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

I talk about the past mainly because actually I am interested in the present - Ngugi wa Thiong

Today, just over a century after the discovery of gold on the Rand, the nature of South Africa’s future is in the balance. But the future does not exist in a vacuum — it is being struggled over in the townships, the schools, the mines and factories, on the borders of our country and even beyond. The future therefore exists to a great extent in the present.

Today in South Africa, many groups are seeking to shape our future. These include business and national groupings, both black and white. But among these groups, it is the organised working class that holds the strategic advantage — every major political organisation working for social change, regardless of its strategies and policies, is seriously considering the role of the labour movement in its programme.

This working class did not suddenly appear. It has a history, and we can learn significant lessons from this history. We need to understand the forces that formed the working class through its struggles, its defeats and its victories.

Before the discovery of minerals in the 19th century, the vast majority of people in South Africa were dependent on the land for a living. The large industries of diamonds and gold changed the very nature of work. Today, millions South Africans live in the townships, grouped like satellites around the segregated industrial cities. Millions more, living in the rural areas, depend on the wages of migrant workers to survive. Millions of workers are organised into trade unions.

The world that made the workers

What are the origins of South Africa’s working people in the towns? What were the forces that led people to leave the land not so very long ago, and take the journey to the unknown life of wage labour in the towns? How did this steadily growing class of working people live? Through what struggles and processes did they pass to become the decisive human force they are today?
A People’s History of South Africa tries to answer these questions. This Part, Working Life - of the history - should be seen against the background of the mining revolution described in Gold and Workers. Which showed how South Africa’s pattern of racial capitalism developed out of a mining industry set in a colonial economy (in which white settlers were able to seize most of the land and wealth of the country). It showed, too, how South Africa’s first working class was created:

  • from deep-level mining on the Rand, which drew into existence a vast labour force based on a system of black migrant labour;
  • from the pass, contract and compound systems which developed to control this labour and keep it cheap;
  • as a racially divided working class because mining capitalism was able to benefit from South Africa’s colonial background.

In Working Life, we see that to a certain extent the forces that shaped the new industrial society in the early mining days continued to influence working life in the towns, attracting working people of all kinds - hawkers, traders, tailors, market gardeners, flower sellers, washermen and women, brewers, as well as rural newcomers from the platteland, peasants from Europe and other parts of Africa.

A central theme of this Section is the development of a new form of capitalism, the manufacturing industry, which began to grow up alongside the mines and towns on the Rand. With the growth of industry, the number of wage-earners — the people who work for others to earn a living — was growing. In the factories, the most powerful wage-earners in the early years were white skilled workers. But in this section we begin to see how the nature and composition of the workers began to change - from skilled to semi-skilled workers, from men to women, from white to black. And we see, too, the change in the nature of their organisations.

The World of Working People

Finally, we explore the new way of life, which workers created in the towns. Traditional knowledge gained from the old life in the country before industrial times was married to the new skills people learned in town. On this basis they were able to survive, to hope, to resist —and to organise, in the search for a better life.

The reader should also be able to learn a great deal from the illustrations in this book. ‘One picture: a thousand words’ is an old Chinese proverb that is even more true in this age of advertisements and television. (Both these mediums have the power to influence us. And in South Africa, both are extensions of the state and capital.)

This book includes photographs of ordinary people, which reveal the details and the ‘feel’ of everyday life - how people were dressed, the streets, the surroundings of their homes and workplaces. These illustrations give us a more vivid idea of working life in the past, and allow us to judge how much our lives have changed.

The structure of this feature takes into account the fact that history is a process of trying to arrive at a pattern. Yet we must always allow ourselves to be open to the lessons of particular events. And sometimes we must re-examine the pattern of the past that we have constructed. It is important to revise our ideas in the light of all the new or more detailed information, about the past and the present, which is constantly being reveal to us. For it is through this changing knowledge that we can try to gain a greater understanding of our lives, and perhaps even find the means of improving them.