An African Mine Workers' Union was created for the first time in 1941, slowly growing to 25,000 members by 1944. The union’s efforts to improve wages fell on deaf ears at the Chamber of mines. After a series of work stoppages in 1943, the government appointed the Lansdowne Commission to investigate the wages and conditions of African miners. The union called for an end to cheap migrant labour, payment of a cost of living statutory wage minimum, and an end to division of the workforce by tribe, the compound system, and restrictions on freedom of movement. The Chamber of Mines however insisted on the industry's dependence on cheap migrant labour, claimed wages were adequate because workers were fed and housed in the compounds and declared itself unable to raise wages without harming the national economy.
The Commission, following investigation, recommended a marginal increase in wages, but found itself unable to recommend recognition of black unions or the abolition of migrant labour – lest mine profitability be harmed.
The colour bar describes the wide range of restrictions imposed on black, Indian and mixed race South Africans, on the basis of race. The colour bar determined which groups were allowed to vote, where people were allowed to live, who could do what jobs, what they could be paid, and who they were allowed to have relationships with.
This stringently enforced racial classification was in place long before apartheid became official government policy. The 1911 Mines and Works Act, for example, reserved various skilled mining occupations for white people – guaranteeing job protection and better pay for white workers over other races.
For much of the 20th century, black and white South Africans were kept separate as much as possible. Long before apartheid became government policy, public buildings would commonly have two entrances – one for white people, or ‘Europeans’ and the other for black people.
The Reservation of Separate Amenities Act, No 49 of 1953, provided for entirely separate public facilities for black and white people. This included parks, buses, post offices, and public toilets. Facilities for black South Africans were invariably scarcer and of poorer quality than those provided for their white counterparts. Where black and white people had to be in the same public space, the use of separate entrances was legally enforceable under the Act.