845A.411/11–951: Despatch

The Ambassador in the Union of South Africa ( Gallman ) to the Department of State

No. 312

Subject: Native Unrest.

A few years ago people in the Union of South Africa speculated on whether or not there would be Native unrest in the future; today the only speculation that is justifiable is when and how the disturbance will come. As the Embassy has previously pointed out, under the various measures for implementing White supremacy and apartheid (racial segregation) put forward by the present Nationalist Government, relations between the Natives and Whites have deteriorated to the lowest level in the Union’s history. All persons working independently with the Natives, that is to say, persons not connected with the Government, whom the reporting officer has talked with in recent weeks are extremely worried about the possibility of Native disturbances.

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No one except the Non-European leaders appears convinced that the Natives have sufficient organization at this time to effect an overthrow of the present system of Government. What is currently under discussion by informed observers is this: Under the Suppression of Communism Act a great many Non-European leaders have been “named” and they anticipate that many of them may be jailed. Those that are not placed in jail will, as a matter of course, be prevented from carrying on their activities in Non-European organizations. Since these Non-European leaders will be prevented, in any case, from going on with their political activities, the danger is that they will attempt some sort of demonstration while they are still able to do so. In recent talks with Non-European leaders, they have dropped a great many hints of trouble in the relatively near future. Embassy officers have been told that Natives in the various locations around Johannesburg have arms; that Non-European leaders have made a list of the “hot heads” in the Youth Congress; and that the “Tsotsis” (Native zoot suit gangsters) will be utilized. A variety of schemes for provoking disorders have been mentioned, the most imaginative of which is one which envisages that on a given signal all the Native petrol attendants on the Witwatersrand would set fire to their petrol tanks. In the confusion that would result, Natives could create considerable damage and intimidate the present Government. Other schemes speak of carefully organized plans for domestic servants to kill their masters and others talk of the mine workers going out and creating havoc by dynamite. The reporting officer has been told by numerous Non-European leaders that the quantities of dynamite stolen each week are considerable. However, many persons close to the Natives are convinced they will take no step until the declaration of World War III.

In the past two weeks a growing number of hints have been dropped that a conference of Non-European leaders meeting on December 15, 1951 in Bloemfontein will map out a campaign for a mass protest. Recent rumors among the more extremist Johannesburg Natives suggest that the day chosen for a protest will be Dingaan’s Day, December 16. (This is the day celebrated throughout the Union by Afrikaners as a sort of spiritual protest against the assassination of the Voortrekker leader, Piet Retif, by Dingaan, the Zulu chieftain.)

Embassy Comment:

It is extremely difficult to evaluate the timing of a general Native uprising. About all that the Embassy can do is to notify the Department at times when Native tension is on the increase. This is such a time. The Government authorities are convinced that they can deal with any uprising and are further convinced that there is insufficient organization to arrange a genuine uprising. We believe that the Union has sufficient forces to put down any uprising that does not get out of hand. However, if a Union-wide Native disturbance were to last for [Page 1462] 24 hours the Government would have serious difficulty in coping with it, however improbable such an event may appear. If it is true that the Natives are not capable of organizing a serious uprising, then there is something wrong with the Government’s statement which claims that in time of war it would be necessary to retain a sizeable force of troops in the Union to maintain internal security.

In short, opinion on a Native uprising is divided into three groups. One group holds that the Natives will never rise and that eventually through the years the Government will be able to control them through apartheid or their lot will be bettered by industrial advancement (this point of view includes the majority of White South Africans, and is particularly strong among industrialists). The second group believes that there will be scattered riots which will be put down ruthlessly, but no genuine rebellion, for the foreseeable future, although they acknowledge that it may come eventually. (This point of view is held by “progressive” Afrikaners, and many missionaries and social workers.) The third group believes that a large Native uprising is inevitable and that eventually South Africa will become a black man’s country. (This point of view is held by a small minority which includes most of the independent authorities on Native affairs, liberals, and the few white people who are close to Non-European leaders.) No one could prove any one of these three points of view, or give any sort of “proof” that one opinion is more likely to prevail than another. What can be said, however, is that there are less than a half-dozen white people who have any sort of idea of what the Non-Europeans as a whole are “thinking”.There is no Non-Communist white person who is on the “inside” of thinking and planning among the Non-European leaders. The gulf between the Whites and Blacks in South Africa is a serious one. And even the Prime Minister recently admitted that the situation was dangerous in that a “spark” could cause trouble. One thing appears certain and that is that the present tension cannot continue indefinitely—it must be released somehow.

For the Ambassador:
Joseph Sweeney