Rebels with an Unjust Cause

On the centenary of South Africa’s 1922 Rand Revolt, the writer shares his late father’s intimate childhood recollections and personal experiences

By David E. Kaplan

The  centenary this 2022 of the armed uprising of white miners in the Witwatersrand region of South Africa  – known as the ‘Rand Rebellion’ ,  the ‘1922 Rand Revolt’ or the ‘1922 Rand Strike” and by some even the ‘Red Revolt’ – will likely pass ignored as the experiences, passions and issues of yesterday’s long dead no longer resonate with today’s living.

Rioting on the Reef! Fear of civil war is the lead in this Cape Times March 11 1922.

Relegated today to a footnote in history,  it was on foot many years ago  that I learnt firsthand of what happened through a child’s eyes – my late father, Solly Kaplan.

Steely Resolve. The writer’s father, Solly Kaplan as a young man in Cape Town having left Johannesburg the year following the 1922 Rand Revolt and would with his brother Ike Kaplan and Solly Kushlich start a steel business, Cape Gate, in 1929.

On a family visit to Johannesburg shortly after the end of Apartheid, we were idly sitting at a hotel  breakfast table when my father said, “Son, come I want to take you downtown to Fordsburg;  show you a chapter of my childhood when South Africa teetered on the brink of civil war.”

Turmoil at the Toilet. The historic Fordsburg public toilet building on the south western corner was fortified as a blockhouse by the strikers and still showed – until the 1980s – bullet damage to the walls. Anticipating attacks, strikers dug trenches on the perimeter of the square bordering Mint and Commercial Roads.

With violence in the streets of downtown central Johannesburg rife at the time and my father well in his senior years, I cautioned against it but he replied:

 “Violence! You don’t know what violence is. I was a youngster here back then and I was in the thick of it, darting between bullets.”

I was fascinated.

The Homefront. A typical Victorian semi-detached house with corrugated roofs like the one Solly Kaplan lived in as a boy and from where striker commandos fired at the ILH (Imperial Light Horse). (Photo SJ de Klerk).

I threw back my coffee and said lets go. On the way, he explained that his exposure to civil violence began a good few years before the 1922 Revolt, when as a young lad of five, he disembarked at Johannesburg Central Station in 1913, “in the midst of a violent miners revolt.”

He explained:

What stated as a dispute over working hours of a few miners at the New Klipfontein Mine led to sackings and a strike that soon spread to other mines. By the time I arrived in Jo’burg, rioting had broken out in the centre of the town. Soon thereafter, Park Station was set ablaze, as were the offices of “The Star” newspaper. Union government troops soon joined the fray, and in the first two days of open hostilities, over 100 strikers and innocent bystanders had been killed.”

Squaring Off. Directly opposite the historic Sacks Hotel, later the Orient Hotel (seen here), was the Fordsburg Market Square and the two-storey Market Building used by strikers as their headquarters which has since been demolished. (SJ de Klerk).

This was Solly’s baptism of fire of life in Johannesburg, and by the time my father left the ‘Golden City’, for “the quiet and sedate Cape” in 1923, he would experience firsthand – “virtually on our doorstep” – the far more serious and violent miners’ rebellion, which history would record as the 1922 Rand Revolt.

Waiting Attack. Preparing for an assault, a sandbag barricade at Johannesburg’s Town Hall.

When the hostilities broke out, Solly, now 12, was living with his family in downtown Johannesburg. “It was not a Jewish area, more a mixed bag of locals and immigrants, with a plethora of rough and ready types, who had  gravitated to this grubby, dusty boomtown. People tried to eke out a living the best they could.” His father, Max, worked in a small factory in West Street  manufacturing wrought iron gates – an expertise that would sow the seeds with his sons and emerge as the global wire and steel manufacturing behemoth – Cape Gate.

“We had settled in Anderson Street in one of those typical small houses with a corrugated tin roof and a front porch close to an area known as the Jeppe Dip. It was here that white miners set themselves up in a makeshift stockade and from where they indiscriminately shot at any blacks within firing range.”

Country at a Crossroads. Anderson Street in downtown Johannesburg where the writer’s  father lived at the time of the 1922 Rand Revolt.


