The Chargé in South Africa (Connelly) to the Secretary of State


Cape Town Embassy Series 117

Subject: May Day Riots on the Rand

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The clashes between Natives and police on May 1, 1950 at several locations in and around Johannesburg, despite the Government ban on demonstrations, were part of a pattern of racial tension which threatens the internal stability of the Union of South Africa. Overtly similar to previous riots, the May Day disturbances were uglier in mood than any in the recent past. Hostility between Natives and police reached a new high. Although elementary economic benefits, elimination of the pass system, and the right to present legitimate grievances constituted the immediate objectives of the Natives, there were signs of a new spirit of nationalism among the Natives, which, despite its vagueness, is becoming the basis of a growing faith. But for a growing number of Natives this goal of nationalism is not enough and these despondent ones are turning to Communism because it holds out the promise of equality—racial, economic and political.

Content to do no more about this riot than blame it on Communist agitators and gird itself for the next one, the Malan Government pretended to be unshaken. The United Party supported all the Government’s precautionary measures, floundered briefly immediately after the riots, and then launched a political attack on the “apartheid-mad” Nationalists. A few liberals urged the initiation of a debate on the riots as an urgent matter of public importance, but received virtually no parliamentary support. And here the matter might have rested, if it were not for the fact that this was South Africa’s most serious postwar racial clash. A surprisingly large and vocal minority on the Band refused to allow the Government and the United Party to brush away without protest the subsequent Ballinger-Brookes1 plea for a roundtable conference on the Native problem. They challenged the complacency of the majority of white South Africans who feel, as a simple expedient of self-preservation, that the Native must be “kept in his [Page 1825] place”. But they were not successful. South Africa is reluctant to face this issue, and yet it is unmistakably clear. The Union can continue to practice uncompromising “white-supremacy” risking large scale Native uprising (which only the exercise of dictatorial repression can prevent), or recognition of the seriousness of the current racial tension can force all sides to sit down with the Natives and attempt to work out a compromise. The future of South Africa depends on the answer and only three answers are possible: Compromise, further riots, or a “police state”. Malan’s Government appears to be trending toward the latter.

[Here follow 19 pages in the source text describing in detail the planning for the May Day demonstration, the South African Government decision to ban demonstrations, the course of the violence during the demonstration, and the reactions in South Africa to the riots.]

VI. The Significance of the May Day Riots.

The May Day riots are the most serious in recent South African history. They are an accurate clue to the tension between Natives and Whites. In this tension respect between the parties has virtually disappeared. The Government did not want any mass demonstrations, no matter how peaceful, and it did not want to see any inter-organizational unity on the part of the Natives. Most of those who took the trouble to examine the situation knew that trouble was coming and it came. The reason it was not worse is because the Native leaders restrained their people, and because they had no guns. What surprised the Government most was the number who stayed away from work. If further riots are to be avoided certain obvious steps must be taken such as securing higher wages, more housing, health benefits, lessening the stringency of the pass laws, and giving the Native a greater role in the Nation’s life. None of these steps will be taken. The obvious answer is more riots. The present Government will seek to prevent such riots by rigid control over the Natives. It can only exercise effective control through the passage of such legislation as the Population Registration Bill, the Group Areas Bill,2 and similar anti-civil rights measures. Taken together these legislative acts and pending bills reflect all the traditional trappings of the police [Page 1826] state. The South African police-state-in-the-making is not directed against other Whites, as yet, despite what the United Party says. Its aim is the legislation necessary to perpetuate White supremacy in an Afrikaans republic.

For the Chargé d’Affaires, a.i.:
Joseph Sweeney

  1. In the omitted portion of this despatch, it is reported that on May 3 Mrs. Margaret L. Ballinger, Native Representative in the South African House of Assembly, and Senator Brookes, Native Representative in the South African Senate, called on Prime Minister Malan and requested the convening of a roundtable conference of all political leaders, including Africans, to discuss the Native problem on a level above politics. Malan refused.
  2. Cape Town Embassy Series Despatch 118, June 8, described the South African Group Areas Act of June 1950 as follows:

    “The Group Areas Bill is a long and complicated proposal to set up a permanent scheme on a racial basis for the ownership and occupation of real property in South Africa. The Bill makes apartheid (segregation) a permanent part of South African law because it forces people to live in separate and distinct areas according to race. Thus, compulsion by law to restrict the use of land will be for the first time placed upon the Malay, Indian and Colored (mixed blood) peoples of the Cape, without need for further legislation or approval by Parliament. “(845A.411/6–850)