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The 1946 mine workers strike

Today many mine workers belong to N.U.M. — the National Union of Mineworkers. N.U.M. is helping miners fight for their rights. But the mineworkers’ struggle has a long history.

Forty years ago, seventy thousand mine workers came out on strike. They wanted the mine bosses to listen to them. They were asking for ten shillings (one rand) a day. The strike lasted for five days.

Workers were beaten and arrested. Many workers were hurt and twelve workers died. In the end, the workers gave up and went back to work, without their increase. They felt they had failed.

The miners lost their strike but they did not fail. They gave the people who work in the mines today something to remember and something to be proud of.


One old miner told us what life on the mines was like long ago. “I started on the mines in 1934,” he said. “In those days we used to walk to the mines from Lesotho. The people at home used to grind roasted mealies for us to eat on the way.

“The money was very little. We used to get one shilling and six pence a shift — it was about five rand a month. And the compounds were just shacks with chimneys. We used to make fires to keep ourselves warm.

“There were many accidents underground. People died like flies. A friend of mine, Mr Ntsau, lost his eye in an accident and all he got was R50 for that eye.”


“The food was also a big problem. When we came up late from underground, they used to give us porridge. But the porridge was so little that you finished it before you sat down.”

“And the meat — we used to call it dula-dula’ — rubbish. Sometimes in summer it was rotten with worms. But even when it wasn’t rotten, it was always too tough to eat.”


On August 3,1941, some people from the ANC and the Communist Party had a big meeting to talk about the mineworkers’ problems. Eighty people came to the meeting. They said that the answer to the mineworkers’ problems was a trade union. They called the new union the African Mineworkers’ Union (AMWU). J. B. Marks was chosen as the President and James Majoro was made the Vice-president. But the job they chose was a hard one. The mines would not let the union organisers into the mine compounds to talk to the workers.


The mine bosses tried to stop the union in other ways too. Mr Molapo remembers how they used the churches. “In those days we were very much under the church,” said Mr Molapo.

“If there was a problem, then the managers used to talk to the people in our church. They used to say the workers are giving us such and such a J.B. Marks — President of the AMWU problem. Then the priest used to talk to us. So people were against the union.”

The union tried many different ways to get mineworkers to join the union. Women wrapped food for the mine workers in union leaflets. Or at night, union organisers threw leaflets about the union over the walls of the compounds.


The union also tried to get the mine bosses to talk to them. But they refused. The Chamber of Mines — the organisation of mine bosses — sent a letter to all the mine managers. They said that none of the mine managers must talk or meet with the people from the union.

Between 1941 and 1946 the union sent many letters to the Chamber but they only got an answer once. They got a postcard saying, “The matter is receiving attention.” The postcard was sent by a clerk who did not know his job.


By 1943 only 1 800 miners had joined the union. J.B. Marks and his com- rades did not know what to do. So they decided to go out to the mines. They hoped that they would not be arrested. J B Marks said, “I decided to take the bull by the horns — to go onto mine property. The first big meeting we had was at Robinson Deep Mine, near Randfontein. We gave out a leaflet, calling the workers to a meeting.

‘ ‘About five to six thousand workers came. Lots of police came too. But they didn’t arrest me. So I took it that they wanted to see how far we would go.”


One old miner remembers the union meetings. “Marks used to come. He had meetings in the football grounds. In those days there were no security police. It was the South African Police. A sergeant used to come and take notes. The mine police would also come.

“Marks was going from mine to mine in those days — and the mines were many, there were more than sixty. Ordinary underground workers became members. Even the ‘omabha- lane’ — the clerks — were paying their sixpence. Nearly the whole mine would go to the meeting.” The union’s new tricks worked. By 1944 the AMWU had 25 000 members.


In April 1946 the AMWU had their big Police watch the striking miners. 2 000 mine workers came. They said they wanted R1,00 a day, two weeks leave every year, and a bonus after 25 years. They also said they wanted the right to have meetingand they wanted houses for their families.

The miners also agreed that if the bosses refused to listen, they would ago on strike on Monday, the 12th August. A miner from Randfontein called Moustache said, “I say only one thing..If we are going to get this ten shillings a day, there must be unity. We, at this meeting, must strike from East to West.”

J.B. Marks, the president, warned the workers that a strike would be difficult and dangerous. But the miners said they did not care. One old miner shouted out, “We on the mines are dead men already.”


On Monday, the 12th August, 70 000 Mineworkers came out on strike. It was the biggest strike that had ever happened in South Africa. 21 out of 47 mines stopped work on the first day of the strike.

One newspaper said, “The miners treated the strike as a Sunday. They sat or lay about in groups behind the compound wall. Others strolled about the veld paths, smoking or talking.” But the peace did not last for long.

One old miner, Mr Fohli, talks about the strike. “I was working on Modder- fontein mine, in the Transvaal,” Mr Fohli said. “Someone I knew came with a pile of papers. The papers said that on Monday we must not go to work until we got more money. So we all agreed to stay away until we got that one rand added to our wages.


"On the Monday morning, all the miners came together in the compound grounds. Then the police came. They said, “Go to work. We give you fifteen minutes to go to work.” “People stood around, they were not sure what to do. Then the police shot ‘smoke’ at us. We all started crying from the smoke and we ran into our rooms.

“While we were inside, the police came and beat us. Some people were sleeping — the ones who had worked night shift. But even they got beaten. “The next day, we all went to the gates of the shaft where we used to wait to go underground. And again the police came and beat us, while we were waiting. So we all ran away.

” I was very shocked that day. I saw my foreman, a man called Kloppers. He was there with the police, beating everyone. He was wearing a police uniform!


“When it was time for the next shift, we all went underground — even the people who worked on the surface. We all wanted to get away from the police. But we could not stay under- ground — we had no food.

“By the fourth day all the miners wanted to go back to work — we just could not take the beating anymore. And that was the end of the strike for us.”


On other mines, the strike lasted for one more day. But at the end of the five days, there were twelve miners dead, and more than twelve hundred wounded.

During the strike the Communist Party and other trade unions tried to get workers all over South Africa to strike. But the police broke up the meetings that they tried to hold. And they arrested many members of the Communist Party and the strike committee.


The end of the strike was also the end of the AMWU. Many of the AMWU leaders were charged in court. And after the strike the government made things even tougher for black trade unions.

People say that the strike failed because the AMWU was not well organised. They only had 25 000 members but there were 350 000 people working in the mines.

Whatever mistakes the strikers made, their bravery is still a lesson for us today. We remember them today, in 1986, forty years later, just as we will remember them in time to come.


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