History of Labour Movements in South Africa

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Amawasha

There were several reasons why Johannesburg urgently needed a laundry service.

Water was not easily obtainable ”” the nearest natural supply was the Braamfontein spruit, or stream, but even that had an uneven flow.

To make things worse, until 1906 there were not enough drains in the town. For health reasons, slops (dirty water) were not allowed to be thrown into the streets. The washing of clothes thus had to be done at some distance from the houses.

In the early years, most of the people in Johannesburg were single or unmarried men. The white miners worked long hours and most lived in boarding houses. They did not have the time or the inclination to do their own washing, and there were few women to provide the traditional maintenance services such as cooking and washing.

The amawasha come to town to renew their licences, 1895

The rise of the ‘Amawasha’

The ‘Amawasha’ stepped in to fill the need. The Amawasha were mostly Zulu-speaking men who came to provide a laundry service in the Rand towns. They had earned their trade from the Indian ‘dhobis’, or washermen who were making an independent living washing clothes in the Umgeni River in Durban.

The Amawasha came to the Rand because by the 1980s they had been pushed off the land by a number of bad droughts as well as the cattle-killing rinderpest disease. The nearest jobs on the Natal railways, but they were not attractive to many because the wages of labourers were fixed at cents a day.

When, therefore, the news came of Egoli, the ‘City of in the Transvaal, many took the walk to the Rand to make a living as washermen. These early newcomers so successful that they sent for their brothers and friends, too. Most of the Amawasha belonged to the clans of Kanyile, Buthelezi, Mchunu, Vilakazi and Sithole. By 1896, there were over 1 000 Amawasha in Johannesburg alone.

The organisation

The Amawasha were well organised. They made common cause to protect their interests. They were led by respected elders, or indunas, who would speak on their E, organise the smooth running of the washing process and enlist new recruits. They were organised into regiments, and would march into town every to pay their licence fees, proudly singing their regimental songs. Customers could recognise the Amawasha by their uniforms, with their turbans led on the headwear of the dhobi washermen.

As businessmen who paid the monthly 10-cent e fee, the Amawasha had certain privileges. They were not subject to the Masters and Servants Act, y were free from passes. They could also carry a weapon for protection and were allowed to brew beer themselves.

1896 the Amawasha had 8 different waterside Most had rented places along the Braamfontein but there were also washing sites at Elandsfontein, Concordia and Booysens. The rental was very or those days ”” 50 cents a week for a hut. In on, they had the expense of the washing soap and licence fee.

Working week

Amawasha worked hard to earn a living. On Mondays they would walk 5 to 12 kilometres to town and delivering and collecting bundles of washing. Tuesday to Saturday they would do the washing, for special deliveries on Wednesday. Most Amawasha managed to wash 18 large bundles of washing a week, and charged 80 cents to R1 a bundle.

In addition, they grew their own vegetables and kept their own pigs and cattle. The 1896 figures show that the Braamfontein site near Auckland Park was like a small village, consisting of 546 Zulu-speaking washermen, 14 Hindu dhobis, 64 African women and 4 Indian women. There were also 4 horses and carts.’

Washermen at the municipal washing site, Klipspruit.

Capital moves in

But the independence of the Amawasha was not to last. Their success attracted the attention of investors looking for bigger profits. In October 1895, the first modern steam laundry company started, and the following year the Auckland Park Steam Laundry was started with a capital of R25 000.

In that same year, the Amawasha were instructed to move to a site on the Klip River, 25 kilometres away. There had been a drought, which dried up much of the water supply, causing the washing sites to become filthy. The health inspectors demanded that the sites close down until the water pits could be cleaned again.

The Amawasha organised a mass meeting of protest, but their demands were curtly refused. After this, nearly half the Amawasha left for their homes in Natal. Most of those who stayed moved 25 kilometres to the new washing site at Klip River, but had to double their prices to pay for the extra transport costs. Customers turned more and more to local laundries. By 1898, there was enough laundry to keep 8 laundry companies in business, as well as a number of Indian and Chinese hand laundries.

The Amawasha managed to keep going for a number of years, resisting through petitions, court cases, refusal to move and mass meetings. But too many interest groups were against them.

Firstly there was the competition from the laundry companies. Then, too, after the Anglo-Boer War thousands of white workers married and established households. Cheap domestic labour was employed to service the homes and do the washing.

The new British administration was also determined to remove the Amawasha and put them in ‘locations’ along with other Africans. In 1906, the Amawasha were again forced to move, this time to a specially built washing site ”” next to Johannesburg’s sewerage system! ”” at Klipspruit. At the same time, the monthly licence fee jumped up to 75 cents, while the Amawasha had to pay return train fares to town for themselves, plus a 5-cent charge for every 100-pound bundle of washing.

These conditions were so harsh that even the Chief Pass Officer was moved to comment that Johannesburg’s ‘white labour policy... was causing the Council deliberately to make conditions impossible for the Zulu washermen.

By 1914, only about 93 Amawasha had survived.

Many had gone home. They had benefited from their time as Amawasha, using their earnings to buy more land and cattle and settle down at a time when others were being forced off the land. For example, Bhamu Buthelezi, who had been a washerman on the Rand between 1893 and 1908, returned home and bought land in the Bergville district. His son, N. H. Buthelezi, joined the South African police force, while the daughter of N. H. received an education and went on to study at an American University.’

Others were not so successful. They had to stay on and find some other way of earning a living. Many became domestic workers or night watchmen, while others joined the ranks of wage earners in the newer and flourishing laundry companies.

Last updated : 11-Oct-2011

This article was produced for South African History Online on 21-Apr-2011