Freedom News

Radical Reprint: The Labour War in South Africa

Herbert was something of a nepo baby. His father was the extraordinarily successful political figure William Gladstone, a man whose 60-year career had included a decisive role in the establishment and evolution of the Liberal Party, which was, in August 1913, providing this youngest son of power a somewhat controversial sinecure.

Herbert’s political career had begun brightly after a standard elite education at Eton and Oxford, followed by a truly spectacular bit of corruption good fortune when he inherited the Leeds MP seat in 1880, at the tender age of 26, when his father vacated it to sit in Midlothian instead. Prime Minister daddy immediately appointed him first as private secretary, then as a Liberal whip, and finally as a junior lord of the Treasury, a ministerial post which would set him up for decades of front bench life. Quite the bootstrapping.

Through most of the latter part of the 19th century, Herbert made good use of his connections to become a model Liberal parliamentarian and by many standards of the time, a forward-thinking one. Aware of the rising power of socialist ideas, he had taken the route of heading off such thinking with the introduction of proto-welfare policies, influencing the introduction of Acts around working rights and the treatment of children through the 1900s.

But by the latter part of the decade, in the absence of his father’s guiding hand, his star had ceased to ascend, largely due to a clash with the head of that ultimate family firm, the Saxe-Coburg Gothas (aka the Windsors). Edward VII had taken exception to the younger Gladstone’s decision to include women on a Royal Commission about divorce, and just like that, a career was torched.

Herbert’s consolation prize was an overseas job, worthy of his name but well away from the corridors of Westminster – he was made the first governor-general and high commissioner of the new-formed Union of South Africa. And it is here where his name turns up on the front page of Freedom.

Poisoned chalice, racist malice

In many ways, Gladstone had picked up an unfortunate job. South Africa remained in turmoil following the conclusion of the Boer War, and three years into the new regime while the Boers themselves had been offered concessions, the black population was experiencing the brunt of British brutality. In the gold mines, Britain’s aim of aggressive integration into its capitalist economy manifested in violent repression of miners who attempted to unionise and demand safer working conditions, while the supposedly left-wing (but white-dominated) Labour Party looked on and said nothing. Instead, it focused on a united white working class effort towards the eight-hour day, which became a strike in June 1913 when the Chamber of Mines started to moot ideas of using increasingly skilled black labour to replace more expensive unionised white workers.

Over the course of the next month, 18,000 people came out, sparking a brutal State repression which saw dozens killed. While the strike itself began through racist protectionism, unexpected forces emerged from it, as black workers actively joined the fight against bosses to demand more respect and more equitable wages. The African National Congress, just one year old, benefited from its role defending the strikers, and eventually, some of the white workforce began to recognise the need for a more desegregated approach. Over the course of the decade, socialist and anti-racist forces would rise to counter the structural bigotry of the colonial regime, including through the formation of the Communist Party of South Africa in the aftermath of World War One.

Herbert’s role was limited and short in this process, lasting just four years until he was shunted back to Blighty for a long retirement of helming charitable causes. A cynic might suspect the appointment of this prominent Liberal served to provide a lightning rod for anti-colonial sentiment – the acts committed under his seal certainly destroyed his carefully-curated image as a well-meaning reformer.

But Freedom, taking a (lesser-informed) sideswipe at the situation, saw something else, the positioning of a malign force tied to the “wild beasts of finance.” The presence of a Great Liberal, a Gladstone no less, child of the core elite, was proof positive of the perfidy of that political creed. And beyond that, they peered with disdain at the supposedly more radical Labour Party, which even now “kept its powder dry” – a habit of letting down those who were not of direct electoral use that would continue for the next 110 years.

~ Rob Ray

The Labour War in South Africa

“At the moment of writing, a general strike in South Africa seems to have been postponed. The situation as it has developed in the last few weeks affords a remarkable instance of how rapidly events develop and bring their crises in modern days. An economic condition that would have taken fifty years to develop a century ago now runs its course in a decade. The chief point of interest, however, is the worldwide awakening of the workers. The terrible ravages of the capitalist pest have wrought about a condition of things in the mines that Dante never imagined in his Inferno. The callously inhuman sacrifice of life to put gold into the pockets of the financial bandits who engineered the Boer War might have moved even a capitalist government to protest if it had any conscience. But the old brutal, murderous policy has been followed to save its friends, and once more, the workers learn what to expect from the law-and-order hypocrites who are supposed to befriend them.

“Now the massing of troops is increasing, and one wonders what the Labour Party at Westminster are going to do. The whole of the Socialist Labour and progressive forces of the country should use at once in united protest against this capitalist orgy of brute force against our common humanity. As the New Age has pointed out, if the Labour Party would only come out of their den at Westminster and hurl their defiance at the government, it would give them pause to think, bring about the recall of the degenerate Gladstone, and least draw some of the fangs of the wild beasts of finance.”

Discover more from Freedom News

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading