Arrival of Chinese labourers in South Africa

Around 4,200 miners at the Simmer and Jack mine on the Witwatersrand, taken between 1904 and 1910.

Sunday, 19 June 1904

 A labour shortage at the gold mines on the Rand resulted in the importation of Chinese labour in 1904. This situation, in part, was the result of the Anglo-Boer War (South African War) of 1899-1902, that had displaced large numbers of the indigenous population. The development of the Gold mining industry was also one of Milner's plans to further development in South Africa in the post Anglo-Boer War years. 

Though Milner attempted to remedy the shortage of unskilled labour in a variety of ways such as recruiting Africans from the then Portuguese East Africa in 1901 that would serve the dual purpose of providing labour and strengthening ties between Portugal and Britain, improving housing, sanitation and the quality of food in the mining compounds.  Nonetheless, the labour shortage persisted so that by 1903 there was a shortage of 129,364 unskilled labourers at the mines. The mines had also become unpopular with Africans due to attempts to reduce wages in order to maximize profit margins and the fact that some Africans had saved money during the War years to be able to tide them over for a few years.  Some mines experimented using Whites as unskilled labour but these experiments were largely unsuccessful as Whites tended to demand higher wages for their labour and were no more efficient than Africans were. The result was that in December 1903, the Chamber of Mines, the Chamber of Commerce and the nominated Legislative Council of South Africa recommended that labourers be imported from China on short-term contracts that terminated with compulsory repatriation.

On the 19 June 1904, the first Chinese labourers thus arrived at the Witwatersrand. Between 1904 and 1910 there were almost 64,000 Chinese working on the Witwatersrand gold mines near Johannesburg. This measure was very successful in increasing the production of gold from mining, but in the long run it faced stiff resistance from White labour that considered the Chinese unfair competition in terms of skilled and semi-skilled jobs.     

References:
• Thompson.L.M, (1960), The Unification of South Africa: 1902-1910, Great Britain: Oxford University Press
• Harris.K.L, The South African Chinese: A Community Record of a Neglected Minority, South African Historical Journal, Vol. 36, Issue 1, May 1997, pgs.  316-325 [Online]. Available at: www.aercafrica.org [Accessed: 14 June 2010]
• TCF, About the Chinese in South Africa, from The Chinese Forum, [online], Available at www.chineseforum.org.za [Accessed: 19 June 2014]

Last updated : 13-Apr-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 16-Mar-2011