The Consul General in Johannesburg ( Redecker ) to the Department of State

No. 67

Subject: Serious Native Riots in Johannesburg

The most serious rioting by natives to occur in Johannesburg broke out in the native township of Newclare, Johannesburg, on the evening of February 13. It assumed considerable proportions and lasted for two nights, reaching a peak on February 14, and spreading to the adjoining township of Sophiatown. Hundreds of natives were involved in the rioting, Indian stores were wrecked, looted and set on fire, and the police were heavily stoned by natives. Large forces of strongly armed police were dispatched to the scene of the trouble, and it was necessary for the police to use pistols, rifles and even machine guns to disperse the rioters. Numbers of police were injured and some might have been killed by stones thrown by the natives but for the protection of their helmets. Police cars were considerably damaged. The natives impeded the work of firemen combating fires by uncoupling and damaging fire hoses and by other acts of violence, stoning the firemen, etc. Property damaged is estimated at around £20,000.

Altogether, the rioting was the most serious to occur in Johannesburg. It was a continuation of a wave of violence and lawlessness by natives during recent months. Serious disturbances broke out on November 11, 1949, at Randfontein, Newlands and Krugersdorp, requiring vigorous police action. Renewed rioting broke out at Newclare on January 29 last, when a large force of 500 armed police raided the township and some 600 natives were arrested.

Unlike the far more serious rioting occurring some months ago in Durban, which was directed exclusively against the large Indian population residing there, and which was stimulated by grievances and hostility of the natives towards the Indians, the riots in Johannesburg were directed against the white European police and grew from grievances of the native against the white authorities. The riots were [Page 1810] therefore the most serious to occur thus far against the established European authority of South Africa. The wrecking of the Indian shops was only incidental to the main issues involved.

Fortunately, the native rioters possessed few firearms, although some fired pistol shots at the police. But, in general, they used as weapons iron bars, clubs, stones and whatever missiles they could get hold of. Had the natives had firearms, the result undoubtedly would have been infinitely worse and incalculable, as the mobs were in a very angry and turbulent mood.

While the rioting had ceased almost completely by the night of February 15, when only isolated cases of disorder occurred, there are indications that they have not definitely stopped, as the basic cause of them continues and there may be further unexpected outbreaks in the future when conditions again become acute and the natives are sufficiently aroused.

The Government has become so concerned regarding the rioting that it became the subject of immediate debate in Parliament. More stringent measures have been taken for greatly increasing the forces of the police for dealing with renewed outbreaks. Even mechanized mobile units of the Union Defense Force have been made available and stationed at strategic points for instant action for meeting any further emergencies that may arise.

The disturbances were confined to the native townships of Newel are and Sophiatown, situated in the western part of the City of Johannesburg, at some distance from the main European business center and residential districts, situated chiefly in the northern and eastern parts of the large metropolis, embracing a total area of 90 square miles.

The rioting was complicated and intensified by armed European citizens living near the townships taking the law into their own hands and going to the scene of rioting to engage in armed clashes with the natives. It appears that the Europeans were actuated by feelings of fear and resentment that the police were not using sufficiently drastic measures and that the natives “should be taught a lesson”, and also that unless they assisted in restricting the fighting, it might spread to the neighborhoods where they lived. The Government issued stern orders to the Europeans to desist, giving assurance that the Government forces were adequate and would be used to the utmost to protect the lives and property of all peaceful persons, regardless of race.

The spark that set off the riots was the action of the police in arresting a native in the Newclare Township who was without an official pass. The native resisted the police, other natives came to his assistance, and in a short time the entire Township was in a tumult. The police had to withdraw and call for reinforcements, which, with the [Page 1811] spread of the rioting, were greatly increased. The natives barricaded the streets and for a time the police did not venture in the danger zone. The situation became so serious as to bring the highest national police authorities, including General Palmer, Commandant of the South African Police, to the scene. It is reported that even General Smuts, head of the United Party, went to the scene to observe conditions for himself.

As can be imagined, the riots have caused considerable alarm to the white population of Johannesburg. Many citizens feel that, although the rioting has now quited down, there is no telling when another spark will cause another outburst. Many thoughtful observers feel that unless there is drastic improvement in the economic and living conditions of the natives and removal of the causes of their unrest, further and more serious disturbances may be in store for Johannesburg and South Africa. Some observers even predict that if present trends continue, conditions will build up for a serious social upheaval within the not distant future, which will rock all of South Africa.

