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Labour Party (South Africa)

Labour Party
General Secretary (s) Frederic Creswell,
Walter Madeley
Founded 1910 (1910)
Dissolved 1958 (1958)
Headquarters Bloemfontein
Ideology Social democracy
Democratic socialism
Political position Centre-left
International affiliation None
Colours      Red
Politics of South Africa
Political parties

The Labour Party (Afrikaans: Arbeidersparty), was a South African political party formed in March 1910 in the newly created Union of South Africa following discussions between trade unions and the Independent Labour Party of Transvaal, was a professedly democratic socialist party representing the interests of the white working class.[1]

The party received support mostly from urban white workers and for most of its existence sought to protect them from competition from black and other non-white workers.[2]


  • History 1
  • Leaders 2
  • Election results 3
  • References 4


The party was represented in the South African House of Assembly from the South African general election, 1910 until it lost its last seats in the South African general election, 1958. It never came close to acquiring a majority in Parliament or to being the official opposition, but it did spend periods as a junior coalition partner in the government of South Africa. Between 1910 and 1929 the Party was led by Colonel F. H. P. Creswell.

The worldwide depression after the end of the First World War had led to a strike in South Africa, known as the Rand Rebellion, which had been defused through a combination of military force and repression, including the imprisonment of Labour leader Frederic Creswell for a month. The government's heavy handed negotiations with the out-gunned unions earned Jan Smuts the enmity of the labour vote and the Labour Party, whose support was boosted by the growing militancy of workers. This paved the way for an election agreement between the Labour Party and the National Party (NP) for the 1924 general election, in which the two parties would not oppose each other during the election and would support each others' candidates in certain constituencies.[2] The alliance resulted in a coalition government known as the Pact. The Labour Party provided two members of the Pact government, including its leader, Creswell, as Minister of Defence.[3] In the event, Creswell remained in office until 1933, for much of that time doubling as Minister of Labour. While serving in government, the LP initiated important economic and industrial legislation which improved conditions for white workers.[2] In addition, the LP also helped to alleviate unemployment amongst whites, and a year after becoming labour minister, Creswell claimed that he had found employment for 12,000 previously jobless whites.[4] These policies, however, did nothing to enhance conditions for black workers.[2]

In 1928 the party split between two factions. The Labour MP who was Minister of Posts, Telegraphs and Public Works, Walter Madeley, recognised the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union, which had non-white members. This angered the National Party. As a result Madeley was asked to resign. When the Labour Party National Council refused to agree, the Minister could only be got rid of by the resignation and reconstruction of the whole Pact government. The "Creswell Labour" group, supporting the veteran party leader Colonel Creswell, remained in the Pact government. The opposing faction, known as "National Council Labour", went into opposition with Madeley as its leader.[5]

After the South African general election, 1929, even though the National Party won an overall majority, Colonel Creswell and a colleague remained ministers. When the National Party formed a coalition with Jan Smuts's South African Party, in 1933, the Pact government came to an end. At the South African general election, 1933, the Creswell faction became followers of General Smuts, thus leaving the National Council faction as the Labour Party.

The National Party and the South African Party merged in 1934 as the United Party (UP). When that party split, over the issue of South African participation in the Second World War, the Labour Party participated in a wartime coalition under the Premiership of Jan Smuts formed in 1939. Walter Madeley, the Labour leader, left the coalition in 1945.[6]

On 24 July 1946, Walter Madeley resigned from the leadership and the party.[7] Three other MPs also left the party during 1946-47 because they favoured a more conservative line on racial questions than the party organisation. Madeley, who had represented Benoni in the Union Parliament continuously since it was created in 1910, died in 1947. A dissident Labour candidate (representing the United Labour Party) contested the Benoni by-election, but lost by 949 votes to the official Labour candidate.[8] Dissident Labour candidates also contested the South African general election, 1948 but won no seats.

After 1939, the Labour Party was clearly closer to the United Party than to the National Party. Labour had an electoral pact with the UP in 1943,[9] 1948 and 1953.[10] However Labour tended to oppose the NP, after it came to power in 1948, more vigorously than the larger and more conservative United Party felt able to do.

The Labour leader, John Christie, died during the South African general election, 1953. His successor, the last Labour leader Alex Hepple tried to pursue a socialist policy as well as maintaining relations with groups like the African National Congress. His policy proved too advanced for the majority Afrikaner-electorate and led to the demise of the Labour Party.


Election results

The number of members returned [11] and votes cast [12] for the Labour Party were as follows.

Election House of Assembly Share of votes Seats Government
1910 1st 3.31
4 / 121
South African Party
1915 2nd 3.08
4 / 130
South African Party
1920 3rd 15.67
21 / 134
South African Party
1921 4th 6.72
9 / 134
South African Party
1924 5th 13.33
18 / 135
National–Labour Coalition
1929 6th 5.41
8 / 148
National–Labour Coalition
1933 7th 6.34
2 / 150
National Party
1938 8th 5.87
3 / 150
United Party
1943 9th 4.36
9 / 150
United Party
1948 10th 2.57
6 / 150
Reunited National Party
1953 11th 2.87
5 / 156
National Party
1958 12th 0.23
0 / 156
National Party
1961 13th 0.31
0 / 156
National Party


  • Keesing's Contemporary Archives
  • Smuts: A Reappraisal, by Bernard Friedman (George, Allen & Unwin 1975) ISBN 0-04-920045-3
  • South Africa 1982 Official Yearbook of the Republic of South Africa, published by Chris van Rensburg Publications
  1. ^ South Africa 1982, page 165
  2. ^ a b c d "Labour Party". South African History Online. South African History Online. Retrieved 5 August 2015. 
  3. ^ South Africa 1982, page 167
  4. ^
  5. ^ The Times, edition of 14 May 1947 (obituary of Walter Madeley)
  6. ^ South Africa 1982, page 168
  7. ^ Keesing's Contemporary Archives, 1946-1948, page 8615
  8. ^ Keesing's Contemporary Archives, 1946-1948, page 8996
  9. ^ Smuts: A Reappraisal, page 155
  10. ^ Keesing's Contemporary Archives, 1957-58, page 16169
  11. ^ South Africa 1982, page 174
  12. ^ South Africa 1982, page 176
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