From No Outspan
by Deneys Reitz
It began with a dispute on a colliery, the workers of which laid down their tools. The strike spread to the Reef and the position became aggravated, as the original leaders were superseded by extremists, who called a general strike – and they resorted to violence.
At the head of the disturbance were Fisher and Spendriff, two Australian communists, and the outbreak assumed alarming proportions. The rank and file of the workers were mainly young Afrikaners from the country districts, brave and reckless, and traditionally prepared to settle their quarrels with a rifle.
Revolutionary commandos sprang up overnight, and as many of the insurgents had relatives and friends in the rural areas, there was a danger that the conflagration might result in nationwide civil war.
In Johannesburg and along the Reef, anarchy reigned. A workers’ republic was declared; dissident rebel forces captured the outlying suburbs and townships; police were shot on sight; and their barracks and stations were besieged and bombed, while incendiarism and street-fighting were the order of the day. Johannesburg was completely surrounded, and our government troops held the inner ring of the city with great difficulty.
As the youngest member of the Cabinet, I bore less responsibility than the others, but it was a trying time.
With Johannesburg and the gold mines practically in the hands of the insurgents, General Smuts proclaimed martial law. Fifty thousand mounted burghers were called up, and he made a dramatic dash through the rebel lines into Johannesburg. He was fired on at close range, but he got safely through, and took command in person.
He attacked them the next day with infantry and guns, and he surrounded their stronghold at Fordsburg with his horsemen. After causing leaflets to be dropped from aeroplanes warning the women and children to evacuate the town, the government commandos closed in under cover of gunfire, and Fordsburg was taken. As our men entered, Fisher and Spendiff shot themselves, and the rising collapsed.
It had been an expensive affair. More than seven hundred people had been killed, and there was heavy material damage. Politically, the effects were disastrous. Our opponents blamed us for having acted too harshly, and our supporters blamed us for not having acted quickly enough, so we were ground between the upper and the nether millstone.
Then, to add to our troubles, came the trial of a number of the ringleaders. They were not prosecuted for high treason, but for the cold-blooded murder of civilians.
As always, a reaction set in. Thousands may lie unremembered on the field of battle, but the public blenches at executions. When five of the worst offenders were sentenced to death, mass meetings were called, petitions were signed, and reprieves were demanded. But we decided to hang these men. They had committed atrocious murders, not in the heat of action, but by deliberately killing non-combatants.
I think we did the right thing in the circumstances, but we paid the penalty that befalls those who do the right thing in a democracy. The revolution cost us heavily in prestige, and the executions in the Pretoria gaol cost us even more.
The hanging of a man named Taffy Long did us the most harm. He was a soldier with a good war record, who had served at Gallippoli and was decorated for courage. Every soldier in the Union clamoured for his release, and Prince Arthur of Connaught (our Governor-General) at first refused to sign the death warrant. Still, he had been found guilty of a brutal murder, and we felt that the better the soldier he had been, the less justification there was for his conduct.
I regretted his fate, although in Cabinet I had voted for his death. He was a brave man. The evening before he was to die, he asked for something to read, and he was given a Bible. He looked at the sacred volume, read its title, and sent it spinning through the open door of his cell into the passage beyond, saying: ‘Bible! Bible be damned! Bring me one of Nat Gould’s novels.’
He went to his doom the next morning singing the Red Flag.