Strikes in the Cape Colony, 1854-1899

Mabin, Alan
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Prior to the eighteen fifties, southern Africa was almost totally devoid of the elements of a modern capitalist economy. But it was in that decade that some of the familiar features of capitalism began to show themselves in the Cape Colony. The beginnings of industrial copper mining in Namaqualand, coupled with speculation and the cycle of boom and bust provide examples. The decade of the fifties also seems to have brought the first instance of that classic form of struggle in capitalist society: a strike by wage-workers. Much of the historical literature leaves the impression that the era of industrial capitalism in southern Africa commenced with the mining of gold on the Witwatersrand. The roots of this development in the Kimberley diamond mines seldom receive more than passing recognition. The progress of accumulation, and the struggles between workers and employers in the rest of the Cape Colony before (or, for that matter, after) 1899 have received almost no attention. Gottshalk's note on the 'earliest known strikes by black workers' and Purkis' thesis on railways stand alone in detailing some of the strikes which marked the extension of wage labour in the Cape in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was also the unfulfilled hope of John Smalberger to write an article on early strikes, and materials in his papers deposited posthumously in the library at the University of Cape Town provide valuable pointers on the subject. Smalberger seems to have been under the impression that the earliest strikes were conducted by black workers. Yet, the first recorded strike — that of the Cape Town boatmen in 1854 - was a strike of all the port's boat workers: one cannot distinguish in the records between black and white. As the division of labour became more complex and the nature of workplace struggles more varied, the separation of black and white workers developed. Particularly from the 1870s onward, strikes reflected this separation. But strikes can also be seen as part of the process of shaping these divisions. Different issues of class, race and sex overlapped and intersected in these early South African workers' actions. This article outlines the history of the (known) strikes in the Cape Colony from 1854 to 1899. The intention is to demonstrate the extent to which workers have found it necessary to resort to strike action throughout the history of wage labour in southern Africa, and to point to the ways in which complex social processes were reflected, reproduced and created in these workplace struggles. In order to situate the material which follows, the first sections survey the economic context of the Cape Colony, 1850 to 1899. The geographical limits of the study are determined by the area brought under the sway of a single state — the Cape colonial state — in the period before the Anglo-Boer War brought the states of South Africa into a far closer relationship than the economic development of capitalism alone had done.
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented May 1983
Strikes and lockouts. South Africa. Cape of Good Hope. History, Industrial relations. South Africa. Cape of Good Hope. History