From the book: Book 4: Industrialisation, Rural Change and Nationalism commissioned by The Department of Education

Industrialisationand rural change were key processes that helped to shape South African society. They impacted on black social life and politics in a particular way. In the first half of the twentieth century, the mid-1940s stand out as a particularly important period in this respect.

South Africa experienced an economic boom during World War 2 (1939- 1945). The war was a significant driving force for the restructuring of the economy. Although the concentration on military needs and a drop in imports resulted in a shortage of consumer goods, this was more than compensated for by the voracious demands of the war machine. Following American methods of industrial organisation, there was a considerable emphasis on maximum production and labour-saving techniques. By the end of the war South Africa was not only in a position to meet a large proportion of the Union Defence Force's requirements, but was also making an appreciable contribution to Allied war production.

The war years saw significant changes as far as the labour force was concerned. Hostilities virtually halted the flow of imported manufactured goods from the United Kingdom and Europe. This stimulated local production. The industrial output of South Africa more than doubled and the industrial work force increased by over 50% during this time. This brought about the entry of new groups into the labour market, notably white women and blacks. Many black families from the rural areas migrated to the urban centres. As demonstrated in Chapter 1 by Rachidi Molapo, the migration of families, as opposed to individuals, bore testimony to the dissolution of the rural economy and a society which had already suffered during the depression of the early 1930s.

The number of black people in industry nearly tripled, from about 85 000 in 1934 to 250 000 in 1946. Such a rapid influx of people to the cities stretched the already inadequate and racially-biased infrastructure of the urban areas to breaking point. Very few houses were built during the war years, and this led to an acute housing shortage and appalling living conditions. This in turn gave rise to the illegal occupation of land and the growth of large shantytowns. Even though black workers earned slightly more during the war years, it was often not enough to allow for decent housing, even if a house could be found.

The precarious position of workers and the struggle for survival amidst deplorable conditions produced a potentially explosive mix for social and political action. By the same token, the daily grind to eke out an existence also sapped the energy for extensive organisational activities.

Given these circumstances, it was not surprising that much of the social ferment and unrest during the war years were of an informal nature. Women played an important part in these developments since it was they who often felt the degrading conditions the most. They were most immediately involved in caring for their families with the barest or resources. Township women could not escape the realities of the situation, and this forced some of them to adopt a more activist role than either traditional norms or Western bourgeois ideology had mapped out as desirable for women.

One young black man, thoroughly urbanised, made it abundantly clear upon being questioned by the editor of Drum, a well-known black magazine in the 1950s, that tribal culture had weakened its grip over some young townsmen and that in the post-war period it was American culture that had cast its powerful spell:

“ Ag, why do you dish out that stuff, man?” said a man with golliwog hair and a floppy American suit at the Bantu Men's Social Centre. “Tribal music! Tribal history! Chiefs! We don't care about Chiefs! Give us jazz and film stars, man! We want Duke Ellington, Satchmo, and hot dames! Yes, brother, anything American. You can cut out this junk about kraals and folk-toes and Basutos in blankets - forget it! You're just trying to keep us backward, that's what! Tell us what's happening right here, man, on the Reef.”

Source: Quoted in Luli Callinicos, We are not Alone: The Making of a Mass Movement, 1950-1960, Staffrider, Volume 8, Numbers 3 and 4, 1989, p.9.

Marabiwas a generic term that “came close to describing the whole way of life of a people, the way they earned a living, the class position they adopted, the music they played and the way they danced”.

Source: Eddie Koch, “Without Visible Means of Substance: Slumyard Culture in Johannesburg, 1918-1940”. In Belinda Bozzoli (ed.), Town and Countryside in the Transvaal. Johannesburg, Raven, 1983, p.159.

Increased urbanisation also spawned its own cultural practices and prompted new forms of consciousness. On the Rand, marabiculture ”” revolving around alcohol and music - had taken root. It was a culture which involved more than just recreation. It was a cluster of activities that helped people to reassert themselves and to create their own world where, momentarily at least, a hard working life and exacting living conditions could be forgotten in companionship and rousing music. Marabi culture came under threat once the city council started to introduce official beer halls. The drab and dreary beer halls, instituted mainly to help fund the administration of townships, were not conducive to the spontaneity and vitality of the marabi shebeens.

On the whole, urban African culture was strengthened during the war years and tribal linkages were weakened. People of different origins were brought closer together in the workplace and in the shebeens. The large number of people living together facilitated communication and cultural interchange. New identities, relationships and communities were in the process of formation. As people sought to come to terms with the urbanising experience, they also sought to express themselves in different ways. Fashion, ideas, language usage and entertainment changed accordingly. Often the acceptance of the new meant a rejection of the old, or in some cases an amalgamation of the two.

For the younger people who had been born and raised in the cities, tribal life was remote and of little significance. A new generation of young urbanites came into their own during the 1940s. They were soon to demand a new cultural imagery and symbolism. While a new urban culture was in the process of taking root on the Rand, the government was still firmly wedded to a segregationist policy.

Formal black politics shifted in accordance with wider developments, as Mohammed Adhikari shows in Chapter 2 with his analysis of the impact of the war years on the African National Congress. The war years were a period of rejuvenation for the ANC as it became a mass-based organisation. It forged stronger links with working-class people than was possible before and incorporated more strident black nationalist ideas.

The same processes of industrialisation and rural change also affected Afrikaners. Afrikaner nationalism during the 1930s and 1940s was at least in part a response to the cutting of class divides created by increased urbanisation. At the same time, the nineteenth century image of a triumphal Great Trek was used in an attempt to revert to a romantic rural ideal. These strands and their consequences are teased out by Albert Grundlingh in Chapter 3.