While the incident of the arrest of a native set off the latest riots, in a similar manner to preceding ones, the rioting really had its roots in much deeper causes of a fundamental and chronic nature and was an expression of the natives’ increasing restlessness and dissatisfaction with their entire status, economic and living conditions, and more immediately, the increasingly stringent police control measures to which they have been subjected during the last two years.

One of the police controls which they most bitterly resent is the system of official passes, which they must have to live, work or move about in the city and the townships. The other chief irritant is the liquor control exercised by frequent and intensive police raids in the townships. Under the pass control system, any native not properly documented is subject to arrest and explusion from the city or compulsory labor on farms, in mines, industrial establishments, etc. The natives object to the liquor raids on the grounds that these deprive them of their tribal and traditional rights to make and use mild “Kaffir” beer, and also deprives them of all privacy in their homes, the raiding parties invading their homes at any hour of the day or night. They also complain that the police treat them in a harsh and even brutal manner. The police, on their side, state that the pass and liquor control regulations are essential, as the townships are hideouts for all manner of vagrant and criminal elements, while the native liquor trade is also supported by criminal elements who are the chief instigators of unrest among the natives. It is also evident that communist elements are very active among the natives and take every opportunity to intensify their feelings of injustice and frustration, [Page 1812] and to foment trouble between the native and ruling European population.

More fundamental than the provocative and irritating native pass and liquor control regulations is the extremely unsatisfactory living conditions of the natives in the Johannesburg native townships. To a very large extent, the natives’ living quarters consist of tin shacks, shanties, and miserable slums, deleterious alike for morals and health. Many of the streets lack lighting at night, the darkness being conducive to the commission of all manner of acts of lawlessness. Tens of thousands of natives are crowded together in slums unsuitable for human habitation. These conditions have converted parts of the townships into virtual warrens of vice and crime and law-abiding natives in the townships live in fear and terror of native gangsters and criminals. The inconvenient situation and distance of the townships, together with transport problems, with respect to their working places in the city, further contribute to the natives’ increasing dissatisfaction with having to live in the townships. The townships have contributed to the exceptionally high rate of crime of Johannesburg, which is higher than almost any other metropolis of the world. Owing to the lawless elements, persons may not safely venture forth on foot after dark in the streets in most sections of even the European part of the city, while most European houses are protected by iron bars, screens and other burglar-proof devices. It is generally conceded that the intensifying riots and high crime rate of Johannesburg can be effectively reduced and eliminated only by drastic amelioration of the basic living conditions of the natives, coupled with more judicious treatment of the natives by the police authorities. The absence of adequate recreational facilities, cinemas, places where natives can relax and gather socially, etc., in the township, further contributes to the general problem of the natives’ restlessness and discontent, finally finding expression in outbreaks of violence and lawlessness.

The riots have revived and given renewed impetus to official discussions of large-scale projects for the complete reformation of the entire living conditions of the natives in Johannesburg and removal of the existing slums and establishment of entirely new native townships outside the city limits provided with decent houses, sanitary facilities, etc. These projects for improving native housing necessarily must be on a large scale, affecting as they do not less than 20,000 native families, or around 100,000 people. The cost of the project would be prodigious, being estimated at around 10 million pounds. The obtaining of such a large amount of capital presents a serious problem as the natives generally are indigent, while the European population, already burdened with heavy taxation, would be reluctant [Page 1813] to contribute such a large amount of capital for dwellings for the natives. At all events, an official commission is working intensively upon the problem of native housing, a legislative bill has been drafted, and the entire project of improved housing is now supported by the realization that unless the living conditions of the natives are improved, all other measures, increased police controls, etc., will be merely palliatives for treating symptoms but not capable of effecting a permanent cure of the disease presented by the native living conditions, the malignancy of which will remain and grow. A new measure for relaxing restrictions upon native laborers performing skilled labor, all of which has been reserved exclusively for European artisans, so that natives can perform skilled labor upon purely native building projects should contribute to improving the natives’ living conditions by enabling native artisans to build native houses and thus enable the natives to improve the conditions of their own people with a minimum of European assistance.

Sydney B. Redecker