Three years later came the next disastrous setback. The post-war boom collapsed in 1921. Hardest hit were the Afrikaners in the rural areas. Here about 30% of the White population belonged to a landless squatter class known as bywoners, living precariously on the land of others, but neither as wage earners nor tenants, a system more typical of the 14th rather than the 20th Century. Cursed by drought, locusts and the cattle plague, rinderpest, these particular “poor whites” now started flocking to the cities, where they created dreadful slums. The problem was vastly accentuated nine years later, with the onset of the Great Depression.
South Africa, with its over-concentration in mining and agriculture, was hard hit indeed. As world markets collapsed, maize exports earned only £523 000 in 1931, against £3 520 000 in 1925. An army of unemployed began appearing on city streets. Almost unbelievably, hitherto stable families faced starvation. Professional men were among those begging for food.
Soup kitchens were opened, distribution of food parcels begun. Major cities pleaded with jobseekers to stay away as they had more than enough workless of their own. Early attempts to help the constant inflow of the rural destitute included founding of the Johannesburg suburb of Vrededorp. The Poor Whites increased in such numbers that in 1930 they were estimated at 150 000. Magazines and newspapers carried articles on “How to Live on a Shilling a Day.”
Jobs were specially created. There were roads to be built, railway lines, dams, afforestation schemes. The SA Railways (SAR) absorbed thousands of unemployed. In 1924 the SAR employed 4760 White labourers. Seven years later this figure jumped to 16 248. By 1932 188 000 Whites alone were registered at unemployment bureaux across the country. Of 45 000 handymen and unskilled workers who had registered, a mere 5000 were given jobs.