The Poor White problem spread to the factories and the slums of Johannesburg and was soon felt in the offices of the union. There was a constant flow into the office of young Afrikaner women, whose ages ranged from 15 to 25. Over a thousand were already employed in the clothing industry and many of these would take the new arrivals direct to the factory or send them to the union office to find work for them. They all seemed healthy, decent, well-spoken and well-behaved farm girls who had nothing of the Poor White about them, except their poverty. After exchanging a few words with them, I soon learned that these young women had not come to the Rand for adventure and romance but to earn a few shillings for themselves and to help their parents, some of who remained on the land, while others had come to the city. They were used to being treated as inferiors by the menfolk on the land, and this proved of great help to them in adjusting themselves to their new life. They assumed no superior airs as members of a master race or as the daughters of landowners. They were sensible, practical and free from any illusions, desperately anxious to find jobs quickly, to learn their trade and to earn money. There was no moaning or groaning and they bore their endless troubles with patience and good cheer. Their problems were many and seemed insuperable. The depression of 1930 was approaching and employment was not easy to find for the newcomers. Indeed, many of the old hands were already unemployed. Even when they succeeded in securing work and were not cheated out of part of their wages, they received only £1 for a full week's work, and as there was much slackness in the industry, a full week's work was rare. Out of their meagre earnings, the girls had to pay for their board and lodging, for tram or bus fares to and from work, for their clothes, and for other essentials; and they had also to send a few shillings home. The vast majority was forced to live in the slums. For newcomers and old hands alike life was one long, bitter struggle.
South Africa has always had "alien" communities who "did not belong". The Whites consider the ten million non-Europeans outsiders, even outcasts. Before the Boer War, the British were looked upon as "Uitlanders. Now, in 1928, the thousands of poor Afrikaners who were flocking to Johannesburg seem like intruders. They did not belong to Johannesburg and Johannesburg certainly did not belong to them.
In few other countries is there such a concentration of wealth on the one hand and of poverty on the other as in South Africa, and few cities show such a marked contrast between luxury and squalor as Johannesburg.
Big cities are symbols of civilisation, culture and riches. They invariably accord a warm welcome to visitors with money; to the penniless stranger they are hostile and terrifying. The surging crowds, the turmoil in the streets, the callous indifference, which a poor stranger meets in a big city like Johannesburg, make the loneliness of the veld seem cheerful and friendly. Johannesburg, the City of Gold", the wealthiest city on the African Continent, with its skyscrapers and palatial homes, also has the largest and the worst slums in the world. Almost the entire non-European population, numbering half-a-million, and constituting more than half of the inhabitants, are even today condemned by the property owners, who run the city, to live in filth and squalor in shantytowns. Tens of thousands of Europeans have also been forced to live in slums in this city of affluence and ostentation. North of Johannesburg laid the suburb of Parktown where the mining magnates had their homes. About a mile away to the west of the city lay Vrededorp, where some tens of thousands of Europeans, Coloured, Indians and Africans lived in filth and squalor hardly equalled by the worst slums in the world. Between the two was the Braamfontein Cemetery where rich and poor are equal, class distinction being confined to the size of the tombstones. The houses of Vrededorp were small, single-storey dwellings with ugly exteriors and tiny rooms; the roofs leaked and the windowpanes were broken. Electric light was a rarity as it was too expensive. Several families often shared these hovels. I remember visiting the home of a garment worker in 1931, a widow with six children, who lived in a one-roomed house with no windows at all, only a door and a roof of hessian. These were the sorts of conditions to which hundreds of women workers, accustomed to the sunshine and spaciousness of the land, would return after their daily toil in the factories.
South African politicians are in the habit of paying lavish compliments to the South African women, whose courage and virtue they consistently extol. Their concern for the welfare of the women is so persistent that they never miss an opportunity of asking with great indignation, no matter what problem is discussed, "Would you allow your sister (or daughter) to marry a black man"? But these high-minded, chivalrous gentlemen, these saviours of white civilisaÂtion who show so much concern for the honour of the white women, did not display the slightest interest in the terrible plight of thousands of white "sisters" and "daughters" who toiled for a mere pittance, lived in abysmal poverty, and often went hungry. Millions were voted for rich farmers, for police and prisons, but not a penny to help the unemployed, the sick or the starving. There was no social insurance of any kind and when the women became unemployed they starved. When they were ill, they lingered at home, unable to afford the services of a doctor. Not a penny was spent on hostels or other suitable accommodation for young women workers who were trying hard to earn an honest living. Indeed, as will be shown later, the State, the major political parties, and especially the Nationalist Party, adopted throughout a most bitterly hostile attitude towards the workers and their efforts to improve their conditions.
With regret, it must be stated that even the Labour Party failed' in its duty. Here was a glorious opportunity for the Labour Party to establish contact with the poor Afrikaners, and make them into good socialists. The Nationalist Party and the United Party had' nothing to offer the poor Afrikaners. Had the Labour Party come 'onward with a constructive policy and programme, subsequent South African history might have taken an entirely different course. The country would have been on the road to progress instead of fascism and disaster. But the leaders of the Labour Party lacked vision, became corrupted with the spoils of office, and left the poor Afrikaners to the Nationalists. Embittered by tragic memories of the past, surrounded by luxury and splendour whilst they themselves lived in slums in dire poverty, the impoverished Afrikaners became an easy prey to the demagogy of the Nationalists who cunningly exploited their suffering for their own ends. The slums of Johannesburg, instead of becoming Labour strongholds, provided the storm troopers for the Nationalists when their party later came under Nazi influence. The slum dwellers broke up Labour Party and trade Union meetings and finally voted the Nationalists into power. The South African labour and trade union movement has paid a terrible price for its past blunders, and has not yet learned its lesson.
This was the situation with which the union was faced when became secretary. We had to deal not only with the problems common to workers of other countries, but also with special problems peculiar to South Africa. To secure higher standards we had to fight not only against the employers but also against traditional backwardness and dangerous fantasies. The task ahead us were enormous.
Statistics and quotations from official records cannot present a true picture of the workers who come into the industry, of their struggles and privations, or of their background. Let some of the men speak for themselves. Their stories, taken together, are representative of the stories of tens of thousands of Afrikaner workers, the "rebels' daughters", who helped to build the union and industry.