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Crisis and Opportunity: The Union of South Africa’s
First World War Economy
Published online on 2020/10/19
This article provides a succinct overview of the impact of the First World War on the
economy and the home front of the Union of South Africa, and considers the main ways
in which these domestic sectors responded to the disruptions and strains of these years.
Its central aim is to illuminate the very patchy and ambivalent manner in which South
Africa’s economy and society intersected with the wartime European imperial world
and reacted to its intrusive effects. Although its distant geographical location enabled
this British Dominion to escape the devastating material effects of warfare in other
African regions, the pre-war conditions of mining, manufacturing and agriculture were
substantially re-shaped by wartime forces. The complex mix of burdens and opportunities
associated with this was spread highly unevenly across South Africa’s population of
around six million white and black inhabitants. What it all amounted to was a decisive
transition towards the formation of an increasingly diversified and modernising post-
1918 segregationist colonial state.
Keywords: Manufacturing, mining, agriculture, labour, urbanisation.