Keir Hardie in South Africa by Martin Plaut

Martin Plaut is a South African/British journalist and historian, writing on African history and politics since the 1980s. He is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London and maintains this blog. I am very happy that he has been able to write a guest post for Hatful of History on part of his research into South African labour history in the early 20th century. Below is an extract from an article he is writing on how British Labour Party leader Keir Hardie’s visit to South Africa informed the Party’s ideas about empire and ‘race’ in the pre-1914 period.


South Africa as part of Hardie’s journey

It may come as something of a surprise that the first leader of the British Labour Party, Keir Harie visited Cape Town, but in February 1908 he did. The city was the final stop on a round the world tour that had lasted no less than eight months.[1] Hardie’s journey took in Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and finally South Africa. It may be that he was attempting to find a way of ending his passionate relationship with Sylvia Pankhurst, but Hardie took the opportunity to visit and get to know the labour and socialist parties across the Empire.

Hardie’s remarks in India, critical of British rule, were widely reported in the UK as well as South Africa. When he arrived in Durban on 11th February 1908 he faced a storm of controversy. Although Hardie attempted to re-assure the journalists who came to interview him in Durban that he was not in the country to stir up a revolution, he had little success. Hardie’s South African journey was dogged by bitter criticism and violent demonstrations, from which he was lucky to escape without serious injury. Most of this has been admirably recorded by Jonathan Hyslop, who provided vivid details of the challenges Hardie faced from the white trade union movement whom he attempted to win over to a more non-racial perspective.[2] But Hyslop’s narrative runs out of steam after the notorious attacks on the Labour leader in Pretoria, when a mob, 3,000 strong effectively ran him out of town, singing ‘We’ll hang Keir Hardie from a sour apple tree’.

South Africa was perhaps the first foreign policy issue the emerging Labour Party adopted. Like European socialists, and a section of the British Liberal party, Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald were ‘Pro-Boers’ during the war of 1899 – 1902. They saw the Afrikaners as yeoman-citizens resisting the Imperial might. “Try to imagine what the free Yeoman of England were like two hundred years ago and you have some idea of Boer life,” Hardie told his supporters in 1901. “Their Republican form of government bespeaks freedom…while their methods of production for use are much nearer our ideal than any form of exploitation for profit.”[3] The Labour leaders knew and wrote to the former Boer Generals like Jan Smuts, a relationship that continued after the war. Hardie worked with and spoke alongside men like Cron Schreiner (husband of the author Olive Schreiner), who toured Britain speaking up for the cause; often being heckled and sometimes being physically assaulted.

It was therefore no surprise that when Hardie entered the Cape he made a point of visiting the Schreiners in the little railway town of De Aar. Olive had written to Hardie via Smuts, whom she also knew and was delighted when he replied.

Schreiner clearly longed to see Hardie, writing to a friend: “I don’t believe they’ll deliver my letter as I could put no address. If you can let him know he must come to see us here. Oh I do long to see some of my own people so. I mean those who belong to me.”[4] It seems that she had written via General Smuts, with whom the Schreiners were also friendly. To Olive’s joy, the meeting took place on 25th of February. She was later to describe it to the British suffragette, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, as “the most red-letter day in my life since you and your wife were at Hanover.”[5] Olive Schreiner used the time she spent with Hardie to good effect – briefing him on what had happened during the war and providing a gloomy prognostication about the future of South Africa.

Olive Schreiner did her best to smooth Hardie’s path on the next leg of his journey, to Cape Town. Although he apparently turned down a letter of introduction to her brother, the former Prime Minister of the Cape, William Phillip (W.P.) Schreiner, she nonetheless wrote to him, asking him to take Hardie out for a meal and assist him during his time in Cape Town.[6] Unfortunately, this meeting never materialised, despite the best intentions of both men. W. P. Schreiner got the date wrong, and they missed each other.[7]

Cape Town at the turn of the century

The city that Hardie arrived in in February 1908 had recently experienced both boom and bust. Cape Town had been a re-supply point for European powers on the way to the East for centuries, but it had really come into its own during the Boer war. As the capital of the Cape Colony and one of the main ports through which supplies travelled to support the British war effort, the city prospered as never before. The harbour was bursting at the seams to cope with the influx. New cranes were purchased and the facilities could barely keep pace as the tonnage of goods passing through the port trebled. Capital investment doubled between 1899 and 1904, as did the number of workers in factories, reaching nearly 12,000 in 1904.[8]

It was an auspicious time to celebrate Cape Town’s status, and in 1905 a brand City Hall was unveiled, constructed of golden Bath stone and embellished with a neo-classical façade and ornate clock tower. If the war had been good for the community, it had also seen many attracted to its streets from the rest of South Africa, as well as from across the seas. By 1904, Cape Town had a population of 170,000. It had more than doubled in size in just thirteen years. The influx included 34,000 European immigrants; mainly British, but including around 9,000 East European Jews. The city was predominantly a white, English speaking town, but it was also home to 21,000 ‘Coloured’ people, 9,000 Africans, 2,000 local Afrikaners, 2,000 Indians, and a small black community from outside South Africa.[9]

Cape Town had had a long history of militancy. It had seen the first recorded strike in southern Africa (1752) as well as slave uprisings and mutinies.[10] White workers, whose numbers had being reinforced during the Boer war, were mainly organised as extensions of British unions. It was in December 1881 that the British Trade Union of Carpenters and Joiners established its first South African branch in Cape Town.[11] Nor was it alone. The Amalgamated Society of Boilermakers had ten branches in South Africa, which remitted £1,000 a year to its London based executive council.[12] Some unions exclusively organised white workers, but others did not. The tailors’ union, for example, could not have survived if it had excluded the Malay community, whose forebears had arrived from the Dutch East Indies as slaves or political prisoners. They were well established in the industry and could not be excluded. This did not prevent some white members complaining that they were being undercut by Malays and ‘Polish Jews’ who were ‘living cheaper’, and working longer hours for very little money.[13]

During the Boer war the increasing demand for labour gave ordinary men and women the confidence to adopt new forms of organisation. In 1901 a Coloured businessman, John Tobin, started regular Sunday meetings at the ‘Stone’.[14]

In September 1902 Tobin and five others established the African Political Organisation (APO), to defend Coloured rights. Soon branches were being formed across the Cape colony. By 1904 the APO could boast 2,000 members in 33 branches.[15] The following year the party found a new leader in one of the most remarkable men to ever enter Cape politics: Dr Abdullah Abdurahman. The British trained doctor already had a place on the Cape Town City Council, having been elected in 1904 – the first black person to serve on the body. Dr. Abdurahman was to mobilise the Coloured community with great skill. In 1914 he became the first Coloured person to be elected to the Cape Provincial Council and served on the City and the Provincial Councils until his death in 1940.

Yet Dr Abdurahman and the APO could not take their popular support for granted. They were in competition with a range of left wing movements and parties that flourished in Cape Town in the first decade of the twentieth century.[16] The trade union movement, together with the immigrant community and the Cape’s educated Malay and Coloured populations, allowed a diverse range of parties to flourish, challenging the prevailing racism of the age.

Among these parties was the Social Democratic Federation, which was founded on May Day in 1904. Initially linked to the British movement of the same name, it soon lost these ties. It was led by Wilfred Harrison, a British soldier who had been demoted for fraternizing with Afrikaner prisoners during the Boer War. He was a carpenter, trade unionist and skilled organiser. The Federation ran its own newspaper, Cape Socialist, and built an impressive meeting place, predictably called the ‘Socialist Hall’, which held up to 600 people. The Social Democratic Federation’s founders were mostly white immigrants, but it went out of its way to recruit across the colour line. The historian Lucien Van der Walt points out that the party did more than just talk about winning black recruits:

the SDF set up a propaganda commission to reach Africans, gave talks in Afrikaans, English and Xhosa (the main Bantu language in the Cape), drew people of color into its committees, reached out to the APO, and even influenced Abdurrahman to employ socialist class rhetoric.[17]

Hardie’s arrival in Cape Town

Hardie must have looked forward to his arrival in Cape Town. Not only was it the final stop on his very long journey, he was also assured of a warm welcome. The city also was considerably more progressive than the rest of the country. Despite this his arrival caused yet another controversy. The Trades and Labour Council and the Labour Representation Committee, almost certainly aware of the trouble his views had caused at his previous meetings, decided they would not host his visit. It was left to the Social Democratic Federation to rise to the challenge. Its leader, W. H. Harrison, wrote to the Cape Argus, expressing his disgust:

It is not altogether surprising though pitiably nauseating, to find that semi-capitalist mixture, styled the ‘Labour Representation Committee’ passing a resolution refusing to participate in the reception of Keir Hardie. Such an insult to one of Labour’s greatest leaders adds to the chagrin of such bodies in the eyes of true sympathisers.[18]

An alternative meeting was arranged at the Social Democrat’s Socialist Hall on the edge of District Six. It must have come as a considerable relief to Hardie that he received a warm welcome. But the Socialist Hall meeting was not the main event of the visit, so after a rousing chorus of the traditional Welsh song, ‘Men of Harlech’, Hardie spoke for just fifteen minutes, promising he would give a fuller talk the Sunday, 1st of March. Hardie was as good as his word. On the Sunday, at the more spacious Good Hope Hall, he spoke to a “large” crowd, which had packed in.[19] This time they were not all socialists, but although at the beginning… “a small hostile element made its presence known, the assemblage was well disposed towards the speaker, and gave him a cordial reception.” Hardie used his Good Hope Hall speech to appeal to the self-interest of white workers; urging them to make common cause with their black brothers, as the Cape Times reported:

