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A penny sparked Alex bus boycotts
31 October 2007

The bus boycotts of the 1940s and '50s "became important weapons in the African struggle … they drew communities together. Walking was protest, requiring positive action in a way that other boycotts did not."

The 1957 bus boycott, with people walking and others hitching a lift on horse-drawn carts
The 1957 bus boycott, with people walking and others hitching a lift on horse-drawn carts
(from: The Star, January 7, 1957)


NE penny is all it took. One penny sparked a three-month bus boycott in Alexandra township 50 years ago this year, with 15 000 people walking about 30 kilometres each day to and from work.

The boycott started on 3 January 1957 and within a few days some 60 000 commuters were walking after residents of Sophiatown and Pretoria joined the boycott in solidarity.

"As they walked they sang and chanted slogans such as 'asinimali' ('we have no money') and 'azikwelwa' ('we will not ride')," records the Reader's Digest Illustrated History of South Africa.

In Public Transport Month it's worthwhile stopping for a moment to consider where we've been, and how resilient people were in finding solutions to transport problems in very difficult times.

Arthur Magerman, a 20-something student living in Alexandra at the time, took part in the boycotts. He walked to the University of the Witwatersrand every day for the first month, but then caught a taxi with other Alex commuters for the next two months. Now he says: "We were involved in a revolutionary movement - there was a certain excitement, it was a momentous thing."

It was summer, Johannesburg's rainy season, and it was "very, very uncomfortable" walking in the rain. Magerman managed to get a lift back to Balfour Park from fellow students, half way to Alexandra.

Putco, the Public Utility Transport Company, had increased the bus fare between Alexandra and the city centre, by one penny, sparking the boycott. Putco was formed in 1945, an amalgamation of several smaller companies, and was not without its problems.

These included rising costs, not least because it paid some employees higher wages than others, which had risen 50 percent since 1945, in addition to rises in the prices of spare parts and new buses.

Fares on certain sub-economic routes had remained static since the 1930s; the government subsided these routes and Putco was allowed to increase its fees on weekend fares. But when Putco pushed to increase the subsidy, it was given permission instead to increase its fares, to take effect from 7 January 1957.

1940s boycotts
Bus boycotts were not new to Alexandra residents - there had been several in the 1940s. "In 1943 the complaints of Alexandra commuters had included such matters as routing, overcrowding, departures from schedule, danger, unsheltered terminals, and rude staff," says Tom Lodge in Black Politics in South Africa since 1945.

"Fourteen years later there had not been much improvement … Buses were still crowded, they were badly ventilated and insufficient in number."

Townships were situated far away from places of work and commuters had to wait in long queues, often spending up to four hours each day commuting. Buses often stopped at a single point, from where commuters had to walk to their homes.

"And on top of all this the buses were certainly not cheap: transport was quite often the second major item in the family budget," says Lodge. "It is not difficult to understand the way transport issues seemed to touch on an exposed nerve in the black community."

Alexandra township in 1912 - tin shacks ain sparse surrounds
Alexandra township in 1912 - tin shacks ain sparse surrounds
(from: Johannesburg One Hundred - a pictorial history by Ellen Palestrant)

The first Alexandra bus boycott took place in 1940, with commuters forcing bus companies to reduce fares by a penny. In the next five years three more boycotts took place, stifling attempts by the companies to raise fares.

Freehold rights
Alexandra, Sophiatown, Martindale, and Newclare were the only suburbs in Johannesburg where blacks had freehold rights. Alexandra lay outside the municipal area and was therefore not monitored by the city authorities. It grew rapidly in the 1940s and '50s, partly in response to the industrial development in neighbouring Wynberg and Bergvlei, explains Lodge.

It was a community that demonstrated a "political liveliness" that came about because the township was an old one that had some of the "most skilled and experienced members of the working class as well as an established petty bourgeoisie. Both groups were on the defensive in the 1950s."

Most homeowners had bonds on their properties, and in an effort to pay these, they built up to 15 rooms on their stands, letting each room to a family for up to £4 a month. Infant mortality was high; youth unemployment was high - influx control prevented young people seeking employment in Joburg; and there was no policing in the township.

"With all these factors it is small wonder that the people of Alexandra reacted so vigorously to a penny rise in bus fares," says Lodge.

Transport a major issue
Besides, transport was a major issue in urban African communities in the 1950s. "Bus boycotts were a very common form of protest in the 1950s and the Alexandra boycotters attracted an enormous amount of support and interest throughout South Africa."

Alex in the 1940s - more formal roads, cars and shops
Alex in the 1940s - more formal roads, cars and shops
(from: Johannesburg One Hundred - a pictorial history by Ellen Palestrant)

The people of Alexandra had no alternative means of transport - there were no trains running nearby. Yet they sustained their spirits through the three months of walking in several ways.

The boycott committee held frequent meetings in the open spaces of Alexandra, where people were informed of the negotiations between Putco and the municipality. Residents could offer their perspectives, and were given a chance to vote on proposed solutions.

Secondly, says Lodge, there was "considerable sympathy" for the boycotters among whites, particularly members of the Liberal Party. In the early stages of the boycott whites drove along the route and offered commuters lifts.

Magerman says it was "the age of defiance - we were rebellious".

Interestingly, the boycotters had to walk 14 kilometres through white suburbs, bringing whites face-to-face with black protesters. "For a while the black people of Alexandra had become visible to the affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg," explains Lodge.

Negotiations and decision
After much negotiation between the local ANC branch, the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce (JCC), Putco, the municipality, and the Alexandra People's Transport Committee, and secret discussions between Alexandra property owners and Putco, a decision was reached.

The owners were fearful of President HF Verwoerd's "declared intention to reduce the township population".

A coupon system was to be introduced - commuters would buy a five-penny book of coupons that would cost them four pennies. The JCC would make up the difference to Putco. "By the time the JCC funds were exhausted it was hoped that the JCC and the municipality would have succeeded in obtaining a rise in the Native Services Levy," according to Lodge.

The Native Services Levy was a fund supplied by commerce and industry to finance various services and housing projects.

"There was also a general undertaking that employers' organisations would encourage a rise in wages."

On Monday, 1 April 1957 Putco buses were re-introduced to Alexandra and, despite some continued confusion, people boarded the buses to work. The boycott in Alexandra was over.

However, it continued in other townships for another two weeks. It was only after there were public commitments to include Pretoria in final settlements that boycotters got on the buses again in that city.

"We had a real sense of triumph, an absolute victory," adds Magerman.

Yet the bus boycotts had more far-reaching implications.

"Although the bus boycotts exacted only short-term concessions, they became important weapons in the African struggle for quite another reason: they drew communities together. Walking was protest, requiring positive action in a way that other boycotts did not," says the Readers' Digest.

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Last Updated on 10 January 2013