The Great Economic Depression of the 1930s did not bypass South Africa. It struck the country in two waves – the crashing of Wall Street in 1929 and Britain abandoning the Gold Standard in 1931. To compound matters the country was gripped in one of the worst droughts in living memory. Rains failed completely in 1931 and 1932 leaving crops to wither and farm animals to die in their dozens of starvation.
In the areas where farmers chose to stick it out black labourers were laid off in their thousands. They were forced to seek work in towns where they eked out a living as manual labourers and mine workers. Many white farmers also abandoned their farms, seeking refuge in neighbouring towns. Interestingly, the daughters were often sent to town first to look for work. This was because their labour was not essential to keep the farm going as, for example, the labour of black women to their homesteads. In addition, women earned less than men and generally found work easier.
Due to the priorities of the government at the time it was never recorded how many black people suffered due to the Depression. But by the 1930s,
300 000 out of a population of 1,8 million whites were poor. Ninety percent of them were Afrikaans speaking. They became known as the ‘Armblankes’ or the ‘poor whites’.
Many laws were passed by the South African government to address the Poor White issue. Jobs were reserved on the railway and postal service, the police and defence force for whites. Industrial schools were set up to train poor white children to be skilled workers. Jobs were also provided through a series of irrigation schemes. A scheme for subsidised housing was also introduced. By the 1940s the living standards of most whites had improved substantially.