The revolt began, explained Solly, “as a strike in Witbank on 2 January 1922, when coal miners downed tools over proposed pay cuts.” What then inflamed the crisis was the announcement by the Chamber of Mines to increase the employment ratio of black to white workers, which would have resulted in a substantial diminution of white jobs. Adding fuel to the fire was a further proposal to abolish the paid holidays of May Day and Dingaan’s Day, both enormously symbolic to the English and Afrikaans workers respectively. On February 7, Johannesburg was greeted by the sight of striking miners marching through the streets under the banner:


Ready, Aim, Fire! The seat today of the Constitutional Court of South Africa,  some of South Africa’s major corporations and the University of the Witwatersrand, the central suburb of Braamfontein is seen here in 1922  reminiscent of a scene from the Great War with soldiers in trenches squaring off against the strikers. (Picture SAR Magazine)

So, what began as a strike supporting job reservation,” explained Solly, “rapidly exploded into an armed rebellion, where Afrikaner Nationalists had no problem joining forces with English speaking communists.”

This sudden solidarity between natural foes, “showed that  when expedient, traditional ideological antipathy can quickly be dispensed with for the shared common cause of self-interest.”


Although only twelve, “I was very conscious of what happening, mainly because of the risks I had to take. My stepmother used to send me out daily to buy provisions from the store in Commissioner Street, some three blocks away. I would dash along, and then when crossing intersections, I would constantly be on the lockout, ducking and diving when necessary the bullets coming from the stockades and roadblocks. Any unfortunate blacks in the area were moving targets and would attract a fusillade of gunfire.”

One day, recalled Solly:

We heard shooting outside our house. We ran out onto our stoep (porch), and saw a black man writhing in pain on the road. He had been shot by a dum-dum bullet, filled at the head to implode on impact. The poor fellow’s leg was completely shattered. We had no phones in the area, so I ran to the nearest greengrocer, run by the Regalsky family, and asked someone to phone for an ambulance. We did the best we could for the fellow as he lay bleeding profusely on our stoep. It was clear that he would lose his leg.”

Under Fire. Cross the centre of a main street, government forces raise their rifles behind sand bags to face an attack by the strikers.


By mid-March the strike leaders lost control of the mobs that had virtually seized most of Johannesburg and were calling for armed insurrection and the overthrow of the state. It was then that Prime Minister Jan Smuts made his move. He declared martial law; travelled by train from the Cape to the Rand and “alighted at Potchefstroom and continued the journey to Jo’burg by car. He was acting prudently, afraid he could be bumped-off if word got out that he would be arriving at a given time at the central station,” related Solly who had remained fascinated by the turbulent history surrounding this early chapter of his youth. “Smuts then personally took control of more than 20,000 troops backed by airplanes, tanks and field artillery.”

Sending in the big Guns. With tanks sent onto the streets of Johannesburg, a Whippet tank is seen here approaching Fordsburg.

Walking around the streets where this drama played out,  Solly continued:

There were mass arrests of strikers, and many of the ringleaders who had been trapped in their headquarters in the Trades Hall were picked up and then jailed at The Fort. Fierce retaliation on police stations followed, mainly to replenish arms, but after five days of fierce battles against trained government troops, the insurrection was brought to a climactic violent finale. Brixton Ridge, which was captured by troops on March 12th, provided the ideal position from which the artillery could open fire on the main rebel strongholds in Fordsburg. It was subjected to a thunderous pounding and on March 14th, government troops  swept into town. Rather than face the inevitable charge of treason, two of the strike leaders, Spendiff and Fischer, committed suicide.”

Revolutionary Road. Following strikers congregating at the Rissik Street Trades Hall (above),  police reports described strikers armed with bicycle chains, old swords and bayonets, poles barbed with spikes and a variety of firearms. Overnight, striker violence seemed to spread across the Rand. (Wikipedia)

In the legal proceedings that flowered, Solly continued, “118 strike leaders were sentenced to death of which four were finally executed. They walked defiantly to the gallows singing the communist anthem, “The Red Flag”.

The Aftermath. Fordsburg Market Square after the revolt. In the foreground the trenches dug around its edges and in the background McIntosh’s store damaged by artillery fire.

Walking through the area of his youth, it took a lot of imagination on my part as too few buildings remained from that period, only the street signs like Anderson, Fox, Rissik, Eloff, Jeppe and Commissioner. Bustling with traffic and pedestrians, we had to carefully look out for oncoming vehicles as we crossed these same streets.

A far cry from dodging bullets,” observed Solly wryly.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO)