Pondoland migrancy – 1880 -1911


Labour migrancy from Pondoland began when labour recruiters started looking for people who were prepared to leave the surrounding Transkei areas for paid employment. Furthermore, the opening of the Witwatersrand goldfields in the mid 1880s, the growth of sugar plantations in the Natal region (now known as Kwazulu-Natal) and further development of the capitalist mining sector had important repercussions for Africans in the Cape.

The demand for labour in the mines increased quickly. Large new markets in the interior increased the volume of commerce in the Colonial ports and pulled the Cape out of the economic depression of the early 1880. A few Mpondo people went to the diamond mines in Kimberly, and the majority, especially people from Bizana, went to Natal to work in the sugar fields in the 1890s. Migrancy from Pondoland took a strange form. Workers leaving the Transkeian territories had a degree of a choice as to how to enter employment. On the one hand, a worker could leave voluntarily; arrange his own pass and transport, and find employment at the labour centre of his choice, and pay his own expenses, and have his wages paid out to him as he worked. On the other hand, the worker could join with a labour agent in the territories, sign a contract which specified his employer before leaving home, and all the expenses including transport were covered by the labour agent.

However, workers from most parts of the Transkeian Territories preferred not to commit to contract employment, but Mpondos workers were satisfied to sign employment contracts. In 1902, the Gold Mines recommenced production after the South African war. The gold mines were faced with an acute shortage of labour and turned their attention to the Transkeian Territories in order to get more labourers. As such, the gold mines established their own labour recruitment organization called the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA).

In the first half of 1904, a total of 358 workers were sent to the gold mines through the WNLA, and in the second half of 1904, a total of 1,083 workers were sent to the gold mines through WNLA and a total of 1,560 workers were sent through WNLA in 1905. However, from 1904-1903 when some colonies were hit by severe depression, many migrants from Pondoland returned to the gold mines.

Other factors such as the invasion of locusts, establishment of other independent labour agents, drought and imposition of taxes contributed to the drive of the population into the mix of wage labour. In 1908, over 80% of migrant leaving Pondoland went through labour agents. In some Eastern Pondoland districts, the number of migrants leaving through labour agents exceeded 95%

The Glen Grey Act of 1894 entrenched white domination through creating a special title that allowed wealthy Blacks to have access to land ownership, but gave them political representation in their own local councils rather than in the Government of the Cape. The law provided for farms of four hectares, each granted on the basis of ownership. The eldest son would inherit the plot. The aim was that young men would be forced to leave the land and seek paid work in the colony. 

To make more labour available for the mining industry, the Glen Grey Act of 1894 was passed by Cecil John Rhodes, author of the Act and Prime Minister of the Cape. 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. A labour tax was imposed on those who could not show that they had been out to work, and these people were encouraged to go and find work.

A government Native labour Agency was established to supervise the large new labour force which the Act sought to mobilise. However, the Act was defied by the African population. Partly because of this defiance, the labour tax was dropped and individual tenure became optional, and each district could decide for or against the schemes.

A hut tax was then imposed. The hut tax was introduced on a household basis. The tax was paid in labour, grain or stock, and money which benefited the colonial authorities in improving the currency, expanding the money economy, helping further development. As it was paid in cash, every family was forced to find an annual income. Most importantly, the hut tax’s aim was to raise revenue and improve the colonial economy, rather than specifically to mobilise labour force.

The Mpondo migrants normally worked underground on the gold mines and as cane cutters on the Natal sugar fields. Those to the south, in the western Transkei and Ciskeian districts moved more towards the Cape ports, working on the docks and in a wide range of employment in the urban economy. Workers from Mount Frere, commonly known as Bhaca, specialised in night soil removal and municipal employment in Durban and on the Witwatersrand.

The number of workers migrating annually from the seven (old) districts increased from about 2, 000 in 1896, to 10,000 in 1910, 20,000 in 1921 and to 30,000 by 1936. By then, roughly two-thirds worked on the mines, and the rest, especially younger men, worked on the sugar fields. In 1910, 10 000 young men went to the gold mines, and the number doubled by 1920. The labour migrancy had become a common experience to most men in Mpondoland.

Pondoland was changed by a quick industrial revolution based firstly on the mining of diamonds and gold. The exploitation of mineral resources was an indication of a new phase of metropolitan investment and intervention, and the conquest of the Boer Republic in 1902 and the unified South African state in 1910.

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Last updated : 07-Mar-2014

This article was produced for South African History Online on 31-Jan-2014