Now, Socialism stood for the rights of humanity as human beings, and if the white working people of South Africa countenanced the exploitation of the coloured races, then they (the white workers) themselves must expect to be exploited. Freedom could not be limited by geographical lines or racial lines, and the time would come when unless something were done speedily in South Africa, they would find the coloured man ousting them from their places; because he was a cheaper worker than the white man. Let a strike take place, and they would find then where the blacklegs were drawn from… I don’t want to see, and I shall not be silent and stand by, and see our white civilisation dragged down by the capitalist class employing coloured labour for the purpose. (Cheers)[20]

He concluded with a theme that was commonly held among British liberals at the time – that although black and white were not yet equal, both had an equal right to receive the human rights that they were due.

And so the Socialist movement stands flat-footed for equal rights for every race. We do not say all races are equal; no one dreams of doing that, but I do say most emphatically that the coloured man, the native of South Africa, within his own civilisation, has as much right to have his freedom respected as any have within our civilisation. We stand, I say, for equal rights. (Cheers)

Keir Hardie’s time at the Cape was at an end. He returned to Britain in April 1908 and was given a tremendous reception and a great public meeting organised at the Albert Hall by the Labour Party.[21] Hardie later explained in the Labour Leader what he had learnt in South Africa. Certainly he believed the Cape’s property-qualified, but non-racial franchise might provide a model for the democratisation of Britain’s other South African colonies. In his reflections on his southern African stay, he wrote:

Is [‘the native’] to be recognised as a human being and allowed to vote and own property, or is he to be treated as being part wild beast and part child? Shall the Cape take from the natives the rights they possess or shall Natal, Orangia [sic] and Transvaal adopt the Cape Standard?[22]

There was no doubt where he stood on this issue and Hardie remained engaged with the rights of black South Africans in the years ahead.


Keir Hardie returned to Britain a changed man. He had experienced the racism and the venom of the white working class in Natal and the Transvaal at first hand. The Union Jack that he seized as he fled from the hall in Johannesburg, remained on display at his flat in Nevills Court as a proud souvenir.[23] No longer would he refer to the Afrikaners in the terms he had used in 1900. Hardie’s South African visit had opened his eyes to the harsh realities of white racism and made him much more sympathetic to the plight of the black majority.

At the same time the Labour Party leaders remained in touch with Afrikaner leaders, including Jan Smuts.[24] This posed something of a challenge as the years went by and the nature of their rule became clear – first in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, and then, after 1910, in the Union of South Africa. By 1909, when the new Union Constitution came before the British Parliament, the Labour Party had moved firmly away from supporting white South Africans in general and the Afrikaner leaders in particular. Rather, the Labour Party drew on the experience and expertise that Hardie and MacDonald had gained from visiting the country. Labour sided with W. P. Schreiner and the non-racial delegation that he led against the official South African deputation, which included men like Botha and Smuts. The Labour Party listened to what Schreiner’s deputation had to say, entertained the deputation in Parliament and supported their case to the end of the debates.[25] When the Bill came before the House of Commons, Hardie was scathing in his attack on the racial bar that it was introducing into a constitution approved by the Imperial Parliament.[26] He concluded his speech with these words:

…it is of the utmost importance that the last word should not be spoken in the way of washing our hands of responsibility, either towards the people of South Africa, or the Empire as a whole, and that the House of Commons should not assent to the setting up of the doctrine that because of a man’s misfortune in having been born with a coloured skin he is to be barred the possibility of ever rising to a position of trust.

Ramsay MacDonald was even clearer:

This is not a South African question only, but it is a great Imperial question, and one which is probably going to have more to say in shaping the future of this Empire than any other single question which is before us now.[27]

But the Liberal government of the day had set its face against making any concessions to the argument. In reality the die had been cast in the terms of the Treaty of Vereeniging, which ended the Boer war. The British establishment was enormously relieved that it had ended its battles with the Afrikaners. By 1909 all the goodwill in the world was not going to rupture this new-found relationship between London and Pretoria, a relationship which had little to offer the majority of South Africans.

Keir Hardie’s trip set the tone for a growing relationship between the Labour Party and southern Africa. His travels together with the previous visit to South Africa by Ramsay MacDonald meant that the emerging party had first-hand experience of the situation. This helped form the background to the party’s stand during the debate on the Union constitution in 1909. It might have resulted in a more active engagement, had not the First World War intervened, consuming international attention.[28]


[1] Kenneth O. Morgan, Keir Hardie; radical and socialist, Phoenix Giant Paperbacks, London 1997 (first published by Orion Books 1975) p. 178 – 199

[2] Jonathan Hyslop, The world voyage of James Keir Hardie: Indian nationalism, Zulu insurgency and the British labour diaspora 1907–1908, Journal of Global History (2006) 1, pp. 343–362

[3] Kenneth O. Morgan, Keir Hardie: Radical and Socialist, p. 104 – 105

[4] Olive Schreiner: John & Mary Brown MSC 26/2.2.10. ‘Olive Schreiner to Mary Brown nee Solomon, 1908, NLSA Cape Town, Special Collections, Olive Schreiner Letters Project transcription’.

[5] Olive Schreiner BC16/Box8/Fold4/MMPr/AssortedCorres/FredPL/9

Olive Schreiner to Frederick (‘Fred’) Pethick-Lawrence, 27 February 1908, UCT Manuscripts & Archives, Olive Schreiner Letters Project transcription’.

[6] Olive Schreiner BC16/Box4/Fold1/1908/10. ‘Olive Schreiner to William Philip (‘Will’) Schreiner, 26 February 1908, UCT Manuscripts & Archives, Olive Schreiner Letters Project transcription’.

[7] LSE. ILP/4/1908/89. 2 March 1908. W.P. Schreiner to J. Keir Hardie. (Capetown).

[8] Vivian Bickford-Smith, Elizabeth van Heyningen and Nigel Worden, Cape Town in the twentieth century, David Philip, Cape Town, 1999, p. 26

[9] Lucien van der Walt, Anarchism and syndicalism in an African port city: the

revolutionary traditions of Cape Town’s multiracial working class, 1904–1931, Labor History, Vol. 52, No. 2, May 2011, p. 141

[10] Worden, Nigel. ‘Artisan Conflicts in a Colonial Context: The Cape Town Blacksmith Strike of 1752’. Labor History 46, no. 2 (2005): 155–84. Nicole Ulrich, Counter Power and Colonial Rule in the Eighteenth-Century Cape of Good Hope: Belongings and Protest of the Labouring Poor, PhD Thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, 2011

[11] Ernest Gitsham and James Trembath, A first account of Labour Organisation in South Africa, E & P. Commercial Printing Co. Durban, 1926, p. 14 – 15

[12] Andrew Thompson, The Empire Strikes Back? The impact of Imperialism on Britain from the mid-nineteenth century, Pearson Education, Harlow, 2005, p. 69

[13] Vivian Bickford-Smith, Ethnic pride and racial prejudice in Victorian Cape Town, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, p.174

[14] The Stone was, in reality, a series of stones, more or less in a circle, with the largest one used to stand on to address the crowd. Vivian Bickford-Smith, Elizabeth van Heyningen and Nigel Worden, op. cit. p. 27

[15] Vivian Bickford-Smith, Ethnic pride and racial prejudice in Victorian Cape Town, op cit. p. 204

[16] This section draws on Lucien van der Walt’s path-breaking work in re-interpreting Cape history. Lucien van der Walt, Anarchism and syndicalism in an African port city: the revolutionary traditions of Cape Town’s multiracial working class, op cit.

[17] Lucien van der Walt, Anarchism and syndicalism in an African port city: the revolutionary traditions of Cape Town’s multiracial working class, op cit. p. 145

[18] Cape Argus, 29 February 1908

[19] Cape Times, 2 March 1908

[20] Cape Times, 2 March 1908

[21] Kenneth O. Morgan, Keir Hardie: Radical and Socialist, op. cit., p. 198

[22] Labour Leader, 5 May 1908, in Jonathan Hyslop, The world voyage of James Keir Hardie: Indian nationalism, Zulu insurgency and the British labour diaspora 1907–1908, p. 361

[23] Kenneth O. Morgan, Keir Hardie: Radical and Socialist, p. 197. There is a photograph of Hardie’s study in the National Library of Scotland which shows the Union Jack.

[24] There are a number of letters between Smuts and Ramsay MacDonald in the National Archive at Kew. PRO 30/69/1203 I

1897 – 1909 South Africa: Correspondence JRM & MEM

[25] Martin Plaut, A menu for change, p. 64

[26] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 19 August 1909 vol 9 cc1553-605

[27] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 19 August 1909 vol 9 cc1553-605

[28] The South African Labour Party, a member of the Second International, opposed the war, passing resolutions against it in December 1914 and January 1915, although many of its branches took the opposite view and it supported the war in Parliament. See Hew Strachan, The First World War in Africa, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004, p. 61-62

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