History of Labour Movements in South Africa

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Black miners underground

The Creation of Native Reserves and Migratory Labour System to South African mines

Before the Europeans settled in the Cape in 1652, the indigenous economy was dominated by subsistence agriculture and hunting. Up to the 1860s, the economy of South Africa was based mainly on agriculture and trade. The discovery of diamonds and gold marked the beginning of industrialisation in South Africa. Labour supply shortage has been part of South Africa’s colonial history particularly on white farms and plantations. White farmers complained to the government of the time about their difficulties in securing labour. With the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley in 1867 and gold in the Witwatersrand in 1886 the shortage of labour supply increased. Black/African peasants were reluctant to enter the mines and white owned farms effectively intensified the labour supply shortage which caused the struggles between the black/African peasants and state over access to land. 

Within a few years after the discovery of diamonds in the 1860s the British imperial government embarked on a policy of expansion in southern Africa. In 1890 Cecil John Rhodes became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and implemented laws to satisfy the need for a plentiful and inexhaustible supply of cheap labour that would benefit mines and white farmers. To increase the supply of and control over African labour for white farms and the mining industry in particular, Cecil John Rhodes wrote and passed the Glen Grey Act of 1894 in the Cape Colony. The Glen Grey Act stipulated that migrants from “reserve” areas would provide labour, thus setting the foundation for separate development and the Apartheid policies with the objective to generate a steady flow of cheap labour to white-owned farms and mines. The Act laid a foundation for the segregation and discriminatory laws that were to follow in the years to come. The Act had three major requirements, namely; a change in the nature of land tenure, local district Councils in the African areas and a labour tax.

The system of communal land ownership was to be replaced by a system of individual land ownership and land could be acquired (bought) and sold by individuals. Control of land distribution was taken out of the hands of Chiefs and headmen, and put under the control of magistrates. The Act imposed a labour tax of 10 shillings on any African male who had not worked outside his district for at least three months in the year. In short, the Act obliged the payment of tax with the specific aim of forcing black peasant farmers to search for paid work to enable them to pay taxes. The Act not only limited the number of black people who could live on and own their own land but it also put pressure on those who were decreed unqualified to own land to leave the tribal areas in order to look for wage labour. This was the beginning of the processes which saw the migrant labour system forcing black peasant farmers to travel to the mines to work, leaving their families in the tribal areas called ‘Reserves’.

The native reserves system which goes back to the work of Theophilus Shepstone in 1840s in Natal and the Native Policy of the Boer Republic was consolidated and expanded in 1913 shortly after the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 and the coming to power of the South African Party. Historians viewed this as a new era of vigorous and focused government policies to inhibit the growth of the African peasantry. The promulgation of the Native Land Act of 1913 which prohibited the land purchase by Africans outside the scheduled “native reserves” was part of other policies to dispossess land from Africans and to solve the problem of labour supply shortage. The Act prohibited black people from travelling outside the reserves without a proper pass, squatting on farms, and sowing on the share system and it took effective measures to restrict the purchase and lease of land by blacks. With the inception of this Act, ‘both the mine-owners and the farmers hoped that since the area of the Native reserves was not large enough to provide subsistence for the increasing African population, Africans would be forced to seek employment on the mines and white farms’.

This was followed by other segregation and discrimination laws such as the Pass Laws and Native Urban Areas Act of 1923, the Native Service Contract of 1932, Representation of Native Act of 1936 and the Group Areas Act.  The 1936 Native Trust and Land Act also dealt with the important issue of the control and the direction of African labour. Through these legislations, Africans were made available as labour power when it was required by the various sectors of the “white” economy. Independent and self-supporting peasants were transformed into tenant farmers, squatters and migrant labourers on the settlers’ farms or pushed into the mines and cities in search of work through the land alienation process. The passage of these Acts not only dispossessed Africans of their land and segregated them but also forbade them to emigrate from the country in order to drive them by force to the mining centres. 

'Native Reserves' 1913, 1936 Source: www.hist.umn.edu

The economic independence of the African peasantry was gradually removed through these administrative and punitive measures which transformed the peasantry into a pool of labour for the mines and emergent capitalist agriculture. The migrant labour system forced men to live in single sex hostels, wrenching families apart, leaving African women and children confined to the reserves and forbidden from entering urban areas.

Under apartheid rule the effort would be made to turn the native reserves into Homelands or Bantustans and continued to be a source of cheap African labour. In total, ten homelands were created in South Africa. These were the Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Ciskei, Venda, Gazankulu, KaNgwane, KwaNdebele, KwaZulu, Lebowa, and QwaQwa.

Map source

 The impact of the South African Native Reserves or Homelands became the face of great concentration of poverty, diseases and ignorance which were enforced in order to create the labour force necessary for the mining industry and other sectors of the economy. These conditions still persist long after the colonial and apartheid governments have been replaced by the new democratic government. While land restitution process to reverse the effects of the 1913 Land Act is ongoing, migrant workers’ home regions remains steadily impoverished, unable to generate an adequate income from within the area for the increasing population. Although apartheid legislations and institutions have been dismantled, there is a visible link between the former Homelands areas and mines. Many men and woman still migrate from their tribal areas in order to find work in the mines.

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Last updated : 19-Nov-2014

This article was produced for South African History Online on 13-Nov-2014