In 1907 Keir Hardie, leader of the Labour Party, travelled to South Africa, as part of a round the world tour of the British Empire and Japan. This is his account of what he had to endure at the hands of white racists.

Source: South Africa’s Radical Tradition, a documentary history, Volume One 1907 – 1950, by Allison Drew

Hardie’s reception was not always this bad: in Cape Town he was warmly received by local socialists.

Keir Hardie Cape Town

 


Keir Hardie, “Stoned in South Africa”, 1907′

“I landed at Durban, and was, of course, soon being interviewed by the Press. Then, as now, the racial question was acute, and the Unions were alarmed at the manner in which the coloured people were supplanting them, even in the skilled trades. To meet this competition, the Unions refused to admit the coloured races to membership, which, of course, only aggravated the evil. My suggestion was that the Unions should be thrown open to the coloured men, and that, as they would then claim the same pay as the whites, a thing they were anxious to do, their competition as cheap workers would end. It will scarcely be credited by those not on the spot, but this produced as much sensation as though I had proposed to cut the throat of every white man in South Africa. The capitalist Press simply howled with rage – there were, of course, exceptions – and at Ladysmith a mob, led by a local lawyer, wrecked the windows of the hotel in which I was staying.

This, however, was but the beginning. At every station at which the train stopped on the way north to Johannesburg, there were crowds of sightseers to hoot and jeer and threaten. Many of these were Boer farmers, who had already forgotten the stand I had made on their behalf at home, and for which, also, by the way, I had been stoned and hunted through the streets of towns and cities in both England and Scotland; but these, as a rule, stood looking on and grinning. At one station where the train stopped 15 minutes, and where the mob was specially menacing, I got on to the platform and succeeded in addressing the people. I explained what I had said, and then invited the working men present to say whether they disagreed. For a time no one moved, until a sturdy young blacksmith stepped forward and gripping my hand, said, “Here’s one that’s going to stand by you; you have spoken the truth,” whereat quite a big cheer went up, and one fellow, a blackguard of a journalist who had led the opposition, rushed at me with uplifted stick, but was seized by some of those about him and rushed to the outskirts of the crowd. Next morning the Johannesburg Press reported that I had been stoned out of the station!

But it was at Johannesburg where the storm burst in all its fury. Mr. Connolly, President of the Natal Railwaymen’s Union, and a member of the Legislative Chamber, had very courageously accompanied me up from Ladysmith. An Irishman with the heart of a lion, he was in indifferent health, and for some years I have lost trace of him. When we were entering the capital of the goldfields, he was visibly alarmed. He had had some experience of Johannesburg, and knew what its cosmopolitan crowd could: do. The station, the approach leading thereto, and the bridge over the railway was one black mass of seething, howling demons. As the train drew up, young Crawford, one of the deported nine, saw me, and signalled to a number of constables, who formed a cordon round the doorway, whilst a number of them surrounded me and led me by a by-path up from the station to where a cab was waiting. The crowd, which was waiting for my exit by the main doorway, was for a minute or two outwitted, but as the cab, guarded by the police, passed over the bridge, someone awoke to what was taking place, and with a shout the mob started in pursuit. Showers of stones smashed the windows, and both the driver and the policeman came in for some nasty cuts. But the horses were good, and we soon out-distanced the pursuers and reached the hotel in safety, and there a cordon of police kept the mischief-makers at bay.”


Hardie snatched a Union Jack from one of the Transvaal venues he spoke at, as he fled. He kept it in his study in London for the rest of his life.

From National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
From National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

 

 

 

In 1909 a non-racial delegation, led by the former Cape Prime Minister, William Schreiner, came to London to try to preserve the rights of all to vote when the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910. The Labour Party was the bastion of the Schreiner delegation’s support – and Keir Hardie was lampooned in the media for his efforts, as this racist cartoon indicates.

Keir Hardie Schreiner cartoon