economic boycott has been used increasingly in the last few years as an instrument of political struggle in Africa; in Northern Rhodesia, some years ago, Africans boycotted traders who operated separate counters for Africans, and won their battle; TANU in Tanganyika ran a successful boycott of European beers last year; and the same technique has been used in Kenya, Uganda, and in West Africa, to gain limited objectives. But in these territories, it has been employed as only one weapon among others open to use by Africans in their struggle for independence—in South Africa it is being developed to a far greater extent into a main technique of struggle, for other methods are largely illegal or impossible.
To understand the great stress being laid on boycott as a possible revolutionary weapon in South Africa, it is necessary to know something of the economic basis of the African’s dilemma: South Africa’s economy depends on the mining industry, upon the expanding secondary (monthly export) industries that have grown up since the war, and upon agriculture, which also feeds the export trade (fresh fruit, and canned food of all kinds, wool, hides, skins, and wines). All these enterprises are white-controlled, and all of them need labour. Long ago, a steady flow of labour was ‘encouraged’ by the allocation of a mere 13 per cent of the land for African use, so that large numbers of young men would be forced to seek work in ‘white’ areas in order to keep themselves and their families. But they were discouraged from settling down in the towns, to form a stable and potentially threatening working class, by the pass laws, under which all Africans outside the reserves must carry on them at all times an identification document, a permit to seek work, a permit to work in an urban area, a permit to be in an urban area and be out after dark, etc. The pass laws are used, in fact, to divert African labour to the least popular and least paid jobs—on the farms, particularly, and in the mines.
The Nationalist government has gone to endless trouble to intensify this system which denies to the non-white worker the elementary liberty of choosing where and at what he will work. Africans are not defined as employees under the Industrial Conciliation Acts, so they have no right to form trade unions, to negotiate on wages and working conditions, or to strike. Every strike by Africans in South Africa is an illegal one, and may therefore be broken by force. The government has gone further. It has allocated specific jobs for Europeans only, and retains the power to declare any job the preserve of any one racial group.
Industrial action to improve conditions is therefore impossible; and the conditions themselves are disastrous. Political action is no more open to non-whites—the few, inadequate, white representatives in Parliament for Africans are having their seats abolished; extraparliamentary opposition through the mass organisations of the people—the congresses and the unofficial trade unions—leads to the banishment or banning of leaders, and the treason trial. Demonstrations, petitions, are ignored, if they are not broken up by police violence. Lately, rioting has been the result of increasing frustration among the African people: families are being broken up, homes broken down, under the group areas laws, whereby whole populations must move from their shanty towns in the cities to government estates far from work, and where often enough wives and families are either not allowed, or are allowed only if the marriage has taken place under recognised law— which is frequently not so, as customary unions are common in the insecure life of the townships.
What are the alternatives left open? Only the continuation of the present situation (which leads to violence anyway), violent revolution, or boycott. Another way was tried in 1952—passive resistance to unjust laws, when thousands of people went to gaol in an organised campaigns of defiance; but the penalties imposed by the government were so severe that the campaign was crushed. But boycott is not illegal; what is more, even if it were illegal, how to force people to buy what they do not want to buy? It is a method of struggle of all methods most difficult to identify, and therefore to obstruct.