his family are bound by innumerable chains in a semi-feudal relationship to their masters. Over seventy-five per cent of the Africans on European farms are bound hand and foot in this semi-feudal serfdom a,s labor tenants. The main feature of the labor tenant system is a total dependence of the laborer, and his family on payment in kind. The European farmer on whose [arm he slaves allows him a tiny and inadequate plot for his own cultivation and grazing, the right to use the mud and thatch on the farm to build a hut for his family. In return for these meager rights the labor-tenant and his whole family owe the farmer from 90 to 180 days of hard labor from “sunrise to sunset.” In the Cape and O.F.S. he usually receives a negligible cash wage varying from 5/– to 20/– per month. In the Transvaal and Natal he receives no cash wage at all.

In addition, married men receive rations of one-half bag of mealie-meal per month to feed themselves and their families when at work.

But the lot of the casual laborer is even worse. He receives two meals a day consisting of mealie-meal and separated milk. (The milk now-a-days goes to the pigs, for pigs are more important than African laborers on European farms.) He may not even build himself a hut but must make shift to share with the permanent laborers or else sleep in the open. His wage varies from 10/– to 30/– per month, depending on the proximity of the rural area to the town.

Added to the burden of crushing poverty and starvation, are the burdens of pass-laws, Masters and Servants laws and the Native Service Contract Act. Under the latter Act the head of the kraal legally binds himself and all his children under the age of eighteen years without their consent to the European farmer who employs him. The young man who deserts the farm for the town commits a crime punishable by whipping.

Pass laws permit the European farmer to restrict the movement of farm laborers and grips them by the throat with debts which are written on the passes, crippling his freedom and opportunities for other employment. In addition, educational facilities for the children are completely lacking.

Like the Chamber of Mines, the European farmers recruit their laborers. According to the Native Farm Labor Committee 1937–39 there were twelve firms or Combines recognized as farm labor organizations in 1937. In that year they supplied 12,304 laborers to farmers. To further augment their labor supply, African convict labor is hired out to them by the government.

European farmers make excellent warders for the convict labor which is hired out to them. Even Mr. J.D. Scholtz, the superintendent of the Cinderella Prison, who gave evidence before the Commission of Inquiry into Penal Reform, Submitted the following graphic description of farmers’ treatment of this convict labor.

“... The farmers are getting cheap labor but nine times out of ten they abuse that labor ... One gang hired out recently to a farmer refused to work. A prison officer was sent out and the prisoners told him that they were given no water when they were out working and that a native employed by the farmer beat them with a sjambok.”

The narrow-minded, thick-skulled callousness of the Afrikaner landowner defies description. These Herren-brutes have their heels firmly planted on the inert and crushed shoulders of the helpless African laborers.

(Part II will appear next month)


1. We are not certain whether the author is using figures when these equalled $5.00 U.S.A., or whether it is related to the present devaluated pound sterling. – Editor

2. A measure formerly used in Dutch colonies and South Africa. It represents a value slightly more than two acres. – Editor

3. This is approximately $2.00, measured by 20 shillings to the South African Pound, which is now quoted at about $4.03.

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