From the book: Working Life - Factories, Township and Popular Culture 1886 - 1940 by Luli Callinicos

THE CHANGE TO WAGE LABOUR has described some of the different ways in which people lost the use of the land and entered wage labour. This happened over a number of years. Natural disasters such as drought, disease and locusts played a part in the process. But the decisive push came from wars of conquest and the taxes and laws imposed by the government when the independent chiefdoms had defeated.

The discovery of gold on the Rand in 1886 speeded up the breakdown of the old, land-based economy. The new industry expanded rapidly — it moved from outcrop to deep-level mining n ten years — and demanded a massive labour force.

The birth of the Rand towns

Within a few years of the first outcrop gold mine on the Rand, a most remarkable change took place. Out of the veld emerged mine shafts, tents, shacks and rough tracks. Then came the market square, noisy with traders, farmers, peddlers and transport riders. Their customers needed mining supplies of all kinds, and goods to sustain the life of this growing camp on the veld. Around the square, dusty streets were measured out, and plots were sold for shops, banks, offices, bars and eating-houses.

Within twenty years, a string of solid mining towns marked out the gold-bearing Reef, running some 60 kilometres from Springs in the east to Krugersdorp in the west. During that time, thousands of people were attracted to the Rand. Some of them came eagerly, most out of necessity. In Johannesburg alone, there were over 100 000 people by 1899 and nearly a quarter of a million black miners in compounds away from the towns, next to the mines. (The conditions of their existence there are described in detail in Gold and Workers

As the city grew, it created new needs and jobs for people who could supply these needs. Houses had to be built, food had to be grown and transported, water had to be supplied. Shops were needed to sell food, clothes and everyday requirements.

The growth of the Rand economy

The Rand came into being because the mines were there. Their needs came first. They needed labour; machines and supplies; transport; banks and postal services — and all these things supplied the infrastructure needed for an industrial city. The Economy of the Randgives the background to the power and influence of the mining companies.

Then, out of the needs of the mines, another form capital developed. ‘South Africa’s “merchant princes” the Topics section - describes how big trading businesses flourished under the wing of mining capital.

These were the two main forms of capital in the early years of the Rand — mining capital and merchant capital. The manufacturing industry hardly existed —as ‘Manufacturing for the mines’ , most factories were really craft industries serving the needs of the mines as repair shops; otherwise they produced simple consumer goods, and were unable to develop because the interests of merchant capital blocked them.

However, the Rand was growing so rapidly that there were many ways of earning a living, even for those who arrived with empty pockets.

Newmarket square, where farmers auctioned animals and produce. Source:


Many of the newcomers to the Rand had never lived in towns before. For instance, most blacks and Afrikaners came to the Rand because they had lost land, which had been their only means of production.

Some brought with them the traditional skills of peasant farmers, as described inThe Rand’s Early Afrikaner Workers later on this document. Many new arrivals from the land, both black and white, were able to make an independent living in transport as ricksha runners, transport riders or cab drivers. Others worked the clay to produce and sell bricks for the constant building taking place in the fast-growing towns; or they washed clothes in the rivers for a fee, as described in The Amawasha’ Laundry Service.

Other newcomers had some experience of town life —among them Jews, Germans, Greeks, the British and other Europeans, as well as Indians from India or Natal. These people provided supplies through trade, either as travelling hawkers or as small shopkeepers. By 1899 Johannesburg had a population of over 100 000. About half were blacks — Africans from all over southern Africa (with nearly 29 000 mine workers in the compounds), ‘coloureds’ and ‘Asians’. Of the fifty thousand whites, only about 6 000 had lived in the Transvaal before the discovery of gold on the Rand. The rest were newcomers (uitlanders) from near and far — some from the Cape and Natal; as many from Britain; about 3 000 Jews from Russia and Poland; 2 000 Germans; a few hundred each of Australians, Hollanders, Americans and French, and a sprinkling from other European countries. Typically, these immigrant communities established organisations for mutual support. The Greeks will serve as an example.

Young migrnts on the long walk to the rand led by an employee of a recruiting agency,1905. Source:

A typical immigrant community

In 1950 there were some 330 ‘economically active’ Greeks in the Transvaal. While a few were artisans —tailors, cabinet makers, blacksmiths and shoe makers— most were trading as general dealers, fruiterers, bakers and confectioners, tobacconists, bottle-store owners and, more familiarly, tea room or restaurant owners. There were fifty-one shop assistants. (There were only 20 to 30 women.)

Another 120 Greeks on the Rand were miners who were recruited from the ranks of the unemployed, or who came as experienced miners from the Belgian Congo. They worked as blasters, drillers, pumpmen and stoppers. Most were living in overcrowded, squalid rooms in Ferreirastown, Fordsburg and Vrededorp. In 1902 they formed their own Greek Miners’ Association, because the Transvaal Miners’ Association was hostile to unqualified immigrants who might undercut their own wages. Greek miners earned high wages — up to R60 a month with overtime — and were considered to be ‘highly efficient’. Many were involved in the labour activities of the times — for example, Greeks were prominent in the May Day parade of 1904. But by 1924, Greek miners had disappeared — all but one had died of miners’ phthisis.’

