Transkeian Migrant Workers and Youth Labour on the Natal Sugar Estates 1918-1948


The sugar industry in Natal (now known as kwaZulu-Natal) was controlled by White settlers and their descendants or successors. The foundation of the industry was powerfully influenced by the International European Emigration. Such influence helped to sustain the sugar industry, and the industry outgrew its small domestic market in its early years, and the demand for the Natal sugar in the Cape ports provided the main single source of export for the Natal growers until the development of the mines in Kimberly and Witwatersrand in the late decades of the century. In the 1860-80s, the Natal sugar estate relied on labour markets of the Indian sub-continent to provide the necessary labour to run their estates. The main work force on the Natal sugar field was Indian indentured labourers.

In 1923, there were almost 2 000 to 3 000 young migrant workers from Pondoland on the Natal sugar field. In I930, this number had increased to around 7 000 out of about 30 000 fieldworkers.  Other workers within Natal, Zululand and some migrants from Mozambique were also working on the Natal sugar field.

One reason why sugar producers were able to secure a supply of workers from Pondoland throughout the 1900s was that the Native Recruiting Corporation (the recruitment agency set up by the Chamber of Mines in 1912) that supplied mines with workers did not want to recruit very young men from Pondoland. For instance, the Native Recruiting Corporation had rejected around 4 percent of youth in 1921 to as far as 20 per cent in some districts by the late 1930s. Faka, the youngest worker, was the only 14-year-old boy from Pondoland who worked in Natal in the inter-war years. Rural poverty, especially in the years after First World War, and social stresses within homesteads in the Transkei forced youth from Pondoland to migrate to Natal sugar field.

From 1922 to 1923, 25 young migrant workers from Pondoland died on the Natal sugar fields, and others died on their way back to Pondoland. It was not clear what disease killed workers returning from the Natal sugar fields. The Department of Health set up a bureaucratic committee. In March 1923, a joint departmental committee was appointed and conducted its investigation. Dr J. Park Ross, Assistant Health Officer for the Union (Natal), was in charge of the committee conducting some investigative work.  But, the Committee found no unexpected spread of infectious disease amongst those migrant workers who died on the sugar field and on their way back to Pondoland. However, it found scurvy, tuberculosis, pneumonia, dysentery, some heart disease and silicosis or phthisis. Park Ross said that at least some of those diseases should have been prevented by basic regulation and improvement of the housing, diet and medical facilities available to workers on the sugar fields. Many workers fell ill, some shortly after arrival on the estates, either because of the inadequate diet and conditions.

• Beinart, W. (1991). Transkeian Migrant Workers and Youth Labour on the Natal Sugar Estates 1918-1948. The Journal of African History, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 41-63
• Richardson, P. (1982). The Natal Sugar Industry, 1849-1905: An Interpretative Essay. The Journal of African History, Vol. 23, No. 4, pp. 515-527

Last updated : 24-Jan-2014

This article was produced for South African History Online on 24-Jan-2014