This paper challenges the conventional view that the 1907 miners' strike constituted a landmark in the history of Afrikaner employment in the Witwatersrand gold mining industry. According to this view, the participation of Afrikaners during the dispute, as first-time miners and strike-breakers, gained them a permanent and proportionally large niche in the industry, for the first time. In sharp contrast, this paper demonstrates that Afrikaners already constituted a substantial percentage of white underground workers, particularly as a discrete category of workmen, the miners, well before the strike had even begun
The Afrikaner miners lacked training and mining skills. Yet, like the overseas professional miners, most of whom were British-born, they were classed as skilled workmen, eligible for skilled wages. This anomaly occurred because the so-called skills of the overseas professional miners were fragmented by the labour practices peculiar to the Rand. The expertise of the foreign miner derived from his all-round capabilities and experience. These were exclusively defined to constitute his so-called skill, and hence his skilled wage. But on the Witwatersrand, the overseas professional miners were required to draw on only one of their numerous accomplishments in a ‘specialized’, but only semi-skilled, capacity. They were employed either as supervisors of Africans, who performed drilling tasks, or as specialist pit men doing a single pit task among many: pump minding, pipe fitting, timbering or plate laying. Such fragmentation of the foreign miners' a11-round skills facilitated the entry of lesser trained men as miners, notably the Afrikaners.
To become a miner, more specifically a supervisor, the Afrikaner needed only a brief period of specific instruction, which he acquired in one of several ways: through mine-sponsored experiments with unskilled white labour, rather than black; through the informal assistance of qualified miners; and through management-sponsored learner schemes intended to provide a core of compliant Afrikaner miners who would break the monopoly of skills and collective strength of the overseas professional miners. Such training enabled the Afrikaner to earn the compulsory, but readily available, blasting certificate, the award of which was confined to whites. Although most Afrikaners possessed this certificate, the hallmark of a skilled miner, they could not earn the customary white skilled wage because they were obliged to work under a System of contracts and not on day's pay.
The incompetent Afrikaner miners nevertheless obtained billets easily, partly because of the industry's growth, but mainly because the overseas pioneer miners were decimated by the preventable occupational mining disease, silicosis: the locally born simply filled their places. The Afrikaners, of course, were also vulnerable to silicosis; but it was only from 1911 onwards that this gradually developing disease claimed them in significant numbers too.
The overseas miners shunned the Afrikaners not only for ethnic reasons but also for material ones: they feared that the local miners, who were inefficient and had not been trained in the lengthy apprenticeships traditional in the industry, would undercut skilled wage rates. Management also scorned them because of their incompetence. Despite their relatively large numbers – they comprised at least one-third of the miners – the Afrikaners, who were unsuccessful, isolated and spurned, made little impact on the socio-economic and cultural fabric of the industry's work-force, either at the time of the 1907 strike or during its immediate aftermath.