Many newcomers were able to make an independent living by offering much-needed services in new towns, which had not yet developed service industries on a large scale.

Domestic services were among the most important those early Rand days. This was mainly because the mining towns had so few women living in them at fin and women have traditionally provided the services needed by men.

Working people needed to be maintained. Their food had to be prepared; clothes washed and mended their dwelling places kept clean, so that they were ready and able to present themselves in a fit state at t start of a working shift.

In the early ‘bachelor’ days of the Rand, these services were missing, so they soon became commodities that people had to buy. For example, men had to pay others to do their cooking, cleaning and washing. Many were even prepared to pay prostitutes for sexual services.

So while most people on the Rand worked in the mines, there was a growing number of people who earned a living by selling services.

A horse drawn tram makes its way to the fashionable suburb of Doornfontein. Source:

Wage labour

As the towns developed further, however, many of the small independent concerns were crushed. Capitalism had attracted most of these people to the towns, but growing technology and expanding investments in service businesses crushed the small-scale efforts of the self-employed to earn an independent living. The brick makers, the transport riders, the washermen and women, and many of the small traders were swallowed up by larger firms, which had the capital to invest in technology (such as washing machines, which speeded up production; or vans and buses, which transported goods and people more efficiently and quickly).

So capitalist expansion, plus a number of other factors, such as drought and racial segregation in the towns, worked against the self-employed. People lost their new-found independence. No longer able to continue as producers, they were forced into wage labour. Wage labourers

The great majority of people went straight into wage labour. Most blacks had made the long and dangerous trek to the Rand to be hired as low-paid labourers. They went into the building trade as diggers, shovellers and carriers of heavy goods. They delivered goods and undertook other kinds of manual work in the commercial firms. Or they went into domestic service, as described in Early Domestic Workers.

Often, their aim was to make a certain amount of money for a specific reason, and then to go home again.

The unskilled whites who came to town found it more difficult to get jobs as labourers. Labouring jobs in the mines were closed to them, because the mine owners had worked out a system of cheap black labour based on the contract, the compound and the pass system, as described in Gold and Workers. Nor were they able to find work as semi-skilled workers, because the craft unions of the (mainly) British workers kept them out. And on the farms, as we saw in the last section, the small bywoners were edged off the land by commercial farming, which preferred the much cheaper labour of blacks.

As opportunities for self-employment declined, unskilled whites were trapped by the racism that had been developing in South Africa since early colonial times — fresh from the land, they lacked industrial skills, but because they were white, they could not be employed as ordinary labourers. The result was large- -scale unemployment of whites, and poverty.

Aa African in his uniform and the milkman on his delivery round. Source:

Help for whites

Aa African in his uniform and the milkman on his delivery round. Source:

However, the suffering of the white unemployed did get some attention. It was pointed out that many of them had lost all ties with the land. They had come to the towns with their families, and were therefore totally dependent on wage labour. Furthermore, they could not be completely ignored by the political parties, because they were whites and they had the vote.

The government and some municipalities tried to help by setting aside labouring jobs on the railways and the roads for whites only, but during the depression, which came after the Anglo-Boer War, thousands still remained unemployed.

As it happened, these unemployed whites had another use — they served as ‘reserves of white labour and were used in a time of emergency a few years lately during the white miners’ strike in 1907. After expression an unwillingness to ‘scab’, hundreds of unemployed whites were persuaded to fill the jobs of the strikers. They safeguarded themselves by insisting on two-year contracts. After the strike was over, these new miners were kept on and were gradually trained to perform semi-skilled as well as supervisory jobs. With further strikes in later years, the mines employed more Afrikaners, but thousands continued to remain unskilled, unemployed and desperately poor.

In later years, the different governments of South Africa passed a series of laws protecting jobs for whites only. Craft workers

Another important group of wage-earning workers who arrived on the Rand were the craft workers. They were trained in a particular craft (or skill) and had years of experience in industry.

Few South Africans had industrial skills at that earl stage, so craft workers were imported from industrialised countries like Britain and other parts of Europe, the United States of America and Australia. In those countries they had served five to seven years of apprenticeship, learning their crafts as electricians, fitters and turners, moulders, pattern-makers and plumbers.

Craft workers held a strong position in South Africa.

Firstly, their skills were scarce and valuable, particularly to the gold mines, for deep-level mining required the cooperation of many skills. In later years craft workers were also important in developing the manufacturing industry.

The craft workers also brought with them from the industrialised countries a history of craft unions. As described in Why Trade Unions Emerged, workers had control over the tools of the trade. On the Rand, their strong position as workers with e and valuable skills helped them to form powerful unions. These unions were to have a strong influence on other workers in years to come, as we shall see in this Feature.